Sexual vs nonsexual physical abuse

In the previous entry, I discussed the distinction, or lack thereof, between emotional and psychological abuse. Now, I address what seems to be a far more obvious division: physical versus sexual abuse.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the distinction between sexual abuse and physical (non-sexual) abuse appears to be clear in both the popular mind and in the academic literature.

The American Psychological Association’s website provides a definition of sexual abuse similar to that in an everyday dictionary.  The former reads “Sexual abuse is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.” The latter reads “Criminal sexual activity, especially that involving a victim below the age of sexual consent or incapable of sexual consent”.

ivy on brick wall

Brick wall

Physical abuse is, of course, self-explanatory for the everyday person. It is physical harm, intuitively understood as distinct from physical assault, which is a single incident rather than a pattern of such incidents. The harm can be inflicted by striking with or without an object, shoving, using toxic substances, and the general causing of physical damage.

The line appears clear. Here lies safety; there lies abuse. Questions remain.

Where lies safety and here lies abuse

The difficulty in a family situation is that there are no actual visible boundaries.

For example, I suffered physical abuse (sometimes if not always combined with emotional abuse as defined in the previous blog entry) on a fairly regular basis. The perpetrators were my father and older sister. My father’s abuse was episodic, rage-filled, and involved whipping with a leather belt, objects hurled at my head, withholding of food, shaking, and choking. My sister’s expressions of abuse toward me were on a smaller scale, but occurred four to six times a week, if not daily. She favored using her shoulder to shove me into a wall, quick jabs of the fist to body parts hidden by clothing, slapping, and pinning me to the ground or against a wall. My father excused himself by saying  it was discipline. My sister, following his lead, echoed that I had “earned” what she did.

Sunset in Coquitlam.


Speaking as a survivor, I offer my own definition. All abuse is a restriction or action  that causes damage to a person’s psychological, emotional or physical health.  Most telling of all, the abuse can be perpetrated by anyone. Parent, lover, teacher, employer, medical professional, child, sibling, classmate, all can be abusers. Once we are aware of these two facts—what abuse is, and who an abuser can be—we can truly strive for long-term solutions to abuse.


Images courtesy: Brick wall (c)2007 Derek Ramsey; and sunset by Chad Teer.


3 thoughts on “Sexual vs nonsexual physical abuse

  1. Leola2010,

    As I look at it, when you are talking about someone below the age of consent, sexual abuse is any action involving the minor ( not able to consent ) which is getting the adult sexually aroused.

    It makes no difference whether or not the minor is getting sexually aroused.

    So this abuse could just be the telling of titillating stories.

    My mother used to tell me stories of earlier life experiences. Now today I see that you could only tell such stories to a child, because anyone else would see thru them see that there was so much which was not being said. I feel that beneath the surface she was indirectly indicating sexual abuse at the hands of her father.

    TRIGGER WARNING **********

    One of the things which makes child sexual abuse, even of the physical contact types, is that at some level the child is consenting. The child does not understand what is happening.

    And then it is not just that absolute legal lines are being crossed, it is that the adult is using the child in ways that it knows is wrong, making the child be bad by being involved.

    I explained this at great length about the man I put in prison. Most child abuse does involve a parent not living up to their own values. They know that what they are doing is wrong, even though at another time or in another society it might not be seen that way.

    And so animosity between parent and child is always caused by this middle-class living in Bad Faith.

    To Be Continued


    • By definition, legally or in any other dictionary, no child can consent. A child has no awareness of choices, options, and so forth. Whether because of age, or upbringing, a child cannot make a conscious, informed decision, that is, *consent*.
      I am making that clarification because… for me, the idea that a child consents leads to victim-blaming and victim-shaming. We survivors have enough of that, heaven knows.


  2. What very sad memories you have. It seems your sister became a lot like your dad. I’m sorry for these awful things that happened.

    I agree with your definition of abuse, but I’d add that the restriction is with the intention to hurt. Sometimes parents do dumb restrictions because they are overprotective. That doesn’t describe this situation at all, but I really think intention plays an important role when the perpetrator comes up with these restrictions.


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