Defining Childhood Sexual Abuse

The definition of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) may vary slightly based on the source or in what context the term is being used. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau, childhood sexual abuse is defined as, “a type of maltreatment that refers to the involvement of the child in sexual activity to provide sexual gratification or financial benefit to the perpetrator, including contacts for sexual purposes, molestation, statutory rape, prostitution, pornography, exposure, incest, or other sexually exploitative activities.”1

It is important to note that this abuse does not always have to include penetrative sex nor physical contact at all. Childhood sexual abuse also includes the possession, creation or sharing of child pornography, as well as encouraging a child to participate in prostitution. CSA also occurs when an adult encourages a child to participate in a sexual activity, such as masturbation, or if an adult regularly or purposefully exposes themselves to a minor. Sexual abuse can also occur between two children, specifically if there is a large age difference between two children, or if one of the children is very different in size or physical or intellectual development from the other.1-3

Childhood sexual abuse does not discriminate

Childhood sexual abuse can occur to any child, regardless of their background. There are diverse factors that may contribute to an individual committing sexual abuse against a child, including various biological, environmental, and situational circumstances. Experts report that males make up roughly 88% of all perpetrators, and 12-24% of perpetrators are known past offenders. 2 In nearly 93% of CSA cases, the child knows the perpetrator beforehand and half of all perpetrators are under the age of eighteen.4,5

Abuse is never the fault of the child

Many individuals who have experienced CSA have accompanying feelings of shame or guilt, thinking that the abuse was their fault. In these situations, it’s important to remember that the abuse is never the fault of those who are victims. Children are unable to consent to sexual activities at any point in time. Anyone who abuses or sexually exploits a child and ignores this fact is at fault. Abusers will often utilize tactics to manipulate the child into feeling like they are an active participant in the abuse, potentially by suggesting that the child likes the sexual act they are engaging in because it feels good or by telling the child that they are receiving special attention.

However, it is important to note that in a childhood sexual abuse situation, survivors of CSA are never at fault. The fault lies completely with the abuser, not the abused.

  1. Child Maltreatment Report-2015. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Children’s Bureau. Published January 19, 2017. Accessed December 15, 2017.
  2. Fact Sheet: What You Need to Know About Sex Offenders. Center for Sex Offender Management, Center for Effective Public Policy. Published 2008. Accessed December 15, 2017.
  3. Butler AC. Child sexual assault: risk factors for girls. Child Abuse and Neglect. 2013;37(9):643-52.
  4. Murray, L. K., Nguyen, A., & Cohen, J. A. (2014). Child sexual abuse. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics, 23(2), 321-337.
  5. The Scope of Child Sexual Abuse Definition and Fact Sheet. Stop It Now! Accessed December 15, 2017.

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