What is child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse includes touching and non-touching activity. Some examples of touching activity include:

  • touching a child’s genitals or private parts for sexual pleasure
  • making a child touch someone else’s genitals, play sexual games or have sex putting objects or body parts (like fingers, tongue or penis) inside the vagina, in the mouth or in the anus of a child for sexual pleasure

Some examples of non-touching activity include:

  • showing pornography to a child
  • deliberately exposing an adult’s genitals to a child
  • photographing a child in sexual poses
  • encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts
  • inappropriately watching a child undress or use the bathroom

As well as the activities described above, there is also the serious and growing problem of people making and downloading sexual images of children on the internet (also known as child pornography). To view child abuse images is to participate in the abuse of a child. Those who do so may also be abusing children they know. People who look at this material need help to prevent their behaviour from becoming even more serious.

You can learn more about child sexual abuse at Parents Protect! and by watching the online learning programme.

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What is the impact of child sexual abuse?

The impact of sexual abuse varies from child to child. For many, the damage is enormous, with the impact still being felt into adulthood, affecting all aspects of their life.

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What help is there for victims?

MOSAC (Mothers of Sexually Abused Children) is a voluntary organisation supporting all non-abusing parents and carers whose children have been sexually abused. They provide advocacy, advice and information, befriending, counselling, play therapy and support groups following alleged child sexual abuse. Visit MOSAC for more information or call their national helpline on 0800 980 1958.

NAPAC is the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. It is a registered charity providing support and information for people abused in childhood.

SURVIVORS UK provides information, support and counselling for men who have been raped or sexually abused. Thousands of men contact them each year. Visit Survivors UK or call their national helpline on 0845 1221201. Helpline hours: 7pm-9.30pm Monday and Tuesday and 12pm-2.30pm on Thursdays

These organisations are able to assist those looking for help, support or information.

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How widespread is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse is largely a hidden crime, so it is difficult to accurately estimate the number of people who are sexually abused at some time during their childhood. It is estimated that one in six children experience sexual abuse before the age of 16*, out of which more than 80% knows their abusers and even has an emotional closeness to them, making it difficult to tell.

Most survivors suffer the effects of child sexual abuse in silence and never tell anyone about it until much later, if at all. Sadly, the impact may strike any time and it is key that help is available when that moment occurs. More information about support can be found here.

* Child Maltreatment in the UK, NSPCC 2000

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What is the biggest myth around child sexual abuse

Very often the TV, radio and newspaper cover stories about children who are abused, abducted and even murdered, usually by strangers but it is important to know that these are not typical crimes. Sexual abusers are more likely to be people we know, and could well be people we care about; after all more than 8 out of 10 children who are sexually abused know their abuser. They are family members or friends, neighbours or babysitters – many hold responsible positions in society. Some will seek out employment which brings them into contact with children, some will hold positions of trust which can help to convince other adults that they are beyond reproach, making it hard for adults to raise their concerns.

We work hard to raise awareness of the facts around child sexual abuse. Click here to learn more about how we do that.

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Why do people commit sexual abuse?

It is not easy to understand how seemingly ordinary people can do such things to children. Some people who sexually abuse children recognise that it is wrong and are deeply unhappy about what they are doing. Others believe their behaviour is OK and that what they do shows their love for children. Some, but not all, have been abused themselves; others come from violent or unhappy family backgrounds.

Knowing why people sexually abuse children does not excuse their behaviour, but it may help us understand what is happening. If abusers face the reality of what they are doing and come forward, or if someone reports them, effective treatment programmes are available. These help people understand and control their behaviour, reducing risk to children and building a safer society. Knowing about the possibility of treatment for abusers helps children and families too.

Learn more about signs an abuser might display.

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How do people commit child sexual abuse?

By getting close to children:
People who want to abuse children often build a relationship with the child and the caring adults who want to protect them. Many are good at making ‘friends’ with children and those who are close to them. Some may befriend parents who are facing difficulties, sometimes on their own. They may offer to baby-sit or offer support with childcare and other responsibilities. Some seek trusted positions in the community which put them in contact with children, such as childcare, schools, children’s groups and sports teams. Some find places such as arcades, playgrounds, parks, swimming baths and around schools where they can get to know children.

