Sexual abuse What is sexual abuse

A child is sexually abused when they are forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities. This doesn’t have to be physical contact, and it can happen online. Sometimes the child won’t understand that what’s happening to them is abuse. They may not even understand that it’s wrong.

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young boy outside looking at the camera
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.
There are two different types of child sexual abuse. These are called contact abuse and non-contact abuse.
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

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:

Sexual drive is a deep-seated human urge similar to the desire to eat. Some sexual abusers are paedophiles, which means they have a primary sexual interest in children who haven’t reached puberty. Most child sex offenders aren’t paedophiles, but it’s a term that a lot of people use frequently and often inaccurately.
Abusers may have gone through problems growing up. For example, they might have had problems forming a healthy bond, or attachment with their parents or carers.
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?

Child sexual abuse is committed by men, women, teenagers, and other children. There isn’t one ‘type’ of person. Offenders come from all parts of society, and all backgrounds.
Contrary to the popular image, abusers usually seem quite normal to other people. In many cases friends, relatives and co-workers find it hard to believe that someone they know has abused a child.
But it’s more likely for a child to be sexually abused by someone they know, like a relative, a peer, a family friend or a person in a position of trust, rather than a stranger.
Because so much abuse goes undisclosed and unreported, the majority of perpetrators in our communities aren’t known to the authorities.

What research tells us about adult sex offenders

The majority of child sexual abuse is committed by male abusers, according to NSPCC research (Radford et al, 2011) and criminal statistics.  Other research suggests women could be responsible for up to 5% of sexual offences committed against children (Bunting, 2005).  Abuse by females is almost certainly under-reported. And research into female offenders has been hindered by the belief that women don’t behave this way towards children (Ford, 2006).
Children contacting ChildLine tell us that girls are much more likely to be sexually abused by a male abuser (Mariathasan, 2009).
Boys are less likely to be sexually abused (Radford, 2011) but they are equally likely to be abused by men and women (Mariathasan, 2009).

Relationship between victim and abuser

Most children who’ve been sexually abused were abused by someone they know. It could be a member of their family or a friend. And in some cases by an adult who has sought out and targeted them as a potential victim.
Abusers look for weak spots in a family, a community or an organisation to gain unsupervised access to children. As well as targeting potential victims and planning abuse, they will often start grooming the child, the child’s family and the child’s environment.
Dagon (2012) and Pemberton (2011) use the same 3 models for abuser-victim relationships.
  • 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.

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