There are a variety of legal and statutory definitions and discussions in research and practice literature about what constitutes child sexual abuse. Typically, a definition of child sexual abuse involves engagement of a child in or exposure to a more extensive set of sexualised acts, behaviours, or material, than a definition of sexual assault that focuses on physical contact. In this module we draw upon the World Health Organisation definition of child sexual abuse. The World Health Organization (WHO, 2014) defines child sexual abuse as the involvement of a child in sexual activity that:
“The child does not fully comprehend; cannot give informed consent to or is not developmentally prepared for and cannot give consent. It involves activity between a child and an adult, or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power. Child sexual abuse can include the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity; the exploitative use of a child in prostitution or any unlawful sexual activity; the exploitative use of a child in a pornographic performance and material.”
Breaking this down, definitions of childhood sexual abuse typically highlight:
- Sexual acts, direct or indirect, against a child under the age of 18.
- An inability of the child to comprehend or understand the implication of the sexual activity or to legally consent.
- Compliance achieved through force, fear, or manipulation.
Power imbalance between the child and the offending person with respect to:
- Knowledge and experience.
- Status and authority.
Activities direct and indirect include:
- Kissing or holding a child in a sexual manner.
- ‘Flashing’ or exposing a sexual body part to a child.
- Speaking to children about sexual matters.
- Making obscene phone calls or remarks to a child or young person.
- Sending obscene emails or text messages to a child or young person.
- Fondling a child or young person’s body in a sexual manner.
- Persistent intrusion of a child’s privacy.
- Penetration of the vagina or anus either by the penis, finger, or any other object.
- Oral sex.
- Showing pornographic images or material to a child.
- Having a child pose or perform in a sexual manner.
- Forcing a child to watch a sexual act.
- Child prostitution and trafficking.
Clearly, the age of the person victimised is a key factor when investigating child sexual abuse, as it determines how offences are experienced, understood, classified, and responded to. From a legal perspective, age is important in determining whether consent or non consent needs to be established in order to decide a sexual offence was committed. In relation to sexual offences involving a child, the law determines that by virtue of age a child cannot consent, whereas in relation adults, non consent is a key element of establishing whether or not an offence of sexual assault or rape has been committed.
It is worth noting that the age someone is identified as a ‘child’ can vary across jurisdictions and research studies. In addition, in early investigations of child sexual abuse, sexual contact between children and young people was not typically classified as sexual abuse unless there was a minimum of a 3-5 year age gap between the children involved. It is now recognised that a child of similar or younger age can trick or coerce another child into sexually abusive activity. It is also useful to be aware that whereas contact and non contact activities are referred to as ‘sexual abuse’ when involving a child, when these acts involve adults, the terminology changes and a differentiation is made between ‘sexual assault’ (contact) and ‘sexual harassment’ (non contact). The Australian Bureau of Statistic’s Personal Safety Survey distinguishes between sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual abuse accordingly:
“Sexual Assault is an act of a sexual nature carried out against a person’s will through the use of physical force, intimidation or coercion, and includes any attempts to do this. This includes rape, attempted rape, aggravated sexual assault (assault with a weapon), indecent assault, penetration by objects, forced sexual activity that did not end in penetration and attempts to force a person into sexual activity. Incidents so defined would be an offence under State and Territory criminal law. Sexual assault excludes unwanted sexual touching — for the purposes of this survey, this is defined as Sexual Harassment. Sexual assault also excludes incidents of violence that occurred before the age of 15 — for the purposes of this survey, these are defined as Sexual Abuse.”
— ABS, 2013; Emphasis added.
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