Child sexual abuse is any form of sexual abuse against a child, male or female, by an adult or another child. However, it is difficult to define the term as there may be regional or cultural differences in understanding and defining the concepts of abuse and child or childhood. The definitions also vary depending on the sphere in which they are used -- there are legal, research, policy, media and even individual definitions.
Children may become victims of sexual abuse within their families (by a parent, step-parent, sibling or other relative) or outside the home (by a friend, neighbor, teacher, stranger). The perpetrators are often driven by a need to dominate or control others. Physical violence, which is very common in sexual abuse of adults, may also be involved in child sexual abuse. However, child abusers usually rely on the inherent power that an adult has over a child.
Child sexual abusers are often divided in two types - situational and preferential. Situational abusers are individuals that are not sexually attracted to children but become offenders under certain circumstances, such as intoxication with alcohol or drugs, stress, or temporary or permanent mental problems. Preferential abusers have sexual interest in children. These are also referred to as pedophiles, although it should be noted that not all pedophiles are abusers. When the perpetrator of child sexual abuse is also a child, the act is defined as child-on-child sexual abuse.
Apart from physical harm (injury, infections, neurological damage), sexual abuse causes serious psychological damage to the violated children. After an initial sense of horror and disbelief, victims of sexual abuse often become passive due to fear or in an attempt to dissociate themselves from what is happening to them. In the case of child sexual abuse, the child often gives in to an inherent sense of obedience to the adult. This passivity on the part of the victim is sometimes misinterpreted as consent by the abuser. As a result, many sexual abuse victims blame themselves and feel shame, repressing all memories of the experience or undermining its importance.
Sexually abused children often develop various distressing feelings, thoughts and behaviors that can have a long-term, devastating effect on their lives. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), some problems that child victims may experience are depression, delinquency, seductiveness, secretiveness, low self-esteem and a feeling of worthlessness. Such children may also have sleep problems or nightmares, refuse to go to school, withdraw from friends or family, and they may show aspects of sexual molestation in drawings, games and fantasies. In addition, the victims may develop unusual interest in or avoidance of all things of a sexual nature, unusual aggressiveness, and even suicidal behavior. Sexual abuse during childhood may result in the victim having difficulty relating to others except on sexual terms, becoming a child abuser or a prostitute, or having other serious problems during adulthood.
Child sexual abuse is considered to be a widespread problem although it is difficult to collect reliable statistical data or make a realistic estimate of the extent of these practices. Many instances of violation remain unreported due to the fact that victims are often afraid to report the incidents and also because it can be difficult to legally validate them as offenses.
Children that are abused by a person they know and care for often stay silent as they feel affection for or have loyalty to the perpetrator. In addition, the abuser may threaten the child with violence or loss of love. Another reason for victims, especially ones that have been abused within the family, not to report the incidents is that they may be afraid of potential anger, jealousy or shame of other family members. Non-contact forms, such as indecent exposure and sexualized talk, are often considered to be child sexual abuse. Displaying pornography to a child or using a child to produce pornographic materials are also considered to be types of sexual abuse.
The fact that different societies have different legal definitions of when someone is a child is another consideration that affects the variation in providing a clear definition of child sexual abuse.