Child Sexual Abuse

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is the overarching term for a huge, complicated, personally and socially damaging issue. At the crux of child sexual abuse is the sexual use of a child by someone with more power. It is the use of a child to satisfy the offender’s own needs for power or sex, disregarding the child’s needs and sending a message that the child’s wishes about his or her own body are unimportant. 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused by the time they are 18 years old.

The vast majority of child sexual abuse happens in situations where the child trusts and/or is dependent upon the offender. Over 85% of children know their abusers. Most sexual offenders cultivate some level of trust with the child to assure that they will comply and not tell. The culture of silence and fear around child sexual abuse, combined with the typical responses to trauma and the fact that a child would also have to talk about sex to talk about CSA, leaves the issue rarely addressed within families, our communities and the broader culture.

The general Western definition of child sexual abuse is:  Non-consensual sexual activity that negatively impacts a person’s psychological, physical, emotional, social and spiritual self.

  • CSA is any sexual violation experienced by someone under the age of eighteen.
  • CSA is defined as an abuse of power—someone with more power using it to sexually abuse someone who is younger or under 18 & in a position of less power.
  • Developmentally disabled children & adults are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, and are sexually abused at twice the rate of non-disabled children and adults.

Child sexual abuse can include child pornography, sexual exposure/voyeurism, sexual exploitation, genital contact, penetration, sexual jokes, invasive hygienic practices, and more covert psychological and sexual preoccupations with a child. Importantly, it is not just the sexual behavior, but also the combination of the sexual activity with the power imbalance that enables the abuse. Sexual abuse can be coerced or manipulated by many means: from building trust and a “loving relationship” to providing access to materials a child or young person needs or wants, to using force.

Child sexual abuse takes many different forms; incest (sexual abuse within familial relationships), community (CSA within the broader community), stranger molestation, institutional sexual abuse (sexual abuse within institutions- such as the “Indian Schools” set up by the US government; CSA was known to be rampant and a part of debilitating the children and community), commercial sexual abuse (child prostitution), ritual abuse, and systemic sexual abuse (systemic degradation of person’s sexuality, i.e. homophobia). The type of child sexual abuse, along with other personal and social factors, cause increasing degrees of life long impact and trauma.

  • Approximately one in three women and one in six men report being sexually abused as children.
  • The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that over 300,000 children are sexually abused each year in this country.
  • Nearly everyone knows someone who has been sexually abused, knows an offender, or has been affected by child sexual abuse.

Child sexual abuse can happen between youth, not just adults. Usually this is measured by differences in age (2-5 years), developmental stages, weight and power. Any of these differences can put another child at risk for manipulation and misuse sexually.

While youth can also sexually abuse other children, there is a difference between abuse and age appropriate sexual play amongst child or youth peers. There is often a lot of confusion about this because of a lack of understanding about youth’s sexual development and the culture of sex negativity, in our communities. People can get paranoid about child sexual abuse on one hand, thinking any sign of sexuality in children or youth is abuse, and then on the other hand, do nothing to prevent CSA.  We want to both support age appropriate sexual development in youth, and watch for a potential misuse of power that can harm another child.

When addressing child sexual abuse we also need to address cultural difference, as well as the systemic oppression such as racism, sexism, class access and sexual preference. Each of these interfaces with child sexual abuse and our responses to it. Child sexual abuse is both an individual and a collective crisis requiring social change.