Types of CSA
Childhood sexual abuse can take many different forms, with potentially many overlaps between these – intrafamilial or organized abuse may also involve the production of child sexual abuse material, for example; and children abused in the family may also be trafficked to wider groups or networks.
Contact abuse involves physical contact with a child, and includes:
- sexual touching of any part of a child’s body, whether they’re clothed or not
- using a body part or object to rape or penetrate a child
- forcing a child to take part in sexual activities
- making a child undress or touch someone else.
Non-contact abuse occurs when a child isn’t touched:
- exposing or flashing
- showing pornography
- exposing a child to sexual acts
- making them masturbate
- forcing a child to make, view or share child abuse images or videos
- making, viewing or distributing child abuse images or videos
- forcing a child to take part in sexual activities or conversations online or through a smartphone (source: NSPCC)
It’s important to note that, although some CSA may be particularly extreme and sadistic, there is no (nor should there be) a hierarchy of which is ‘worse’. Focus should be held on how a person has been impacted, rather than what they’ve experienced.
Some specific types of CSA are (information based on work done within Visible):
The Leeds Trauma-Informed Charter
Visible led on creating this document, which states our beliefs and commitment in Leeds towards establishing effective trauma-informed practice; and by, doing so, better meeting the needs of adults who’ve experienced childhood sexual abuse.
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The majority of CSA takes place within families. Fathers and step-fathers are thought to make up the largest group of offenders, though mothers/step-mothers can also be perpetrators. A single parent may abuse, with the other parent oblivious or ‘turning a blind eye’. Alternatively, both parents may be involved. Abuse by siblings is thought by some researchers to also be a significant issue. The secrecy in which abuse takes place makes it difficult to draw exact conclusions.
Abuse may be perpetrated within a very tight-knit or a wider family setting, with other blood relatives and even associates of the family involved. Abuse may be opportunistic (e.g. taking place when other family members are away); or more methodical, with the abuse of children being planned from birth. This planned abuse may be purely about the gratification of a lone abuser; or may involve profit – whether by the production of child sexual abuse material; or trafficking to other perpetrators.
Every child in a family may be abused; or alternatively, one may be targeted. Siblings may be aware or, if the abuse takes place very secretively, completely unaware – this may be conscious on the part of the abuser, as it lessens the chances of future disclosures being believed (siblings may be more likely to take the side of the perpetrator if they themselves have not experienced or seen any abuse).
For the Visible project to be as relevant and effective as possible, it’s crucial that survivors are the ones who inform and shape it.
It’s really clear that the growth of the internet has fueled childhood sexual abuse, as it allows incredibly easy access to children – and within their own homes. Social media allows offenders to make contact with children without parents and caregivers being aware. The Coronavirus pandemic in 2020 further contributed to this, as obviously, so many children were online more. In 2022, the Internet Watch Foundation, which tracks and removes online child sexual abuse material, reported a 129% increase of coerced sexual abuse of 7-10 year old children over the previous year, so there is no sign of this problem slowing down – it is drastically increasing.
Children can be tricked or coerced into performing sexual acts onscreen, which may be recorded and used for further coercion (and distributed as child sexual abuse material). In some cases, contact sexual abuse of children may be live-streamed, with many offenders watching simultaneously.
Child sexual exploitation
Children and young people can be sexually exploited by abusers who gradually ‘groom’ them through offers of friendship, care and attention; and gifts. This can happen in a wide variety of environments, with parents and caregivers unaware, or even placing trust in the abuser, who may be a close associate of the family (perpetrators, in such cases, also groom the family).
Alternatively, organized groups may target young people in this way. This may occur with young people who’ve been neglected, but can also occur where otherwise caring parents are unaware of what’s happening – or aware, but powerless to prevent it taking place. Intrafamilial abuse may also begin with this type of perpetrator methodology – with grooming behavior from a family member.
This describes any kind of group activity aimed at abusing a lone, or multiple, children. It can describe a loose network of people who occasionally cooperate, share child sexual abuse material, or who are trafficking children between them; or more sophisticated, closely-knit criminal sub-cultures who have a particular belief system or who are profiting financially from the abuse.
Particularly with the latter, abuse may persist into adulthood, with some victims experiencing trafficking for many years.
