Issues in Defining Child Sexual Abuse

  • Ben Mathews
Part of the Child Maltreatment book series (MALT, volume 7)


This chapter provides a brief historical overview of the social context of child sexual abuse, focusing on themes of ignorance, recognition and suppression. It relates these themes to recent and current debates about the nature of child sexual abuse. It reviews international policy and prevalence study approaches to the definition of child sexual abuse, identifying different interpretations of the concept and focusing on three major dimensions of variance. It then analyses the concept of child sexual abuse and provides a recommended conceptual model and definition. The key message from this Chapter is that child sexual abuse should be considered to exist when: (1) the person is a child (from either or both developmental and legal standpoints); (2) there is no true consent (due either to lack of capacity to provide consent, or presence of capacity but lack of consent in fact); (3) the acts are sexual (being contact or non-contact acts done to seek or obtain physical or mental sexual gratification, whether immediate or deferred in time or space, or otherwise legitimately experienced by the child as a sexual act); and (4) the acts constitute abuse (due to the presence of a relationship of power, the child’s position of inequality, and the exploitation of the child’s vulnerability).


Child sexual abuse Historical overview Ignorance, suppression and recognition Contemporary problems in definition International policy definitions Prevalence study definitions A rigorous conceptual model and definition 


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ben Mathews
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of LawQueensland University of TechnologyBrisbaneAustralia

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