Sexual abuse (also referred to as molestation) is defined by the forcing of undesired sexual acts by one person to another, or sexual activity with someone defined as improper, such as a child. Different types of sexual abuse involve non-consensual, forced physical sexual behavior, such as rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment, psychological forms of abuse, such as verbal sexual behavior, or stalking, or the use of a position of trust for sexual purposes. When involving a child, and the perpetrator is a member of their own family, this constitutes incest.
Sexual behavior is related to the very purpose of human existence: Love, the production of new life, and the continuation of lineage. With such significant social ramifications, most societies set limits, through social norms and taboos, moral and religious guidelines, and legal constraints, to protect those who are not ready to participate in a sexual relationship. Sexual abuse violates the sanctity of the individual—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—threatening the core of the victim's being.
Spousal abuse is the term applied to the specific form of domestic violence, where physical or sexual abuse is perpetrated by one spouse upon another. Frequently, this involves forced sex (spousal rape) upon a spouse without their consent.
Child sexual abuse is an umbrella term describing criminal and civil offenses in which an adult engages in sexual activity with a minor or exploits a minor for the purpose of sexual gratification. This term includes a variety of sexual offenses, including rape, sexual molestation, or sexual exploitation. Rape occurs when an adult touches a minor for the purpose of sexual gratification; for example, rape, sodomy, and sexual penetration with an object. Sexual molestation includes offenses in which an adult engages in non-penetrative activity with a minor for the purpose of sexual gratification; for example, exposing a minor to pornography or to the sexual acts of others. Sexual exploitation involves an adult victimizing a minor for advancement, sexual gratification, or profit; for example, prostituting a child, and creating or trafficking in child pornography.
In the majority of cultures and countries, sexual activity is legal and acceptable only if both parties give consent. The age of consent, that is, the age at which the law presumes a person has the physical, emotional, and sexual maturity to make an informed adult decision to enter into sexual activity, differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from the low teen years in Italy and Spain to the mid to high teen years elsewhere, for example 16 in the United Kingdom, 17 in Ireland, 18 in India. (Some states also provide different ages of consent for homosexual boys as compared to heterosexual boys and girls.)
Yet, separately the law may specify a different age where a teenager ceases to be a child and becomes an adult. As a result, where a difference exists, it may be perfectly legal to have sex with a child where the individual, though still deemed a child in law, is above the age of consent specified in local legislation. In most cases, the age of consent and statutory rape laws aim at protecting children and teenagers from exploitation, particularly physical or psychological exploitation involving sexual behavior.
One hundred forty nations are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This international treaty defines a set of protections which signatories agree to provide for the children of their respective countries. Articles 34 and 35 require that signatories protect their nations’ children from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. This includes outlawing the coercion of a child to perform sexual activity, the prostitution of children, and the exploitation of children in creating pornography. Signatories also agree to prevent abduction, sale, or trafficking of children.
Penalties for child sexual abuse vary with the specific offenses for which the perpetrator has been convicted. Criminal penalties may include imprisonment, fines, registration as a sex offender, and restrictions on probation and parole. Civil penalties may include liability for damages, injunctions, involuntary commitment, and, for perpetrators related to their victims, loss of custody or parental rights.
In the late twentieth century, many state legislatures increased prison terms and other penalties for child sex offenders. This trend toward more stringent sentences generally targets those perpetrators who are repeat offenders, who victimize multiple children, or who stood in a position of trust with respect to their victims, such as a guardian, parent, pastor, or teacher.
Offenders are more likely to be relatives or acquaintances of their victim than strangers. The percentage of incidents of sexual abuse by female perpetrators that come to the attention of the legal system is usually reported as between 1 percent and 4 percent. Studies of sexual misconduct in U.S. schools female sex offenders have showed mixed results with rates between 4 percent to 43 percent of female offenders. In U.S. schools, educators who offend range in age from "21 to 75 years old, with an average age of 28" with teachers, coaches, substitute teachers, bus drivers, and teacher's aids (in that order) totaling 69 percent of the offenders.
Typologies for child sex offenders have been used since the 1970s. Male offenders are typically classified by their motivation, which is usually assessed by reviewing their offense's characteristics. Phallometric tests may also be used to determine the abuser's level of pedophilic interest. Groth et al. proposed a simple, dichotomous system in 1982, which classed offenders as either "regressed" or "fixated." There are generally two types of offenders: Regressed and fixated.