Institutional organized abuse
Children can be abused in religious, sporting, education or care settings, with opportunistic or planned abuse being perpetrated by adults who work there. Perpetrators take advantage of their access to children; and may be protected by more senior people within the organization, who may be reluctant to act on disclosures, perhaps due to wanting to avoid public scrutiny or ‘bad press’. Poor or absent safeguarding procedures may also assist perpetrators to avoid detection.
Ritual/ritualized abuse and ‘mind control’
‘Ritual abuse’ is a contested and controversial term with a lengthy usage in child protection and clinical/therapeutic settings. Linked terms are ‘satanic ritual abuse’, ritualistic abuse’; and ‘cult abuse’, though ‘ritualised abuse’ is perhaps the best overall term. Abuse of this nature is particularly sadistic; and takes place with heavily ritualised elements – ceremonies or rituals that indicate perverted versions of religious or spiritual beliefs; and/or repeated and sustained abusive acts that seem designed to exert psychological control over victims. Despite its controversial nature and overlap with obvious conspiracy theories (e.g. QAnon), there is broad agreement across many practitioners that this type of abuse exists. It may be that ‘ritual abuse’ involves a variety of abusive acts and abuser methodologies, which overlap. Some researchers feel that ‘true’ ritual abuse involves a very deliberate, planned process (see ‘mind control’ below).
It is unclear whether perpetrators are genuinely invested in the apparent belief systems (e.g. ‘Satanism’) that appear to take place within the ceremonies described by victims. Obviously, there are people within the UK who believe in Paganism, Wicca, Witchcraft and so on – though it’s important to state that child abuse is absolutely not a feature associated with these belief systems in any way. A small proportion of people who hold such beliefs will, however, be paedophiles (in the same way that a small proportion of atheists, Christians etc. will be paedophiles), so it may be that some ‘ritual abuse’ comes about as a result of offenders merging their interest in the occult/alternative belief systems with sexual abuse activity.
Further interpretations for rituals and ceremonies are that they are introduced:
- To instil terror in victims, in order to further satisfy sadistic perpetrators; and to better embed psychological control over victims through the fear that abusers are ‘capable of anything’
- To contribute to a state-of-mind wherein abusers feel emboldened to perpetrate especially abhorrent acts of abuse
- To discredit victims by making them appear delusional or otherwise unreliable when disclosing abuse, with the overarching aim of perpetrators avoiding detection by safeguarding and/or criminal justice systems
- As part of a sophisticated methodology which seeks to condition particular responses and behaviours in victims
‘Mind control’ is a term that is used to describe elements of the above (particularly the last point), though, as with ‘ritual abuse’, it can easily provoke controversy and disbelief. Perhaps the best way to view ‘mind control’ is as a particularly extreme form of ‘grooming’. Techniques used by groups who sexually exploit young girls are now well-understood – befriending, offering gifts and practical support; and establishing an apparent ‘boyfriend/girlfriend’ relationship, are all used to create the conditions for trafficking and abuse. In some cases, the abused individual may not realise they are being exploited. There are also clear parallels with techniques used routinely by armed forces and security agencies.
With ritualised abuse, the grooming process may be taken to extremes through the use of psychoactive drugs, hypnosis, conjuring tricks, enforced participation in the abuse of others, sensory and sleep deprivation; and physical torture – all repeated for long periods; and potentially in the context of ‘ceremonies’, costume wearing and so on (one suggested description of all this is ‘torture-hypno-conditioning’). The human dissociative response to extreme trauma may be utilised and manipulated by perpetrators. The psychological vulnerability of children makes them easily susceptible to these techniques; and can lead to extreme compliance and automatic, conditioned, dissociative responses that meet the needs of perpetrator groups, e.g. when trafficking children (or adults) for money, to people with specific, sadistic interests.
Child sexual abuse material (CSAM)
This is produced for a variety of reasons. It may be for the sole gratification of a lone abuser who wants photographs or videos of their acts, or may fulfill this function, but also be shared for profit; or for access to other CSAM. It may be part of a wider criminal operation, with financial profit being a more primary aim. It can be shown to children as part of a grooming/’normalizing’ process, or produced with the aim of further coercion/blackmail (threatening to send it to parents/friends, or to share it online).
Victims of CSAM production, aside from suffering the impact of the actual abuse being recorded, are further re-traumatized by knowing photographs and/or videos of their abuse are circulating online.