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CHILD Protection & Child Rights » Vulnerable Children » Children's Issues » Child Sexual Abuse » Understanding Child Sexual Abuse

By Dr.Shubhda Maitra*

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

  • Have you ever been followed by someone known or unknown to you?
  • Has anyone made lewd comments, sung songs with sexual innuendoes, passed remarks about you or your body?
  • Has anyone flashed/exhibited his genitals to you in a public or private place?
  • Have you ever been touched, groped and fondled against your wish?
  • Has anyone asked or forced you to touch his/her genitals against your wish?

For many of us, particularly women, the answer to at least 2 of the questions posed above is in the affirmative; most times such experiences have occurred in our childhood or adolescence but not necessarily restricted to these stages. Would we term such experiences as sexually abusive? For many of us there would be some hesitation in doing so; a few others would unequivocally term the experiences as sexually abusive. What could be the reason for this divided opinion about what constitutes sexual abuse? For one, among many of us there is little clarity about sexual abuse. Can abuse happen without touching? What if the incident is a stray, one time experience? Doesn't 'abuse' mean something happening over a period of time, over and over again? Can people known and unknown to us be sexually abusive? Or is it only strangers who sexually abuse?

Child sexual abuse has existed in all societies for centuries. There are many definitions of child sexual abuse. The standing committee on sexually abused children (Bajpai, 2003) has defined Child Sexual Abuse as 'Any child below the age of consent may be deemed to have been sexually abused when a sexually mature person has by design or by neglect of their usual societal or specific responsibility in relation to the child engaged or permitted engagement of that child in any activity of a sexual nature which is intended to lead to the sexual gratification of the sexually mature person. This definition pertains whether or not it involves genital or physical contact, whether or not initiated by the child and whether or not there is a discernible harmful outcome in the short run.'

The United Nations has defined child sexual abuse as contacts or interactions between a child and an older or more knowledgeable child or adult (a stranger, sibling or person in position of authority, a parent or a caretaker) when the child is being used as an object of gratification for the older child's or adult's sexual needs. These contacts or interactions are carried out against the child using force, trickery, bribes, threats or pressure (UNICEF, 2003). In such circumstances the child is never able to make a free and informed decision and can never be said to have consented. The NSW Child Protection Council definition states, 'child sexual assault occurs when an adult or someone bigger than a child uses his power or authority over the child and takes advantage of the child's trust and respect to involve the child in sexual activity. In all cases the offender / abuser has more power than the child and misuses that power to take advantage of the child's.

Inherent in the various definitions are concepts of violation of trust, abuse of power, the child's inability to consent, the age differential between the abuser and the child, the cognitive, emotional, psycho-sexual development level of the child and the sexual intent of gratification. Thus sexually abusive acts against children encompass a range of behaviours along the non-contact-contact continuum and include the following:

Non-contact abuse or "Unsafe Actions" are:

  • Following or stalking a child Using sexually suggestive language with the child that includes lewd comments about the child or her/his body parts, stories or songs with a sexual overtone, sexual innuendos.
  • Showing the child pornographic material - pictures, films, videos or taking the child's pictures in semi nude or nude state or in sexually suggestive postures.
  • Watching the child undress, bathe, urinate or defecate or forcing the child to do all this in the presence of the adult.
  • Masturbating in front of the child Exhibiting one's genitals in front of the child or asking the child to do the same
  • Contact abuse or "Unsafe Touch" includes Touching, fondling, caressing, kissing the child's body parts including her/his genitals
  • Having the child touch, caress, fondle, kiss the body parts or genitals of the adult.
  • Masturbating the child Inserting finger, tongue, penis or any other object in the child?s mouth, vagina or anus.
  • Forced sexual intercourse or rape that includes both vaginal and or anal penetration.

Ten Myths & Facts about Child Sexual Abuse

Myth 1: Only strangers abuse children sexually
Fact: Danger from strangers is only a small part of the problem. Research evidence world over indicates that in a majority of cases, (upto 85%) the child's relatives, family, friends or someone known and trusted by the child is involved

Myth 2: Both women and men sexually abuse children
Fact: An overwhelming majority of those who sexually abuse children is men although women are the ones who spend most time with children. Only a small minority of women report to have abused children.

Myth 3: Men who sexually abused child are mentally sick or perverted
Fact: Prevalence of child sexual abuse ranges between 30 to 85% in any society depending on the definition used for child sexual abuse. Mental illness on the other hand accounts for not more than 15% of the total population. If those who sexually abuse children were truly sick or perverted then we are living in a .sick and perverted. society. Unfortunately the men who sexually abuse children are often ordinary, respectable men holding positions of responsibility in the family, society, workplace and fulfilling their duties as per the demand of their role.

Myth 4:
Child sexual abuse happens only in poor or problem families Fact: Child sexual abuse cuts across classes, caste, religious and educational barriers and occurs irrespective of what the background of the abuser and the child is.

Myth 5: When children say they have been abused, it is often a figment of their imagination or fantasy.
Fact: Most times, children are unable to disclose or talk about abuse. In rare instances, when they do talk, it is not their imagination or fantasy but very real; children need to be believed and supported if they talk about any sexual touching or if they express any reservations about interacting with particular adults.

Myth 6: Only beautiful or sexually precocious children are abused.
Fact: All children, irrespective of their age, colour, family background, sexual knowledge are vulnerable to abuse. They are perceived as easy targets because of the power the abuser has and the inability of children to speak up or stop abuse.

Myth 7: Children enjoy being touched sexually, that is the reason they do not report sexual abuse
Fact: Children do not report abuse for several reasons: They are afraid no one will believe them, they are afraid that the abuser may harm or kill them or their loved ones, they are afraid they will lose the love of their parents and near and dear ones, they do not have a language to disclose abuse. At no point does a child enjoy the sexual attention of an adult; children feel extremely overwhelmed and distressed by such attention irrespective of how their body responds to sexual touching.

Myth 8: We can tell if a child is sexually abused
Fact: Children are experts at hiding their pain. It is difficult to say from external appearance if the child is sexually abused. However, adults need to be alert to any changes in the child's behavior, performance at school, emotionality, fear of certain places or people, resistance to go or meet some people and sleeping and eating patterns. A traumatic experience in a child's life is often expressed through indirect means. Also many children may not show any change in their behaviors or other patterns until much later.

Myth 9: Child Sexual Abuse can never happen in one's home.
Fact: Almost 30-50% children are abused by persons known to them; relatives, family friends, neighbours, drivers, watchmen, doctors, religious leaders. Such abuse often takes place in one's home which is considered as a .safe haven.. The abuser enjoys the trust of the family members and has easy access to the child.

Myth 10: Boys cannot be abused
Fact: Although more girls are reported to be sexually abused, (one in every four) research indicates one in every seven boy's world over are abused. These are just a few of the many myths that abound in every society. Myths help us in denying the fact the Child Sexual Abuse is very real, very personal; they keep us from scrutinizing the men we know, love and respect. They help us brush child sexual abuse under the carpet, falsely believing our own children cannot be abused and the abuser will almost always be unknown to us. It is time, as adults, as responsible adults who want to care for and protect our children to be alert, aware and stop child sexual abuse.


Bajpai, A. (2003). Child Rights in India: Law, Policy and Practice, New Delhi, Oxford University Press UNICEF. (2003). The State of the World's children, NY, USA

* Dr Shubhada Maitra is currently Associate Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Health and Mental Health, School of Social Work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Deonar Mumbai. Her PhD thesis was on Mental Health Correlates of Child Sexual Abuse