Facts and figures about abuse

What is Abuse?

A child or young person is sexually abused when another person involves the child or young person in any activity which the other person expects to lead to their sexual arousal or gratification. It is not just touching but includes non touching activities:

It is defined by the Working Together to Safeguard Children HM Government Report 2018 as “forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse [including via the internet] … Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children.”

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.

7% of adults age 16 to 59 have experienced some form of  child sexual abuse (ONS Crime Survey for England and Wales, March 2016).

More than one in ten women and 3% of men in England & Wales were sexually assaulted during childhood. (ONS Crime Survey for England + Wales, March 2016).

“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”.

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).

A review by the schools’ inspectorate concluded that sexual harassment has become “normalised” for young people, in school, online and in other unsupervised spaces including parks and house parties. Ofsted Report June 2021. Presenting the report, the chief inspector of schools in England, Amanda Spielman, said she was shocked by its findings. “It’s alarming that many children and young people, particularly girls, feel they have to accept sexual harassment as part of growing up. Whether it’s happening at school or in their social life, they simply don’t feel it’s worth reporting.” (Source BBC news website 20/6/2021)

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?

Since 2011 with the revelations in the media about Jimmy Saville and other high profile cases it has been widely seen that child sexual abuse is prevalent in every area of our society. From religious organisations, to football teams, to people on TV and in the media. Previously to this it was often thought that abusers were total strangers who preyed on children for example in a park or playground. However, research also shows that most abusers are not only known to the victim but related to them. 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.

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. In the first year of its operation 6,000 of its 23,000 calls received were received from victims of sexual abuse. Today Childline continues to provide help and counsel for children and the statistics around sexual abuse continue to be high.

The November 2015 OCC Report stated 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.

More children are coming forward for help, and more abuse is being exposed in our society at every level both historical and recent. According to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, systematic grooming and sexual abuse of children by groups of offenders in cities and towns of England and Wales is “widespread”. The actual figures around sexual abuse are impossible to accurately predict, says Cassi Harrison, director of the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse.

“Due to data limitations, we are making decisions in a fog. We just can’t say if more children are being sexually abused. We know we are identifying more of it, but this the tip of the iceberg.

“Reported numbers are increasing, but that could be because of increased willingness of victims to report linked to confidence they will be taken seriously, increased professional awareness of the signs of abuse and commitment to take action – or because recording has improved.” (BBC News website 16/3/2018)