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Journal Issue: Sexual Abuse of Children Volume 4 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1994

Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Sexual Abuse
David Finkelhor

Sexual Abuse Involving Penetration

The proportion of sexual abuse cases involving penetration depends on whether we are discussing all sexual abuse that occurs or just that which is reported to child protection or law enforcement. As might be expected, reported cases are more serious and more frequently involve penetration. Estimates for penetrative acts (including penile and object penetration and oral-genital contact) run as high as 50% among cases reported to either child protection or criminal justice officials.42 In the more representative adult retrospective surveys7,25,43 around 20% to 25% of the episodes reported by women involved vaginal penetration or oral-genital contact.

Acts of penetration tend to be more common among postpubescent victims and in abusive relationships that have continued over an extended period of time. Although the criminal code and, hence, law enforcement, places a lot of emphasis on distinguishing between sexual crimes that do involve penetration and those that do not (for example, the statutory distinction between rape and attempted rape is based on whether penetration occurred), child protective and mental health professionals have been less concerned with this distinction. In part, their attitude reflects research (and clinical experience) that has found non-penetrative abuse frequently to have an equally serious impact on the children.44 It also reflects an awareness that penetration is only one among several other aspects of the abuse—the betrayal of trust, the amount of violence, and the attendant psychological coercion—that must be evaluated to judge the seriousness of an episode.