Regressed offenders are primarily attracted to their own age group but are passively aroused by minors.
Other scenarios may include:
Fixated offenders are most often adult pedophiles who are maladaptive to accepted social norms. The sexual acts are typically preconceived and are not alcohol or drug related. Maletzky (1993) found that, of his sample of 4,402 convicted pedophilic offenders, the vast majority were male with only 0.4 percent being female.
Various studies have suggested that severe child sexual abuse may have a deleterious effect on brain development. Ito et al. (1998) found "reversed hemispheric asymmetry and greater left hemisphere coherence in abused subjects;" Anderson et al. (2002) recorded abnormal transverse relaxation time in the cerebellar vermis of adults sexually abused in childhood; Teicher et al. (1993) found that child sexual abuse was associated with a reduced corpus callosum area; various studies have found an association of reduced volume of the left hippocampus with child sexual abuse; and Ito et al. (1993) found increased electrophysiological abnormalities in sexually abused children.
Navalta et al. (2006) found that the self-reported math Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of their sample of women with a history of repeated child sexual abuse were significantly lower than the self-reported math SAT scores of their non-abused sample. Because the abused subjects verbal SAT scores were high, they hypothesized that the low math SAT scores could "stem from a defect in hemispheric integration," which, they say, "could be a consequence of reduced corpus callosal area." They also found a strong association between short term memory impairments for all categories tested (verbal, visual, and global) and the duration of the abuse. The authors hypothesized that the development of brain regions which myelinate over decades (such as the corpus callosum and hippocampus) may be disturbed by stress, because stress hormones such as cortisol suppress the final mitosis of granule cells and thereby the production of the oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells that form the myelin sheath.
Sufferers of sexual abuse can experience a wide range of psychological trauma. Problems include depression, anxiety, guilt, fear, sexual dysfunction, withdrawal, and acting out. These effects can occur over a very short or long period of time following abuse. Most effects are made manifest within the first two years following abuse. Victims may display regressive behavior, such as thumb sucking or bed wetting. Abuse can also lead to self-destructive behavior such as alcoholism, drug abuse, anxiety attacks or insomnia. Many victims suffer from chronically low self-esteem and blame themselves for the attacks.
Victims of sexual abuse often do not interact well with others following abuse. Some victims may develop a fear or anxiety about the opposite sex, resulting in strained social interactions. Other victims can exhibit deviant sexual behavior or become hyper-sexualized. This hyper-sexualization may result in promiscuity in some and prostitution in others. Victims of abuse often have intimacy issues and cannot trust other people. Past victims may have difficulty parenting and may abuse their own children.
Understanding the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in society is difficult for two reasons: Victims often do not feel comfortable reporting their abuse and abuse often occurs at such an early age that victims cannot accurately remember it. False reports of abuse can be disruptive to all involved from the supposed victim to the alleged attacker whose reputation is then sullied.
The nature of sexual abuse leads many to become overly afraid and suspicious about the possibility, resulting in scares such as the "Daycare Sexual Abuse" hysteria in the 1980s and 1990s, in which daycare workers were accused of ritual sexual abuse of children in America, Canada, and New Zealand. During the scare, concerned police officers used questionable interrogation tactics on children to elicit tales of abuse by their parents and caregivers, many of which were later found to be untrue.
Victims fear reporting their abuse for a number of reasons. First, they are often abused by a close contact and may have mixed feelings about the person. The victims may feel loyalty and even love for their attacker. Often the abuser is seen as an authority figure who tells their victim not to discuss their "secret" with other adults. When the abuser is a member of the victims family, or a trusted adult such as a caregiver, teacher, or priest, it is especially difficult for a child to go against their abuser's direction. These intimate relationships also lead to tensions within families or social circles as the victims often have to see their attackers on a regular or daily basis. Victims fear their social lives may be torn apart by leveling allegations against another person. Second, victims may fear retribution either from their attacker or society in general. This would especially be a problem in situations where the attacker is a family member or close associate with whom the victim has regular contact. Retribution may take the form of physical violence, ostracism, or other forms of psychological attack.
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