By silencing children:
People who sexually abuse children may offer them gifts or treats, and sometimes combine these with threats about what will happen if the child says ‘no’ or tells someone. They may make the child afraid of being hurt physically, but more usually the threat is about what may happen if they tell, for example, the family breaking up or father going to prison. In order to keep the abuse secret the abuser will often play on the child’s fear, embarrassment or guilt about what is happening, perhaps convincing them that no one will believe them. Sometimes the abuser will make the child believe that he or she enjoyed it and wanted it to happen. There may be other reasons why a child stays silent and doesn’t tell. Very young or disabled children may lack the words or means of communication to let people know what is going on. But they may show certain warning signs, including outbursts of anger, changes in eating habits or becoming unusually secretive.

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Who sexually abuses children?

Sexual abusers are likely to be people we know, and could well be people we care about; after all more than 8 out of 10 children who are sexually abused know their abuser. Abusers may be family members or friends, neighbours or babysitters – many hold responsible positions in society. Some people who abuse children have adult sexual relationships and are not solely, or even mainly, sexually interested in children. Abusers come from all classes, ethnic and religious backgrounds and may be heterosexual or homosexual. Most abusers are men, but some are women.

You can’t pick out an abuser in a crowd, but there are signs that might mean an adult is using their relationship with a child for sexual reasons.

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Why don’t children tell?

Three quarters of children who are abused do not tell anyone about it and many keep their secret all their lives. In 2000 a study* was conducted by the NSPCC and below are some of the reasons why children were unable to tell:

“it was nobody else’s business”
“didn’t think it was serious or wrong”
“didn’t want parents to find out”
“didn’t want friends to find out”
“didn’t want the authorities to find out”
“was frightened”
“didn’t think would be believed”
“had been threatened by abuser”

But in case a child tells, it is vital that parents and carers know how to respond. Click here to learn more about what to do if a child tells you about abuse.

Child Maltreatment in the UK, NSPCC 2000

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What should I do if I know a child is / has been abused?

It is very disturbing to suspect someone we know of sexually abusing a child, especially if the person is a friend or a member of the family. It is so much easier to dismiss such thoughts and put them down to imagination. But it is better to talk over the situation with someone than to discover later that we were right to be worried. And remember, we are not alone.

Thousands of people every year discover that someone in their family or circle of friends has abused a child. Children who are abused and their families need professional help to recover from their experience. Action can lead to abuse being prevented, and children who are being abused receiving protection and help to recover. It can also lead to the abuser getting effective treatment to stop abusing and becoming a safer member of our community. If the abuser is someone close to us, we need to get support for ourselves too. Anyone concerned about the sexual behaviour of a loved one can call our confidential and anonymous Stop It Now! helpline on 0808 1000 900.

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Do children sexually abuse other children?

We are becoming increasingly aware of the risk of sexual abuse that some adults present to our children and there is growing understanding that this risk lies mostly within families and communities. But very few people realise that other children can sometimes present a risk.

A third of those who have sexually abused a child are themselves under the age of 18.
Many children are abused by other children or young people, often older than themselves. Unless the problem is recognised and help provided, a young person who abuses other children may continue abusing as an adult.

This is an especially difficult issue to deal with, partly because it is hard for us to think of children doing such things, but also because it is not always easy to tell the difference between normal sexual exploration and abusive behaviour. Children, particularly in the younger age groups, may engage in such behaviour with no knowledge that it is wrong or abusive. For this reason, it may be more accurate to talk about sexually harmful behaviour rather than abuse.

For more information visit our pages about abuse among children.

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Why do some children sexually abuse other children?

The reasons why children sexually harm others are complicated and not always obvious. Some of them have been emotionally, sexually or physically abused themselves, while others may have witnessed physical or emotional violence at home. For some children it may be a passing phase, but the harm they cause to other children can be serious and some will go on to abuse children into adulthood if they do not receive help. For this reason it is vital to seek advice and help as soon as possible.

You can also find out more at Parents Protect!

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What stops us seeing abuse?

Many people have experienced someone close to them abusing a child. When something is so difficult to think about, it is only human to find ways of denying it to ourselves. One of the common thoughts that parents in this situation have is; ‘My child would have told me if they were being abused and they haven’t – so it can’t be happening’.

