What is Abuse?
A child is sexually abused when another person who is more sexually mature involves the child in any activity which the other person expects to lead to their sexual arousal or gratification. It is not just intercourse or touching but includes non touching activities which are sexually stimulating to the abuser.
It is defined by the Department of Health, Education and Home Office in their document “Working Together To Safeguard Children” 1999:
“Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including penetrative (e.g. rape or buggery) or non-penetrative acts. They may include 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.”
Sexual Abuse Is Not New
Sexual abuse like every other kind of abuse is not a new problem. It has been with us since biblical times. In the Old Testament (2 Samuel 13) there is the story of Tamar, a young daughter of King David. Tamar was raped by her older brother Amnon probably age 13 or 14. The resulting chaos that followed led to the eventual death of Amnon and the heir apparent Absalom. Tamar is never mentioned again, but we are left in no doubt that her life was ruined.
How widespread is Sexual Abuse?
The figures are very upsetting. “Child abuse and neglect in the UK today” (Radford et al, 2011) is a major piece of NSPCC research issued in 2011. The findings of this report show the continuing pervasiveness of sexual abuse in the UK:
- Nearly a quarter of young adults (24.1%) experienced sexual abuse (including contact and non-contact), by an adult or by a peer during childhood
- One in six children aged 11-17 (16.5%) have experienced sexual abuse.
- Almost one in 10 children aged 11-17 (9.4%) have experienced sexual abuse in the past year (2011). Teenage girls aged between 15 and 17 years reported the highest past year rates of sexual abuse.
(Source: Radford, Lorraine, Corral, Susana, Bradley, Christine, Fisher, Helen, Bassett, Claire, Howat, Nick and Collishaw, Stephan (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC).
Tragically, however, the shame and silence often continues into adulthood. As also revealed in the NSPCC Study in 2011 was the fact sexual abuse remains a hidden secret with many children not getting help:
More than one in three children aged 11-17 (34%) who experienced contact sexual abuse by an adult did not tell anyone else about it.
Four out of five children aged 11-17 (82.7%) who experienced contact sexual abuse from a peer did not tell anyone else about it.
(Source : Radford, Lorraine, Corral, Susana, Bradley, Christine, Fisher, Helen, Bassett, Claire, Howat, Nick and Collishaw, Stephan (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC).
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England (OCC) Report
“Protecting children from harm a critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action”
published in November 2015 also indicates the high level of sexual abuse suffered by children. The researchers collected data from all the police forces and local authorities in England. They reviewed existing research and more than 750 survivors of abuse took part in a survey – probably the largest of its kind. The report found that the majority of child sex abuse is carried out by family or friends and up to 85% goes unreported, a study says. Around 50,000 cases were recorded from April 2012 to March 2014, but the report suggests the actual number was up to 450,000.
Much attention has been focused on child abuse in institutions but most happens within families or their trusted circles, the report said.
The report found:
- Two-thirds of child sexual abuse took place within the family environment or the close circle around it
- 75% of victims were girls
- Abuse was most likely to have occurred at about the age of nine
- Victims often did not speak out until adolescence or later, when they recognised what had happened
- Even if a child did tell someone, often the abuse did not stop
Other surveys also confirm the high occurrence of sexual abuse in our society:
One in 14 adults in England and Wales were sexually abused as children, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics, (Source: Abuse during childhood: Findings from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, year ending March 2016) An average of 7% of adults – 11% of women and 3% of men – told the annual Crime Survey of England and Wales that they were sexually assaulted during their childhood, after questions about child abuse were introduced to the research for the first time.
Survivors of sexual assault by rape or penetration reported that the perpetrator was most likely to be a friend or acquaintance (30%) or other family member (26%). For other types of sexual assault, the perpetrator was most likely to be a stranger (42%). For sexual assault by rape or penetration, male victims (15%) were three times more likely than females (4%) to report that they had been abused by a person in a position of trust or authority, such as a teacher, doctor, carer or youth worker.
With the exception of physical abuse, women were more likely than men to report abuse during childhood. This was most marked when it came to sexual assault, where women were four times as likely as men to be a survivor of such abuse during childhood. Three in four victims also said they did not report what had happened at the time, with the most common reason given being “embarrassment or humiliation, or thinking that they would not be believed”.
In 1991 a survey was done by the Child Abuse Studies Unit of the University of North London and revealed that one in two girls (59%) and one in four boys (27%) will experience child sexual abuse by the time they are 18. (Definition of abuse any event or interaction which the young person reported as abusive/unwanted before the age of 18.)
