Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities.


Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. 

They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet). Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children. 

It is important to differentiate between contact and non contact offences for example contact offences include sexual touching and sexual activity with a child and non contact offences would include sexual activity in the presence of a child and children made to view indecent material. Children could be groomed or in sighted to commit sexual acts remotely, eg. via webcam.

The extent of sexual abuse is hard to establish as many incidents of sexual abuse may be unreported. Latest figures released from the NSPCC quote the following statistics:

  • Three-quarters (72%) of sexually abused children did not tell anyone about the abuse at the time. 27% told someone later. Around a third (31%) still had not told anyone about their experience(s) by early adulthood.
  • In 2008/09, police in England and Wales recorded more than 21,000 sex offences against children. Sexual abuse can result in self-harming, depression and a loss of self esteem, inappropriate sexualized behaviour, sexually abusive behaviour towards others, Severity of impact on the child may increase with the length of time it continues and with the intensiveness and extent of the abuse. A proportion of abusers who sexually abuse children may have themselves been sexually abused as a child. However, children who are sexually abused do not inevitably go on to be abusers themselves. 

Jones and Ramchandani have conducted a systematic study of the effectiveness of interventions in situations of child sexual abuse. They stress the importance of close integration between the professionals and agencies involved in meeting the needs of children and families in circumstances of sexual abuse. A child’s ability to cope with the aftermath of abuse can be fortified by the support of a non – abusing adult who believes the child and by professional support that reinforces self-worth. See Child Sexual Abuse. Informing Practice from research, Jones and Ramchandani 1999.

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