Other things people have said to themselves to deny what is happening include:
“He was the perfect father; he was involved with the children, he played with them and when our daughter was ill he looked after her so well.”
“I thought they were just fooling around. He couldn’t be abusing anyone at 14.”
“My brother would never do that to a child. He has a wife and children.”
“My friend has had a longstanding relationship with a woman. So how can he be interested in boys?”
“She was their mother: how could she be abusing them?”
“He told me about his past right from the start. He wouldn’t have done that if he hadn’t changed and I’d know if he’d done it again.”

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What are the signs that a child is being abused?

Children often show us rather than tell us that something is upsetting them. There may be many reasons for changes in their behaviour, but if we notice a combination of worrying signs it may be time to call for help or advice.

What to watch out for in children:

  • Acting out in an inappropriate sexual way with toys or objects.
  • Nightmares, sleeping problems.
  • Becoming withdrawn or very clingy.
  • Personality changes, seeming insecure.
  • Regressing to younger behaviours, e.g. bedwetting.
  • Unaccountable fear of particular places or people.
  • Outburst of anger.
  • Changes in eating habits.
  • Physical signs, such as, unexplained soreness or bruises around genitals, sexually-transmitted diseases.
  • Becoming secretive.

For more information visit our warning signs pages.

What are the signs that an adult may be using their relationship with a child for sexual reasons?

Signs that an adult is using their relationship with a child for sexual reasons may not be obvious. We may feel uncomfortable about the way they play with the child, or seem always to be favouring them and creating reasons for them to be alone. There may be cause for concern about the behaviour of an adult or young person if they:

  • Refuse to allow a child sufficient privacy or to make their own decisions on personal matters.
  • Insist on physical affection such as kissing, hugging or wrestling even when the child clearly does not want it.
  • Are overly interested in the sexual development of a child or teenager.
  • Insist on time alone with a child with no interruptions.
  • Spend most of their spare time with children and have little interest in spending time with people their own age.
  • Regularly offer to baby-sit children for free or take children on overnight outings alone.
  • Buy children expensive gifts or give them money for no apparent reason.
  • Frequently walk in on children/teenagers in the bathroom.
  • Treat a particular child as a favourite, making them feel ‘special’ compared with others in the family.
  • Pick on a particular child.

For more information visit pages will look at signs an abuser might display.

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How are children ‘groomed’?

Grooming is a word used to describe how people who want to sexually harm children and young people get close to them, and often their families, and gain their trust. They do this in all kinds of places – in the home or local neighbourhood, the child’s school, youth and sports club, the local church and the workplace.

Grooming may also occur online by people forming relationships with children and pretending to be their friend. They do this by finding out information about their potential victim and trying to establish the likelihood of the child telling. They try to find out as much as they can about the child’s family and social networks and, if they think it is ‘safe enough’, will then try to isolate their victim and may use flattery and promises of gifts, or threats and intimidation in order to achieve some control.

It is easy for ‘groomers’ to find child victims online. They generally use chat rooms which are focussed around young people’s interests. They often pretend to be younger and may even change their gender. Many give a false physical description of themselves which may bear no resemblance to their real appearance – some send pictures of other people, pretending that it is them. Groomers may also seek out potential victims by looking through personal websites such as social networking sites.

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Are adults ‘groomed’?

Child sex offenders will often seek out adults and groom them in order to get access to their children. By “bonding” with adults in this way the sex offender can create a relationship either built on trust or dependency and gain access to the children through it.

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How do people sexually abuse and exploit children on the internet?

When communicating via the internet, young people tend to become less wary and talk about things far more openly than they might when communicating face to face. Both male and female adults and some young people may use the internet to harm children. Some do this by looking at, taking and/or distributing photographs and video images on the internet of children naked, in sexual poses and/or being sexually abused.

Click here for information about keeping children safe online.

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How is the grooming of children different on the internet?

In many circumstances, grooming online is faster and anonymous and results in children trusting an online ‘friend’ more quickly than someone they had just met ‘face to face’. Those intent on sexually harming children can easily access information about them and they are able to hide their true identity, age and gender. People who groom children may not be restricted by time or accessibility to a child as they would in the ‘real world’.

Click here for more information about grooming on the internet.

