Defining Child Sexual Abuse

Childhood Sexual Abuse

Childhood sexual abuse consists of either forced or coerced sexual behaviour imposed on a child by an older person. The coercion may or may not be obvious and in fact, may be quite subtle. Incest is the most common form of childhood sexual abuse and is the abuse of a young person by an immediate or extended family member.

Features of childhood sexual abuse include the violation of a child’s choice to explore sexuality at their own pace and level of development and:

  • the misuse of adult power for selfish ends
  • the betrayal of a child’s need to feel safe and valued;
  • the denial of a child’s need to feel safe and valued;
  • the violation of a child’s personal boundaries and sense of self.
  • traumatic experience which may have effects lasting into adult life.

How common is childhood sexual abuse? Studies have indicated that one in four girls and one in eight boys are sexually abused in some way before the age of eighteen. These are conservative estimates but are indicative of a large number of children and adults who are either still being abused or are trying to cope with their past abuse. It is a very real, but often hidden problem in our society.

Effects of childhood sexual abuse:

Self-esteem – Sexual abuse gives a child the message that their needs and feelings are not important. As an adult they may often feel powerless and responsible for any bad things that happen. This may result in feelings of isolation or feeling different from others.

Emotions – Being abused teaches a child that the world is often an unsafe and threatening place. This may lead to chronic states of anxiety, fear, guilt, depression, anger, grief and psychosomatic symptoms. Many of these reactions to abuse are often suppressed or denied in adulthood.

Relationships – Because the abused child’s trust was betrayed they may find it difficult to trust others in adulthood. The abuse may have taught the child that they do not deserve to be treated with care and respect, making the individual vulnerable to further abuse. The adult survivor may also be uncertain about their ability to parent their own children.

Sexuality – The adult survivors of sexual abuse have been denied the opportunity to explore their own sexuality at a natural pace. This may result in a dislike of fear of sexual contact. Alternatively, they may use sex to meet other emotional needs. Children who have been sexually abused often learn to go numb during the abuse. This ability to “switch-off” during sex may continue into adulthood.

Self-harming behaviour – Sometimes adult survivors may develop self- injuring behaviour such as alcohol or drug abuse, eating disorders and physical self-injury. These behavioural patterns stem from feelings such as shame, powerlessness, worthlessness and anger.


Supported by

Lotterywest Government of Western Australia Compu-Stor