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Understanding child sexual abuse

22nd September 2019

Dr. David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and Professor of Sociology, University of New Hampshire, USA

Sexual violence against children is complex, can take many forms, and is influenced by various factors. It can be perpetrated by both adults and peers, those known and previously unknown to the child, by individuals working alone or in groups and gangs, and in diverse settings inside and outside the home, school, and the wider community.

Childhood sexual violence differs from other forms of violence, such as physical or psychological violence, as child development and the capacity to consent influence its recognition as a crime. The diversity of experiences of sexual violence in childhood means that different prevention strategies may be needed to ensure the safety of children of different ages and in different contexts.

Additionally, a critical challenge to the field is the myriad terms, definitions, and frameworks used to describe sexual violence against children.The umbrella term “sexual violence” used in the What works to prevent sexual violence evidence review references various acts, including child sexual abuse.

Although definitions vary, it is critical to note that child sexual abuse includes acts that do not involve actual physical coercion or threat, but it can often be perpetrated through the use of flattery, bribes, allegiance, status, authority, and misrepresentation of social norms.

In some instances, the recipient may not be aware of their own victimization or that sexual violence has been perpetrated against them. Such acts are serious crimes with significant negative impacts on a child’s development and health.

In addition, it can sometimes be hard to get victims of such offenses to report them, and to get family and authorities to take the violence seriously, because these dynamics don’t conform to their notion of what a sexual “assault,” or sexual “violence,” looks like.

In many of these cases, victims fear they will be blamed, and families doubt that juries or other decision-makers will see the crime. As such, some advocates prefer the term “abuse” to the terms “assault” or “violence.”

Moreover, to help them understand the dynamics of the crime, education and training for the police, the judicial system, policymakers, and the community at large are critical for effective prevention.

A continued challenge for the field is the harmonization of definitions for various forms of sexual violence against children. As an example, a harmonized definition of one form of sexual violence against children, child sexual abuse, is still lacking.

A systematic review of risk and protective factors for re-victimization after child sexual abuse was conducted in 2017, which highlighted the need to agree on standardized definitions of child sexual abuse and re-victimization, ensure well-validated and consistent measurement, and include additional populations in future research. Currently, there is considerable variability in definitions of child sexual abuse, and consensus on this term has yet to be established within the field, specifically with respect to age, sexual maturity, and the ability to grant consent (which impacts statutory sex offenses).

Outstanding questions include how researchers conceptualize age, which impacts the research; how data is collected; and how to evaluate approaches to understanding and responding to risk and protective factors, given the lack of consensus on the definition used in research inquiries. While these challenges for research and data collection are ongoing, recent systematic reviews show consistent and alarming rates of child sexual abuse, even as we understand that only about half of victims disclose experiences of child sexual abuse to anyone.

There has been much debate about the causes of violence against children and a growing understanding that no single factor can explain why it happens. In the area of violence prevention, the social-ecological framework is widely used to understand the complex interactions of vulnerabilities and protective factors at levels including the individual child, families and interpersonal relationships, communities, and the wider societal and political contexts that contribute to the risk of both experiencing and becoming a perpetrator of violence.

Understanding these risk and protective factors at various levels can help identify opportunities for prevention. Taking into account various dimensions from the individual to the societal context is an effective way to understand both the problem and effective solutions.


  • David Finkelhor
    David Finkelhor

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