Womens Support Project

Child sexual abuse & incest

Child sexual abuse happens in all classes, cultures and communities. People who have been sexually abused in childhood often prefer to be called a survivor, rather than a victim.

If you know or suspect that a child is being sexually abused or exploited then you can get information to help you decide what to do from your local child protection committee, the withscotland.org/ website provides links to local area child protection committees, or from Crimestoppers.

Information for parents whose child has been sexually abused is available here

If you are concerned about sexual exploitation of a child or young person please see here for further information.

Definition and main issues

Child Protection Services in Scotland use the following definition of child sexual abuse:

“Any child below the age of 16 may be deemed to have been sexually abused when any person(s), by design or neglect, exploits the child, directly or indirectly, in any activity intended to lead to the sexual arousal or other forms of gratification of that person or any other person(s), (including organised networks).  This definition holds whether or not there has been genital contact and whether or not the child is said to have initiated the behaviour”. 

Sexually abusive behaviour ranges from flashing to rape and can include:

  • penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth by a penis or object
  • a child or young person may be encouraged, coerced or forced to masturbate themselves or another person
  • touching a child in a sexual manner
  • involving a child or young person in the making of pornography or encouraging a child to look at pornographic images
  • prostituting a child or young person
  • voyeurism such as someone, for sexual gratification, watching a child or young person engaged in a private activity
  • inappropriate and abusive communication with a child, or ‘grooming’ them for sexual abuse or exploitation

Abusers are mostly someone known to the child or young person and come from all walks of life.  Men are much more likely to abuse children than are women, but whilst abuse by women is less common it is no less serious.    Young people can also be sexually abusive.  When the abuser is a close family member such as a father, grandfather, brother (including half brother) or uncle this may be referred to as ‘incest’.  

A development in recent years has been for abusive men to use social networking sites to access and ‘groom’ children and young people.  Information is available for parents and young people on how to safely use the internet including http://www.saferinternet.org.uk/

Rarely is child sexual abuse discovered when it is happening, it is more likely to come out when the survivor becomes an adult.  The abuser may have tricked the child or young person into thinking it was somehow her or his fault or that something will happen if they tell.  Abusers may make the child or young person believe they liked it, that it isn’t abuse, that no one would believe them, or that someone else would be hurt if they told. This doesn’t mean that the child or young person wanted the abuse to continue.  The responsibility for the abuse lies with the abuser.  No matter what the circumstances, no child is to blame for being sexually abused.

Regardless of whether you are a child or an adult, it can be difficult to tell anyone about childhood sexual abuse.  Roland Summit an American psychologist has written a helpful article which explains the pressures which can make it so difficult for children and young people to speak about sexual abuse. 

Parents and carers are understandably anxious to know if there are ‘signs’ that a child has been abused. The important thing is to be alert to the possibility of child sexual abuse in children’s lives.  Although there are few conclusive signs it is helpful for anyone involved with children and young people to be aware of the types of behaviour often found in children who have been sexually abused...more (pdf 78kb)

For information on how to respond if a child tells you about sexual abuse, see When Children Tell (pdf 105kb)

Rich Snowdon’s article excuses,excuses,excuses (pdf 45kb), explains the lengths abusers go to in order to hide sexual abuse.

Extent of child sexual abuse

A UK study found that 1 in 2 women and 1 in 4 men had experienced unwanted sexual attention before the age of 18, and that 1 in 20 women and 1 in 50 men had experienced childhood sexual abuse such as rape or forced masturbation.  For further information on this research study please go to the Child and Women Abuse Studies Unit.

The report ‘Children and Young People’s Concerns about their Sexual Health and Well-being’ includes information on the number of children calling Childline about sexual abuse.  

Impact of child sexual abuse

Everyone deals with difficult situations in their own individual way and child sexual abuse is no different.  Many survivors overcome the harmful effects and go on to lead full and happy lives.  There are some common negative effects, including:

  • Difficulty in trusting people and forming close relationships
  • Having low self esteem and confidence
  • Feeling a range of emotions such as – angry, ashamed, guilty, suicidal
  • Sometimes feeling nothing – numb
  • Anxiety and panic
  • Experience of flashbacks, nightmares and unwanted thoughts of the abuse
  • Difficulty in sleeping
  • Feeling different, dirty or not deserving of good things or happiness in life

For further information on the traumatic impact of child sexual abuse see  ‘The Traumatic Impact of Child Sexual Abuse  [pdf 84kb] Conceptualization’, by David Finkelhor, Ph.D., and Angela Browne, Ph.D.

Further information & support

For information on helpful resources please see:  WSP resource lists on Child Sexual Abuse

For information on support service sin the Greater Glasgow area please see:  WSP Directory of Support Services

The following websites provide helpful information on child sexual abuse.

Rape Crisis Scotland National Helpline
Information and support to anyone aged 13 and over who has experienced sexual violence. Also provides support to family, friends and workers of survivors to help them in their supportive role. Website gives information on local services.
Freephone 08088 01 03 02

Glasgow Rape Crisis
Helpful information for survivors.

National Association for People Abused in Childhood
Support for adult survivors of any kind of childhood abuse
Freephone 0800 085 3330

Survivor Scotland
Information on sexual abuse, including personal experiences, notice of events, where to get help

Survivors UK
0845 122 1201 (Local Rate)
Support for men who have been raped or sexually abused as a child.

For children and young people in the UK – to talk about any problem.
Freephone 0800 11 11

Scottish Child Law Centre
Free legal advice for under 18s about any aspect of the law relating to children and young people.
Freephone for under 18s - 0800 328 8970

Victim Support Scotland
Provides victims with free and confidential emotional and practical assistance and information about the criminal justice system.
Scottish Helpline 0845 6039 213 (Local Rate)

Breathing Space
Free confidential advice phone line for anyone suffering low mood or depression.
Freephone 0800 83 85 87

Bristol Crisis Service For Women
Confidential national helpline for women experiencing emotional distress with a particular focus on self-injury.
National Helpline 0117 925 1119

SAY Women
Support and safe accommodation for young women (to age 25) who have been affected by violence or abuse and are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

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