Definitional Issues

You might think that it would be easy to define abuse but it turns out to be quite complicated. Abuse has many forms. Sometimes the abuser intends to do harm, sometimes not. Sometimes the harm done is obvious, sometimes not. Sometimes even the person who is being harmed may not be convinced that what happened is abuse. How do you sort out such a complicated situation? Well, not easily. Here we can only hint at the kind of complexities that exist and hope that thinking through some of these issues will help you to develop good instincts about when the language of abuse is appropriate.

Legal Definitions: US In the US, Federal law sets a kind of minimum standard upon which states can expand. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) as amended by the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003 defines child abuse and neglect as, at minimum:

Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

Note the word "recent". Does something stop becoming abuse because it happened a long time ago? Does it become something else as time passes? I don’t think so. Note also the emphasis on major consequences (death, serious harm). It seems pretty clear that this is a definition designed to minimize access to the judicial system by people who have been abused. It might as well have said "stop whining" or "go to your room and don’t come out until you have a smile on your face". Given this definition, it should not be surprising that many survivors of abuse find little help in judicial process. Some states have improved significantly on this definition. To see how states have defined the legal standard of abuse go here.

Legal Definitions: International Definitions of abuse developed in international contexts seem a little more helpful. The World Health Organization defines "child maltreatment" as:

All forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust, or power. (details here)

Notice the more expansive language esp. "actual or potential harm". The WHO also defines five specific forms of child maltreatment:

Physical abuse of a child is that which results in actual or potential physical harm from an interaction or lack of interaction, which is reasonably within the control of a parent or person in a position of responsibility, power, or trust. There may be single or repeated incidents.

Child sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violate the laws or social taboos of society. Child sexual abuse is evidenced by an activity between a child and an adult or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power, the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the other person. This may include but is not limited to the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity; the exploitative use of a child in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices; the exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.

Neglect and negligent treatment is the inattention or omission on the part of the caregiver to provide for the development of the child in all spheres: health, education, emotional development, nutrition, shelter and safe living conditions, in the context of resources reasonably available to the family or caretakers and causes, or has a high probability of causing harm to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. This includes the failure to properly supervise and protect children from harm as much as is feasible.

Emotional abuse includes the failure to provide a developmentally appropriate, supportive environment, including the availability of a primary attachment figure, so that the child can develop a stable and full range of emotional and social competencies commensurate with her or his personal potential, and in the context of the society in which the child dwells. There may also be acts toward the child that cause or have a high probability of causing harm to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. These acts must be reasonably within the control of the parent or person in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power. Acts include restriction of movement, patterns of belittling, denigrating, scape-goating, threatening, scaring, discriminating, ridiculing, or other non-physical forms of hostile or rejecting treatment.

Commercial or other exploitation of a child refers to use of the child in work or other activities for the benefit of others. This includes, but is not limited to, child labour and child prostitution. These activities are to the detriment of the child’s physical or mental health, education, moral or social-emotional development.

Perpetrator-centric or survivor-centric definitions of abuse: A comparison

Many discussions about ‘what is abuse?’ focus on the actions of perpetrators. (If he/she did this. . . that is abuse. But if he/she only did this, that is not abuse.) Often the motivations of abusers become important in such discussions. (Did they intend to do harm?). Legal definitions quite understandably focus on the actions of the abuser. The offence is understood fundamentally as a crime against the state. As a result, the experiences of the abused person can get lost in the complicated considerations which inevitably emerge. For that reason, it seems important to me to maintain a clear focus on the experience of the abused person when trying to define abuse. If we focus on the question: "was harm done?" we may come to a very different conclusion than if we focus on "what did the abuser do and what did he/she intend?"


Definitions of abuse which are too narrow risk missing many instances of abuse. Definitions of abuse which are too general risk being ignored by the public as being part of a ‘culture of victimhood’. Thinking about difficult questions that push the boundaries of definitions may help to clarify these issues. Here are some questions to think about:

1. The Role of Cultural Meaning and Intent of the Abuser Female genital mutilation (cliterectomy) is a common practice in many east African countries. Parents who arrange for their daughters to undergo this procedure are typically loving parents. They want the best for their children and see it as a culturally appropriate ‘rite of passage’. They do not intend to do harm.

