Some Reflections on the Concept of "Sexual Abuse"

B. Bendig, M.S.W., Langenfeld


The sexual abuse concept lacks clarity. The vagaries range from what is meant to be understood by it, on up to the term "sexual abuse" itself, which is quite contentious. l

The definitions of it range from the completely arbitrary labeling of particular actions (and even circumstances, intentions, etc.) as "sexual," on up to quite concrete actions and unambiguous activities. Moreover, there is an extensive dependence on notions of morality; 2 but of course, these are of no real use to day-to-day psychological or pedagogical practice. They are not psychologically useful because what is deemed to be a violation comes down to a subjective feeling; they are not pedagogically useful because they lack a delimiting framework which is (1) sufficiently clear in and of itself, and, (2) would be suitably clear in terms of day to day practice.

Not only do such rigid constructs absolutely founder on the social dynamics of life, as soon as the actual goings on are examined (instead of "picturing" abstract images); but also, rigid definitions absolutely prove themselves to be impracticable constructs, as soon as they collide with the demands of a positive sexual pedagogy. In addition, rigid constructs also clash with humanitarian notions of freedom, which is guaranteed only when the right to self-determination is protected, whereby both potentialities as well as limits may be found. This also requires a fully dynamic assessment of always complex events.

Sexuality, as a reality-corresponding, far-reaching phenomenon, cannot be confined to certain regions of the body, particular facts, or otherwise; to only slightly overstate the case, there really are no 'nonsexual' interactions.

A cataloging of actions or feelings is ill-suited for assessing violations or transgressions, for when they are applied rigidly, one finds that life itself is not so cut and dried; it is helpful to orient the evaluation of catalogued actions and feelings within the context of an individual‘s overall life-situation, so that their discrete meanings and importance can be assessed.

These unquestionably difficult efforts should not be allowed to founder upon new ideological shoals, whereby sexual interactions between adults and children would always be regarded as being burdened, to the child's disadvantage, by a relationship of dependency, and would, therefore, be ipso facto harmful to the child. Such over-simplifications are just as condemnable as age limits. Such rigid constructs can neither capture nor reflect the reality of the social dynamics of life.

Furthermore, to the subjective category of the experience of a violation or transgression must be added the objective category of an ascertained violation; and indeed, on four grounds:


I. Even if it was not experienced as a violation, it still could be one;

II. Conversely, a sense of having been violated may not be objectively permanent;

III. The sense of having been violated may be based on the extent to which one's consciousness has developed; a 'mistaken' consciousness may be the actual cause of a sense of having been violated. In these cases, the 'mistaken' consciousness is the actual violation. One comes to see this only when another event conflicts with the initial one, and the 'mistaken' consciousness is displaced.

IV. The sense and assessment of an objective fact may change over the course of one's life.


These difficulties are largely circumvented by resorting to a putative ideological consensus; namely, that all sexuality between children and adults means violating a child. The representatives of this view make use of a starkly value-laden lexicon: There the talk is of "making demands upon children," 3 which is said to inevitably lead to "violence and the destruction of the psychic reality, integrity, and sexuality of their child objects." 4

Adults making demands upon children is unquestionably widespread, and indeed, in every sphere; and these really are  against their wishes! However, as soon as it comes to sexual interactions, portraying adults making demands upon children as the only reality means a self-limiting of the possibility to even consider other realities, let alone then be able to perceive them.

The second above quote shows the degree of moral indignation which would be regarded as appropriate for accurately describing violations which are, without exception, to be feared as sexual "demands made upon children." The recent efforts at de-dramatizing the issue and approaching it more objectively need a carefully differentiated lexicon, which should be used to overcome fear by having a clear-headed discussion about the matter. Apparently, we have a long ways to go before we reach this stage.

Stepping away from the ideological refuge of subjectivity would allow for some gradual distinctions to be made vis-à-vis the fundamental harmfulness of sexual interactions between adults and children. It is a question, however, of a fundamental recognition of the fact that there are both harmful as well as harmless – even beneficial – sexual interactions between adults and children. The reports of adults who, as children, were themselves involved in sexual relationships with adults, and who evaluated these experiences at the time as being positive, and still assess them so today, should not simply be dismissed. 5

In the Human Sexuality Working Group's publication on "Sexuality Between Adults and Children," 6 this group of professionals is even of the opinion that it is not the sex itself that would constitute the harmfulness of these sexual interactions, but rather, the degree of force or violence within them. According to this approach, what is to be  operationalized are the criteria for force and/or violence, and in particular, expanding this into the arena of non-visible force. Consequently, it looks not at the sexual acts and sensations in the interactions between children and adults, but rather, the degree of structural, psychological, and physical force or violence.

