Myth 8: Child sexual abuse is a recognizable syndrome that can be diagnosed by the presence of certain symptoms.
Child sexual abuse is not a syndrome or illness, but rather an event. Furthermore, it is defined by the law, not by psychological science. As a result, a wide variety of incidents are defined as sexual abuse, and they may bear little resemblance to each other.
- In many jurisdictions, sexual abuse need not involve contact; e.g., exhibitionism, displaying pornography, or verbal propositioning.25
- By law, sexual activity involving an adult and someone under a certain age is defined as sexual abuse regardless of the willingness of the younger person.26
- By law, sexual abuse also includes willing sexual activity among adolescents or children who differ sufficiently in age (usually by 2 to 5 years depending on the jurisdiction) or size.27
- Researchers and clinicians vary in their definitions of sexual abuse because they may or may not adhere to criteria determined by laws and social norms in their locations.28
Thus, different children and adolescents found to be sexually abused may have experienced very different events:29
- They may have experienced coerced sexual activity or unwanted advances. On the other hand, they may have experienced mutually desired interaction with adults, or with children or adolescents who were older or larger.
- They may have experienced recreational sex, or an ongoing sexual relationship. One study suggests that over 80% of activities classified by law as abuse may be consensual.30
- The activity may have been limited to touching or kissing, or may have included genital stimulation, or may have involved intercourse.
- It may have been limited to exhibitionism, consensual viewing of pornography, verbal propositioning, or some other non-contact event.
Children identified as sexually abused are similar to each other only in that they have been exposed to sexual behavior deemed to be inappropriate, socially unacceptable, or harmful.31
As a result, there is no set of reactions that is a single inevitable outcome of what is called child sexual abuse. There is no particular identifying syndrome or set of symptoms, such as multiple personality disorder or borderline personality disorder.32
For more information about the definition of child sexual abuse, see the section on this site about terminology.
26. West, 1998.
27. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1999*; Center for Sex Offender Management, 1999*.
28. Fergusson & Mullen, 1999.
29. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1999*; Haugaard, 2000; West, 1998.
30. Li, 1990a.
31. Fergusson & Mullen, 1999.
32. Beitchman et al., 1992; Constantine, 1981; Fergusson & Mullen, 1999; Ingram, 1981; Kilpatrick, 1987; West & Woodhouse, 1990.
*Will open an off-site article in a new window.