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Child Sexual Abuse

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, or encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet). Sexual abuse is not sorely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children, Working Together 2018; Appendix A.

There are 2 different types of child sexual abuse. These are called contact abuse and non-contact abuse.

Contact abuse involves activities where an abuser makes physical contact with a child. It includes:

  • sexual touching of any part of the body, whether the child is wearing clothes or not
  • forcing or encouraging a child to take part in sexual activity
  • making a child take their clothes off or touch someone else’s genitals
  • rape or penetration by putting an object or body part inside a child’s mouth, vagina or anus.

Non-contact abuse involves activities where there is no physical contact. It includes:

  • encouraging or forcing a child to watch or hear sexual acts
  • not taking proper measures to prevent a child being exposed to sexual activities by others
  • making a child masturbate while others watch
  • persuading a child to make, view or distribute child abuse images
  • making, viewing or distributing child abuse images
  • allowing someone else to make, view or distribute child abuse images
  • meeting a child following grooming with the intent of abusing them 
  • sexually exploiting a child for money, power or status 

Recognising child sexual abuse

Not all children will recognise that they are being abused particularly if they have been groomed. Many children will not disclose if they are being or have experienced any type of abuse and research indicates that professionals are least confident in dealing with this category of abuse  The list below provides some physical, emotional and behavioural indicators that may be a sign that a child has experience sexual abuse.

  • Avoiding being alone with or frightened of people or a person they know.
  • Language or sexual behaviour you would not expect them to know.
  • Having nightmares or bed-wetting.
  • Sudden mood changes and/or frequent crying.
  • Becoming withdrawn, quiet, emotionally flat and disinterested and isolated.
  • Becoming hyperactive and/or aggressive.
  • School problems – poor attendance and/or poor school work.
  • Alcohol or drug misuse.
  • Self-harm.
  • Changes in eating habits or developing an eating problem.
  • Bruises.
  • Bleeding, discharge, pains or soreness in their genital or anal area.
  • Sexually transmitted infections.
  • Pregnancy

See NHS: Spotting signs of child sexual abuse for further information and guidance

Reporting abuse you experienced as a child

Non-recent Child Sexual Abuse leaflet – NHS

The Truth Project: The Truth Project is giving people who experienced sexual abuse as children the chance to be heard, their input will help make meaningful recommendations to help prevent sexual abuse in the future. For more information please read ‘it’s time to be heard’ leaflet

Further Resources and guidance

The Centre of Expertise in Child Sexual Abuse have issued a film series to support professionals in tackling child sexual abuse. The series distils key information from the centre's resources quickly and accessibly for professionals in 12 short films. These resources aim to give professionals the knowledge to identify concerns of child sexual abuse and the confidence to respond to it, not just with the child, but with the whole family. 

For policies, guidance and further resources relating to child sexual abuse and exploitation, including a Research in Practice Child Sexual Abuse Practice Tool please see the Resource Hub.