In the present-day professional literature, the fundamental fact that there are both harmful as well as harmless sexual interactions between adults and children is either denied outright, to a certain extent tolerated or welcomed in the case of liberal pedagogy, asserted only sotto voce, or, shifted on to what are regarded as non-problematic ages. The end of childhood is, then, taken to be the onset of puberty; thus, around the age of twelve.7

The reason for the wariness to express the plausible hypothesis that there are two sides to every coin, including those pertaining to sexual interactions, would probably be a certain collision with the societal view that sex between adults and children is harmful to the latter in each and every case, and is, therefore, punishable. This collision will always be felt, whenever one dares to call this subjectivity into question.




The sexual abuse concept lacks clarity. Because the vagaries inherent in it are so far reaching, without a new, standardized definition of what it is, any common consensus is out of the question. This definition must be applicable to real life cases, and should be oriented towards the concept of violation or transgression. To ascertain that a violation has occurred, both the objective category – what is a violation – as well as the subjective category of a sense of having been violated, must be operationalized.

Any moves to limit the definition to just one of the above two categories should be opposed. Moral standards which are based on societal notions and demands are improper. The fact that a violation has taken place can be established – or not – via objectively similar basic conditions in individual cases. It can be ascertained only on a case by case basis,  not  in general and abstract terms.

"It is not the erotic and possibly sexual relationship with an adult which harms the child, but rather, the excessive demands placed upon the relationship by the adult." 8

What is important to establishing that a violation has taken place is not which sexual acts have occurred, but rather, whether they were brought about via structural, psychological, and/or physical force or violence, and, how they are experienced.

When "no negative consequences are able to be ascertained, one should not speak of 'sexual abuse' " 9 (or a new violation-concept).

The sexual criminal law is ill suited to intervening in this area. Sex per se should not constitute a criminal act; the decisive factor here should be whether an actual transgression has occurred. A special, separate criminal law is not needed in order to establish that a transgression in the sexual sphere has occurred; this can be established via the general criminal law, which is already, to a great extent, taking place. Also, the perpetrator/victim dichotomy does not, as a rule, correspond to the reality of the social dynamics of real life. These and other one-sided concepts should be ditched, and replaced by the practice of making – in the truest sense of the word – some very necessary distinctions.




l. Herta Richter—Appelt thinks that the "concept of sexual abuse is extremely misleading"; nevertheless, she does not name a 'better' one, but instead, continues to use it "due to its widespread currency." An odd reason.

2. Reinhart Wolff: "In our culture and society, child sexual abuse is, first and foremost, a moral question." Bettina Schuhrke admits to having this moralistic viewpoint: "Because the belief that this is what abuse is has now become widely shared, abuse must be evaluated on the basis of social customs and preferences." (Citing from Katharina Rutschky, Reinhart Wolff:  Handbook of Sexual Abuse, Klein-Verlag, Hamburg, 1994.)

3. Katharina Rutschky, loc. cit. [193] Unfortunately, journalists endeavor to make it difficult to make respectable contributions in terms of being more objective on this issue.

4. The quotation is by L. Gast, cited in the chapter by Herta Richter-Appelt, loc. cit.

5. Rudiger Lautmann empirically investigated, for the first time on German soil, sexual relationships between children and adults which had not been subjected to either legal proceedings or psychiatric intervention:  Attraction to Children, Klein Verlag, Hamburg, 1994. Studies with similar findings had been published previously in the Netherlands: Frits Bernard:  Pedophilia: On the Love of Children, Lollar, 1979; Theo  Sandfort:  Pedophiles‘ Experiences , Gerdt Holtzmayer Verlag, Braunschweig, 1986.

6. Berlin, 1988. padPädagogische Arbeitsstelle Dortmund – Verlag - ISBN 3-88515-081-6.

7. In Germany, the legal and crimino-legal end of childhood is set at age 14; the youth protection threshold is set at age 16. This means that, in certain cases, sexual acts involving persons under 16 with those over 18 are punishable as abuse. Engaging in sexual acts with those under age 14 is always regarded as abuse, regardless of the age of the older partner. If both parties are children, they are regarded as both victims and perpetrators. However, because they are still children, they cannot, concededly, be criminally prosecuted.

8. Helmut Kentler, loc. cit.

9. Ibid.