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Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is when a child or young person is pressurised, forced, tricked or coerced into taking part in any kind of sexual activity with an adult or another young person. This can include kissing, touching the young person's genitals (private parts) or breasts, intercourse or oral sex. It can happen to anyone – boys and girls. If you are being sexually abused it's not your fault and you're not alone.

Image of a boy with his head down sitting in a corridorWhat is sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse is when you are:

  • Being touched in a way you don't like without giving permission or consent.
  • Being forced to have sex (intercourse).
  • Being forced to look at sexual pictures or videos.
  • Being made or forced to do something sexual.
  • Being made to watch someone do something sexual. This can include someone flashing or exposing themselves to you and can also happen online.

Facts about sexual abuse

  • Sexual abuse can happen to both girls and boys.
  • An abuser can be male or female. They can be a stranger, somebody you love and trust including a family member or another young person such as a boyfriend or girlfriend. They can also be the same sex as you.

  • You are not alone and there are people who can help you. You can contact ChildLine at any time.

Answers to your questions about sexual abuse:

  • Why does sexual abuse happen?

    It is normal to want to know why the abuse is happening. You might think, 'Why me? What have I done wrong?' But when somebody abuses another person, they have made the choice to abuse. It is nothing to do with who you are, or what you’ve said or done.

    It is not your fault – abuse can happen to anybody. Some people sexually abuse others because they want to feel power and control. They know that what they are doing is wrong. This is why they might tell you to keep it a secret or try and make you believe that it’s okay. This is what we call ‘grooming’ which is a way to build up trust with you so they can keep abusing you.

  • What is grooming?

    ‘Grooming’ is how an abuser makes you think that it is your fault – when it isn’t. Sometimes it starts by them trying really hard to be nice to you, giving you more and more attention or buying you gifts to make you like them. When they have gained your trust and you start to depend on them, they find ways to turn the relationship into something more sexual – abusing your trust and taking advantage of you. They might use secrecy, blame, gifts and threats of violence to stop you from telling somebody. This is because they know that when you do find the courage to tell somebody, they will no longer have power or control over you.

    Grooming can also happen online. 'Groomers' might try to make friends with you on social networks or other sites. They often use chat rooms pretending to be someone else. This could be someone younger, older, a different gender or different sexuality. Many 'groomers' will use profile pictures of someone else to hide their identity. It's important to think carefully about who you talk to and what personal details you share.
    Find out more about online grooming.
    Find out more about staying safe online.

  • Is it my fault that I’ve been sexually abused?

    No. It isn’t your fault if you have been sexually abused. People who sexually abuse others often make the people they abuse feel guilty and ashamed about what happened. This is so that they keep quiet about it. Sexual abuse can make you feel confused and scared. Even if they say it is your fault, it is never your fault. They are responsible for what they have done to you. You have done nothing wrong.

  • Who can sexually abuse young people?

    There is not one type of person who sexually abuses someone, but it is more likely that sexual abuse would be by someone you know. The abuse might even be by someone you love and trust. It can be a member of your family or your boyfriend or girlfriend. It could also be someone you met online and have become close to. Read Katie’s story about how she got help and support after being sexually abused by her boyfriend.

    A person who sexually abuses someone else can be male or female, old or young. Sexual abuse by women is not often talked about, but it does still happen. Sexual abuse by anyone, male or female, is wrong, and if it is happening to you, ChildLine can help. Call us on 0800 1111, or talk to us online.

  • It only happened once, does it still matter?

    Yes, it is still sexual abuse. It doesn’t matter how many times it happened or how long ago, it is still important that you get the help and support you need. It is never too late to tell somebody.

  • What is rape and sexual assault?

    Rape and sexual assault is a type of sexual abuse. It involves being forced to have sex (rape) or when somebody intentionally touches you in a sexual way without your consent (assault). It can happen to anyone – boys and girls. If you have been raped or sexually assaulted it's not your fault and you're not alone. Visit the rape and sexual assault page for more information and support.

  • Is it sexual abuse if no one actually touches me?

    If someone touches themselves in a sexual way in front of you, or if they want you to touch yourself sexually in front of them (including online), that's still sexual abuse. You are being sexually abused if someone makes you look at sexual material such as photos or films, or become involved in creating them.

  • What is sexual harassment?

    Sexual harassment is a type of bullying in a sexual way. It can happen anywhere, including at school, at home or at work. It can leave you feeling humiliated, embarrassed, self-conscious and frightened.

    It is sexual harassment when somebody:

    - pinches or grabs your breasts and private parts
    - spreads sexual rumours about you
    - says inappropriate things about the way you look that makes you feel uncomfortable
    - calls you names such as slut, tart or whore
    - takes your clothes off when you don’t want them to
    - touches you in a way you don't like
    - forces you to kiss somebody or do something else sexually.

