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National Freephone Helpline

Childhood Sexual Abuse

Please be aware that the following material contains information that you may find distressing. It is important to ensure you are in a place that feels safe to you before reading and that you feel able to access support should you need it, including our helpline.

What is Childhood Sexual Abuse?

It’s now beginning to be acknowledged that Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) happens a lot more frequently than most people believe, or ever wanted to believe.

CSA can include the following:

  • Being cuddled or kissed in a way that left you feeling uncomfortable.
  • Being bathed in a way that left you feeling uncomfortable.
  • Having to look at other people’s genitals.
  • Having to touch other people’s genitals.
  • Having your own breasts or genitals touched.
  • Having to pose for photographs of a sexual nature.
  • Being shown sexual films and/or having to listen to sexual talk.
  • Having your vagina or anus penetrated by a penis, finger or object.
  • Being forced to perform oral sex, or to have it performed on you.

When determining whether the actions of an adult or older child can be defined as sexual abuse, it’s necessary to understand the intention and motivation behind the behaviour – watching a child in the bath isn’t necessarily sexually orientated or abusive but if an adult becomes sexually aroused then this is child abuse. Also, sexual abuse has nothing to do with ‘sex play’ between children which can often be indulged in quite normally by same age children as part of their learning experience. Sexual abuse involves an abuse of power – the abuser being an adult, or sometimes, an older child. Sexual gratification at contact or watching a child is sexual abuse – a total abuse of trust.

Legal definition

Penile penetration of a child aged 12 years and under is automatically rape whether the child believes they consented or not. No matter what you said, what you signed, how you responded, how your body reacted a child of 12 years and under cannot give consent to sexual interactions with anyone.

There is no single offence of ‘childhood sexual abuse’ however the Sexual Offences Act 2003 includes the following offences:

  • Rape of a child: To penetrate with a penis the vagina, anus or mouth of a person aged 12 years and under.
  • Assault by Penetration: To penetrate sexually the vagina or anus with any part of a body (human or animal) or object.
  • Sexual Assault: To touch a child sexually.
  • To cause or incite a child to engage in sexual activity: To cause or incite a child to observe any sexual activity; or to groom or to procure a child with intention to commit the above.

Speaking to Children

As part of children’s growth always keep the lines of communication open, talk about what’s right and wrong and let them know no one has the right to touch them or force them to do anything they don’t want to. Children should hear these important messages throughout their childhood from trusted adults around them, parents, siblings, teachers and friends:

  • Your body is your own.
  • There are parts of your body that are private. You have the right to say no to anyone who wants to touch your vagina, penis, breasts, or buttocks.
  • Say “no” in a deep, loud voice if anyone touches you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable or afraid.
  • If someone does bother you I want you to tell me. I promise that I won’t be angry and that I will believe you.
  • If someone does touch you in a way that doesn’t seem right, it’s not your fault. What an adult does is never your fault.

Who abuses children?

Abusers come from every stratum of society, every ethnicity, every socio-economic group. There are no exceptions. Wherever there are children, abusers will be sure to work, play or live nearby. They are men or women. Doctors, Pastors, Imams, Priests, Teachers, Businessmen, Painters, Decorators, Taxi Drivers, Fathers, Mothers, Family Members, Neighbours, Policemen, Judges, Charity Workers, Sports Coaches, Carers, Foster Parents, Dentists, Politicians, Pop Stars, Celebrities and any other profession you can think of. Sadly there are no exceptions.


‘Grooming’ a child is common practice amongst abusers who will spend time and effort to firstly gain the child’s trust and then insidiously compelling a child to do as she or he is told. Often bribes or threats are used to maintain compliance. This happens so stealthily that the children do not know what is happening until the abuse begins and they are caught in the rapists trap. Statistically children are much more likely to be abused by a close family member, friend or carer.

Children are taught to listen to adults and to trust them. A child will believe an adult who manipulates them into thinking that bad things will happen if they tell anyone what is happening to them. Child Rapists are adept at knowing what to say to children to keep them quiet.

Child Rapists also spend time grooming the adults who protect children. No one would suspect someone who looks like you and appears ‘normal’. We all think we would be able to spot a child molester when in fact s/he will go out of their way to appear as upstanding as possible.

C.S.A. Impacts and Responses

The duration and frequency of abuse is linked to the severity of its long term consequences but it is also clear that a single incident of sexual abuse can produce very significant problems in adult life. Some women experience feelings of guilt, shame, anger, grief while some may have an absence of emotional reactions.

You might find it difficult to trust others or to have fulfilling intimate relationships. Some women cope through concentrating on food intake or using different forms of self-injury. Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse have thought about suicide at some point as the only escape from the feelings and memories. Sometimes a child who is being severely abused finds a way to escape in the only way they can: in their heads, where they can leave their physical environment and the abuse by blocking it out, or dissociating. No matter how you coped or responded at the time and now, please remember:

  • It’s okay to feel whatever you do – your feelings are natural.
  • It’s never ever the child’s fault– the blame and guilt always lie with the abuser.
  • Many children are unable to control their body’s physical reactions.
  • Children are often being made to feel ‘special’ by the perpetrator which causes enormous feelings of confusion and self-blame.
  • It wasn’t your fault that the abuse happened, no matter how long it went on for or what the abuser told you. You were abused by someone who was wiser, more manipulative and much more powerful than you were as a child.
  • Survivors of CSA don’t automatically become abusers – this is a myth.
  • The majority of survivors form good relationships and are excellent parents.

For more information on the facts of childhood sexual abuse including common responses and impacts, coping strategies, and what to do if you suspect a child is being sexually abused, please see our Support Documents.

Contact our helpline to talk about how you’re feeling, what your choices are and how to ensure you feel supported through what can be a very difficult time. 0808 802 9999.

If you are thinking about or want more information about reporting to the Police call our Independent Sexual Violence Advocate (ISVA on 0208 683 3311).

If you are worried about a child’s safety please speak out:

Call the NSPCC’s free 24-hour helpline 0808 800 5000 to discuss your concerns or report online.

Call the police – if a child is in danger, contact them immediately on 999.

If you are based in London and are a parent of an abused child and want support for yourself contact MOSAC on 0800 980 1958.

Support Documents

Click here to view our support documents. Each document is available as a PDF download.

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