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Who monitors sex offenders in the community?

By law, the police service, the prison service and the probation service have to work together, sharing information to manage known offenders. They are supported by various other agencies, including Local Safeguarding Children Boards and the NHS, who are also required to provide information about these offenders.


  • Identify who may pose a risk of harm
  • Share relevant information about them
  • Assess the nature and extent of that risk
  • Manage that risk effectively, protecting victims and reducing further harm

As part of managing the individual’s risk, it may be considered necessary for information about people who pose a risk to children can be given to parents and guardians in certain police service areas under the government’s child sex offenders disclosure scheme (also known as Sarah’s Law). Information is not disclosed to the public unless they are in a position to better monitor and manage the offender or unless they are potentially at risk.

Registered sexual offenders are required to notify the police of their name, address and other personal details. The length of time an offender is required to register with police, can be any period between 12 months and life, depending on the age of the offender, the age of the victim and the nature of the offence and the sentence they receive.

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Is viewing sexual images of children, child sexual abuse?

To view child abuse images is to participate in the abuse of a child. Those who do so may also be abusing children they know. Making, downloading or viewing sexual images of children on the Internet is a crime. People who look at this material need help to prevent their behaviour from becoming even more serious. Those seeking help with their online sexual behaviour can take part in our online self-help programme or call our confidential and anonymous Stop It Now! helpline on 0808 1000 900.

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Does treatment of abusers really work?

Yes. Most sex offenders are not monsters, however abhorrent their behaviour, and few are the predatory violent offenders portrayed in the media. Adults who abuse children are responsible for their behaviour and can choose to stop. Experts agree that with successful completion of specialised treatment, people who sexually abuse children can learn how to control their actions and become part of the solution of keeping children safe.

Child sexual abuse is a crime and must be dealt with first through the child protection and criminal justice systems. But, to prevent further abuse, it’s in our best interest as a society to provide the best treatment available to every abuser who wants to change. It’s also in our best interests to build a system that really supports offenders in their recovery so that they have the chance to contribute positively to society. When people who abuse children are firmly supported and held accountable for their actions, they are more likely to live productive, abuse-free lives.

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What happens if I report my suspicions?

If a child is in immediate danger call 999.

Every case is different so it is difficult to say what might happen if you report your suspicions to the authorities. There are various courses of action you can take including contacting the police or Children’s Social Services. These agencies have joint working arrangements for responding to suspected child abuse. Someone will talk to you about your concerns and may ask for details so the situation can be investigated further. Police and social work teams are very experienced in this work and will deal sensitively with the child and family.

If you want to talk about your concerns and possible courses of actions, the Stop It Now! helpline is available for confidential advice and information. The helpline operates from 9am-9pm Monday-Thursday and from 9am-5pm on Friday. We can also provide help through its secure messaging service, with a response in within 5-7 working days. Please do call our helpline if you have any concerns.

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Where can I get further help or advice?

If you are worried about someone’s behaviour towards a child, you can:

Local Police
If a child is in immediate danger, call 999. If not, all police forces have other ways in which you can get in touch, including a non-emergency phone number which you will find in a telephone directory or online.

You can get in contact with your local neighbourhood police team. Visit your local police force website for details or go to direct.gov.uk and search for ‘police’.

Children’s Social Services
You can also get in touch with your local Children’s Services and contact details will be found online or through local telephone directories.

Stop It Now! helpline – 0808 1000 900
This is a confidential helpline for adults worried about the sexual behaviour of others towards children and also those worried about their own sexual thoughts or behaviour towards children. The helpline also deals with parents and carers worried about the sexual behaviour of their children. The helpline operates from 9am-9pm Monday-Thursday and from 9am-5pm on Friday. Stop it Now! can also provide help through its secure messaging service, with a response within 5-7 working days. Please do call our helpline if you have any concerns.

Contact the NSPCC Helpline – 0808 800 5000
The NSPCC is the UK’s leading charity dedicated to stopping child abuse. You can call their child protection helpline on or via email at help@nspcc.org.uk

Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre – www.ceop.police.uk
CEOP is the UK’s national police agency for dealing with child protection, particularly tackling offenders who use online technology to abuse children. If you are worried about someone’s behaviour towards a child online, you can report this at www.ceop.police.uk.

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