Spotting signs of child sexual abuse
1 in 20 children in the UK will experience child sexual abuse. Here are the signs to be aware of and what to do if you suspect a child is being sexually abused.
What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse covers a range of illegal sexual activities, including:
- possessing images of child pornography
- forcing a child to strip or masturbate
- engaging in any kind of sexual activity in front of a child, including watching pornography
- taking, downloading, viewing or distributing sexual images of children
- encouraging a child to perform sexual acts in front of a webcam
- not taking measures to protect a child from witnessing sexual activity or images
- inappropriate sexual touching of a child, whether clothed or unclothed
- penetrative sex
Both boys and girls can be victims of sexual abuse, but girls are more likely to be abused.
What are the signs that a child is being sexually abused?
Children often do not talk about sexual abuse because they think it is their fault or they have been convinced by their abuser that it is normal or a "special secret".
Children may also be bribed or threatened by their abuser, or told they will not be believed.
A child who is being sexually abused may care for their abuser and worry about getting them into trouble.
Here are some of the signs you may notice:
- Changes in behaviour – a child may start being aggressive, withdrawn, clingy, have difficulties sleeping, have regular nightmares or start wetting the bed.
- Avoiding the abuser – the child may dislike or seem afraid of a particular person and try to avoid spending time alone with them.
- Sexually inappropriate behaviour – children who have been abused may behave in sexually inappropriate ways or use sexually explicit language.
- Physical problems – the child may develop health problems, including soreness in the genital and anal areas or sexually transmitted infections, or they may become pregnant.
- Problems at school – an abused child may have difficulty concentrating and learning, and their grades may start to drop.
- Giving clues – children may also drop hints and clues that the abuse is happening without revealing it outright.
How do I report child sexual abuse?
It's best not to delay if you suspect a child is being sexually abused.
You can talk directly to the police or your local children's social services and this can be anonymous. You can also get advice or report your concerns anonymously to the NSPCC by phoning its free helpline on 0808 800 5000. Or you can report sexual abuse to the NSPCC via email or online.
If you are a health professional and suspect a child you are caring for is experiencing abuse or is at risk of abuse, you can seek advice from the "named nurse" or "named doctor" in your hospital or care setting.
The NSPCC has more information and advice about child sexual abuse.
Who commits child sexual abuse?
People who sexually abuse children can be adult, adolescent or a child themselves.
Most abusers are male, but females sometimes abuse children too.
Around a third of child sexual abuse is carried out by other, usually older, children or young people.
9 out of 10 children know or are related to their abuser. Child sex abuse often happens either in the child's home or the abuser's home.
Sexual abuse can sometimes happen outside the home, for example, at leisure and sports clubs.
You may notice that an abuser gives a child special treatment, offering them gifts, treats and outings. They may seek out opportunities to be alone with the child.
Which children are at risk of child sexual abuse?
Children are more vulnerable to sexual abuse if they have already experienced abuse of some kind. Children who live in families where there is child neglect, for example, are more at risk.
Disabled children are 3 times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse, especially if they have difficulties with speech or language.
Children can also be at risk when using the internet. Social media, chat rooms and web forums are all used by child sex abusers to groom potential victims.
Find out more about how to talk to your child about their feelings.
What are the effects of child sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse can cause serious physical and emotional harm to children both in the short term and the long term.
In the short term, children may suffer health issues, such as sexually transmitted infections, physical injuries and unwanted pregnancies.
In the long term, people who have been sexually abused are more likely to suffer with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are also more likely to self-harm, become involved in criminal behaviour, misuse drugs and alcohol, and to commit suicide as young adults.
Child sexual exploitation
Children who have been sexually abused are also at risk of sexual exploitation, in which children are sometimes passed around a network of abusers for sexual purposes.
Find out more about how to spot child sexual exploitation.
Page last reviewed: 3 December 2019
Next review due: 3 December 2022