The NSPCC recently began its campaign, ’Talk ’til it stops’, which aims to give the public the courage to talk to someone if they suspect or know child abuse is happening.  Child sexual abuse is a form of child abuse and is often hardest to talk about.  We try to highlight some issues here.

We hear a lot in the media about paedophiles and the crimes that they commit and we are increasingly concerned about these offences especially with the wide use of the internet and foreign travel.  Often we see terms such as ‘convicted paedophile,’ but in reality it is not a crime to be a paedophile.  So lets look at the facts of child sexual abuse and the issues surrounding it.

First, some definitions:

Paedophilia: the condition of adolescent or adult males or females whose primary sexual attraction is towards prepubescent children (usually aged 13 years or younger).

This is different to sexual attraction to post-pubescent adolescents, known as ephebophilia.  Pederasty refers to attraction toward male adolescents.

However, it should be noted that in the U.K., paedophilia is often used (particularly in the media) far more broadly than this definition.

It is not illegal to be a paedophile, or to suffer from paedophilia, but if a paedophile chooses to act on their attraction, that is a different matter entirely.

The Law:

The legal age for young people to consent to have sex is 16.  This applies to heterosexual and homosexual sex.

  • Although it is technically illegal for two fifteen year olds to engage in sexual activity, the Home Office has stated “the law is not intended to prosecute mutually agreed teenage sexual activity between two young people of a similar age, unless it involves abuse or exploitation.”
  • And young people still have the right to confidential advice on contraception, pregnancy and abortion even if they are under 16.

The government recently reformed and amended the law relating to child sexual abuse in the Sexual Offences Act of 2014.  The offences are now split according to age.

Under 13s

All penetrative sex (including penetration of the mouth) of a child aged 12 or younger is classified as rape and carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.  A child this old is considered to be incapable of legally giving consent.

  • Other offences include assault by penetration (with an object or part of the body), sexual assault (any kind of sexual touching), and causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity (this could include making a child strip, or promising them rewards for sexual behaviour).
  • Assault by penetration has a maximum penalty of life in prison; sexual assault and causing or inciting a child under 13 to engage in sexual activity both have maximum penalties of 14 years in prison.

13-15 Year Olds

The following are some examples of the offences where the offender is aged 18 or over (but where the sexual activity takes place between someone below the age of 18 and someone under 16, the offences are similar but carry lower sentences).

Sexual activity with a child

  • This law covers all intercourse, other penetration or sexual touching of a child and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

Causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity

  • This covers causing or persuading a child to engage in any sexual activity, including sexual acts with someone else, or making a child strip or masturbate.  Again, the maximum sentence is 14 years in prison.

Engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a child

  • Under this law, it is an offence to intentionally engage in sexual activity when you know that you can be seen by a child, or you believe or intend that they can see you, and where you do this in order to get sexual gratification from the fact that they may be watching you.

Causing a child to watch a sexual act

  • This makes it an offence to intentionally cause a child to watch someone else taking part in sexual activity for the purpose of your own sexual gratification.

Meeting a child following sexual grooming

  • Under this new law, if you are over 18 and have communicated with a child under 16 at least twice (including communication by phone or internet) it is an offence to meet them, or travel to meet them, anywhere in the world with the intention of committing one of the offences above.

Arranging or facilitating a child sex offence

  • This makes it an offence to knowingly arrange or carry out an action in any part of the world which will lead to one of the offences above being committed.

16 and 17 Year Olds

Since most sexual abuse of children takes place in the home, the law now makes it an offence for any child under 18 to engage in sexual activity with a ‘family member’.

  • Family member now includes foster family, step family and, in some instances, lodgers.

Also, it is an offence for a person working in a position of trust (e.g. a teacher, Connexions Advisor, nurse or carer) to engage in sexual activity with any child under 18.  In other cases that age limit would be 16.