  • Is this abuse? Even if the parent’s intentions are not malicious?
  • Under what circumstances does intent matter?
  • What role does the broader culture meaning of this practice play in your opinion about this?
  • Can cultural outsiders objectively evaluate what is and what isn’t abuse?
  • What if the practice is illegal (as is the case in most east African countries)? Does that make a difference?

2. Loss of childhood Mary is in the second grade. Her mom wakes her up every morning at 5:30 so that she can complete a workout designed by her gymnastics coach before breakfast. After breakfast she is rushed to school. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday she leaves school early each day so she can participate in a special gymnastics program for gifted students which lasts from 2PM until 6:30. On Tuesday and Thursday she practices with her club soccer team after school — she is a star forward. She also plays in a local baseball league when that’s in season. After a quick fast-food dinner, her mom rushes her to her evening activity. Monday it is piano. Tuesday it is swimming — her gymnastics coach said it would help. Wednesday is church. Thursday is voice lessons. Most nights she does not get home until about 8:30. She showers, does homework for an hour and goes to bed at about 10PM. Saturdays are almost always league sports day depending on which sport is in season – this often requires her to get up quite early to travel to away games. Sundays she is at church for the 8AM service, leaves church at about 12:30, returns for the children’s choir practice at 4PM and stays for the evening service which lasts until 9PM.

  • Is this abuse?
  • Is this neglect?
  • Even if Mary says she really loves all the things she is doing?
  • Suppose Mary started complaining with some frequency about headaches. Would that change how you hear this story?
  • Suppose Mary started wetting her bed it night, would that make a difference?
  • How stressful must a child’s life become before the language of abuse or neglect would seem appropriate to you?

3. Cultural sexual abuse? Conceptions of abuse which involve generalized or abstract ‘abusers’ are likely to be controversial — especially when used in an already politicized context. Consider the following:

"[the]daily psychic tool extracted from gays and lesbians by ordinary homophobia and heterosexist assumptions. . .[and] the constant social pressure to behave, think, and feel like heterosexuals. . . [is] from my perspective, cultural sexual abuse. . . Just as therapists working with African-American or other minority clients have to be on the lookout for internalized racism, so clinicians working with gays and lesbians need to understand the devastating impact of internalized homophobia." Kort,J.; Queer Eye for the Straight Therapist, Psychotherapy Networker 28(3), 56-61 (2004)

  • Does this use of the term "sexual abuse" seem appropriate to you in this context?
  • What advantages/disadvantages does the language of abuse have compared with the language of "discrimination" or "prejudice" for different stake-holders in the larger cultural debate about the rights and treatment of sexual minorities?

4. Consentual abuse? People in relationships which involve sexual bondage, discipline or sadomasochism often insist that the mutual consentuality of these practices is what distinguishes them from abuse. Do you find this convincing? Is it possible that a practice could be abusive even if it is a practice to which a person has fully consented? Is it possible that what we ‘want’ can become so distorted by abuse that we consent to being abused? Does that make it something other than abuse? Or is it even more abusive because our consent means that we are involved as both perpetrator and victim?


5. Ambient abuse An even more generalized understanding of abuse has sometimes been called ‘ambient abuse.’ Here is one definition:

Ambient abuse is the stealth, subtle, underground currents of maltreatment that sometimes go unnoticed even by the victims themselves, until it is too late. Ambient abuse penetrates and permeates everything – but is difficult to pinpoint and identify. It is ambiguous, atmospheric, diffuse. Hence its insidious and pernicious effects. It is by far the most dangerous kind of abuse there is. For a full description see: Ambient Abuse by Sam Vaknin


  • What do you think of this use of the term ‘abuse’?
  • The lack of precision of this kind of definition probably makes it useless as a legal term but its close connection to the actual experience of many people might make it a very useful definition for people who are trying to sort out confusing experiences. What are the advantages/dangers of this approach to defining abuse?

6. Culture of Abuse? At the most general level some have expressed concern about culture becoming so infused with the ideology of abuse and victimization that people lose all sense of personal responsibility. See, for example:

  • What do you think of the idea that the mental health industry needs consumers and sets out to create them by convincing people that they are victims?
  • Do you think the role of ‘victim’ brings with it a kind of special and desirable status in our culture? Do people/groups compete for the victim role?
  • Do you think this debate will help the cause of people who have been victimized? Or hurt it?

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