Understanding child sexual abuse

What is child sexual abuse?

The different forms of sexual abuse include:

  • forcing or enticing a child to take part in sexual activities whether or not the child is aware of what is happening
  • physical contact, including penetrative or non-penetrative acts
  • non-contact activities such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, pornographic material or watching sexual activities or encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.

Child sexual abuse can happen online and offline, and it’s vital that parents, carers and professionals are aware of the different types of abuse so they can prevent harm.

Contact and non-contact abuse

Child sexual abuse can be broken down into two types of behaviours:

  • touching behaviours (contact abuse)
  • non-touching behaviours (non-contact abuse).

Some examples of touching behaviours include:

  • touching a child’s private parts for sexual pleasure, whether the child is wearing clothes or not
  • getting a child to touch someone else’s private parts or masturbate them by playing sexual games or encouraging a child to take part in sexual activity
  • making a child take their clothes off
  • having sex (any sexual behaviours that should be happening between two mutually-consenting adults)
  • putting body parts (like fingers, tongue or penis) or other objects inside the child’s vagina, anus or mouth.

Examples of non-touching behaviours include:

  • an adult showing sexually explicit material (pornography) to a child for sexual pleasure
  • deliberately exposing an adult’s private parts to a child
  • encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts or not taking proper measures to prevent a child from being exposed to sexual activities by others
  • taking, viewing or sharing photographs or films of children in sexual poses (indecent images of children)
  • asking a child or young person to share sexual images of themselves
  • engaging children in sexually explicit conversations (face to face or online).

Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB)

Around one-third of child sexual abuse is carried out by other children and young people. Younger children, in particular, might engage in harmful sexual behaviours without knowing that it is wrong, abusive or harmful. That’s why for those under 18 we talk about ‘harmful sexual behaviour’ rather than ‘abuse’.

HSB describes any sexual behaviours that are inappropriate for a child’s age and stage of development. It is not always easy to tell the difference between HSB and age-expected sexual behaviours.

Some examples of HSB include:

  • frequently and intentionally viewing age-inappropriate sexual material online
  • using inappropriate or explicit language
  • taking part in sexual activity with peers that they are not ready for
  • sending or receiving illegal sexual images
  • engaging in abusive or sexually violent behaviour online or offline.

You can find more information in our guide on preventing harmful sexual behaviour.

Online abuse

Child sexual abuse can also happen online. Online sexual abuse includes viewing and sharing sexual images of under 18s, having sexual conversations with under 16s and encouraging children to engage in sexual chat or take sexual images of themselves.

Sexual images of children that appear online are called indecent images of children (IIOC) or child sexual abuse material (CSAM). We avoid using the description “child pornography”.

Other illegal online activities can include adults speaking sexually with children under 16 with or without the intention to meet up and engage in sexual activity (known as grooming). Our Parents Protect learning programme can help you and the parents you work with understand more about this.

Child sexual exploitation (CSE)

CSE happens when an individual or group takes advantage of their power to coerce, manipulate or deceive someone under-18 into sexual activity. A form of exchange takes place between the perpetrator and the child.

The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Sometimes the victim believes they are in a loving relationship or that those who are exploiting them are their friends. 

Often CSE is misunderstood by outsiders and viewed as consensual; victims have sometimes been prosecuted for activities they were forced to engage in (National Action Plan Preventing and Responding to Child Sexual Abuse, Welsh Assembly Government – July 2019).

CSE does not always involve physical contact. It can also happen online on social media, gaming sites or messaging apps. This includes creating indecent images or content involving children. Being trafficked for sexual purposes is also a form of CSE.

Intra-familial child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse within the family is known as intra-familial abuse, but this does not always mean those offending are related to the child. They could be a family friend, foster or adoptive parent, aunt or uncle or someone the child sees as family.

It is difficult to know the full extent of abuse within families as often victims don’t disclose what happened to them. This might be out of fear of not being believed or of the person abusing them, a lack of understanding that what is happening to them is wrong, blaming themselves, protecting siblings or love for the person abusing them.

Abuse within families can be traumatic for children and cause long-term physical and emotional issues, resulting in life-long adverse effects on children. But this is not always the case.

Extra-familial child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse that happens outside of the family environment is known as extra-familial abuse. This typically happens during the adolescent years as a young person meets new people.

Extra-familial abuse can include child sexual exploitation and criminal exploitation. The person sexually abusing them could be someone in a position of trust such as teachers, sports coaches, youth organisation coordinators or other people from within our communities.

Some people use their position of power to gain advantage or control over children in order to abuse them.

Back to top