Special report: The scale and nature of Child Sexual Abuse

Fifteen per cent of girls have experienced child sexual abuse before the age of 16, a report by the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse has found.

Taking into account the variations in prevalence studies for England and Wales, the available data suggests that 15% of girls or young women and 5% of boys or young men experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 16, including abuse by adults and peers.

However, the report into the nature and scale of CSE found that at the higher end, “international estimates reach 30% for girls and 23% for boys”.

The Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) has been established to help bring about system-wide change in how child sexual abuse is responded to locally and nationally. Funded by the Home Office, the Centre is led by Barnardo’s, and works closely with key partners from academic institutions, local authorities, health, education, police, and the voluntary sector.

A key aim of the organisation is to identify, generate and share high quality evidence of what works to prevent and tackle Child Sexual Abuse (including Child Sexual Exploitation), to inform both policy and practice.

Imbalance of power

The paper produced by the Centre forms the background to reaching current best estimates for both CSA and Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE), as part of a strand of work which seeks to improve measurement and identify gaps in knowledge.

The Centre highlights that there is no agreed UK definition of CSE and, to date, CSE related policy and practice frameworks in England and Wales operate with different definitions. The most recent guidance for England from the Department for Education (2017) argues that CSE should not be separated from other forms of CSA, trafficking, gendered violence or going missing.

“Nesting CSE within CSA is appropriate but delineating the boundaries is critical for measurement,” says the report.

The DfE definition of sexual abuse as outlined in ‘Working Together’ states that it is: ‘... 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.’

The most recent definition of CSE in England published in guidance from the DfE this year highlights that the difference between CSA and CSE includes an imbalance of power whereby the victim is coerced into sexual activity in exchange for something else (gifts, money, drugs/alcohol, protection). It may appear consensual.

The DfE defines CSE as: ‘a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.’

‘The most serious and repeated offences are more likely to be committed by known persons’

The DfE highlights that while the indicators for CSE can be mistaken as ‘normal adolescent behaviour,’ it requires knowledge, skills, professional curiosity and an assessment which analyses the risk factors and personal circumstances of individual children to ensure that the signs and symptoms are interpreted correctly and appropriate support is given.

“Whilst some boundary issues are inevitable between categories, there are currently so many overlapping elements between CSA and CSE that allocations are likely to be inconsistent between individuals and agencies,” says the report. “There remains a need to map the range of forms and contexts for CSA and CSE in order that parts of the clock face are not in shadow.”

The report highlights:

  • The rates are significantly lower for repeated penetrative abuse, although more difficult to calculate.
  • The most serious and repeated offences are more likely to be committed by known persons.
  • Family members are the most likely perpetrator for girls and young women and authority figures are more common for boys and young men.
  • The vast majority of perpetrators are male.
  • Most children and young people do not tell anyone at the time abuse is taking place, and many wait until they are adults.

However, it warns that there remain significant gaps in the evidence base:

  • No general population prevalence studies have been undertaken on CSE as such
  • It is not known why older age groups are more likely to report having had an experience of CSA.
  • The patterns of abuse over time – duration and frequency – and where it takes place are less well established.
  • Neither multiple perpetrators nor abuse by subsequent perpetrators are well documented.
  • It is not yet possible to map online forms onto what we know about CSA to explore how far this is a context for abuse and how far there are specific online forms of abuse.
  • The lack of time series data and variations in methodological approaches make exploration of a ‘changing nature’ of CSA complex: many studies are one off, so trends over time cannot be discerned.

The UK Government should commit to commissioning a regular CSA prevalence study

The Centre highlights how the overview raises questions about how measurement might be improved, specifically in terms of England and Wales and there are obvious questions for the Crime Survey for England and Wales.

In the 2015/16 wave of data collection for the CSEW, a module on child abuse was included for the first time and 20,582 adults aged 16–59 were questioned. Three specific questions were included to estimate the prevalence of sexual abuse – one covering penetrative offences, a second ‘other sexual assaults’ (specifically flashing and sexual touching) and a question on attempted penetration.

The overall prevalence findings were that 7% of adults aged 16–59 has experienced some form of CSA. Non-penetrative sexual assaults more prevalent 10% of women and 3% of men: for penetrative offences 3% of women (estimated at 567,000 in the 16–59 population) and 1% of men (estimated at 102,000 in the 16–59 population) experienced abuse.

The ONS intends to include questions on CSA every three years, creating an opportunity to refine the methodology and the Centre highlights in the report that there are two obvious issues for CSEW. Firstly, could the number of questions be increased in order to further differentiate forms of CSA and within this identify CSE. The Centre recognises, however, that there are financial implications for each additional question, and a methodological challenge in finding a format within a survey to create even a single question which would distinguish CSA from CSE.

The second issue involves an additional layer of questions which would create better measurements of duration, frequency, locations of abuse and the tactics used by perpetrators to ensnare and silence children and young people. It is an open question as to whether there is scope within general population studies to explore possible or actual perpetration.

The Centre of Expertise concluded that it will continue to focus on improving the understanding and quality of data on CSA and CSE. This project has identified a series of future steps which will contribute to this. It will advocate for the UK Government to commit to commissioning a regular CSA prevalence study, under the auspices of the Office for National Statistics.

In addition, it will advocate for organisations carrying out similar surveys and longitudinal cohort studies on linked issues to consider including a module on CSA and create a series of nested data visualisations which present the best estimates of what is known from prevalence and agency data. These will be updated each year by the Centre for expertise as new data comes online.

Scale and nature of child sexual abuse




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