There is not one generally agreed upon definition of child sexual abuse. Broadly speaking, the term “child sexual abuse” encompasses a wide spectrum of sexual acts enacted on people below eighteen years of age.
Sex acts between adults and children constitute child sexual abuse because it is recognized that children, due to their developmental limitations, do not have capacity to give consent.
As defined by the World Health Organization, “Child sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society. Child sexual abuse is evidenced by this activity between a child and an adult or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power, the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the other person. This may include but is not limited to:
- the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity
- the exploitative use of a child in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices
- the exploitative use of children in pornographic performance and materials.”
Child sexual abuse may involve fondling or sexual touch, any kind of intercourse, the production and consumption of child sexual abuse materials (i.e., child pornography) and more. Importantly, child sexual abuse does not always require physical contact between the abuser and the child. For example, showing children pornography, exposing oneself to a minor or convincing the minor to expose themselves in person or over the internet, and exchanging sexually obscene messages are also forms of child sexual abuse.
Sexually abusive actions against children are not only inflicted by adults. Child-on-child harmful sexual behavior frequently involves older juveniles who use their age, physical strength/size, or positions of status or authority, to engage children who are younger or with cognitive impairments in sexual activity. However, harmful sexual behavior may also occur between children of similar age and young children. Exposure to pornography has been identified as a significant contributing factor to children acting in sexually harmful ways toward other children. See our Research Summary on Child-on-Child Harmful Sexual Behavior for more information on this topic.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation advocates for governmental and corporate policies to better prevent and address the above forms of abuse, with a particular emphasis on the increased use of the Internet for facilitating these crimes.
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Please refer to the NCOSE resources page to find information regarding problematic sexual behavior, Internet safety, prevention of pornography exposure, commercial sexual exploitation, and other related topics.
There has been a concerted effort among those working to end child abuse to adopt the term “child sexual abuse materials” (CSAM) as a replacement of the term “child pornography” (see here, here, and here). CSAM more accurately reflects the reality that “child pornography” is photographic or video evidence of a child being sexually abused, instead of framing it as “pornography” which obscures the fact that such material is evidence of child sexual abuse.
Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. The key factor distinguishing child sexual exploitation from other forms of child sexual abuse is the involvement of the exchange of something of value. The exchange may occur in two ways: 1) something needed or wanted by the child (e.g., money, clothing, drugs, protection, perceived receipt of love, etc.) is exchanged to entice them into sexual activity, and/or 2) the perpetrator or facilitator gains financial advantage or enhanced status from the abuse. In cases where sexual gratification or exercise of power and control is the only gain for the perpetrator, and there is no exchange with the child the abuse does not constitute child sexual exploitation but is a different form of child sexual abuse.
Common forms of child sexual exploitation include use of children in prostitution and the production of pornographic materials.
Importantly, child sexual exploitation can occur to children who can legally consent to sex based on age of consent laws, includes contact and non-contact offenses, and can take place in person or via technology, or a combination of both. For more information on child sexual exploitation see: Child Sexual Exploitation Definition and Guide for Professionals.
Terms like “child prostitution” or “underage prostitution” use the pejorative label “prostitute” and obscure the fact that the involvement of children in prostitution is a form of child sexual exploitation. Children cannot consent to participation in commercial sex acts. As defined by the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), anyone under the age of 18 who is engaged in commercial sex is by definition a sex trafficking victim irrespective of use of force, fraud, or coercion. You can learn more about sex trafficking here.
Many other organizations do excellent work addressing offline child sexual abuse and exploitation, and while we do some work on those forms of abuse (for example child sex trafficking), they are not our primary focus. NCOSE emphasizes online child sexual abuse and exploitation because the Internet has removed previous barriers to abuse, and both legal and corporate policies have not yet caught up to adequately safeguard children online.
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