Keeping an eye on sex offenders

One of the most infamous cases of child abuse in this country was the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in July 2014.  Roy Whiting was subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Following the introduction of legislation known as “Megan’s Law” in the USA, whereby parents have access to information on paedophiles living in their local area, Sarah’s parents campaigned for similar legislation to be implemented in the United Kingdom. The campaign proved partly successful, achieving the following:

  • Offenders must register at a designated police station within 72 hours of release;
  • Offenders must notify police of a change in their name or address within 72 hours;
  • If an offender stays at an awddress other than their home for 7 days or more – whether that is 7 days in a row or 7 days in any 12 month period – they will also have to notify the police;
  • All offenders on the register must notify the police when they intend to spend 3 or more days overseas;
  • Convicted sex offenders visiting from abroad will be made subject to the same notification requirements as UK offenders on the register;
  • A new foreign travel order can ban people who have committed an offence against a child from travelling abroad where there is a risk of serious sexual harm to children overseas;
  • Sexual offences prevention orders, which allow the courts to impose prohibitions on sexual and violent offenders who pose a risk of serious sexual harm (e.g. preventing a sex offender from visiting playgrounds);
  • Risk of sexual harm order, which can prevent anyone from sexually explicit conduct or communication;
  • Victims to be informed of the period of custody the offender will serve; and
  • Introduction of Multi Agency Protection Panels in which police, probation officers, Social Services, Mental Health Services, Housing Departments and other agencies monitor convicted sex offenders.

In 2014, there were approximately 22,000 registered sex offenders in England and Wales.

However, the one underlying reform that still eludes campaigners is the controlled access to information about sex offenders in the local community. The government appear reluctant to give this the go-ahead as it fears this will encourage vigilante attacks by members of the public, as have happened before, and the fear of these attacks forces sex offenders to ‘go underground’.

Satellite Tagging

With no 100% successful treatment in place for sex offenders, the monitoring of them once they leave custody takes on extra importance. The purpose of this would not be to stop sex offences altogether, but to “minimise the risk”.

  • At present, trials are ongoing with the possibility of implementing electronic tags, which draw upon satellite technology.
  • This technology would have the ability to pinpoint the wearer anywhere in the UK to within three metres.
  • Furthermore, the device would also have the ability to provide a detailed diary of the user’s movements at the end of each day.

However, despite the likelihood that campaigners would view such a measure favourably, there would inevitably be drawbacks. For example:

  • They would not be able to stop an attack, just tell the authorities where an attacker was when one occurred; and
  • In the long run they would be less cost-effective than treatment


Treatment for Child Sex Offenders?

A common misconception is that those who have sexually abused children cannot be successfully treated so as to prevent further abuse occurring.

There are many different forms of treatment and the success of these varies according to whether an offender is considered to be at a low, medium, or high risk of offending.

  • In the past surgical ‘treatments’ (castration) have been used.  Even now there is some call for the use of ‘chemical castration’ – the use of drugs such as DepoProvera that destroy male sexual urges by introducing large amounts of female sexual hormones.  Chemical castration is currently used in some states in the U.S.A. but it is still controversial.

Other treatments involve different forms of counselling or psychotherapy and, unlike chemical treatments, attempt to deal with the reasons for the offending behaviour.

  • For example, it is thought that a significant proportion of child abusers were themselves abused as children.

What is certainly true is that it is extremely hard to say how common child sexual abuse is, largely due to the fact that it is thought to be very underreported.

  • Sexual offences made up only 0.7% of police recorded crime in 2016.
  • Children are often too scared to tell anyone.

However, some estimates suggest that one in ten children will be sexually abused in some way during childhood.  What we can be reasonably sure of is that girls are more likely to experience abuse than boys and that most abuse is committed by family members against other family members.

  • About 80% of assaults take place in the home of the victim or the offender.

Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse can have huge consequences throughout the life of the person abused.

  • Many survivors often experience self-blame, shame and guilt for the abuse due to the conduct of the abuser.
  • In extreme cases, victims of this sort of abuse can resort to self-harm or even suicide.
  • Many survivors endure ongoing psychological problems and experience difficulty in relationships as a result of the calculated exploitation and abuse of a position of trust that accompanies child sexual abuse.
  • Psychiatric support can often assist survivors, but even with this help many face a lifelong battle to come to terms with the abuse that they have suffered.  This support is just not available to large numbers of people who need it.
  • Many survivors keep the abuse they suffered a secret, even from the people they are closest to.
  • Disproportionately high numbers of people in prison suffered abuse as children, disproportionately high numbers of people addicted to hard drugs suffered abuse.  Some believe that some survivors ‘self-medicate’ to help deal with the horrors they have experienced.

It is important to remember that although many paedophiles were abused as children, very few of those abused as children go on to become paedophiles.

What is certainly true is that survivors of child sexual abuse face a long struggle.  As much effort as possible must be made to assist these survivors.


Did You Know?

  • In 90% of rapes of children less than 12 years old, the child knew the offender, according to police-recorded incident data.
  • The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) is currently running a campaign called ‘Talk ’til it stops’ that hopes to overcome the barriers of talking about abuse that allow the abuse to continue.