Child Sexual Abuse

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Child Sexual Abuse is a term popularised in the late 1970s and early 80s by victimologists inclined towards the study of sexual abuse. It is used to describe nearly all sexual activity with children, and according to some American psychiatrists, other activities such as being naked in the presence of a child. It is (although only sometimes) distinguished from rape by its "manipulative" and/or recurring nature. In other words, whilst rape is generally considered to be a violent act of forceful sex, child sexual abuse, when distinguished from rape, is considered to be an ongoing series of unwanted sexual interactions gained through manipulation or other forms of subtle coercion ranging from emotional blackmail to bribes. However, academics, professionals, legal statutes and media are all prone to describing any sexual activity below a certain age as rape (as in Statutory rape).

Current usage

These distinctions in the usage of the term, which were historically more clearly demarcated, have in the last few decades become blurred to the point where it is no longer possible to be sure what kind of "abusive" acts took place. With the move during the eighties, spearheaded by victim's rights groups and select, victim-oriented feminist and lesbian interests, to blur the lines between (for example) violent rape and slightly different behaviours such as "date rape," "statutory rape," and even simple day-after regrets, many people use the terms "child sexual abuse," "child molestation" and "rape" interchangeably.

Proponents of this melding of terms indicate that it helps us to see unwanted sexual acts of all types for what they really are - that is, acts of coercive sex - and to avoid minimizing the seriousness of certain acts simply because they may not have involved overt physical violence. Opponents argue that lumping the acts together undermines severe abuse and punishes misdemeananour or non-abusive acts, leading to a "lose-lose" situation, as explained later. Indeed, despite the actual definition and literal implications of the term "abuse", very rarely is the issue of consent or coercion relevant to the term's modern use. That is to say, given the assumption that no child is capable of consenting to sexual activity, any instance of sex with a child is considered child sexual abuse, regardless whether or not the child consented, desired or even sought the act.

As such, the term can now be used to apply to any interaction with a child that has, or can be interpreted by others to have, sexual overtones, regardless of the desires and consent of the parties involved. In this vein the term is used by some as interchangeable with "pedophilia."

Is there real CSA?

It can not be denied that some seriously harmful acts do involve both coercion and genital contact. This does not necessarily justify the description of said behaviour as (predominantly) "sexual" abuse, let alone the basing of a whole branch of psychiatry on such a distinction. The specification of a sex act as fundamental to physically or psychologically coercive, harmful behaviours is therefore a result of motivations other than a sound evaluation of what actually makes the act abusive. It would be politically impossible for most psychologists and therapists to point to mere lack of consent, social stigma and the reaction of other parties as the sources of harm, so as a result, antisexualism is assimilated into scientific discourse via presumptive and restrictive terminology. The question therefore remains open to debate: is CSA ever a valid term?

Despite this debate among academics and commentators, the frequent misuse of the term has not be used to discount the seriousness of acts of "real" child sexual abuse, that is, abuse which fulfils the first definition of the term given above: non-consensual or coerced sexual activity. People today are often caught in the delicate position of having to decide between two conflicting assumptions: that the "child sexual abuse" wasn't really a harmful act, and risk ignoring the needs of a child who has truly been victimized, or that the abuse was a harmful coercive act, and risk ignoring the desires of a child who willingly consented in a mutually beneficial relationship. This lack of precision is a distressing consequence of the aforementioned blurring of terms.

Unfortunately, the same lack of precision in current usage sometimes means that children who consented to mutually desired sexual acts are often treated as though they were victims and in many cases, after the fact, come to believe it. Likewise, the adults involved in such interactions are treated exactly as if they were violent rapists as well, suggesting that in the long term, the treatment of consensual acts as synonymous with non-consensual ones leads to many of the same consequences as a genuine non-consensual act, except that the consequences are now iatrogenic in origin.

Child victims of genuine non-consensual or coercive sex acts often suffer from serious psychological after-effects from their ordeals in ways similar to that of adult rape victims. Although cases differ remarkably, the harm in such cases is nearly always exacerbated by their taboo nature and the stigma that they carry.

Debunking CSA as a concept

  • Bruce Rind is perhaps the one researcher who has thoroughly debunked the concept of CSA, towards a better categorisation of sexual contacts between minors and adults.

See also

  • Research - A portal containing many references on CSA.
  • David Finkelhor - A key proponent of CSA as a concept (and axiom).