What is sexual abuse?

When a child or young person is sexually abused, they're forced or tricked into sexual activities. They might not understand that what's happening is abuse or that it's wrong. And they might be afraid to tell someone. Sexual abuse can happen anywhere – and it can happen in person or online.

It's never a child's fault they were sexually abused – it's important to make sure children know this.


Types of sexual abuse

There are 2 types of sexual abuse – contact and non-contact abuse. And sexual abuse can happen in person or online.

    Contact abuse is where an abuser makes physical contact with a child. This includes:

  • sexual touching of any part of a child's body, whether they're clothed or not

  • using a body part or object to rape or penetrate a child

  • forcing a child to take part in sexual activities

  • making a child undress or touch someone else.

Contact abuse can include touching, kissing and oral sex – sexual abuse isn't just penetrative.

Non-contact abuse is where a child is abused without being touched by the abuser. This can be in person or online and



  • exposing or flashing

  • showing pornography

  • exposing a child to sexual acts

  • making them masturbate

  • forcing a child to make, view or share child abuse images or videos

  • making, viewing or distributing child abuse images or videos

  • forcing a child to take part in sexual activities or conversations online or through a smartphone.

      Find out more about grooming and child sexual exploitation.

  Signs of sexual abuse

   Knowing the signs of sexual abuse can help give a voice to children. Sometimes children won't understand that what's happening

   to them is wrong. Or they might be scared to speak out. Some of the signs you might notice include:


   Emotional and Behavioural signs

  • Avoiding being alone with or frightened of people or a person they know.

  • Language or sexual behaviour you wouldn't expect them to know.

  • Having nightmares or bed-wetting.

  • Alcohol or drug misuse.

  • Self-harm.

  • Changes in eating habits or developing an eating problem.

  • Changes in their mood, feeling irritable and angry, or anything out of the ordinary.

    Physical signs

  • Bruises.

  • Bleeding, discharge, pains or soreness in their genital or anal area.

  • Sexually transmitted infections.

  • Pregnancy.

  • If a child is being or has been sexually abused online, they might:

  • spend a lot more or a lot less time than usual online, texting, gaming or using social media

  • seem distant, upset or angry after using the internet or texting

  • be secretive about who they're talking to and what they're doing online or on their mobile phone

  • have lots of new phone numbers, texts or email addresses on their mobile phone, laptop or tablet.

  • Children and young people might also drop hints and clues about the abuse.