Child sexual abuse refers to adult sexual contact with children under the legal age of consent. Whereas caretaker neglect and physical violence against children became major social problems during the 1960s, the sexual violation of children by adults became a focus for public concern from the 1970s to the present. In large measure, this resulted from attention generated by feminist activists and scholars concerned with the psychic and physical well-being of young people reared within sexist or male-dominated social environments. Whereas some non-Western societies permit, or even foster, limited ritual sexual contact between adults and young people, in contemporary Western society nearly all forms of sexual interaction between adults and children are thought of as harmful to children, even when children are said to consent to acts of sex with adults. This is because children are materially, socially, and emotionally dependent upon adult caretakers and, as such, are viewed as never entirely free to choose sex with adults who hold power over them. Thus, in the United States and other Western countries, it is a violation of criminal law for adults to engage sexually with youth below the age of 16, with or without a child’s consent.
Although illegal, adult sexual relations with children are not entirely uncommon. Data analyzed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicate that 10 percent of approximately 3 million cases of alleged child abuse reported in 2004 involved violations of a sexual nature. This figure rose to 16 percent of all reported cases of abuse when considering children ages 12 to 16. While the most damaging forms of child sexual abuse involve coercion and rape, statistically speaking, far more typical are nonviolent, noncoital sexual exchanges between a child and an adult known to the child. Three quarters of all known cases of child sexual abuse involve offenders who were friends or neighbors of a victim’s families. Surveys of college students report even higher findings, with 11.3 percent of women and 4.1 percent of men reporting having had sex with an adult (18 years or older) while they were under age 13. When sexual abuse or “incest” takes place within the family, surveys indicate that about three quarters of the time the offender is an adult relative, while about one quarter of those surveyed report sexual contact with a father or stepfather. Unfortunately, much of what is known about childhood sexual abuse is based on small clinical studies and surveys of middle-class and mostly white college populations. There is also considerable variation in the estimated incidence of child sexual abuse, although most researchers agree that the vast majority of perpetrators are males and that young women are about 4 times more likely to be victimized than young men.
Many victims of child sexual abuse experience long-lasting bodily and emotional problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, sleeplessness, depression, eating and anxiety disorders, and difficulties in later establishing meaningful adult sexual relations. Since the mid-1980s, concern with these problems has been amplified by sensational media coverage of father-daughter incest, as well as the sexual abuse of children by educators and coaches in schools and day care centers and by priests and ministers in churches. Dramatic cases of child abduction by strangers and equally dramatic, although often undocumented, reports of ritual and satanic abuse have also fueled public fears. Sometimes reports of abuse are shrouded in controversy. This is particularly the case with regard to “recovered memories” of traumatic sexual violations said to have occurred in the distant past. In such cases, awareness of abuse is said to be repressed until brought to consciousness by suggestive therapeutic techniques, such as hypnotic regression or trance-like imaging.
Although debates surrounding the use of suggestive clinical procedures have raised questions about the verifiable character of some therapeutically “recovered memories,” what researchers do know about childhood sexual abuse challenges stereotypes about the prevalence of anonymous child molesters— “dirty old men” who seduce children away from playgrounds with promises of candy, money, or adventure. Although the dangers presented by such predatory pedophiles are real, the likelihood of a child being molested by a stranger pales in comparison with the chance of being sexually abused by a trusted authority figure, male parent, relative, neighbor, or close friend of the family.
What causes adults to impose themselves sexually upon children? In asking this question it is important to remember that there is neither a single profile of types of abuse nor of abusers. Research shows that the most common form of father/stepfather and daughter incest involves situations where an adult male becomes overly dependent on a child for emotional warmth or affection absent in adult world relations. A far smaller number of offenders manifest pedophiliac sexual desires for children, regardless of whether they are related to or emotionally invested in the child. But when considering the wider sexual molestation of children by caretakers, factors affecting other (nonsexual) forms of child abuse also appear relevant. Of particular concern, however, is the equation of sex with power in a society in which dominant forms of both sex and power are governed by the prerogatives of adult males over both women and children. In combination with gender norms that teach women and girls to be nurturing, while instructing men and boys to aggressively assert power, it is no surprise that rates of child sexual victimization remain alarmingly high. In addition, other stresses, such as relative powerlessness in other social realms, may lead adults into what researchers call isolating and “symbiotic” dependence upon their children for affection, warmth, and even sexual gratification. The eroticization of images of children in mass media and consumer society also may be a factor.
Effectively countering the sexual abuse of children will probably require society-wide efforts that reach beyond the targeting of offenders by the criminal justice and mental health systems. To combat the sexual exploitation of children by adults, it may be necessary to also dramatically alter dominant social norms pertaining to gender and sexuality and to reduce the relative powerlessness that adults—particularly adult men—may experience as a result of high levels of stress and social inequality. Without realizing such far-reaching social and cultural changes, it is likely that the sexual abuse of children will remain a social problem well into the future.
- Danni, Kristin A. and Gary D. Hampe. 2000. “An Analysis of Predictors of Child Sex Offender Types Using Presentence Investigation Reports.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 44(August):490-504.
- Finkelhor, David and Patricia Y. Hashima. 2001. “The Victimization of Children and Youth: A Comprehensive Overview.” Pp. 49-78 in Handbook of Youth and Justice, edited by S. O. White. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
- Herman, Judith. 1981. Father-Daughter Incest. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- McCaghy, Charles H., Timothy A. Capron, J. Jamieson, and Sandra Harley Carey. 2006. “Assaults against Children and Spouses.” Pp. 167-204 in Deviant Behavior: Crime, Conflict and Interest Groups. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson.
- Russell, Diana. 1984. Sexual Exploitation: Rape, Child Sexual Abuse, and Workplace Harassment. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Tyler, Kimberly A., Dan R. Hoyt, and Les B. Whitbeck. 2000. “The Effects of Early Sexual Abuse on Later Sexual Victimization among Female Homeless and Runaway Adolescents.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 15(4):235-50.
- S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration of Children, Youth and Families. 2006. “Child Maltreatment 2004.” Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
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