Child sexual abuse is difficult to define concisely. It takes many forms, and there are complex layers of the type of abuse to which a child may be subjected; the causes for such abuse are equally complex, as socio-economic and demographic quotients are often involved. Generally speaking, however, child sexual abuse occurs when an adult coerces a child into some form of sexual activity. It might include fondling of the genitals, masturbation in front of the child, oral-genital contact, digital penetration, or vaginal or anal penetration. In addition, any form of non-contact sexual activity also constitutes sexual abuse of a child, such as exposure, voyeurism, child pornography, etc.
Child prostitution, child pornography, and trafficking of children for sexual purposes also fall under the purview of sexual abuse of a child. While they will be addressed specifically later in the discussion, it is beyond doubt that child sexual abuse has reached alarming proportions globally and needs to be addressed immediately. While accurate statistics are difficult to obtain on the subject due to under-reporting and also the lack of a streamlined definition as to what constitutes sexual abuse of children, some studies have managed to shed light on the prevalence of the problem. According to a study published in Clinical Psychology Review in 2009, 19.7% of female and 7.9% of male children are abused sexually on a global scale. This data is based on 65 studies from 22 countries, so there may be more children who are exposed to sexual abuse.
According to further studies, in most cases, child sexual abuse offenders are close to the children, such as brothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, sisters, cousins, neighbors, friends, and so on. Only 10% of the offenders are strangers, completely unknown to the victims. In addition, most offenders are male, though female offenders have been recorded.
Needless to say, when the victim of sexual abuse is a child, the trauma increases manifold. The physical aspect of it is horrifying enough – internal lacerations, bleeding, damage to internal organs, even death – but the psychological damage is often devastating as well. Traumatic stress, which includes stress induced by sexual abuse, shows changes in the development and functioning of the brain. Children exposed to sexual abuse often show behavioral problems such as separation anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or worse. This is even more damaging when children are exposed to other stressful environmental factors such as parents who are substance abusers, poverty, etc. Sexual abuse in those cases comes as an add-on to the other stressors.
Child prostitution is one of the evils of society, which pervades globally. It is usually conducted in organized ways, in particular environments such as brothels, bars, and clubs, or in a particular zone of a city. The organizations may be locally controlled and small, or large and internationally spread through criminal networks. In the unorganized sector, children may be coerced to prostitute themselves in exchange for goods or favors, such as good marks in school. They might turn to prostitution due to limited economic resources, or they may raise cash for substance abuse that way. As mentioned earlier, child sexual abuse is not linear in nature but layered and complex. However, in every instance, the point is that children are pushed by social structures and individuals into circumstances where adults might take sexual advantage of them. Sometimes, a child might turn to prostitution coming from a sexually abusive home. Statistically speaking, almost 10 million children are engaged in prostitution worldwide.
Often girls as young as ten to twelve are involved in the sex industry, particularly in Southeast Asia, though it is a trend found in every corner of the globe. A child prostitute may typically have sex 10 to 15 times a day, and sometimes this number goes up as high as 20 to 30. They are held under conditions resembling slavery – they are often tortured, beaten, and forced into submission by depriving them of food and water. They are often drugged to gain control, potentially turning them to be abusers in the long term. Children often have to bear the burden of unwanted pregnancies, not to mention social ostracism, depression, fear, low self-esteem, sense of degradation, and humiliation.
Another act associated with child sexual abuse is child pornography – production, possession, or distribution of pornography that depicts children. According to Aveeda Goyanko (Child Pornography Statistics, assessed April 28, 2009 in George Mason University), 40% of those who possessed child pornography had also sexually victimized children. Child pornography is a multi-billion-dollar business globally. The Internet is the main platform for child pornography, hosting domains as high as more than ten thousand by the year 2006.
According to another protector of children’s rights, attorney Andrew Vachss, child pornography is such a lucrative business that it is no longer restricted to pedophiles. The ratio between risk and gain is too favorable, as is the return on the investment. Most victims of child pornography are brought into the field through their caregivers at some level. Therefore, the risk of capture is low and this gives the crime syndicate an incentive. Once an image is taken, it can be mass-produced through copying; even destroying the original copy does not help as the Internet can always preserve a copy. In most countries, penalties for child pornography fail to act as a deterrent.
According to UNICEF, every year 1.2 million children are trafficked in addition to the millions already held captive by trafficking; the average age of a child being trafficked is 12 to 14 years, and approximately 30 million children have lost their childhood over the last 30 years through sexual exploitation. Sex trafficking is defined by commercial sex acts coerced by fraud, intimidation or other means, and when the victim is below 18 years of age this constitutes child sex trafficking. As with other forms of child sexual abuse, this too has complex reasons for its widespread perpetration.
The first and most singular cause is poverty, followed by gender discrimination and war or armed conflict (armed rebels often abduct children and use them for varied purposes including sex). Structural inequities in society give rise to sexual abuse of children in its many forms, and trafficking is no exception. As the sexual entertainment industry expands, so does the scope for child trafficking for sexual purposes. In some societies, children are trafficked for personal services, including marriage. In order to maximize the profit margin and minimize the risk factor, workers who are the most vulnerable are chosen.
Children are naturally vulnerable, and if they are impoverished, then they become the target for such devices very easily. They are the most controllable and exploitable. Sometimes children are not trafficked for the purpose of sexual entertainment but they fall prey to that through persuasion, threat, or torture. Pimps, employers, and other child sexual offenders often force and coerce children into the domain of sex industry. Thus, a child might migrate from one commercial purpose to that of the sex industry. At each point of trafficking, however, there will be an adult who will make a profit out of this.
No child can want to be part of exploitation, be it sexual or otherwise. They are intimidated by the adult world to participate, be it through pornography, prostitution or child trafficking. A child is simply not capable, emotionally or otherwise, to fight back, and it is the duty of societies to take care of each single child and ensure protection against such evil exploitation of the innocent. As a global phenomenon, it will require concerted efforts and transnational cooperation between governments to eradicate child sexual abuse for good.