Sexual Abuse

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Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse includes many different forms of unwanted sexual attention or actions toward an individual. Psychologist Jon Shaw summarized it as "any sexual behavior which occurs: (1) without consent, (2) without equality, or (3) as a result of coercion" (1999 p. 4). Victims can be female or male, adults or children. Sexually abusive acts include forced entry of the vagina or anus with penis or object, forced manipulation of the perpetrator's genitals, forced masturbation, frottage, exhibitionism on the part of the perpetrator (exposing genitals), exposure to pornography or explicit sexual language, forced sexual contact with another person while perpetrator watches, and forced prostitution or forced posing for pornography.

Sexual abuse can be accompanied by other forms of physical or psychological violence and may be committed by one or multiple assailants. It can occur once or reoccur over a shorter or longer period of time. These variables affect how severely the victim is traumatized or otherwise mentally and physically affected by the abuse. The identity of the perpetrator also affects the degree to which the victim is traumatized, with a parent creating the most psychological problems and other negative effects. The duration of the abuse is often longer and more frequent when abuse takes place within the family (intrafamilial). In the majority of sexual abuse cases the assailant was known to the victim.

Sexual abuse appears to show less variation when adult victims are involved: rape, assault, and harassment are the forms most often mentioned. In the case of child sexual abuse, various kinds of touching and attention can be considered inappropriately sexual, even if the victim may find them pleasurable, because the actions take place without the child's ability to fully understand and thus consent to what is happening. Such behavior may include the sucking of breasts not associated with breastfeeding or being washed by or washing an adult, or cuddling and fondling. Much of the literature about sexual abuse concentrates on the sexual abuse of children. This may be because the sexual abuse of adults is often discussed under more specific categories such as rape or sexual harassment.

Citing a survey from 1998, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) states that 17.6 percent of women become victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Psychologist Diana Russell's numbers from the 1980s are much higher. She found through survey that 46 percent of women will become victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime and 38 percent are sexually abused by age eighteen (Russell 1984). The numbers for men are significantly lower. RAINN shows findings of 3 percent of men who become victims of rape or assault during their lifetime. However, another survey found that 16 percent of males are sexually abused by age eighteen (Spiegel 2003). Most sexual abuse—but certainly not all—is committed by men. Psychotherapist Val Young states that 90 percent of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are male (1994).


Young argues that one way of preventing sexual abuse (by men or women) is to create attention for it in public media. Though she addresses child sexual abuse, her points apply to sexual abuse in general as well. She speaks of the need to state explicitly that sexual abuse is wrong, harmful to its victims, and punishable by law. An added benefit of publicity is that children (and other victims) learn that what is being done to them is unacceptable and not their fault, so they are more likely to seek help. Reactions of victims after any kind of sexual abuse often include feelings of shame or isolation, and a sense that they invited it upon themselves, that they are to blame. Public attention to the problem of sexual abuse may help avoid such feelings.

Along with raising awareness through community, church or health-related agencies, counseling must also be made available: as awareness rises, victims are more likely to come forward. Support for them needs to be in place. This will also work to break the possible circle of abuse in which victims turn into perpetrators as a dysfunctional coping mechanism. Lillian Comas-Díaz, executive director of the Transcultural Mental Health Institute, argues that treatment and prevention of sexual abuse need to be culturally sensitive. She emphasizes the need for psychoeducation, which involves "providing information regarding the physical, emotional, legal, and systemic components of sexual abuse. It also involves addressing the differential effects of sexual abuse according to clients' sex, age, sexual status, sexual orientation, language preference, transculturation status, religion/spirituality, and support system" (Fontes 1995, p. 49). She discusses Puerto Rican culture in particular, mentioning the need for family involvement in that culture. It is important to employ different strategies for different groups or cultures in the prevention of sexual abuse. This is because different cultures may have different attitudes toward issues related to abuse (such as family shame due to loss of a daughter's virginity); in some cases cultures have a strong sense that sexual abuse does not occur within their society, which needs to be overcome before discussion and prevention are possible.

The measures above mainly address dealing with abuse after the fact, though more awareness will help people protect themselves. In order to prevent sexual abuse from occurring at all, it is necessary to address the reasons why people would act sexually aggressively in the first place. Generally, individuals who belong to groups that are relatively less powerful are more at risk of sexual abuse. This includes children, minorities, people with mental or physical disabilities, and women. Shaw explains reasons why individuals may turn to sexual aggression: It is the "aim of imposing one's sexual will on a nonconsenting person for the purpose of personal gratification that may or may not be predominantly sexual in nature. This gratification is often an admixture of satisfactions associated with sexual, narcissistic, and aggressive motivations" (1999, p. 4). Often, sexual abuse is about power over others. Russell points out that in sexual harassment and rape, "power rather than sex is the key issue" (1984, p. 274). She argues that the patriarchal structure of American society, and in particular its definition of masculinity and male sexuality, is the underlying source of violence of men against women. Society teaches men to take an assertive sexual role and socializes them to find sexual partners who are smaller, weaker, and often younger than they are. This, and the dominant position men have in society generally, predisposes them to act in ways that are sexually abusive. According to Russell it will take a reformation of society as a whole, making men and women completely equal in all aspects of life, including gender roles, to erase sexual abuse. Critics such as Young question this position, mainly because it does not adequately explain why women also commit sexual abuse.

see also Sex Crimes.


Budrionis, Rita, and Arthur Jongsma, Jr. 2003. The Sexual Abuse Victim and Sexual Offender Treatment Planner. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Fontes, Lisa Aronson, ed. 1995. Sexual Abuse in Nine North American Cultures: Treatment and Prevention. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

"RAINN: Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network." Available from

Russell, Diana. 1984. Sexual Exploitation: Rape, Child Sexual Abuse, and Workplace Harassment. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Shaw, Jon A, ed. 1999. Sexual Aggression. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

Spiegel, Josef. 2003. Sexual Abuse of Males: The SAM Model of Theory and Practice. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Wyatt, Gail Elizabeth; Michael Newcomb; and Monika H. Riederle. 1993. Sexual Abuse and Consensual Sex: Women's Developmental Patterns and Outcomes. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Young, Val. 1994. "Women Abusers—A Feminist View." In Female Sexual Abuse of Children, ed. Michele Elliott. New York: Guildford Press.

                                      Barbara Postema

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Sexual Abuse

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