What is Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM)

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While the internet is indispensable to our lives, it does have a dark side: pictures and videos that capture the sexual abuse of children are more common, and easier to access, than ever.

Why is it called child sexual abuse material instead of child pornography?

While the term child pornography is still widely used by the public, it’s more accurate to call it what it is: evidence of child sexual abuse. That’s why RAINN and others have stopped using the term child pornography and switched to referring to it as CSAM — child sexual abuse materials.

While some of the pornography online depicts adults who have consented to be filmed, that’s never the case when the images depict children. Just as kids can’t legally consent to sex, they can’t consent to having images of their abuse recorded and distributed. Every explicit photo or video of a kid is actually evidence that the child has been a victim of sexual abuse.

How is child sexual abuse material distributed online?

Child sexual abuse material, or CSAM, is widely distributed online. In 2021 alone, more than 29 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation were reported by online platforms to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline, and that number is growing. Those 29 million reports included 84.9 million images and videos of CSAM.

If you come across CSAM online, please report it to the CyberTipline.

Who creates and distributes CSAM?

Studies have shown that the majority of those possessing and distributing CSAM also commit hands-on sexual offenses against minors. Most of the time, the abuse has been committed by someone that the child knows and trusts. Offenders often use grooming techniques to normalize sexual contact and encourage secrecy.

  • According to the US Sentencing Commission, about 60% of offenders in FY 2019 were related to or otherwise maintained a position of trust over the minor victim (which includes family members as well as teachers, coaches and others connected to the child). In about four out of 10 cases, there was more than one minor victim, ranging from two to 440 children.
  • Where it was possible to determine gender, about 93% of offenders were male and 7% female.

Who are the victims?

According to a study from ECPAT:

  • 56.2% of cases depicted were prepubescent children.
  • 25.4% were pubescent children.
  • 4.3% were very young children (infants and toddlers).
  • 14.1% of cases featured children in multiple age categories.
  • The younger the victim, the more severe the abuse was likely to be.
  • 84.2% of videos and images contained severe abuse.

The US Now Hosts More Child Sexual Abuse Material than any Other Country

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) found 252,194 URLs containing or advertising CSAM in 2021, a 64% increase from 2020. “That sudden spike in material can be attributed at least partly to the fact that a number of CSAM sites have switched servers from the Netherlands to the US, taking a sizable amount of traffic with them,” Chris Hughes, the director of the IWF’s hotline, told MIT Technology Review. “The Netherlands had hosted more CSAM than any other country since 2016 but has now been overtaken by the US.”

"[T]he rapidly growing CSAM problem in the US is attributable to a number of more long-term factors. The first is the country’s sheer size and the fact that it’s home to the highest number of data centers and secure internet servers in the world, creating fast networks with swift, stable connections that are attractive to CSAM hosting sites,” according to Technology Review.

In addition, US law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed with the number of leads they receive, and are only able to investigate a small portion of CSAM cases. “["With the dramatic increase in trafficking of CSAM online, it's imperative that law enforcement agencies, such as the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces, have the ability to identify and apprehend dangerous offenders and rescue children who are being abused. That's why it's critical for Congress to pass the Child Rescue Act and the Project Safe Childhood Modernization Act, which will harness federal resources to focus on these important goals],” says Erin Earp, RAINN’s senior legislative policy counsel.

What are the effects of child sexual abuse materials on survivors?

Children shown in CSAM are victimized twice: first by the person committing the sexual abuse, and again by those who view it.

Victims of CSAM often report feeling:

  • Guilt, shame, and blame. Survivors might feel guilty about not having been able to stop the abuse, or even blame themselves if they experienced physical pleasure.
  • Intimacy and relationships. It’s possible that first experiences with sex came as a result of sexual abuse. As an adult, intimacy might be a struggle at times. Some survivors experience flashbacks or painful memories while engaging in sexual activity, even though it is consensual and on their own terms. Survivors may also struggle to set boundaries that help them feel safe in relationships.
  • Self-esteem. Survivors may struggle with low self-esteem, which can be a result of the negative messages received from abuser(s), and from having personal safety violated or ignored. Low self-esteem can affect many different areas of a survivor’s life such as in relationships, in careers, and even in a survivor’s overall health.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s normal for survivors of sexual violence to experience feelings of anxiety, stress, or fear. If these feelings become severe, last more than a few weeks, or interrupt day-to-day life, it might be a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Substance and alcohol abuse. It’s possible for survivors to grow up and rely on alcohol and substances to cope and it can begin in early adolescent years and can last throughout adulthood.
  • Obesity and eating disorders. Indulging in food and/or restricting foods is common for survivors of child sexual abuse. The resulting health issues can result in obesity and heart disease.
  • Sexual behavior and oversexualized behavior problems. Sexual violence can affect survivors in many ways, including perceptions of the body and feelings of control. There are three main types of eating disorders; anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa. It’s also possible to engage in disordered eating that doesn’t fit into one of these categories but is still dangerous.
  • Depression. If negative feelings persist for an extended period of time, it may be an indicator of depression. Depression is not a sign of weakness and it’s not something that should be expected to “snap out of.”
  • Warning signs for young children. Physical signs, behavioral signs, and emotional signs may be present. The most important thing to keep in mind when looking for signs of child sexual abuse is to keep an eye on sudden changes in behavior. Trust your gut and don’t ignore your feelings if something seems off. If a child tells you that someone makes them uncomfortable, even if they can’t tell you anything specific, listen.

How can we keep children and adults safe on the internet?

At a time when even toddlers know how to use a smartphone, it’s natural for parents to be unsure of how to monitor their children’s use of technology. Here are some tips to help keep your children safer online.

There are also steps adults can take to protect themselves:

  • Protect your identity. Avoid sharing personally-identifying information about yourself, loved ones through social networks and online forums. Doing so can lead to unwanted attention and harassment.
  • Report inappropriate images. If you receive or view inappropriate or sexual images through text message or online, report it to police or CyberTipline. This can help law enforcement stop a perpetrator in action.
  • Use a secure Internet connection. When seeking help online related to a sexual assault, make sure you are using a secure and reputable service.
  • Be mindful of privacy settings. Check privacy settings, such as location services and contact information, when using social media. Be aware that making data publicly available means anyone can see it.
  • Talk with your kids. Be familiar with online privacy settings and help your child set up social media accounts. Laying the groundwork for open communication can encourage your child to share about any unusual online conversations or activities down the road.

Where can I report child sexual abuse material and get help?

  • You can report CSAM to the CyberTipline online or by calling 1-800-843-5678. Your report will be forwarded to a law enforcement agency for investigation.
  • To speak with a trained support specialist, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online.
  • Call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 800.4.A.CHILD (422-4453).
  • Learn more about child sexual abuse and healing as an adult survivor of CSA.

Eight out of 10 sexual assaults are committed by someone who knows the victim.

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