Sexual Abuse

The impact of being sexually abused can be lifelong, so it's important that the right help is provided to individuals as soon as we become aware.

Of the 5440 victims and survivors of child sexual abuse that contributed to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) Truth Project, 2021:

  • 88% reported it had impacted on their mental health.
  • 54% reported it had affected their relationships, particularly around trust and intimacy.
  • 42% reported that it had impacted on their schooling or employment.

Other research, including that collated by the government’s ‘Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy’, 2021, suggests that at a minimum, 15% of girls (3 in 20) and 5% (1 in 20) of boys experience some form of child sexual abuse.

Research has identified that professionals’ confidence in dealing with cases of sexual abuse is lower than when dealing with other forms of abuse, so it’s 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. Some of the worst examples of this include live streaming the sexual abuse of children – including babies and infants –for money, sometimes with the abuse being directed by the paying perpetrator. You should ensure your understanding of online safety is also developed.

It’s important that, as professionals, we can identify and respond to concerns of sexual abuse. Although this page provides brief information, it’s important that you also seek further advice.

Research by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse indicates that the average time for victims and survivors to disclose their abuse is 26 years.

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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. Sexual abuse can take place online; technology can be used to facilitate offline abuse (see our resource page on Online safety and cybercrime) and also encompasses Child Sexual Exploitation.

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/child on child abuse). Abuse can also be committed by adults who are in a position of trust or professionally employed. It’s important to report all concerns – including low level concerns.

The impact of coronavirus…

The NSPCC reported a threefold increase in Childline counselling sessions about child sexual abuse within the family between March and May 2020. They also reported that, between April and August 2020, they saw an 11% increase in Childline counselling sessions about online sexual abuse, as well as a 60% increase in contacts from adults concerned about children experiencing online sexual abuse. Between periods in Spring and Autumn 2020, The Lucy Faithfull Foundation saw an increase in use of their preventative resources for child sexual abuse, which support those with concerns about their own or another’s behaviour – the average number of weekly users of their offender-focused website increased by 128%.

Who is at risk?

Any child can be at risk from sexual abuse, and as mentioned earlier, a verbal disclosure may not always be forthcoming – this may be for a number of reasons. The lack of verbal disclosure should not stop you considering the possibility of sexual abuse. Some groups at increased risk include very young children, 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 be at greater risk as the perpetrator may believe they will not have the capacity to communicate.

Physical indicators

These include:

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

Behavioural indicators

These include:

  • having sexual knowledge beyond what would be expected for the age/stage of development;
  • showing inappropriate sexual behaviour or language for their age/stage of development;
  • being sexually active at a very young age;
  • spending increased amounts of time online and/or being increasingly secretive or agitated about privacy;
  • 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 sometimes differ in their responses to sexual abuse. Girls may internalise the issues and blame themselves – this may also be reinforced by the perpetrator during the grooming process. Boys may externalise their responses and look for someone to blame and may develop an aggressive, hostile or abusive style of relating to others. However, the opposites may also happen.

Children can struggle to report 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, 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 – in an age appropriate way, help children/young people to think about the issues and attitudes behind sexual abuse particularly in relation to consent, gender and other equality issues.

Ensure young people know the risks – explain about privacy, safe touch, and how to recognise sexual abuse in an age appropriate way.

Check young people have safe relationships – in their family, with other children/young people and with your staff. Create the environment where it is okay 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 abuse as a possibility.

Take action – and keep taking action until you know children and young people are safe.


  • Signs and indicators template

    This template had been designed by the CSA Centre to help professionals identify and respond to concerns about child sexual abuse. Research shows that children find it very difficult to speak about sexual abuse but may show emotional, behavioural or physical signs of abuse. The template helps professionals gather these wider signs of sexual abuse to build a complete picture of their concerns.

  • Childline – Healthy and unhealthy relationships

    Childline has produced advice and guidance for young people about what makes a healthy and unhealthy relationship. It includes tips on how to recognise and how to end an unhealthy relationship.

  • Preventing the sexual abuse of disabled children

    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 podcast discusses an NSPCC report that worked with a group of parents to find out their views.

  • Stop Abuse Together

    This government website provides further advice and support in relation to child sexual abuse.

  • 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

  • Sexual Abuse – Early Years considerations

    This page sets out specific considerations for early years settings in relation to sexual abuse.

  • Childline – Report Remove tool

    Childline’s Report Remove tool works with the Internet Watch Foundation to try to remove nudes or semi-nudes of children and young people from the internet. You can also listen to this podcast to learn more about why a tool like Report Remove is needed, how the tool works, and how you can signpost young people to the tool as part of your response to incidents of sharing nudes.

  • Sexual abuse learning programme

    This online learning programme from Parents Protect has been developed for parents, carers and professionals. The programme aims to provide information about the risks, recognising the signs and where to go to for help if you need to talk to someone about sexual abuse and sexual exploitation.

  • A safe space for young people worried about sexual behaviour

    If you know a young person who is worried about harmful sexual behaviour, signpost them to this web page from Shore. Part of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, Shore provides anonymous advice and support when young people are worried about their (or someone else’s) sexual thoughts, feelings or actions and to help them learn more about living safely both online and offline.

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