The Impact of Child Sexual Abuse: Definition
Initial consideration of a definition of CSA may seem straight forward. For example, the anal rape of a three year old elicits highly emotive feelings, and most would not hesitate to label this as CSA. However, the problems with definition appear to lie more in the periphery. Details such as the age of the victim, the age of the perpetrator, the type of contact or non-contact, and the situation/environment (for example, culture, religion) in which the alleged abuse occurs, all contribute to the inconsistencies in CSA definition (Kuyken, 1995; Webster, 2001). While it is widely accepted that a sexual relationship between an adult and a young child is abusive (Kuyken, 1995) — due to the child’s inability to give informed, voluntary consent, and the abuse of the adult’s authority over the child — there is less consensus around consent of “almost-adults” (for example, a 17 year old), and even the exact definition (age) of a “child.” Further, the issue still remains concerning the sexual interaction between two “children.”
Kuyken (1995) suggests that the key issues in defining child sexual abuse are “that a relationship is sexual, there is an age gap such that the perpetrator is significantly older and the victim can be regarded as a child and/or, the sexual contact cannot be regarded as non-coercive play between two children of different ages” (p109). However this definition by Kuyken is still quite vague; for example, what constitutes a “significant age gap,” and what defines “sexual contact”? Rind, Tromovitch, and Bauserman, (1998) suggested that hurt or harm must occur as a result of sexual interaction between an adult and a child. However, how is it determined that harm has or has not occurred? What about the portion of children who do not experience negative effects straight away? And how does one know whether harm will occur until after the act has taken place?
Webster (2001) defines CSA as involving “either actual physical or non-physical contact experiences between a child and an adult in which the child is subject to sexually based exploitation, humiliation, or degradation. The physical contact can be either genital or nongenital” (p534). This inclusion of physical and non-physical is important as voyeurism, exhibitionism and pornography are also widely considered forms of sexual abuse. Webster also attempts to categorise the child’s experience of the abuse — exploitation, humiliation, degradation. Barnett, Miller-Perrin and Perrin (1997) further include the “intent” of the perpetrator in the definition of CSA. While intent is a hugely subjective phenomenon, the express use of a child for the sexual gratification (or need for power) of an adult or another child, can quite arguably be conceived as CSA. It is clear from the above discussion that CSA cannot be simply defined in a sentence or two. Unfortunately, this lack of a parsimonious definition results in operational problems in the research, identification, reporting and treatment of CSA.