- 38% of girls sexually abused before the age of 18
- (Diana Russell et al The Secret Trauma 1986)
- 16% of boys are sexually abused before the age of 18
(David Finkelhor et al Sexual Abuse in a National Survey 1990)
A study in 2000 (Cawson: NSPCC) also exposes that sexual abuse continues to be extremely prevalent in the UK with 11% of boys under 16 and 21% of girls under 16 experiencing sexual abuse in childhood. In 2008 Childline reported a 50% increase in calls relating to sexual abuse since 2005.
In May 2011 the NSPCC reported at least 64 children are sexually abused every day in England and Wales. More than 23,000 offences – including rape, incest and gross indecency – were recorded by police in 2009-10, an 8% increase on 2008-9, the charity said. Girls are six times more likely to be sexually assaulted than boys, the figures suggest. (Source: BBC website: bbc.co.uk)
The Internet also has made more readily available images of child sexual abuse.
Sadly, it is not a problem that is just confined to the West. The Bangkok based international child protection campaign group (ECPAT – End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) has said that marriage contracts can be found all over the Middle East and South Asia to be a cloak for child abuse. Child rape is also used as a “weapon of war” in areas of conflict including in 2010 the Congo. In October 2010 more than 1,000 teachers were sacked in Kenya for sexually abusing girls most of the victims were aged between 12 and 15. (Source: BBC Website)
A Unicef Report of 2014 by the UN Children’s Agency report found that 120 million girls and female adolescents under 20 had endured rape or other forced sexual acts, with such experiences especially common in some developing countries – around 70% of girls suffer sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Equatorial Guinea, and around 50% in Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, Unicef said. The report also pointed to problems in richer countries, with many girls reporting “sexual victimisation”, for example, by harassment or exposure to pornography.
Many young victims did not report abuse, the authors found, with data showing that nearly half of all girls aged 15-19 who said they had faced physical and/or sexual violence had never told anyone about it.
Who are Abusers?
Research in the UK also shows most abusers are known to the victims.
On TV and in the media abusers are usually portrayed as strangers in the park wearing dirty raincoats or men who are members of a paedophile ring. However, research also shows that most abusers are not only known to the victim but related to them. They are not strangers at all. An NSPCC report in 1986 “Child Sexual Abuse Trends in England and Wales” reported 86% of abusers were a relative or someone known to the child, only 14% were abused by strangers. This pattern is repeated today.
In 2008 Childline reported that 96% of children calling Childline because they were being sexually abused knew their abuser.
In 2005-2006 of the 11,976 children calling Childline about sexual abuse:
- 59% of abusers were family members,
- 35% were acquaintances
- 5% were strangers
- 22% of girls cited their father as the abuser
- 20% of boys cited their father as the abuser
Abusers also appear no different to any other man or woman and come from every social strata – builders, doctors, teachers or religious leaders.
This is confirmed by the 2015 OCC report which found that two-thirds of child sexual abuse took place within the family environment or the close circle around it.
In 2010 the NSPPC reported that one in four offenders convicted of child internet port held positions of trust including teachers, clergy and medical professionals.
‘You are dealing with a massive, massive problem. From what we have seen, if you don’t provide the right level of support and intervention to support people when they come forward you see very significant health problems – mental health and physical health – which have a direct cost to us as a society. We look upon child abuse and its impact now as a national health epidemic.’
Graham Wilmer: Founder of The Lantern Project: Sky News 8/12/2014
Why It Has Come To Light
Child sexual abuse may have been with us throughout the ages, but it has remained hidden, and it is only relatively recently in the UK that legislation protecting the victim has been implemented. Because sexual abuse was not seen it was believed to not exist. It is has only been since the 1980s that professional attention from social workers to GPs to teachers have been mobilised to look more closely at child sexual abuse. The ball actually started rolling after a survey was taken in 1986 by the BBC Programme “That’s Life” asking viewers for their help in an investigation into child abuse. Three thousand adults (of whom 90% were women) completed the survey and 90% of them said they had experienced child sexual abuse.
They also found that children today were suffering as much as had their predecessors. It seems that after this highly publicised media event our society at last sat up and took notice that sexual abuse was happening – and was happening now. As a direct result of this child care professionals and the voluntary sector established “Childline” a confidential help-line for children.
Today Childline continues to provide help and counsel for children and the statistics around sexual abuse continue to be high. In the 20 years between 1986 and 2006 Childline counselled more than 175,000 children about sexual abuse.
Childline says “children often don’t tell about abuse because they have been threatened into keeping silent or made to feel ashamed and guilty”.
Sadly the shame and silence often continues into adulthood.
This information is backed up the OCC Report in November 2015 which states that only one child in every eight facing sexual abuse comes to the attention of the authorities. The Children’s Commissioner wants a complete rethink of the way in which the authorities tackle child abuse. The report calls for better training for all professionals involved with children so they can spot signs of abuse, also says children as young as five should have what it calls “lessons in life”. In these they would learn about healthy, safe relationships to encourage them to talk to an adult if they are worried.