Child sexual abuse is any kind of sexual activity that happens to children or young people under the age of 18 and is either...
- Unwanted, or
- Involves pressure, manipulation, bullying, intimidation, threats, deception or force.
In other words, any kind of sexual activity that happens to children or young people under the age of 18 without their consent.
Child sexual abuse can...
- Include sexual activity where there is physical contact. For example, rape, masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching on top of clothes.
- Include sexual activity where there is no physical contact. For example, taking sexual photos or videos of children or young people, or involving them in looking at sexual images or watching sexual activity.
- Happen in person, online or over the phone.
- Be carried out by an adult or by another child or young person.
- Include sexual activity where the child or young person is given money or something that they want or need 'in return' – what is often called 'child sexual exploitation'.
It's still child sexual abuse if...
- It doesn't involve any other kind of physical violence, such as punching, kicking, hitting, beating, stabbing or shooting.
- The child or young person doesn't understand what's happening – or if they do.
- The child or young person enjoys it or feels like they want it to happen.
- The child or young person loves or cares about the abuser.
Some children and young people who are sexually abused know at the time that they don't want what's happening to them. But, for lots of children and young people, it's more complicated.
They might think or feel like they want it. Or feel very confused. They also might not really understand what's happening to them. Or even be aware of it.
When this happens it's because the person or people carrying out the abuse have manipulated or tricked the victim in some way. Or taken advantage of the fact that they are too young to know or fully understand what's happening to them.
It doesn't mean that the child or young person has done anything wrong. Or that they are to blame in any way for what happened to them.
Child sexual abuse is always 100% the fault of the perpetrator (the person who carried out the abuse). No matter how the child or young person feels or felt about the abuse.
Consent = choice + freedom and capacity
Under English and Welsh law, consent is defined as agreeing to sexual activity by choice and having the freedom and capacity to make that choice.
Some victims and survivors of child sexual abuse might think or feel like they did choose what happened to them. Maybe because they said they wanted it or they felt like they wanted it or they enjoyed it.
But, this doesn't mean that they gave their consent. Children and young people don't have the same freedom and capacity that lots of adults have when it comes to making choices about taking part in sexual activity.
This is for lots of different reasons, including:
- The fact that they depend on adults for things like money, food, a place to live, transport and academic qualifications.
- Their lack of knowledge and life experience.
- Their emotional immaturity.
- Depending on their age, their lack of physical strength.
- The fact that they've been told to listen to adults or other authority figures (for example, teachers), and do what they say.
Under English and Welsh law:
- The ‘age of consent’ is 16. This is the age at which young people can legally take part in sexual activity.
- A child aged 12 or under can never consent to any form of sexual activity.
- It’s a crime for someone to take part in any kind of sexual activity with someone aged 12 or under.
- It’s also a crime for someone to take part in any kind of sexual activity with someone aged 13 to 15 – unless they ‘reasonably believe’ at the time that they are aged 16 or over.
- There are extra protections for young people aged 16 and 17. For example, it’s illegal for someone to take part in sexual activity with someone under 18 if they are in a ‘position of trust’ – such as a teacher, social worker, doctor or care worker.
These laws are in place to protect children and young people. They are not there to prosecute young people of the same age who take part in consensual sexual activity.
Is there a legal definition of child sexual abuse?
In England and Wales, there are legal definitions for many forms of sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault and indecent exposure. But, there isn’t one for ‘child sexual abuse’ as a whole.
Instead, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 gives legal definitions for a number of different offences involving children and young people. These include:
- ‘Rape and other offences against children under 13’.
- So-called ‘Child sex offences’.
- Offences involving an ‘Abuse of position of trust’.
- So-called ‘Familial child sex offences’.
- Offences involving ‘Indecent photographs of children’.
- Offences involving the ‘Sexual exploitation of children’.
All of these offences are very serious crimes. And they are all child sexual abuse.
At Rape Crisis, we never use the word ‘sex’ to describe forms of sexual violence or abuse. That’s because sexual violence is as different from sex as drowning is from swimming.
Some describe the relationship between the abuser and the victim or survivor – or the place or setting in which the abuse took place. Others describe how the abuse was carried out.
Let's take a look at a few of them.
Familial (also known as 'intra-familial')
This is child sexual abuse that happens within a family home or family setting. The person carrying out the abuse could be:
- An actual family member of the child – for example, a parent, brother, sister, grandparent, uncle, aunt, cousin, great-uncle, great-aunt, second cousin etc.
- Someone else who the child sees as their family or who is close to the child – for example, a step-parent, step-brother, step-sister, step-grandparent, step-uncle, step-aunt, step-cousin, a close family friend, a babysitter, a nanny, a child-minder etc.
When people think about child sexual abuse happening in families, they often think about it being carried out by adults. But, it's also very common for familial child sexual abuse to be carried out by children or young people under the age of 18.
Child sexual abuse happens in all kinds of families. It can happen in rich families, poor families and middle-class families, as well as families of all ethnicities, religions and backgrounds.
This term is used to describe child sexual abuse that takes place in any non-family setting where people are in positions of trust and power over children – for example:
- Place of education or childcare, such as nurseries, playgroups, schools and colleges.
- Places of worship and other kinds of religious settings, such as churches, temples, mosques, synagogues and places where religious texts are studied or taught.
- Sports clubs and training programmes.
- Other activity/social clubs, groups and organisations, such as music groups and youth clubs.
- Youth justice centres, including young offender institutions, secure training centres and secure children's homes. These are places where people under the age of 18 are sent if they've committed a crime and are sentenced to custody.
