Journal article

Year of publication / 2019

Child sexual abuse: Toward a conceptual model and definition

Sexual abuse Theory
This paper outlines a new conceptual model of child sexual abuse. Led by Prof Mathews and Prof Collin-Vézina this model has been widely cited and forms the theoretical foundation of the child sexual abuse items assessed in the ACMS.

The problem of defining “child sexual abuse” (CSA), and the need to define this concept, has been recognized by major policy bodies and leading researchers since the 1970s. Recent demands for a more theoretically robust, explicit definition of CSA show this challenge remains urgent. In this article, we identify problems caused by variance in definitions of CSA for five domains: research and knowledge formation, legal frameworks and principles, prevention efforts, policy responses, and the establishment of social norms. We review and analyse definitions used in leading international epidemiological studies, national and international policy documents, social science literature, and legal systems in the United States, Canada, and Australia to demonstrate the continuing use of different concepts of CSA and identify key areas of conceptual disagreement. Informed by our literature review, we use a methodology of conceptual analysis to develop a conceptual model of CSA.

The purpose of this model is to propose a more robust, theoretically sound concept of CSA, which clarifies its defining characteristics and distinguishes it from other concepts. Finally, we provide operational examples of the conceptual model to indicate how it would translate to a classificatory framework of typologies of acts and experiences. A sound conceptual model and classificatory system offers the prospect of more appropriate and effective methods of research, response, regulation, and prevention. While total consensus is unattainable, this analysis may assist in developing understanding and advancing more coherent approaches to the conceptual foundation of CSA and its operationalization.

Suggested citation

Mathews B, Collin-Vézina, D. (2019). Child sexual abuse: Toward a conceptual model and definition. Trauma, Violence & Abuse 2019; 20: 131-148.