Sexual abuse What is sexual abuse
Child sexual abuse involves:
- sexual touching of any part of the body, clothed or unclothed, including using an object
- assault by penetration, including rape or penetration of the mouth with an object or part of the body
- encouraging a child to engage in sexual activity, including:
- sexual acts with someone else
- making a child strip or masturbate
- intentionally engaging in sexual activity in front of a child
- not taking proper measures to prevent a child being exposed to sexual activities by others
- meeting a child following sexual grooming, with the intent of abusing them
- taking, making, allowing someone to take, distributing, showing or advertising indecent images of children
- paying for the sexual services of a child
- encouraging a child into prostitution or pornography
- showing a child images of sexual activity, including photographs, videos or via webcams.
Contact abuse is where an abuser makes physical contact with a child, including penetration.
Non-contact abuse covers other acts where the abuser doesn’t touch the child, such as grooming, exploitation, persuading children to perform sexual acts over the internet and flashing.
Child sexual abuse online
When sexual exploitation happens online, young people may be persuaded, or forced, to:
- send or post sexually explicit images of themselves
- take part in sexual activities via a webcam or smartphone
- have sexual conversations by text or online.
Abusers may threaten to send images, video or copies of conversations to the young person’s friends and family unless they take part in other sexual activity.
Images or videos may continue to be shared long after the sexual abuse has stopped.
Official definitions of child sexual abuse
HM Government (2013) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). London: Department for Education (DfE).
Department of Heath Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2003) Co-operating to safeguard children (PDF). Belfast: Department of Heath Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS).
Scottish Government (2010) National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF). [Edinburgh]: Scottish Government.
Welsh Assembly Government (2006) Safeguarding children: working together under the Children Act 2004 (PDF). Cardiff: Welsh Assembly Government.
Why sexual abuse happens
We don’t fully understand the causes of sexually abusive behaviour towards children.
The reasons why someone would sexually abuse a child are wide-ranging and complex. But we can broadly group them as:
They could also have experienced a troubled family environment such as domestic abuse, mental health problems or drug and alcohol misuse. Because of this, some abusers may not have any understanding of what is appropriate behaviour towards a child . And they might have developed the desire to have power or control over others.
While it’s true that some sexual abusers will have been abused themselves as children, it isn’t the case that being sexually abused makes it more likely that someone will abuse others.
Child sexual abuse can also be motivated by money, for example in cases of child prostitution and pornography.
These factors alone do not predict sex offending.
Potential abusers might never abuse a child unless they have a willingness and an opportunity to act. Some abusers may also have to convince themselves that the abuse isn’t causing harm and that the victim wants the sexual contact (Finkelhor, 1984).
Who sexually abuses children?
What research tells us about adult sex offenders
Relationship between victim and abuser
- Inappropriate relationships
An older abuser has some kind of power over their victim. This could be physical, emotional or financial, and in many cases the victim will believe that they have a sincere or loving relationship with their abuser.
- The “boyfriend” modelThis often involves the abuser and victim entering into an almost conventional relationship which involves exchanging gifts, and other normal dating activities. Sometimes, the abuser will go on to manipulate the victim into taking part in sexual acts with other people. This is a common model for peer abuse.
- Organised exploitation and trafficking
Children are abused by more than one adult as part of a network that may involve the movement of victims into and across the country, as well as exchanging images of child abuse.