Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) is the term used to describe when a child or young person has been sexually abused. This abuse can take many different forms, and it can occur anywhere, both in person and online. It can be simply defined as an act that involves a child or young person in any activity for the sexual gratification of another. It can also relate to, or be interlinked with, child sexual exploitation (CSE), child criminal exploitation (CCE) or harmful sexual behaviours (HSB). All these elements need to be fully considered in the widest possible context to understand and respond to CSA to ensure children and young people receive the support they deserve.
CSA is the act or actions of forcing, tricking or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities. There may or may not be violence involved, and the child or young person may not understand what is happening or that it is wrong. The child or young person may be afraid to tell someone, or they may incorrectly think they are to blame or believe they have consented to the abuse.
The definition of CSA is set out by the UK Government in its statutory guidance, Working Together to Safeguard Children (Department for Education, 2018):
“Involves 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. Sexual abuse can take place online, and technology can be used to facilitate offline abuse. Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children.” Working Together to Safeguard Children, 2018
Where appropriate, this Strategy uses the term ‘victim’ to describe children and young people who have experienced CSA. It is understood not everyone who has experienced CSA considers themselves to be a victim and may describe themselves using different words. The goal of the Strategy is to use clear and consistent language that is easily understood by professionals in different agencies, the general public and the families that we work with.
The term ‘perpetrator’ is used here to refer to an individual who has, or is believed to have been involved in committing CSA. It encompasses both those who have been accused or convicted of CSA and those who have self-identified as having committed CSA. The term is used for consistency. However, there is awareness of the ongoing debate about the terminology, especially when used to describe children who sexually abuse other children.
It is important to remember that CSA is not solely committed by adult males, women can also commit acts of sexual abuse or be complicit in the perpetration of abuse. Individuals can commit CSA, or it can be part of a wider criminal network or activity, such as organised grooming or within the context of county lines where children and young people can be encouraged or forced to “plug” drugs within their anus or vagina.
Peer-on-peer sexual abuse is also a serious concern and is often framed within the term harmful sexual behaviours (HSB). Harmful sexual behaviour is sexual behaviour displayed by children and young people, which is developmentally inappropriate, making it harmful or abusive. Peer-on-peer sexual abuse is a form of Harmful Sexual Behaviour which takes place between children of a similar age or stage of development. Whereas child-on-child sexual abuse is a form of Harmful Sexual Behaviour that takes place between children of any age or stage of development.
There is a range of common and healthy behaviours at different developmental stages. The term ‘harmful sexual behaviour’ (HSB) is used to describe a continuum of sexual behaviours, from inappropriate to problematic to abusive and violent. It is important to remember that all abusive relationships are unhealthy but not all unhealthy relationships are abusive.
It has been estimated that between one fifth and one third of all CSA in the UK involves other children and adolescents as perpetrators (Hackett, S. 2014). However, most children and young people displaying HSB do not become sexual offenders as adults, and it is important not to indiscriminately criminalise children and ensure, as professionals, appropriate support is offered.
Hackett, S (2014). Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours. London: Research
Recent/acute refers to abuse that has occurred within 0 to 7 days.
Police may request forensic sampling from a child protection medical by a specialist CSA regional centre.
A child health assessment should also be requested at a specialist CSA centre.
Historic/non-acute refers to abuse that occurred more than seven days ago. This may have been within the previous few weeks or may have been months or years ago.
A child health assessment should be requested at a specialist CSA centre.
Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a form of sexual abuse in which a person or people, take advantage of a power imbalance to force, coerce, or manipulate a child into engaging in sexual activity in exchange for something they need or want. It can be perpetrated by individuals or groups, by males or females and by children or adults. It may be a one-off incident or take place over a prolonged period.
As with other forms of CSA, the child or young person may incorrectly believe they have consented to the abuse. This is often due to the complex grooming process. It is important to remember that children cannot consent to their own abuse and even those old enough to legally consent to sexual activity can only do so where they have the freedom and capacity to make a choice. CSE, like any other form of sexual abuse, can involve both physical and non-physical sexual activity and may also occur using technology. The abuse may also happen without the child or young person’s awareness, such as copies of photos or videos being distributed on social media.
The key element that differentiates cases of CSE from other forms of sexual abuse is that the child and/or someone else receives something in return for the sexual activity. This can take the form of money, drugs, alcohol, status, protection or perceived receipt of love or affection and may also be to prevent something negative or harmful happening to them or others. If sexual gratification, or exercise of power and control is the only gain for the perpetrator and there is no gain for the child or young person, this would not normally fall into the category of child sexual exploitation (CSE) and would be looked at as a different form of CSA.
Grooming is a crucial element of CSE and CCE but not always CSA by itself. Grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust and connection with a child or young person and leverage this to manipulate, exploit and abuse them. Anyone can be a perpetrator of grooming and groomers can build relationships and trust with the child/young person’s family to build credibility and enable the abuse. This can happen in person or online and can be by a stranger or someone known to the child. Groomers might also try to isolate children from their peers, family, and support networks to enact more control. They might also use other forms of manipulation or blackmail to enable their abuse.
It is never a child’s fault if they are sexually abused. There are many examples from historic cases that remind us that as professionals, it is our job to be professionally curious. We must also be careful with the language we use when analysing these situations. Terms such as “hard to reach/engage with” or “promiscuous” as seen in the well documented Rotherham CSE case are barriers to recognising and responding to CSA in all its forms.
There are laws to protect children up to the age of 18 from child sexual exploitation (CSE). A child cannot consent to exploitation. Consent in this context is having the freedom to choose and being able to exercise real choice about whether to engage in sexual activity or not. In cases of CSE, the child is often unable to refuse sexual activity because grooming has taken place, or violence/threats are used against them.
Having the capacity to choose refers to the ability to consent to make a particular choice on sexual activity. Therefore, people with additional needs or impaired mental faculties may not have the capacity to consent. A person of any age who is intoxicated with drugs or alcohol also does not have the capacity to consent to sexual activity.
Under the Sexual Offences Act, a person can legally consent to sexual activity only if they are aged 16 years or over. But if a child is under 13 years old then, in law they are automatically regarded as not able to consent to sexual activity. This is the case even if they have expressed consent or incorrectly believes they can consent to sexual activity.
The law is not intended to criminalise developmentally normal, consenting sexual activity between children of a similar age where there is no power imbalance or coercion.