Protecting children from sexual abuse

Last updated: 04 Sep 2018
Introduction

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is when a child is forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities (All Wales Child Protection Review Group, 2008; Department for Education, 2018; Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, 2017; Scottish Government, 2014). This may involve physical contact or non-contact activities and can happen online or offline.

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, touch someone else's genitals or masturbate
  • 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:

  • flashing at a child
  • 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
  • persuading a child to make, view or distribute child abuse images (such as performing sexual acts over the internet, sexting or showing pornography to a child)
  • 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 (even if abuse did not take place)
  • sexually exploiting a child for money, power or status (child sexual exploitation).

> Find out more about child sexual exploitation

Impact

Impact of child sexual abuse

Experiencing sexual abuse can have a long-lasting negative impact on a child’s wellbeing that can reach into adulthood. Effects include:

  • mental health problems – such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression
  • risky behaviour – such as substance misuse, risky sexual behaviour, offending
  • relationship problems – for example intimacy issues, having unstable relationships
  • revictimisation – being vulnerable to further sexual abuse or other types of abuse (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, 2017).

Impact of online sexual abuse

Research suggests that online child sexual abuse can have as much of an impact on a child as abuse that only takes place offline and can lead to the same psychological difficulties (Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017).

> Find out more about online abuse

Recognising

Recognising child sexual abuse

Signs and indicators

Not all children will realise they are being sexually abused, particularly if they have been groomed. But there may be physical, behavioural and emotional signs that indicate a child has experienced sexual abuse.

Physical indicators include:

  • bruising
  • bleeding
  • discharge
  • pain or soreness in the genital or anal area
  • sexually transmitted infections (Lindon and Webb, 2016).

Girls who are being sexually abused may become pregnant at a young age.

Emotional and behavioural indicators include:

  • being afraid of and/or avoiding a particular person (including a family member or friend)
  • having nightmares or bed-wetting
  • being withdrawn
  • alluding to ‘secrets’
  • self-harming
  • running away from home
  • developing eating problems
  • displaying sexualised behaviour or having sexual knowledge that’s inappropriate for their stage of development
  • misusing drugs or alcohol (Lindon and Webb, 2016).

Our Childline service offers support and advice to children and young people who have been sexually abused. One young person told us about how it affected them:

"I’m feeling quite depressed and am so numb that I’ve started cutting myself. I was sexually abused by my dad for many years and although it’s stopped now I have really nasty dreams about being abused, and wake up in the night with flashbacks."

Gender unknown, secondary school age (NSPCC, 2016a)

Risk and vulnerability factors

Any child or young person could potentially experience sexual abuse – but some groups of children may be more at risk:

  • disabled children (Jones et al, 2012)
  • girls aged between 15 and 17 years (Radford et al, 2011)
  • children who have experienced other forms of abuse (Finkelhor, Ormrod, and Turner, 2007).

> Find out more about safeguarding D/deaf and disabled children

Who sexually abuses children?

Child sexual abuse is committed by men, women, teenagers and other children. Offenders come from all parts of society and all backgrounds. They often seem ‘normal’ to others and in many cases their friends, relatives and co-workers find it hard to believe that they have abused a child.

Relationship between the child and their abuser

Many children who have experienced sexual abuse were abused by someone they know. This may be:

  • a member of their family
  • a friend
  • an adult who has sought out and targeted them as a potential victim.

Perpetrators of child sexual abuse may look for weak spots in a family, community or organisation so they can gain unsupervised access to children. They often plan the abuse in advance and start grooming the child, the child’s family and the child’s environment. The victim may believe they have a sincere or loving relationship with their abuser and their family and friends may trust and respect the abuser.

Research suggests that child sexual abuse can be carried out in different ways.

  • Inappropriate relationships where an older abuser has some kind of power over the child. This could be physical, emotional or financial.
  • The “boyfriend” model involves the abuser grooming the child by exchanging gifts and other normal dating activities. The child may think they are in a conventional relationship.
  • Organised exploitation and trafficking where children are abused by more than one adult as part of a network. The child may be forced or manipulated into taking part in sexual acts with other people. Organised exploitation may involve the movement of victims into and across the country, as well as exchanging images of child abuse (Dagon, 2012; Pemberton, 2011).

> Find out more about child sexual exploitation

> Find out more about child trafficking and modern slavery

Responding

Responding to child sexual abuse

Reporting

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice. 
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in. 
  • Contact the police.

Services will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate either through statutory involvement or other support. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse

Assessment

Most sexual abuse isn’t reported, detected or prosecuted. This may be because adults in the child's life do not recognise the signs that they are being abused, the child may not understand what's happening to them is abuse or may be too afraid to speak out.

When assessing a child who has been sexually abused, it’s important to focus on the child’s individual needs.

  • Listen to the child’s point of view.
  • Ensure the child knows they are taken seriously and that they will be protected.
  • Include children in making decisions that affect them.
  • Remember that children don’t always respond to direct questions and may not have the words to describe their experience or its impact.
  • Identify the child's support network. Do this with the child where possible.
  • Assess parents’ and carers’ ability to protect the child from further abuse.
  • Identify roles and responsibilities of all professionals involved with the child, and follow agreed procedures to share information about child protection concerns.
Prevention

Preventing child sexual abuse

Creating safer environments

Using a contextual safeguarding approach to prevent child sexual abuse allows adults to think about the places where abuse might happen outside of the home and take action to mitigate potential risks in each location (Firmin, 2017).

Physical environments

Young people are likely to spend time in environments with little or no adult supervision. It’s important to consider the risks posed to young people in these areas. Keep children safe by checking regularly on areas that are infrequently used or left unsupervised, such as quiet corridors or outdoor spaces. Also ensure all areas are well lit.

Online environments

Children can be vulnerable to sexual abuse and inappropriate content in the online world. There are actions parents, carers and organisations can take to keep online spaces safe for children. It's also important children are given the knowledge and skills needed to keep themselves safe online, to build their own resilience.

> Find out more about preventing online abuse 

People who work or volunteer with children

Follow safer recruitment practices to ensure that only suitable adults work with children and that everyone working or volunteering with children has regular child protection training so they know the signs of sexual abuse and how to respond appropriately.

> Find out more about safer recruitment

Empowering children and parents

Children of all ages need support to identify abusive and controlling relationships and to speak out if something is wrong.

It’s also important that parents and carers know how to keep their children safe. They need to know what questions to ask about the people who are working with children and be able to have conversations with their children about difficult topics.

> See our advice for parents and carers on difficult conversations on the NSPCC website

Our Women as Protectors service helps mothers and carers who are in contact with a man who poses a risk of sexual harm to children. This might be a current or ex-partner, someone who will be returning to the family, or another family member who is in contact with the children. The programme provides them with education, emotional support and guidance so they can keep their family safe.

> Find out more about Women as Protectors on the NSPCC website

Talking PANTS

Talking PANTS (the underwear rule) is a simple way to talk to children as young as four about staying safe from sexual abuse.

We’ve created resources for parents, schools and the early years and childcare sector.

> See the PANTS resources for schools and teachers

> Find Talk PANTS resources for parents on the NSPCC website

Talking about healthy relationships

Talking to young people about healthy relationships can help create positive social norms and challenge unhealthy behaviours. We’ve worked with the PSHE Association to create lesson plans for young people aged 10-16 on personal safety and healthy relationships.

> View our Making sense of relationships PSHE resources

AGENDA is a free online toolkit developed with young people, for young people. It supports them in how they can safely and creatively challenge gender inequalities and oppressive gender norms.

> Find out more about AGENDA

Speaking out

It’s vital to build safe and trusting relationships with children so they can speak out about any problems they are experiencing. This involves teaching children what abuse is and how they can get help.

Our Speak out Stay safe service for schools helps children understand abuse in all its forms and know how to protect themselves.

> Find out more about Speak Out Stay Safe

Direct work

Direct work with children who have experienced child sexual abuse

Supporting children who have been sexually abused

When working with children who have experienced sexual abuse, it’s important to:

  • build confidence and trust
  • ask the child what their interests are and build activities around these
  • see the child as an individual – tailor activities to their needs, abilities, likes and dislikes
  • set agreements about how you'll work together so the child knows what to expect
  • make sure the child knows you can help them (without promising more than you can deliver)
  • establish rules about confidentiality. Let the child know that everything they say in sessions is kept private – unless, they or another child is at risk of harm.

> See more tips from our Someone to lean on guide

Watch young people talking about their experiences of moving on after sexual abuse

Working with parents and carers whose child has been sexually abused

Parents react in different ways to the abuse of their child. They may experience denial, anger, guilt and/or depression. They need help to support their child and recover as a family. When working with parents, it’s important to:

  • be positive about the potential for children to recover
  • be clear about parents’ essential role supporting their child now and after therapy ends
  • stress the importance of listening to, taking seriously, supporting and protecting the child
  • help parents understand their child's needs and give advice on the best way to meet them
  • remember that parents may have been groomed too – make it clear that what happened isn’t their fault
  • refer parents on to specialist support if needed.

Our therapeutic services can help children who have been sexually abused move forward.

Letting the Future In (LTFI) is an evidence-based programme helping children who have been sexually abused get back on track. The programme has also been adapted for children age 4-19 with a disability.

We evaluated LTFI and learned that it resulted in positive changes for children, including:

  • improved mood
  • better confidence
  • reduction in guilt and self-blame
  • reduced depression, anxiety and anger
  • improved sleep patterns
  • better understanding of appropriate sexual behaviour (NSPCC, 2016b).

We’re supporting other organisations to deliver Letting the Future In. This includes successfully training social care professionals to deliver therapeutic work.

> Find out more about Letting the Future In and how we can help you deliver in your local area on the NSPCC website

Hear and Now helps children who are displaying signs that they have been sexually abused, but haven’t told anyone about it. It aims to address the behavioural and emotional difficulties they face.

> Find out more about Hear and Now on the NSPCC website

Legislation

Legislation on child sexual abuse

Statutory guidance across the UK highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from all forms of abuse and neglect.

Key legislation

The key legislation relating to child sexual abuse in England and Wales is the Sexual Offences Act 2003

In Northern Ireland it is the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

In Scotland it is the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 and the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005.

Age of consent

The age of consent (the legal age when people can have sex) in the UK is 16 years old. The law is there to protect children from abuse or exploitation, rather than to prosecute under-16s who participate in mutually consenting sexual activity.

The law says anyone under the age of 13 can never legally give consent.

Protecting children from sexual abuse

In all countries of the UK it is illegal to:

  • have sexual activity with a child
  • cause or incite a child to engage in sexual activity
  • engage in sexual activity in the presence of a child
  • cause a child to watch a sexual act
  • arrange or facilitate a child sex offence
  • meet a child following sexual grooming
  • have sexual communication with a child
  • have sexual activity with a child family member
  • incite a child family member to engage in sexual activity
  • take, make or have indecent photographs of children
  • sexually exploit (including paying for or arranging sexual services of a child).

> Find out more about child sexual exploitation

Sexual communication with a child

In England and Wales, part 67 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 makes it a criminal offence to engage in sexual communication with a child. This includes communication that relates to sexual activity and communication for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification (for example, grooming for sexual abuse). It closes a previous loophole which means communication couldn’t be classified as ‘grooming’ until an arrangement to meet had been made.

In Northern Ireland, it is illegal to have sexual communication with a child under section 90 of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015.

In Scotland, sections 24 and 34 of the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 make it illegal to have sexual communication with a child.

Positions of trust

It is illegal for a person in a position of trust (for example teachers or care workers) to engage in sexual activity with anyone under the age of 18 who is in the care of their organisation – even if they are over 16. This includes:

  • sexual activity with a child
  • causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity
  • sexual activity in the presence of a child
  • causing a child to watch a sexual act.

Prosecuting and monitoring sex offenders

Each nation has a legislative framework to protect children from adults who may pose a risk of sexual harm and to deal with adults who have sexually offended against children.

The Home Office provides guidance on the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (Home Office, 2004). Part 1 explains the different sexual offences and their maximum penalties. Part 2 deals with provision for sex offenders and provides guidance for police and practitioners on the notification requirements for registered sex offenders, Sexual Harm Prevention Orders (SHPOs) and Sexual Risk Orders (SROs) (Home Office, 2015).

The Sex Offenders Act 1997 covers the whole of the UK. It sets out a series of monitoring and reporting requirements for sex offenders.

Child sex offender disclosure schemes

Under the Child sex offender disclosure scheme (sometimes known as “Sarah’s Law”), anyone in England and Wales can formally ask the police if someone with access to a child has a record for child sexual offences. Police will reveal details confidentially to the person most able to protect the child (usually parents, carers or guardians) if they think it’s in the child’s interests. The child sex offended disclosure scheme guidance is available from the Home Office (Home Office, 2010).

In Northern Ireland the Child protection disclosure arrangements allow members of the public to ask the police for information about a person’s history of sexual and violent criminal offences. The police will only disclose this information if it’s deemed that the person presents a risk to the child. And they will only disclose the information to the person who has responsibility for the child and/or is best placed to safeguard the child (such as a parent or carer) (Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), 2018).

In Scotland, the Sex offender community disclosure scheme allows parents, carers and guardians of children under 18 years old to ask the police if someone who has contact with their child has a record for sexual offences against children, or other offences that could put that child at risk (Police Scotland, 2018).

Risk assessment and information sharing

In England and Wales, Part 13 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 sets out arrangements for assessing risks posed by sexual or violent offenders, which led to the establishment of Multi agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA). The MAPPA guidance sets out the responsibilities of the police, probation trusts and prison service to ensure the successful management of violent and sexual offenders (Ministry of Justice, 2017).

In Northern Ireland, the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 places a legal requirement on agencies to cooperate and share information to better assess and manage risk posed by sexual or violent offenders. This order led to the establishment of Public protection arrangements (PPANI) (PPANI, 2016) – a non-statutory body designed to help agencies undertake their statutory duties and coordinate their functions to enhance public protection from sexual and violent offenders when they are released from prison into the community.

> Find out more about the PPANI Manual of practice (PDF)

In Scotland, the Management of Offenders etc. (Scotland) Act 2005 sets out arrangements for assessing risks posed by sexual or violent offenders. This led to the establishment of Multi agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA), which sets out the responsibilities of the police, probation trusts and prison service to ensure the successful management of violent and sexual offenders (Scottish Government, 2018).

Preventing unsuitable adults from working with children

In England and Wales, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 provides the framework for the vetting and barring of people seeking to work with children and vulnerable adults.

In Northern Ireland, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 makes provision for checking persons seeking to work with children or vulnerable adults and for barring those considered to be unsuitable for such posts.

In Scotland the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003 sets out measures to prevent unsuitable adults from working with children, while the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007 introduced the offence of employing a barred person in regulated activity.

Other policy and guidance

In England and Wales, the Ending violence against women and girls (VAWG) Strategy 2016-2020 focuses on early intervention and prevention.

The strategy includes an action plan that highlights key areas:

  • preventing violence and abuse
  • preventing online abuse and exploitation
  • provision of services
  • partnership working
  • pursuing perpetrators (Home Office, 2016).

In Northern Ireland, the government has set out its approach to preventing sexual abuse in Stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse in Northern Ireland: a seven year strategy (PDF) (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and Department of Justice, 2016).

The strategy has five strands.

  • Driving change through co-operation and leadership.
  • Prevention and early intervention.
  • Delivering change through responsive services.
  • Support for victims of domestic and/or sexual violence and abuse.
  • Protection and justice.

In Scotland, the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 aims to improve the justice system’s response to abusive behaviour and sexual harm. Under the Act, judges must give special information to guide juries in certain sexual offence trials, to challenge any preconceptions jurors may have about how sexual assaults take place.

Sexual offences committed elsewhere in the UK can now be prosecuted in Scottish courts. It also makes it an offence to make or threaten to make an intimate photograph or film of another person public in order to cause them distress.

References and resources

References and resources on child sexual abuse

All Wales Child Protection Review Group (2008) All Wales child protection procedures.

Dagon, D. (2012) Preventing sexual exploitation. Children and Young People Now, 6-19 March: 36.

Department for Education (DfE) and Home Office (2018) 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) and Home Office.

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2017) Co-operating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS).

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and Department of Justice (2016) Stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse in Northern Ireland: a seven year strategy (PDF). Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS).

Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R.K. and Turner, H.A. (2007) Re-victimization patterns in a national longitudinal sample of children and youth. Child abuse and neglect, 31(5): 479-502.

Firmin, C. (2017) Contextual safeguarding: an overview of the operational, strategic and conceptual framework (PDF). University of Bedfordshire: [Luton].

Hamilton-Giachritsis, C., et al (2017) "Everyone deserves to be happy and safe": a mixed methods study exploring how online and offline child sexual abuse impact young people and how professionals respond to it (PDF). London: NSPCC.

Home Office (2004) Guidance on part 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. London: Home Office.

Home Office (2010) The child sex offender (CSO) disclosure scheme guidance document (PDF). [London]: Home Office.

Home Office (2015) Guidance on part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. London: Home Office.

Home Office (2016) Ending violence against women and girls (VAWG): strategy 2016-2020. London: Home Office.

Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) et al. (2017) The impacts of child sexual abuse: a rapid evidence assessment: summary report (PDF). London: Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

Jones, L. et al. (2012) Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Lancet, 380 (9845): 899-907.

Lindon, J. and Webb, J. (2016) Safeguarding and child protection. 5th ed. London: Hodder Education.

Ministry of Justice (2017) Multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA).

NSPCC (2016a) Getting help: what children tell us about accessing services after sexual abuse. London: NSPCC.

NSPCC (2016b) Letting the Future In: a therapeutic intervention for children affected by sexual abuse and their carers. London: NSPCC.

Pemberton, C. (2011) Disturbing signs. Community Care, 1870: 16-17.

Police Scotland (2018) The Sex Offender Community Disclosure Scheme

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) (2018) Child protection disclosure arrangements

PPANI (Public Protection Arrangements Northern Ireland) (2016) Manual of practice (revised July 2016). [Carrickfergus]: PPANI.

Radford, L. et al. (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC.

Scottish Government (2014) National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF). Edinburgh: The Scottish Government.

Scottish Government (2018) Public protection - multi agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA)

Legislation 

Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016

Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 

Serious Crime Act 2015

Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006

Management of Offenders etc. (Scotland) Act 2005

Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005

Criminal Justice Act 2003

Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003

Sexual Offences Act 2003

The Sex Offenders Act 1997

Childline

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or read about sexual abuse on the Childline website. You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.

Elearning

Our elearning courses can help develop your understanding of how to protect children from abuse:

Related NSPCC resources

Read our learning from case reviews briefings about harmful sexual behaviour, child sexual exploitation and online abuse

> See our research and resources on child sexual abuse

Further reading

For further reading about child sexual abuse, search the NSPCC Library catalogue using the keywords "child sexual abuse" "sexually abused children" "sexually abused adolescents" "sex offenders" "sexually abusive people".

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service.