Learn more about sexual abuse

This section will help you to understand what is meant by child sexual abuse, and what the impact that sexual abuse can have on a person.

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

It is any sexual act between an adult and a minor or between two minors when one exerts power over the other.

It is forcing, coercing or persuading a child to engage in any type of sexual act. It also includes non-contact acts such as exhibitionism, exposure to pornography, voyeurism and communicating in a sexual manner by phone or internet.

It is an agonising and traumatic experience for its victims.

It is a crime punishable by law.

Sexually abused children who keep it a secret or who “tell” and are not believed are at greater risk than the general population for psychological, emotional, social and physical problems, often lasting into adulthood. It is also likely that you know an abuser. The greatest risk to children doesn’t come from strangers but from friends and family.

People who abuse children look and act just like everyone else. In fact, they often go our of their way to appear trustworthy, seeking settings where they can gain easy access to children. 

Why don’t victims report what is happening to them?

This is a question that is asked time and time again. To understand the answer, we need to understand what abuse does to the mindset of the victim.

Nearly 80% of children are under the age of 11 when the abuse starts, and many do not know they are being sexually abused – in some cases it is years later, before they understand.

Abusers are experts in knowing how to silence a child. Children also have to deal with how the abuse makes them feel and what they think will happen if they tell anybody.

Effects of sexual abuse on Victims

For victims, the effects of child sexual abuse can be devastating. Victims may feel significant distress and display a wide range of psychological symptoms, both short- and long-term. They may feel powerless, ashamed, and distrustful of others. The abuse may disrupt victims’ development and increase the likelihood that they will experience other sexual assaults in the future.

In the short-term (up to two years), victims may exhibit regressive behaviours (e.g., thumb-sucking and bed-wetting in younger children), sleep disturbances, eating problems, behaviour and/or performance problems at school, and unwillingness to participate in school or social activities

Longer-term effects may be wide-ranging, to include anxiety-related, self-destructive behaviours such as alcoholism or drug abuse, anxiety attacks, eating disorders, disassociation, self harm, insomnia and suicidal.

Survivors may feel anger at the abuser, at adults who failed to protect them, and at themselves for not having been able to stop the abuse.

Victims may feel powerless and betrayed, unable to trust people because someone they depended on has caused them great harm or failed to protect them.

Abusers may cause victims to feel stigmatised (i.e., ashamed, bad, deviant) and responsible for the molestation.

Some victims may appear to be free of the above symptoms. Many of these experience a breakdown later in life.

A child who is the victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness and an abnormal or distorted view of sex.

Warning Signs of Possible Sexual Abuse

How can you recognise when somebody is being sexually abused. Here are some of the signs that MAY indicate abuse.

There are many other additional sources of information. 


The British Journal of Psychiatry website has many articles covering the many different effects of child sexual abuse. This link will take you to articles written over the last 3 years.