Child sexual abuse
Child sexual abuse (CSA) is a legal term rather than a scientific one. According to Cornell University researcher Jeffrey Haugaard, scientists have not yet resolved the fundamental issue of defining it. Different researchers, lawmakers, and clinicians define each word in the phrase child sexual abuse differently.27
- They define children according to different ages. Some include adolescents, and others do not. They use age cut-offs varying from 12 to 18.
- They define sexual activity according to different behaviors. For example, some studies limit its definition to genital contact, while others include the viewing of pornography or verbal propositioning.
- There is no accepted scientific definition of abuse. A minority of researchers limit its definition to sexual behavior that is unwanted, violent, or over-intrusive. However, based on moral and legal considerations, most include any sexual activity involving an adult and someone under a certain age (depending on the jurisdiction), regardless of the willingness of the younger person.28 For the same reason, they include any sexual activity among adolescents or children who differ sufficiently in age (usually by 2 to 5 years, depending on the jurisdiction).29
Thus, CSA usually includes not only coerced or unwanted sexual experiences, but also recreational sex or sexual relationships between two people of sufficiently different ages. In fact, one study suggests that over 80% of activities classified as abuse may be consensual.30 Some surveys are so over-inclusive that they conclude that only a minority of children in the general population are free from abuse.31
Similarly, related terms such as child molestation, exploitation, victimization, sexual aggression, and sexual assault are generally used not only to indicate sexual acts that are necessarily violent or coercive in a literal sense, but also those which violate ethical or moral standards prohibiting adult sexual interaction with children or adolescents, or sexual interaction among adolescents or children of different ages.32
Many researchers have argued that such broad definitions of CSA and related terms obscure important issues, mislead the public into believing that all CSA is violent, and result in widely discrepant or erroneous conclusions. They favor restricting the use of terms such as CSA, exploitation, and assault to situations involving harm, violence, or coercion.33
For the purposes of this website, it is important to remember the following:
- CSA and related terms usually refer to a wide variety of behaviors, including assault, coerced interactions, unwanted advances, exhibitionism, consensual viewing of pornography, verbal propositioning, consensual touching or kissing, willing recreational sex, and ongoing sexual relationships, including consensual activity among children or adolescents who differ in age.
- Studies of CSA vary considerably in what activities they are investigating.
- Researchers may not specify what activities they are including in their definition of CSA.
28. West, 1998.
29. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1999*; Center for Sex Offender Management, 1999*.
30. Li, 1990a.
31. Haugaard, 2000; West, 1998.
32. Kilpatrick, 1987; Okami & Goldberg, 1992.
33. Kilpatrick, 1987; Li, 1990a; Okami, 1990; Sandfort, 1987; West & Woodhouse, 1990.
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