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What is Childhood Sexual Abuse?

*Trigger warning. Please be aware that the following information may be difficult to read and may affect you. If you are a survivor reading this please make sure you take care of yourself and ensure you have someone you can talk about the impact it has on you. 

CSE  (child sexual exploitation),  or  CSA (child sexual abuse) both happen when a child or a young person is encouraged or forced to take part in sexual activity. The abuser may give the child presents, money, alcohol or simply attention as part of the grooming process in order to gain the child’s trust and draw them in.

People who commit CSE often ‘groom’ their victims in order to gain their trust. Later, when the behaviour of the abuser starts to change, many children are too frightened to come forward. Violence, coercion and intimidation are often part of CSE as many perpetrators target the most vulnerable of children. This vulnerability is often due to economic or personal circumstances that leave young people with few choices.

Sometimes, children don’t realise they are being abused. This might lead them to suffer in silence for years without talking to anyone about what is happening. It can happen to both boys and girls from all backgrounds and communities, right across the UK.

Child sexual exploitation is NEVER the young person’s fault, even if they feel that they have ‘agreed’ to the sexual activity.

It is acknowledged that childhood sexual abuse happens a lot more frequently than people would have believed, or have wanted to believe in the past. The most up to date data currently in the UK comes from the ONS Time Survey 2016, which attest that 7% of the population experienced sexual assault in childhood. To put this is context – less people have diabetes in the UK! had more here

Some survivors are well aware of the trauma they experienced in childhood. They may be troubled by memories of abuse, and they continue to live with the pain, confusion and feelings of loneliness they experienced as a child.

Other survivors may not remember that they have been abused, or they may only remember some experiences of abuse or not be sure at all. They may not understand or acknowledge that what they experienced was abuse or neglect.

It is very common for survivors to deny that an experience was abusive, or to minimise the seriousness of the abuse by thinking or saying ‘it only happened once’ or ‘it wasn’t so bad’. Many survivors live with symptoms of abuse, such as panic attacks, strange body sensations, inexplicable fears and anxiety, or aches and pains, that they are unable to explain. Their body remembers what happens to them, and they relive the emotions and feelings associated with abuse over and over again – but many survivors don’t connect these symptoms to their childhood abuse.

You may not be sure if you were sexually abused or not so we have listed some of the things that have happened to people who we’ve worked with as a guideline. Please note this is not comprehensive and if you are in any doubt about whether you were sexually abused as a child please feel free to get in touch or discuss with a healthcare professional.

Sexual abuse involves an abuse of power – the abuser being an adult or an older child. Sexual abuse also involves an abuse of trust.


Childhood Sexual Abuse can include (but is not limited to) the following:


  • Being cuddled or kissed in a way that made you feel uncomfortable
  • Being bathed or cleaned in a way that made you feel uncomfortable
  • Having to look at other peoples genitals
  • Having to touch other peoples genitals
  • Having your own breasts or genitals touched
  • Having to pose for photographs or videos of a sexual nature
  • Being shown films and/or having to listen to sexual talk
  • Having your vagina or anus penetrated by a penis, finger or object


Inappropriate Relationships

Inappropriate relationships often involve one perpetrator with power or control over a young person. Maybe this is because they are physically stronger, older or in a position of authority/care.

Older adult exploitation (sometimes called the ‘boyfriend’ model)

Sometimes an offender is several years older and ‘befriends’ (or grooms) the young person by exploiting their vulnerabilities. The child may initially feel they are in a positive and rewarding relationship with the adult.
Due to power imbalances and control issues, young people can become isolated and more and more dependent on the ‘boyfriend’, often being coerced or forced into sex with them and their associates.


Young people are sometimes passed by adults through between locations, whether it be their associates’ homes or towns and cities, where they may be forced or coerced into sexual activity, often with multiple people. This is known as trafficking. Young people are sometimes made to recruit other young people to take part.Due to power imbalances and control issues, young people can become isolated and more and more dependent on the ‘boyfriend’, often being coerced or forced into sex with them and their associates.

Sexual Bullying

Sexual bullying refers to unwanted pressure from the child’s peers to have sexual contact and includes cyber bullying. Sexual bullying can happen quickly without the forming of a relationship or the grooming process. Incidents may be filmed on mobile phones and circulated. It can occur publicly or involve multiple perpetrators.

Gang and group exploitation

Young people in gangs or groups may be sexually exploited as part of gang initiation or punishment. They may also be encouraged to recruit more children, exposing them to CSE and making it difficult to identify those who control the gang.

Children are often also groomed and befriended by abusers, pretending to be ‘friends’ or ‘boyfriends’ before being ‘passed around’ gangs of predatory abusers. This is often referred to as ‘on street grooming’.


  • Mood swings – angry, emotional, withdrawn, suicide attempts, depression.
  • Bruising, scarring on the body.
  • Receiving gifts.
  • Staying out late or not returning home.
  • Secretive and distant towards family and friends.
  • Skipping education.
  • Involved in criminal activity.
  • Education grades dropping.
  • Sexually transmitted infections.
  • Pregnancy or miscarriage
  • Using alcohol or drugs
  • Eating disorders
  • Not sleeping, nightmares, anxiety, panic attacks.
  • Violence or aggression towards parents, siblings or animals.



There are many reasons why a victim won’t disclose the abuse they are suffering. It might be that the victim…

  • Doesn’t recognise it as abuse.
  • Believes the abuser is their boyfriend / think it’s normal.
  • Finds it too difficult to talk about.
  • Thinks the abuser will change.
  • Feels embarrassed, ashamed, judged, to blame, fears rejection, will bevome isolated or called a liar.
  • Becomes emotionally attached to the abuser.
  • Feels will put themselves and family at risk.
  • Doesn’t know who to tell or trust.
  • Becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol.
  • Has committed criminal offences.
  • has lost trust in the police, the cps and the criminal justice system
  • doesn’t know where to turn for help and support

Who can I talk to about my abuse?

Legal Options

Support for Men

The impact of childhood sexual abuse

Useful Links

County Lines

How to View Discreetly