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What are the signs of sexual abuse?

In most cases, children are sexually abused by someone they are already acquainted with. This could be a relative, a family friend or someone in a position of power such as a teacher or football coach. Vulnerable children such as children with a disability are more at risk of sexual abuse due to the fact they may struggle to comprehend what has happened to them and therefore not tell anyone. As a parent, the appalling thought of your child experiencing sexual abuse may be inconceivable but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. 

The two types of sexual abuse

There are two types of sexual abuse: contact and non-contact abuse. Contact abuse is where an abuser makes physical contact with a child. It is important to remember that this type of sexual abuse is not solely penetrative; contact abuse can also include touching, kissing and oral sex. Contact abuse includes sexual touching of any part of a child’s body, whether they’re wearing clothing or not. Another example of contact abuse is when the abuser forces a child to engage in sexual activities or uses a body part or object to rape or penetrate a child. Making a child undress or touch someone else also constitutes as contact abuse. 

Non-contact sexual abuse is where a child is abused without being touched by the abuser. This can be in person or online; a child can experience non-contact sexual abuse on social media, through emails and texts, online chatrooms and gaming sites. Examples of non-contact sexual abuse can include: the abuser exposing or flashing themselves to the child, showing pornography or exposing a child to sexual acts. Non-contact sexual abuse can also involve making a child masturbate or forcing a child to take part in sexual activities or conversations online or through a smartphone. Online abuse can coincide with other forms of abuse such as grooming; the warning signs are the same.

Understanding the signs of sexual abuse

Understanding and recognising the signs of contact sexual abuse can save a child’s life. A child is more likely to show you that they have been sexually abused rather than tell you, whether that be through physical or behavioural changes. 

Physical signs that a child is being sexually abused may include:

  • Trouble walking or sitting
  • Physical pain or itching in the genital area 
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Urinary infections or sexually transmitted infections
  • Persistent sore throats
  • Self-harm or attempts at suicide

Other warning signs of sexual abuse involve changes to the child’s behaviour:

  • Changes in eating habits or developing eating disorders
  • Becoming withdrawn / clingy
  • Sleep disturbances or nightmares
  • Becoming secretive
  • Anxiety
  • Bedwetting
  • The child may behave in sexually inappropriate ways or use sexually explicit language.

How to help a child who is experiencing sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is a barbaric crime. Learning that your child or a child you know has suffered from sexual abuse can provoke feelings of devastation and anger. However, according to the NSPCC website, there are ways to approach a child who you believe to be experiencing sexual abuse. 

If a child talks to you about sexual abuse it is important to remain calm and take the following steps:

  • Listen carefully to what they’re saying
  • Let them know they’ve done the right thing by telling you
  • Tell them it’s not their fault
  • Say you’ll take them seriously
  • Don’t confront the alleged abuser
  • Explain what you’ll do next
  • Report what the child has told you as soon as possible

If you wish to report sexual abuse, call the NSPCC on  0808 800 5000 or email [email protected] for advice.