What Constitutes Child Sexual Abuse?

There are many misconceptions as to what constitutes child sexual abuse (CSA). Is it abusive to inappropriately watch a child undress? How about to physically examine a child for no clear reason? Or, to show them pornography? Does touch have to be involved in order for it to constitute sexual abuse? Some people will read these questions and find it difficult to see how anyone could not see all of them as sexually abusive. However, the lack of understanding over what constitutes CSA is far too prevalent and not everyone is clear on this topic.

To allay any doubts:

 All sexual activity between an adult and a child is sexual abuse.

 Sexual touching between children can also be sexual abuse, when there is a significant age difference (usually 3 or more years) between the children, or if the children are very different developmentally or size-wise.

 Sexual abuse does not have to involve penetration, force, pain, or even touching.

 If an adult engages in any sexual behaviour (looking, showing, or touching) with a child to meet their own interest or sexual needs, it is sexual abuse.


Physical contact that constitutes CSA includes:

• Making a child touch someone else's genitals

• Touching a child's genitals for sexual purposes

• Making a child play sexual games

• Penetrating via putting an object body parts inside the child for sexual purposes, including the vagina, mouth and anus.

• Physically examining a child for sexual gratification.

• Engaging a child in prostitution.

Non-contact behaviours that constitute CSA include:

• Sexualised genital exposure from an adult to a child

• Making a child perform sexual poses

• Photographing a child naked or in sexual poses

• Showing a child pornography

• Making a child watch sexual acts

• Making a child listen to sexual acts

• Inappropriately watching a child undress or use the bathroom

• Downloading indecent, sexual images of children on the Internet

• Witnessing others being sexually abused

What to do if you suspect CSA:

If you think you were a victim of CSA, you were. It can be all too easy to dismiss an event we were uncomfortable with because it didn’t involve touch or it was carried out by someone we knew. If you feel that you were subjected to CSA, trust your own judgment – you wouldn’t be suspecting it without good reason.

If you are someone who has any suspicions at all that a child you know is being sexually abused, do not wait for ‘proof’ – report it immediately to the local police or social services. Alternatively, call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000. If you have concerns about someone you think might have a sexual interest in children, contact Stop IT Now on 0808 1000 900.

Dr Nicola J Davies,
BSc (Hons); MSc Comm.; PhD; MBPsS
Health Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer


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