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What is Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

Children who are abused sexually are being persuaded or forced to participate in sexual activities. They may not understand they are being abused, nor that what is happening to them is wrong. In many instances they may feel too scared to speak out.

There are two types of sexual abuse. Contact abuse and non-contact abuse.

Contact abuse is where an abuser makes physical contact with a child. It includes:

  • Sexual touching of a child with and without clothes
  • Rape or penetration with a body part or object
  • Forcing a child to take part in sexual activity
  • Making a child remove their clothes
  • When a child is asked to touch someone’s genitals
  • Making a child masturbate

Non-contact abuse involves non-touching activities such as grooming and exploitation. It includes:

  • Encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts
  • Exposing a child to sexual behaviour, including pornography.
  • Meeting up with a child who has been groomed with the intent to abuse
  • Viewing, making or sharing child abuse images or allowing someone else to
  • Sexually exploiting a child for money, status or power.

(Source: NSPCC)

What is Sexual Violence?

Sexual violence is any unwanted sexual act or activity. There are many different kinds of sexual violence including:

  • Rape
  • Sexual assault
  • Child sexual abuse
  • Sexual harassment
  • Rape within marriage / relationships
  • Forced marriage
  • So-called honour-based violence
  • Female genital mutilation
  • Trafficking
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Ritual abuse

Sexual violence can happen to anyone, and the victims of any age. The perpetrator could be a complete stranger, or someone you know or even trust such as a partner, friend or family member.

(Source: Rapecrisis.org.uk)

What are the signs of sexual abuse in children?

Children who are abused may:

  • Avoid certain people
  • Feel frightened of certain people
  • Be reluctant about being alone with family members or friends
  • Show sexualised behaviours that are inappropriate for their age
  • Be promiscuous
  • Use sexual language unexpectedly
  • Know things about sex that seem inappropriate
  • Have physical soreness around vagina or anus
  • Have unusual discharge
  • Suffer from sexually transmitted infection

The most vulnerable age group of sexual abuse and violence victims are females age 16 – 19, they are more than four times more likely to be victims.

What are the signs of sexual abuse in teenagers?

  • Unusual weight gain or weight loss
  • Unhealthy eating patterns, like a loss of appetite or excessive eating
  • Signs of physical abuse, such as bruises
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or other genital infections
  • Signs of depression, such as persistent sadness, lack of energy, changes in sleep or appetite, withdrawing from normal activities, or feeling “down”
  • Anxiety or worry
  • Falling grades
  • Changes in self-care, such as paying less attention to hygiene, appearance, or fashion than they usually do
  • Self-harming behavior
  • Expressing thoughts about suicide or suicide behavior
  • Drinking or drug use
  • Pregnancy

For teenagers who are new to dating and beginning to experience relationships of a sexual nature, It can be challenging to recognise they may be in an abusive relationship. Signs of abuse in a teen’s relationship could be if their partner:

  • Tries to get them to engage in sexual activity that they aren’t ready for
  • Sexually assaults them or coerces them into unwanted sexual activity
  • Refuses to use contraception or protection against STIs during sexual activity
  • Hits them or physically harms them in any way
  • Doesn’t want them spending time with friends or family
  • Makes threats or controls their actions
  • Uses drugs or alcohol to create situations where their judgement is impaired or compromises their ability to say “yes” or “no”

(Source: Rainn.org)

Impact of technology on sexual abuse

The use of new technology has become integral in the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. The internet allows perpetrators to anonymously target victims quickly and freely. Children have access to technology which allows them to communicate with people they otherwise would not.

Some of the signs that a child is being abused online:

  • Spends much more time online, texting, gaming or on social media
  • Distressed, withdrawn or outraged after using the internet or texting
  • Secretive about their online activity or who they are communicating with on their phone
  • Have more contacts on social media, new phone numbers saved, or email addresses

Online groomers often build a relationship with children as friends on social media or gaming sites, only steering the conversation towards a sexual nature once they have the child’s trust. This can lead to the groomer sending or requesting photos of a sexual nature which they ask they child to keep secret. They may blackmail the child by threatening to share the pictures with family and friends or even set up a meeting with the child. Some children don’t realise they have been groomed and think the person is their girlfriend or boyfriend.

(Source: internetmatters.org)

How to help someone who has been sexually abused

75% of children who are sexually abused do not tell anyone about it and many keep their secret all their lives.  If someone confides in you that they have been sexually abused it’s important that you are supportive, compassionate, calm and understanding. The victim may be feeling ashamed, isolated and frightened. By confiding in someone about the abuse they have suffered they are demonstrating a huge amount of strength. Sexual abusers are likely to be someone known to the child – 8 out of 10 children know their abuser, they could be a family member, friend, baby sitter or neighbour. The closer the relationship of the abuser and victim, the more likely it will remain a secret.

The police and children’s social services are experienced in responding to suspected child sexual abuse and will deal with it sensitively with the child and their family. If the abuse happened in the past it’s important to establish what the person needs and if this is the first time they’ve spoken about the abuse. They may  want to find out about how they can report the abuse, or be looking for advice, or they may just need to share what happened with someone.

It’s important to believe a child who tells you they are being abused as they’d rarely lie about it and would be more likely to deny the abuse than open up about it due to fear and shame. At the same time adults must stay calm and reassure the child. By getting angry the child may become frightened as they may have been warned they’d get into trouble by their abuser if they told anyone. Instead be caring and let them know they have done nothing wrong and you are glad they came to tell you. 

Intervening with the person who has sexually abused

The perpetrator of the abuse needs to be held accountable for their actions and get specialised help from professionals. If the police or children’s social services are not contacted here are some points to consider if you speak to someone who has or may have abused:

  • Be non accusatory and explore in a non-confrontational way to reduce the individual’s defensiveness
  • Be specific about behaviours that concern you and your reactions to them
  • Ask simple and direct questions
  • Advise there is help and support available and and individuals can go on to live abuse free lives by taking responsibility for their actions
  • If appropriate, let the person know you care about them. Loving support can help someone take responsibility, face consequences and get help
  • Having conversations more than once is normal before the person is ready to talk
  • Confide in someone who can be an ally for whom you can turn to for support
  • Encourage them to get help and find available sources

Help them by helping yourself

If you have been confided in about sexual abuse it can be a time of trauma and it’s important to recognise this and get help to cope with the emotions challenges and decisions you face.

The more you are able to cope the more you can help the child who has been abused and the family. This is a time to turn to a friend, family member, counseller or therapist for emotional support.

(Source: parentsprotect.co.uk)

Here are some useful links for anyone needing support on any matters to do with sexual abuse and sexual violence:

www.rapecrisis.org.uk – Specialist services for women and girls

www.thesurvivorstrust.org – Umbrella organisation for sexual violence survivors

www.nspcc.org.uk – Children’s charity working to prevent abuse

www.napac.org.uk – Supports adult survivors of all types of childhood abuse

survivorsuk.org – Supports men who have experienced rape or sexual abuse

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