Sexual abuse

The impact of being sexually abused can be lifelong, with estimates suggesting that child sexual abuse cost £3.2bn in the UK in 2012 (in terms of service provision to help survivors through their experiences).

1 in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused

1 in 3 children who were sexually abused by an adult did not tell anyone

Source: Radford, L. et al. (2011) as cited on the NSPCC website

Research has identified that professional’s confidence in dealing with cases of sexual abuse is lower than when dealing with other forms of abuse, so it is important that you get help and support as needed.  The reach of offenders has increased significantly with the internet: harm can be inflicted from a distance and with relative anonymity. Ensure questions on internet safety are considered.

It is important that as professionals we are able to identify and respond to concerns of sexual abuse.  Although this page provides brief information it is important that you seek appropriate advice.

Definition of 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.”

Keeping Children Safe in Education

Quotation marks

Sexual abuse may involve physical contact (for example penetration and oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing.

It may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet).

Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children (see our resource page on peer on peer abuse).

Who is at risk?

Any child can be at risk from sexual abuse, and as the statistics at the top of the page show, a disclosure may not always be forthcoming – this may be for a number of reasons.  The lack of disclosure should not stop you considering the possibility of sexual abuse.  Some groups at increased risk include children with SEND, children in care and children experiencing other forms of abuse.

Identifying sexual abuse in children who do not have the language skills or who have learning difficulties is particularly challenging and they may also be at greater risk as the perpetrator may believe they will not have the capacity to speak out.

Physical indicators

Physical Indicators

  • soreness of the genital area
  • soiling or wetting bed or clothes
  • discharge
  • sexually transmitted infections
  • recurrent abdominal pains
  • eating disorders
  • pregnancy

Behavioural indicators

  • having sexual knowledge beyond what would be expected for the age
  • showing inappropriate sexual behaviour for the age
  • being sexually active at a very young age
  • sexualised language
  • risky sexual behaviour in adolescents
  • avoiding being alone with particular people
  • showing fear of individuals
  • depression
  • self-harm
  • lack of self esteem

Boys and girls may differ in their responses to sexual abuse. Girls often internalise the issues and blame themselves – this may also be reinforced by the perpetrator during the grooming process. Boys are more likely to externalise their responses and look for someone to blame and may develop an aggressive, hostile or abusive style of relating to others.

Children will struggle to tell of the abuse; they may have been told they will not be believed or threatened by the perpetrator as part of the grooming process or that they are to blame for the situation.

Often sexual abuse is recognised by chance when someone notices either some physical signs or either a change in behaviour, or a pattern of behaviour which leads them to suspect sexual abuse is present. Remember, children cannot consent to their own abuse.

The effects of sexual abuse in childhood are long lasting and impact on adolescence and the ability of the individual to form and keep relationships in later life.

What you can do

Create an environment based on equality and informed choice – help young people think about the issues and attitudes behind sexual abuse particularly in relation to gender and other equality issues.

Ensure young people know the risks – talk about sexual abuse in an age appropriate way.

Check young people have safe relationships – in their family, with their peers and with your staff. Create the environment where it is OK to talk, even about the most difficult things.

Spot the signs and know what to do – use the checklists above, your safeguarding procedures and be confident to raise sexual as a possibility.

Take action – and keep taking action until you know they are safe.


  • Childline – healthy & unhealthy relationships

    Advice & guidance for young people on what makes a healthy and unhealthy relationship, together with tips on how to recognise this and make decisions to end an unhealthy relationship.

  • Protecting disabled children from sexual abuse

    Children and young people who have disabilities are at an increased risk of being abused compared with their non-disabled peers (Jones et al, 2012). Seeking the views and expertise of parents and carers is a vital part of understanding what we need to do to help keep disabled children safe from sexual abuse. This report worked with a group of parents to elicit their views.

  • Safeguarding Insight – Child Sexual Abuse

    Our aim is to provide you with a broader understanding of a specific topic through a researched and referenced article that contributes towards your professional development and ensures that you can support your staff accordingly – this article relates to child sexual abuse

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  • Training resources for DSLs to use in team meetings
  • Reference documents for additional information
  • Handout for school staff summarising sexual abuse
  • Quiz to test staff understanding
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