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Child Sexual Assault

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The ONS has recently published data obtained from the Crime Survey for England and Wales.1 Data were obtained from face to face interviews and a self-completed questionnaire consisting of more sensitive questions relating to prior experience of sexual assault. The report acknowledges that such data is likely to be significantly limited by under-reporting. Data suggested that adults aged 45-59 were far more likely to report a childhood sexual assault; whilst there is a possibility that this represents a genuine declining prevalence of assaults over time, it was considered more likely that this is an artefact caused by an increased willingness to disclose abuse when more time has elapsed since the abuse.1

What is Childhood Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault should be distinguished from Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE), although there may be overlap, as victims of CSE are at higher risk of sexual assault. The ONS defines sexual assault as either1:

    • “Sexual assault by penetration.” This is defined as attempted or actual penetration of the mouth, vagina or anus with a penis, an object or the assailant’s fingers. 
    • “Other sexual assaults, including indecent exposure or unwanted touching”1

Statistics outlining sexual assaults brought to the attention of the authorities, including the police and social services, are available, but remain limited by under-reporting. The ONS report notes that 39,813 sexual assaults against children and young people under 16 were reported to police in 2015/16, but this is likely to be considerable under-estimate of the true prevalence.1

Risk factors for Sexual Assault

Children and young people under 16 are at greater risk of sexual assault if:

    • They are female. The ONS found 11% of females had been sexually assaulted in childhood, compared with 4% of men.1
    • They are gay or bisexual. Gay and bisexual adults were more likely to report childhood sexual abuse than heterosexuals. However, for assaults non-penetration assaults, this difference did not reach statistical significance.1
    • They are white, or have mixed multiple ethnicity. The ONS found that those who self-reported being White or of mixed ethnicity were more likely to report experiencing sexual assault in childhood (20% and 24% respectively) than those who described themselves as Asian (11%), Black (15%) or another ethnicity (11%). Some organisations have suggested differences in reporting regarding assault and CSE may be an artefact related to varying degrees of reporting between ethnic groups.1
    • They have a disability. 11.5% of adults describing themselves as having a disability or long-term illness reported childhood sexual assaults, compared with 5.8% who had not experienced these difficulties.1,2,3
    • They are looked after/in care. A recent report from Public Health England establishes that young people in care are more likely to have experienced sexual assault.4
    • They have been dispersed by conflict, especially if unaccompanied by adults.4

Who commits Sexual Assaults?

    • Most children are assaulted by adults known to them. Barnado’s has estimated that fewer than 10% are assaulted by strangers.5
    • Whilst children are more likely to be sexually assaulted by family, friends or acquaintances, more than 40% of adult abuse survivors reported they had been assaulted by a stranger. In other forms of abuse, strangers were the least likely to be reported as abusers.1
    • An ONS report establishes boys are more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone “in a position of trust (such as teacher, doctor, carer, youth worker”) than girls.1,6

Signs that a young person may have been sexually assaulted

Signs that a child or young person may have been sexually assaulted have much in common with other forms of sexual abuse. They include:

    • Evidence of physical assault, including bruising7
    • Symptoms suggestive of depression or anxiety, including withdrawal; altered appetite; and reduced attention to self-care7
    • Falling academic performance7
    • Self-harming behaviour7
    • Alcohol or substance abuse7
    • Inappropriately sexualised behaviour6
    • Somatic symptoms including abdominal pain, altered menstruation and gastrointestinal discomfort6

The WHO report also emphasises that there may be no evidence of sexual assault.6 The reliance on retrospective data from adult survivors of sexual abuse also emphasises that the problem is widely under-reported, as victims may not disclose assault for many years.1

Facts and figures

Information from Safer Lancashire show sexual offences make up approximately 3 in every 100 crimes across Lancashire8.

    • There were 676 sexual offence crimes recorded in Blackpool in 2016/17
    • This was an increase of 31% from 516 crimes in 2015/16
    • The sexual offence crime rate in Blackpool is over 2 times higher than the Lancashire average
    • Just over half of sexual offences (53%) involve children.
    • In 2016/17 there  were 358 sexual offences on Blackpool children aged under 16 years, compared to 259 in 2015/16.

Figure 1 shows the trend in the rate of of sexual offences against children under 16 years of age and compares Blackpool with the Lancashire average. The rate in Blackpool has doubled since 2014/15 and is significantly higher then the Lancashire average. Within Blackpool there is wide variation; rates in Talbot, Park and Claremont wards are significantly higher than the Blackpool average of 2.6 per 1,000.

Figure 1: Sexual offences against children aged under 16, rate per 1,000 population, Blackpool and Lancashire

Sexual offences against children under 16
Source: Safer Lancashire MADE database, CORA v17

Figure 2: Sexual offences against children aged under 16, rate per 1,000 population, Blackpool wards, 2015/16-2016/17 (2 years combined)

Sexual offences against children under 16-ward level
Source: Safer Lancashire MADE database, CORA v17

[1] ONS, Abuse during childhood: Findings from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, year ending March 2016 4th August 2016 [Accessed 7th July 2017]

[2] Wissink IB, van Vught E, Moonen X et al. Sexual abuse involving children with an intellectual disability: a narrative review. Research in Developmental disabilities 2015;36: 20-35

[3] Mueller-Johnson K, Eisner MP and Obsuth I. Sexual victimization of youth with a physical disability: an examination of prevalence rates, and risk and protective factors. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 2014;29(17): 3180-206.

[4] PHE, Child sexual exploitation: How public health can support prevention and intervention Literature search to identify the latest international research about effective interventions to prevent child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation. July 2017.[Accessed 21st August 2017]

[5] Barnado’s. Sexual Abuse [Accessed 21st August 2017]

[6] WHO. Chapter 7 - Child Sexual Abuse: Guidelines for Medico-legal care for victims of sexual violence, 2017 [Accessed 21st August 2017]

[7] RAINN. Warning signs for Teens [Accessed 21st August 2017]

[8] Safer Lancashire MADE Dataset, CORA v17, Dec 2017