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When is child sexual abuse not child sexual abuse?

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    Some definitions of sexual abuse include a requirement that it should violate societal taboos. In some societies sex between an adult man and a girl is not unusual and not taboo. In an article in Genitourinary Medicine (E Klouman and colleagues. Genitourinary Medicine1997;73:522–7) the authors write that, in a traditional African society, adult men’s sex with underage girls “cannot by definition be described as sexual abuse of children in the Western sense”.

     These authors list 16 studies published between 1986 and 1996 about child sexual abuse and the occurrence of sexually transmitted infections in children in Africa. They themselves studied 552 children under 15 and their household members in a rural village in Tanzania. They found a positiveTreponema pallidum haemagglutination test in 6.4% of girls and 1.1% of boys. In older children (10–14) the seroprevalences were 11% and 1%. The test results in adult family members did not suggest transmission from fathers to daughters and the marked sex difference is taken as evidence against a non-venereal treponemal disease such as yaws. They believe that these girls have syphilis and contracted it from adults outside their own households.

     Child sexual abuse is something that harms children. That which does harm to a child and can be avoided is child abuse. Unless or until there is evidence that adult sex with children within a society that tolerates it does not harm the child then such practice is sexual abuse in “the Western” or any other reasonable sense. (Child sexual abuse has not always been condemned in our own society. In one of the most praised novels of the century (Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Love in the time of cholera.London: Penguin, 1989) the main character (“hero?”) has regular sex with a 14 year old placed in his care, without too much in the way of apparent censure, and ends up getting the woman he always wanted and living happily ever after.

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