4 Jul 2011

Understanding Child Sexual Abuse

What is Child Sexual Abuse? 
By Dr.Shubhda Maitra*

  • 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‟.

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


 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

Visit our website: http://www.childlineindia.org.in

* 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

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