Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children

Sexual abuse of a child happens when children are used for the sexual gratification of an adult, older adolescent, or someone else in a position of authority over the child. Sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse that occurs when a child engages in sexual activity, usually through manipulation or coercion, in exchange for items, such as money, drugs, food, or shelter.

Children who are sexually exploited are not prostitutes or criminals, but victims of abuse. Sexual exploitation may lead to life-long illness and disability. Most individuals affected by sexual abuse and exploitation require professional intervention from physicians and mental health professionals to aid in their recovery.

What does the law say about child sexual abuse and exploitation?

The Canadian Criminal Code has different sections designed to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation. Sections 151 to 153 state that behavior becomes sexually abusive or exploitive when any sort of sexual touching, directly or indirectly, occurs to any part of a young persons’ body. The punishment for an indictable offense includes a maximum prison sentence of 10 years to a minimum of 45 days. The punishment for a summary conviction is a maximum prison sentence of 18 months to a minimum of 14 days. The Criminal Code can be viewed on-line.

An important global instrument for guiding the protection of children’s rights against sexual abuse and exploitation is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Specific reference to sexual exploitation can be found in articles 19 and 34. The UNCRC can be viewed on-line.

What is the age of consent?

As of May 1, 2008, the legal age of sexual consent in Canada was raised from 14 to 16 years. This means it is illegal for an adult to engage in sexual activity with an individual who is younger than 16 years, and that a 16 year old is too young to give consent to engage in sexual activity with an adult. There are some exceptions to the law regarding consent of a minor. Each individual case needs to be considered according to its own merit; therefore, it is in the best interests of young people, parents, and professionals to fully understand the implications of these variations. For questions and guidance concerning a specific situation, community members can contact their local police service.

How many children are sexually abused and exploited?

 In 2003, 3% of the child maltreatment cases in Canada (excluding Quebec) were sexual in nature. In actual numbers, this refers to about 3,000 confirmed, rather than suspected, cases. Sexual assault is a crime that is largely committed against children and youth given that 61% of all sexual assaults reported to police have a child or youth as the victim. It is difficult to determine the actual extent of the problem in Canada as many instances are left unreported since victims may be fearful, confused, or unwilling to talk about their experience.

Who is at-risk for abuse?

 There are three main areas that increase the likelihood of becoming a victim of sexual abuse or exploitation. Environmental factors stem from societal attitudes, poverty, and socio-economics. Children and youth have little control over environmental factors. There are also situations or events arising from family dysfunction, school experiences, and sexual behaviors that have a more direct effect on children. In these cases, children may have some degree of control over their circumstance. Finally, internal forces, both cognitive and psychological, may influence low self-esteem or depression in children, creating further vulnerability to risk for sexual exploitation and abuse.

 What types of prevention and intervention methods are useful?

 Education is an important way to prevent harm. Various programs are designed to empower young people, and to teach community members about how to recognize individuals and situations in order to protect children from abuse. Those working with children and youth should familiarize themselves with specific strategies and initiatives. UNICEF  has identified a variety of resources to protect children from this form of violence and abuse. In addition, Expect Respect is a school-based program to promote safe and healthy relationships.

The BC Handbook for Action on Child Abuse and Neglect and Responding to Child Welfare Concerns is available free of charge by contacting

Learning how to safely navigate the internet and electronic devices, along with internet tip-lines, such as Cybertip, are emerging as a best practice in combating the on-line sexual exploitation of children.An important goal of a prevention plan is to keep the issue of the sexual abuse and exploitation at the forefront of peoples’ minds so that the idea of exploitation for individual or commercial gain becomes socially, economically, and politically unacceptable.