Child sexual abuse includes all forms of sexual acts committed against a child by another person. Sexual abuse is characterized by taking advantage of a child's dependency or subjecting the child to acts that they cannot understand or are not ready for. A child is defined as a person under 15 years of age or a person between 15 and 18 years of age who is in some way dependent on the perpetrator. Sexual abuse of children can be both physical and non-physical. Physical abuse can include, for example, touching the child's private body parts, forcing the child to touch another person's genitals or various forms of sexual intercourse. Non-physical abuse can include forcing the child to look at a genitalia or to show their own body, talking to the child in a sexually explicit way, peeping at the child while bathing or undressing, forcing the child to watch pornographic films, pictures or books, exploiting the child by documenting the sexual abuse of the child or prostitution.
The extent of child sexual abuse is massive and elusive:
- In the Swedish report Unga, sex och internet efter #metoo, one in four students stated that they had been subjected to some form of sexual abuse at some point during their childhood.
- One perpetrator can easily reach and sexually exploit hundreds of children online.
- A single online forum for images and videos of child sexual abuse on the Darknet can have over a million registered users.
- In 2020, the Internet Watch Foundation found over 150,000 websites containing child sexual abuse material. 92% of all websites were non-commercial with material shared in exchange for more, often newly produced material.
- The bigger cases of possession of child sexual abuse material contain nearly 10 million images of abuse. A typical case may contain 6 terabytes of data, 1 to 10 million images and thousands of hours of video footage that must be examined to find and categorize suspected abuse material.
- The international police organization Interpol reports that the abuse images in their database are getting more and more severe, with more than 60% of the children being 0 to 12 years old. And the younger the victims, the more severe the abuse documented.
- The consequences are devastating. Research shows that online abuse, where the child has not met the offender offline, can be just as traumatic as offline abuse. Knowing that there are images and videos of the abuse that continue to circulate online creates immense suffering for the child victims.
There are a number of different methods and ways in which children are sexually abused. These include online grooming of children for sexual exploitation, production and distribution of sexual abuse material, live-streaming, self-produced abuse material (children and young people taking and sending naked videos and images of themselves), and trafficking and travel exploitation.
Grooming Online grooming is when an adult perpetrator uses the internet to sexually exploit children, for example by getting them to send nude photos or perform sexual acts in video calls. The perpetrator exploits children's vulnerability and curiosity, and may use manipulation, gifts and threats. There are many cases of grooming where perpetrators have succeeded in exploiting large numbers of children - in some cases more than 100 children - to perform sexual acts before the abuse is detected. The children often feel shame and guilt about what has happened, which the perpetrators exploit and which leads to few of the crimes being reported, but rather investigated when an individual complaint reaches the police.
Livestreaming Abuse via livestreaming is mainly when the perpetrator orders and directs 'live shows' and decides what abuse the children will be subjected to. This can range from nude posing to rape and sexual torture. Many of the live streaming cases come from the Philippines. Children are often forced to perform sexual acts by close relatives, including parents, in front of webcams at home. Live streaming differs from many other forms of child sexual abuse in its commercial element.
Darknet and child sexual abuse
The darknet is a collective term for encrypted networks of websites that can only be accessed with special browsers. The darknet includes forums dedicated to child sexual abuse, where members can communicate with each other and share links or tips on where to find additional material. The actual material is usually posted on "regular" websites - known as the clear web or surface web - but can only be found if you have received the link via the darknet.
A report released in 2021 by the Finnish organization Suojellaan Lapsia shows that many users of abusive material self-assess that they are more likely to contact children after using abusive material. The report is based on over 10,000 dark web survey responses from users of abuse material, and it provides an insight into the behavioral patterns of users of child abuse forums on the dark web. In the surveys, 70% say that they themselves were under 18 when they were first introduced to child abuse material. One conclusion of the report is that the use of artificial intelligence must be expanded to deal with the spread of harmful images, as the amount of material that can be accessed by a single person is enormous.
Clear link between viewing and disseminating child sexual abuse material and committing other forms of sexual crimes against children
Various studies show that 60-86% of people who view child sexual abuse material also commit other forms of child sexual abuse (some of which are related offences, such as using a child for sexual posing). A report in Sweden found that in 48% of court cases where a person was convicted of possession of child pornography, they were also convicted of other types of child sexual offences. A 2021 report obtained survey responses from 8 484 people on the darknet who use child sexual abuse material. 52% of respondents said they are afraid that their use of abuse material could lead them to contact children directly themselves. And 37% reported that they have sought direct contact with children after viewing abuse material.
How to prevent child sexual abuse?
At Childhood, we are convinced that child sexual abuse is preventable. Of course, there is no 100% protection or simple solution, but there is much we can do to reduce the risks and mitigate the consequences of abuse, including
- all children have at least one safe and loving relationship with an adult while growing up.
- adults teaching children about boundaries and privacy, and talking to children openly so that they feel safe to tell us when something has happened.
- creating safe spaces both offline and online where children can go on their own terms.
- nuancing the image of typical victims and perpetrators - if we get stuck in the image of the ugly old man who violently abuses young children, we risk missing the situations that do not fit into our idea of "real abuse", and we may miss signals from children who have been abused, such as understanding that abuse is also committed by women or other minors.
- provide early and qualified support to children and their families to reduce the risk of repeated abuse.
- react and intervene at an early stage if children and young people commit sexual abuse against other children - a large proportion of all sexual abuse of children is committed by other minors.
- professionals working with children have the right knowledge and guidelines.
If you would like to learn more about preventing child sexual abuse, we have collected links to articles and resources here: