Updated: Aug 1
In October 2022, The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published a damning report about the scale and impact of child sexual abuse (CSA) in the UK. As a result of a seven year investigation, it concluded that the UK is suffering a deeply disturbing ‘epidemic’ of CSA with devastating impacts for child victims and adult survivors.
According to NSPCC, child sexual abuse (CSA) can be defined as a child being forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities. This may involve physical contact, but it’s important to note that some sexual abuse occurs without any contact at all. It’s happening both online and offline in all corners of the UK.
The Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse
It is incredibly difficult to get an accurate picture of just how prevalent CSA is in the UK. This is partly because children and young people may not always understand that they are a victim of sexual abuse. This is especially true if they have been groomed by someone they believe they can trust.
Even when young people do realise they’re experiencing abuse, they are often too afraid or ashamed to speak out. This means that, sadly, there are many hidden victims of CSA, as well as many abusers who are not detected or prosecuted.
Yet, we do know that over a third of all police-recorded sexual offences are against children. We also know that approximately 40% of all survivors contacting Rape Crisis centres in England and Wales are adult survivors of child sexual abuse.
Most agencies acknowledge a huge discrepancy between the available data and reality of the prevalence of CSA. Whilst 89,000 child sexual abuse offences were recorded by police in England and Wales in 2020, the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse estimates that at least 15% of girls and 5% of boys are sexually abused by the time they reach the age of 16.
Who Are the Victims?
The reality is, any child or young person is a potential victim of sexual abuse. However, some groups of children are even more vulnerable to this type of exploitation.
Firstly, children with physical, learning or intellectual disabilities are at least three times more likely to be sexually abused. Perpetrators may target these victims because they believe they will be less likely - or able - to report sexual abuse.
Also, children that are socially isolated or withdrawn are also specifically targeted by perpetrators. A lack of peers or friends their own age makes them especially perceptive to grooming and less likely to share their experiences with others
To exploit vulnerability, offenders may also specifically target children who have already endured emotional trauma - such as the loss of a parent or other forms of abuse in the home.
Children who have been victims of prior sexual abuse are at a higher risk of being abused again. This is known as revictimisation, and manifests when a child survivor lacks the support network and tools to cope with trauma, becoming more vulnerable to a recurrence of sexual abuse, whether in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood
Who Are the Abusers?
There is no single profile for a child sex offender. In fact, CSA is commited by men, women, teenagers and sometimes other children from all corners of society and from a range of backgrounds.
However, we do know that around 96% of people who sexually abuse children are male. We also know that, for the the vast majority of children who experience sexual abuse, the abuse is perpetrated by someone they know. This could be a family member, care-giver, a family friend or someone who works with children in a professional or volunteer capacity.
Often, perpetrators of child sexual abuse make strategic, carefully planned efforts to create opportunities to sexually abuse children. They may look for weak spots in a family or organisation that allows them to gain unsupervised access to young people, or they will groom a child - and sometimes their family or care-givers - in order to win their trust.
Increasingly, abusers are using the internet to commit online sexual abuse. Hiding behind a username, avatar or encrypted chat app, perpetrators infiltrate online spaces popular with young people in order to groom and sometimes exploit them. A report released in 2022 found that children were being ‘targeted, approached, groomed and abused criminals on an industrial scale’, and that the preceding year was the worst on record for online CSA.
On a larger scale, organised exploitation and trafficking is where children are abused by multiple adults as part of a network. The last decade has seen a string of horrifying sex abuse rings revealed, such as the Rotherham abuse scandal where at least 1,400 children were targeted by grooming gangs.
In recent years, other high profile cases have highlighted how abusers can hide in plain sight. Operation Yewtree revealed that well-known celebrities and TV personalities, including Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris, had committed and concealed CSA at the height of their fame.
The Impact of Child Sexual Abuse
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found that the devastation and harm caused by sexual abuse cannot be overstated, and that the impact of child sexual abuse is often lifelong.
Prof Alexis Jay, the chair of the inquiry, stated that ‘the sexual abuse of children is an epidemic that leaves tens of thousands of victims in its poisonous wake and some will never recover.’
Experiencing sexual abuse can have a long-lasting damaging impact on a child’s mental and physical health and development. The trauma of CSA, as well as the complex feelings of shame and betrayal that surround it, can cause mental health problems such as PTSD, anxiety and depression. The risk of CSA victims and survivors attempting suicide can be as much as six times greater than the general population.
Research also suggests that CSA is linked to externalising behaviours that persist into adulthood. These often manifest as coping mechanisms to deal with the distress of the abuse, and can include substance misuse, criminal offending and ‘risky’ sexual behaviours. CSA may also impact how victims and survivors view and form relationships in their adult lives, especially intimate ones.
Finally, children and young people who have been sexually abused are vulnerable to revictimisation and further abuse. One study found that Women who experienced CSA were twice as likely to report adult sexual victimisation as women who did not experience CSA, and for men the likelihood was sixfold if they had experienced sexual abuse as a child.
It’s important to remember that, although the impact of CSA can be devastating, with support many survivors go on to live happy, successful lives. Below, we’ve compiled a list of resources that survivors, children, and their carers can turn to for help and advice.
Where Can People Get Help and Support?
If you - or someone else you care about - has experienced CSA, or if you’re concerned about the young people in your life, there is a wealth of fantastic organisations and resources you can turn to for support. These include:
NSPCC Pants - Talking PANTS is a simple way to talk to children as young as four about the underwear rule and encourage them to speak out if someone touches them inappropriately.
NSPCC Helpline - if you’re worried about a child, even if you’re unsure, you can speak to someone at the NSPCC helpline for advice on what to do next. It’s free and you don’t have to say who you are.
Stop it Now! - Stop it Now! Is a child protection charity working to prevent child sexual abuse. As well as having lots of helpful resources on their website, they also have a confidential helpline, live chat and secure messaging service for anyone with concerns about child sexual abuse.
Mosac - Mosac provides supportive services in a safe and non-judgemental environment for parents and carers whose children have been sexually abused by someone else.
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy - provides a list of counsellors, psychotherapists and professional bodies offering therapy.