Sexual abuse is a legal concept that describes unwanted or illegal sexual contact. Depending on applicable laws, the term may be synonymous with, or separate from, sexual assault. Sexual abuse definitions may include acts that may be consensual but illegal, coerced sexual contact occurring under physical or psychological threat, or other types of unwanted contact between the abuser and victim.
Many, though not all, sexual abuse codes distinguish between sexual contact and penetration. If unwanted or illegal penetration occurs, the situation often falls under rape or assault laws, rather than abuse laws. Abuse codes sometimes deal only with violations that exclude actual sexual penetration, such as unwanted or illegal touches, or illegal exposure to pornography.
Sexual abuse laws often deal with the illegal sexual treatment of a minor or child. Abuse may occur between an adult and child, or between two minors. Consent is typically not a factor in child sex abuse cases, as a minor typically is not granted the right of consent. Abuse laws may also protect those who are over the age of consent but judged to be mentally incompetent.
Those convicted of sexual abuse crimes may be sentenced to jail time, psychological counseling, and restitution penalties. Additionally, some regions have laws governing sex offenders even after jail time is served. In some areas, a person convicted of a sexual crime such as abuse may have to register permanently as an offender. Registered offenders may be prohibited from living near schools or daycare facilities, working for school systems, and may have their address and criminal record listed in a public database.
According to statistics, most sexual abuse crimes occur between family members or are perpetrated by an authority figure such as a teacher or babysitter. Since many victims are under psychological or physical threat, reporting and prosecution of abuse is often difficult. Many regions also have accessory abuse laws, meaning that any person with knowledge of abuse who does not report it may be subject to criminal charges and civil lawsuits.
Sexual abuse can also occur between spouses or romantic partners, and may be considered a form of domestic abuse. For centuries, marriage or cohabitation gave a male partner total sexual rights to the female, including laws that affirmed that rape or sexual abuse could not occur between spouses. In modern times, many legal systems have amended this concept to say that unwanted sexual contact is a crime even between people who are sexually involved.
Many psychologists suggest that abuse of a sexual nature can be severely traumatic to victims, often resulting in serious psychological issues that may require extensive treatment to manage or overcome. Studies suggest that many perpetrators of sexual crimes have been victims of similar crimes in childhood. The importance of careful attention to possible signs of abuse is considered by many experts to be a vital step both in stopping current abuse and preventing future violations.