Sexual Abuse of Children

Sexual abuse of children has been defined in Ontario as abuse that includes "any sexual intercourse, sexual molestation, exhibitionism or sexual exploitation involving a child that could be a violation of the Criminal Code or render the child in need of protection under the Child Welfare Act. This includes incidents between family members and between those who are not related." More simply, child sexual abuse is the exploitation of children to meet the sexual needs of adults. For true consent to occur, 2 conditions must prevail: a person must know what it is that he or she is consenting to, and a person must be free to say yes or no. By this definition, children cannot give informed consent to sex.

The Criminal Code of Canada states that "everyone commits incest who, knowing that another person is by blood relationship his or her parent, brother, sister, grandparent or grandchild, as the case may be, has sexual intercourse with that person." Father-daughter incest is most reported, although brother-sister incest is apparently 5 times more frequent. Incestuous activity is not only a criminal offence but can be a symptom of serious family problems. It causes fear and humiliation for the victims and creates secrecy and shame in the family. A child experiences fear and guilt that "telling" may send a parent to prison. A wife fears that exposure will destroy a marriage and leave her family without support. These factors strongly hinder discovery and correction of the problem. If the criminal conduct is prosecuted through the judicial system, these same emotional responses are devastating to a child who must testify in court to incestuous acts with a parent.

It is estimated that about 20-30% of all sexual abuse is committed by nonfamily members and that most victims are girls. The vast majority of abusers are male. The methods of sexual abuse include indecent exposure and genital contact of the children by fondling. Sexual intercourse is rarely committed and violence is seldom used. Abusers generally use threats or coercion in the form of bribes, toys, candy, money or affection. On the basis of limited evidence, some authorities believe that the actual incidence of sexual abuse is unknown but that it may be as common as one in 4 for females and one in 10 for males, if all forms of inappropriate sexual behaviour towards children from birth to 16 years are included.

There is little evidence that many children deliberately make false allegations or misinterpret appropriate adult-child contact as sexual abuse. As a result of changing public attitudes, it is now possible to acknowledge publicly and clinically the existence of child sexual abuse in Canadian society.