Victims, parents, and others sometimes wonder: what is considered sexual abuse? How invasive does the conduct need to be? Does it have to include touching or physical contact of body parts? Does context matter (i.e. does the conduct have to include explicitly sexual activities)? These questions may arise as parents decide how to prevent or respond to unwanted touching or sexual behavior, or as victims consider whether to pursue accountability and justice for abuse they suffered in the past. This article will discuss the spectrum of conduct that may qualify as child sexual abuse or assault.
What is Sexual Abuse?
What is considered sexual abuse may depend on the legal context. For example, criminal statutes that allow for prosecution of unwanted sexual behavior often categorize various sex crimes based on the invasiveness of the unwanted sexual contact. Such conduct can be criminally categorized as “rape,” “sodomy,” “unlawful penetration,” “sexual abuse,” or other crimes. Criminal laws may also rank each category of sexual abuse based on the egregiousness of the surrounding circumstances (sometimes called “degrees”).
Civil laws may use a broader definition of sexual abuse. For example, Oregon’s civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse allows claims for the types of criminal acts described above, but also for “any other conduct which allows, employs, authorizes, permits, induces or encourages a child to engage in the performing for people to observe or the photographing, filming, tape recording or other exhibition which, in whole or in part, depicts sexual conduct or contact[.]” Similarly, Washington’s civil statute of limitations allows actions to be brought for “sexual abuse or exploitation.”
Mandatory reporting laws create an obligation for certain individuals to report to law enforcement or other civil agencies about reasonable suspicions of child sexual abuse or sexual exploitation. In some states, these mandatory reporting laws may utilize an even broader definition. For example, ORS 419B.005 states that the obligation to report child sexual abuse “includes but is not limited to . . . those acts are described in ORS chapter 163” (i.e. sex crimes).
Adults (such as those with intellectual disabilities, the elderly or those who are otherwise incapacitated) are also vulnerable to forms of sexual abuse. Some statistics estimate that as man as 34% of adults with intellectual disabilities experience sexual abuse. Some states
To best protect children and vulnerable adults, and to support victims across various contexts, we recommend considering as sexual abuse any interaction involving a child where the child is used for the sexual gratification or stimulation of others.
It is also important to remember that in many contexts sexual abuse does not require physical contact (i.e. touching) and can include viewing a victims naked body for sexual gratification or without consent and also exposing a child or non-consenting or vulnerable adult to sexual content.
Types of Sexual Abuse
Categories of sexual abuse in the criminal context can include “rape” (sexual penetration), “sodomy” (contact between the sex organs of one person and the mouth or anus of another), or other types of touching of the sexual or other intimate parts of a victim (or causing the victim to touch the sexual or other intimate parts of the actor for the purpose of arousing or gratifying the sexual desire of either party).
While the impacts of various types of abuse may vary, it is generally agreed that the most invasive type of sexual abuse involve penetration (vaginal, anal or oral). This type of abuse is criminally classified as “rape”, “sodomy” or “unlawful penetration.” Penetration (however slight and for whatever duration) is usually legally treated similarly. (The fact that a sexual act was not “completed” – i.e., that the conduct did not continue to climax – is not usually significant to criminal charges.) However contextual factors may be significant (such as use of force, threat and coercion, the age of the victim or the age differences between victim and offender). These types of factors can impact the criminal charges related to the conduct and may have implications for the severity and type of negative impact(s) that result from the abuse (which is of particular importance in civil cases).
“Consent” is a significant consideration in both criminal and civil legal contexts. For adults, consent is a voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. Sexual activity undertaken without meaningful consent can qualify as harmful sexual abuse. This can occur when an offender uses force, coercion or threats, but also when a vulnerable person lacks the ability to consent (such as a partner exploiting a victim’s inability to consent from intoxication). In some instances, child sexual abuse includes forcing a partner to perform sex acts in front of or involving children.
In child sexual abuse situations, consent is rarely a determinative factor because the law in most jurisdictions holds that minors (or children below a certain age) are legally incapable of meaningfully agreeing to sexual contact. This is called the “age of consent.” This is important because sexual offenders often use grooming processes to manipulate children to allow sexual contact such as touching the child’s private parts. This grooming process often leaves children feeling complicit in the sexual abuse because the offender “did not force” them; and these feelings of complicit often lead victims to keep the abuse a secret. The law’s recognition that children (and some vulnerable adults) do not have capacity to consent helps to prevent the predator from leveraging effective grooming behaviors as a shield against legal accountability.
Not all sexual abuse involves unwanted touching or physical contact. Forcing a child to watch pornography, viewing a child’s naked body for sexual gratification, or an adult exposing their genitals to a child all qualify as sexual abuse or sexual exploitation. Moreover, online sexual abuse (i.e. sending or requesting nude or sexual photos or the unauthorized distribution of sexually graphic images of a partner) are increasingly common and problematic forms of sexual abuse. This can also include the creation or distribution of child sexual abuse material (“CSAM”) (formerly commonly referred to as “child pornography”).
Finally, some definitions of sexual abuse may include verbal sexual harassment (i.e. making sexual comments, jokes, propositions, stories, etc.) or reproductive abuse (tampering with, hiding, or destroying someone’s birth control, or lying about or removing a condom during sex, also known as “stealthing”).
If you or someone you care about has been subjected to any of these types of sexual abuse, you should seek help including advice about your legal from a sexual abuse attorney with experience helping victims.
Who Commits Sexual Abuse?
Although popular media often still promote the idea of “stranger danger” (i.e. that predators target victims who are unknown to them), the reality is that most victims of sexual abuse are abused by someone they know and trust. Although a perpetrator can be any gender, it is estimated that more than 90% of sexual abusers are males. Abusers can be of any race, nationality, or socio-economic status.
Some of the most notorious and prolific sexual abusers hold positions of power, authority or esteem. Even seemingly upstanding leaders from various religious groups have been exposed as perpetrators of sexual abuse. For example, we have handled numerous cases involving sexual abuse in the Mormon church (https://www.crewjanci.com/sexual-abuse-in-the-mormon-church/) and sexual abuse in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (https://www.crewjanci.com/sda-abuse/)
How to Report Sexual Abuse?
Anyone who has reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse should report the abuse to the proper authorities. Sexual abuse can be reported to law enforcement (by calling 911) or to the state department of human services. Suspected sexual abuse should be reported to allow qualified professionals to investigate.
In addition to reporting abuse, victims or their family members may wish to obtain other types of support. Some resources for those in urgent need include:
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-422-4453
You can learn more about sexual abuse crime victim rights and find more resources victim resources here. Victims may also wish to consult with an experienced sexual abuse victims’ lawyer to understand their legal rights and get help to address the long-term impact of sexual abuse.
The attorneys are Crew Janci LLP, have helped hundreds of victims of sexual violence across the United States. Call today for a free, confidential consultation at: 1-888-407-0224 or use our confidential submission form. We will treat you with dignity and respect.
You are not alone. We are here to help.