- Residential care, such as children's homes, residential schools and hostels. These are places where children or young people can be sent after being removed from their own homes.
The person carrying out child sexual abuse in these places could be someone who works or volunteers there, or another child or young person.
1 in 3survivors of child sexual abuse
only tell someone what happened to them later in life
1 in 6children
have been sexually abused
9 in 10survivors of child sexual abuse
say it was committed by men and boys only
The word 'peer' means someone who is the same age or has the same abilities as another person.
Lots of people use the term 'peer-on-peer' to describe child sexual abuse that is carried out by someone who is close in age to the victim or survivor.
However, the term often gets used when the abuser is actually older than the victim or survivor. For example, they might be two or three school years' above.
When a child or young person is older than another child or young person they are not their peer.
Age gaps can create unhealthy power balances where the older person is more easily able to abuse the younger person than if they were the same age.
An age gap of a few years is unlikely to create unhealthy power balances between older adults. But it's much more likely between children and young people.
This term is used to describe any kind of child sexual abuse that involves the abuser doing at least one of the following:
- Taking nude or sexual photos or videos of the victim or survivor without their consent.
- Sharing nude or sexual photos or videos of the victim or survivor without their consent.
- Threatening to do either of the above.
- Photos or videos that show other forms of child sexual abuse – for example, a child or young person being sexually assaulted or raped.
- So-called 'revenge porn': when an abuser shares nude or sexual images of a victim or survivor in public places, such as on social media or on porn websites. Although this type of abuse often gets described as 'revenge porn', it can be committed by anyone, for any purpose – not just by former partners for revenge.
- So-called 'upskirting': when an abuser takes a photo or video under a victim or survivor's clothing in order to see their genitals or bottom.
- So-called 'fakeporn': when an abuser uses technology, such as Photoshop or artificial intelligence, to change real videos and images of victims and survivors so that they look sexual.
- So-called 'sextortion': a form of blackmail where an abuser threatens to share nude or sexual images of a victim or survivor unless they do what the abuser wants them to do.
- Voyeurism: when an abuser watches or films/photographs/records the victim or survivor taking part in a sexual act (either alone or with someone else), or while they are naked. It can also be when an abuser installs cameras or other recording devices in order to do this.
This term is used to describe any child sexual abuse that happens online, including on:
- Online forums.
- Social media.
- Messaging apps.
- Online games and apps.
- AirDrop, Nearby Share and other apps that allow someone to send files to people close by, including strangers.
Examples of online child sexual abuse include:
- Online grooming.
- Online stalking.
- Online sexual harassment.
- Online sexual exploitation.
- Lots of types of image-based child sexual abuse.
- So-called 'dick pics' and other types of 'cyber flashing'.
- Threats of rape, sexual assault and any other form of sexual abuse.
- Abusers using dating apps, social media and other websites/apps in order to carry out another form of sexual abuse offline, such as rape or sexual assault.
Some people think that sexual abuse that happens online is less serious than other types of sexual abuse. But online sexual abuse can have just as much impact as any other form of sexual abuse.
This term is used to describe any child sexual abuse where the abuser forces, threatens, pressures, manipulates or tricks the victim or survivor into taking part in sexual activity 'in exchange' for something the victim or survivors needs or wants.
It can also be where the abuser forces, threatens, pressures, manipulates or tricks the victim or survivor into taking part in sexual activity so that the abuser either:
- Makes money, or
- Becomes more powerful within a certain group.
Some people think that child sexual exploitation is consensual because the victim or survivor gets something they need or want as a result.
BUT, it's really important to remember that there can never be consent when someone is forced, threatened, pressured, manipulated or tricked into taking part in sexual activity.
And that means it is always sexual violence or abuse.
Please remember: children and young people are never to blame for the sexual exploitation that happened to them.
This is when an abuser builds a false relationship or connection with a child or young person in order to gain power or control over them. They do this so that they can carry out another form of sexual abuse – for example, sexual assault or rape.
This false relationship or connection might look like the abuser...
- Pretending to be in a romantic or loving relationship with the victim or survivor.
- Acting like an authority figure – someone who the victim or survivor should respect, listen to and do as they say.
- Pretending to be a mentor – someone who is looking out for them, advising them or giving them help.
- Being controlling, demanding and/or constantly in contact with the victim or survivor or not leaving them alone.
Grooming can take place in person or online, and be carried out by a stranger or someone that the victim or survivor knows.
Abusers sometimes build false relationships or connections with a child or young person's family or friends in order to also gain their trust.
Although grooming can happen to adults too, it's used by perpetrators in lots of child sexual abuse cases.
Grooming happens in stages, with abusers often using new tactics bit by bit. This means it's not always easy to spot.
Examples of grooming tactics include an abuser:
- Asking the victim or survivor to keep secrets from other people.
- Buying the victim or survivor gifts or taking them on trips or days out.
- Giving the victim or survivor lots of attention or being really 'nice' to them.
- Cutting the victim or survivor off from their family or friends.
Once an abuser has sexually abused a child or young person once, they might use this fact in order to threaten the child or young person and make it easier for them to carry out more abuse.
For example, an abuser might say that if a victim or survivor doesn't do what the abuser wants them to do, they'll tell someone 'what we did'.
It's common for abusers to make victims or survivors feel like they are either fully or partly responsible for what's happened to them. For example, an abuser might describe sexual abuse as something that 'we did' or that the victim or survivor 'made me do'.
However, it's important to remember that children and young people are never responsible for sexual abuse. 100% of the blame, shame and responsibility lies with the abuser.