  • How can I make sexual harassment stop?

    1. Let the person know that you don’t like what they are doing and you want it to stop. If you feel unsafe confronting them, don’t put yourself at risk. Tell someone else who can help.
    2. If you’ve noticed it’s happening to another person as well, you can try and support each other in reporting it.
    3. Try not to nervously laugh, smile or ‘go along’ with the harassment. Try to send the message that it is not okay. Remember, you have the right to say no to any comments or touching that you don't like.
    4. Keep a record of when and where the sexual harassment happens and by whom.
    5. Report it to a trusted adult such as a teacher. The school has a duty to take these reports seriously.
    6. Contact ChildLine free on 0800 1111 or through 1-2-1 chat online for help and support.

  • At what age can I have sex?

    In the UK, you can legally have sex after the age of 16. This applies to heterosexual sex (between male and female partners), or homosexual or gay sex (between two members of the same sex). Although you can legally have sex at this age, you should only have sex when you are ready and not feel pressured into doing it.

    At ChildLine we understand that many young people have sex before the age of 16. If you do feel ready to have sex, it's important to use contraception and make sure you feel safe. Remember that no one should be forcing you or pressuring you into having sex. Find out more about sex and contraception.

  • Will my boyfriend/girlfriend leave me if I don't have sex with him/her?

    No one should be forcing you or pressuring you into having sex. If you're under 16, the law states you shouldn't be having sex at all so it's not okay for anyone to make you feel like you should. If you're over 16 and someone's trying to force you, that's illegal too. It is also wrong if someone who is under the age of 16 forces you or pressures you to have sex. The law is there to protect you and keep you safe, not to get you in trouble.

    If you are having sex with someone who is above the age of consent and you are underage, it is the person you are having sex with who is in the wrong, and not you. You will not get into trouble if you tell someone. You do not have to stay with anyone who is making you do something that you do not want to do. Read Katie’s story about how she got help and support after being sexually abused by her boyfriend.

  • How do I tell someone that I’ve been sexually abused?

    Speaking up about sexual abuse is a brave and difficult thing to do.

    1. Pick somebody you trust. They could be a grandparent, neighbour, a friend’s parent, teacher, religious leader or doctor. Find out more about asking an adult for help

    2. Write it down. Talking about abuse can be upsetting but it’s important that you tell them as much as you can about what’s been happening – you could try writing it down in a letter instead.
    3. Pick a time when you can talk privately with the person you want to tell.
    4. If you have a close friend, you could ask them to be there when you tell somebody.
    5. Understand that it’s NOT your fault. You may feel ashamed or embarrassed but don’t let that stop you talking to someone you trust.
    6. Know that ChildLine is always here for you on 0800 1111 and online. We can also tell somebody for you if you wanted us to – all you need to do is ask.

  • If I tell someone, will they believe me?

    ChildLine listens to everything that you tell us, and we will believe you.

    Never give up
    Some people may find it upsetting to be told about something as serious as sexual abuse and may find it difficult to come to terms with what you are saying. They may not want to get involved or might suggest that you are overreacting or that you have got it wrong. They might find it hard to deal with what you are saying but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t tell people. If you speak to someone who doesn’t want to help you, don’t give up – tell somebody else. You have done the right thing in speaking up.

    We believe you
    Sometimes the person who is abusing you will lie and say that nobody will believe you and nobody cares about what is happening to you. So they try and stop you from telling somebody. This is not true. There are people who care about you very much. Please contact us if you are worried about sexual abuse and we can help you. Talk to a counsellor free on 0800 1111 or through 1-2-1 chat online.

  • I don’t have enough proof that it happened, what can I do?

    Even if you think that you don’t have any evidence, it is still important that you tell somebody. If you can, save any texts, emails or messages from the person who is abusing you and the times it happened.

  • If I talk to ChildLine, do I have to tell you everything?

    No. The counsellors at ChildLine are here to listen and help you. You don't have to talk about anything you don't want to. You don’t have to go into details about what the person does to you. Whatever you do decide to tell us, we won’t be shocked or make you feel judged or wrong in any way. You can feel safe when you talk to us and only have to tell us what you feel comfortable with. You are in control.

    If you call ChildLine you could say “somebody is making me do something which I don’t like.” You don’t need to say who it is. The counsellor will want to understand what’s been happening for you and they might ask some questions. But it’s OK to say you don’t want to answer any questions you’re not comfortable with. Watch our video about what’s it like to contact ChildLine about sexual abuse.

  • What happens after you tell somebody about sexual abuse?

    Speaking up about sexual abuse can be upsetting and scary. We understand that you want the abuse to stop. We also understand that you might be worried about what might happen after you tell somebody. This is normal and it’s okay to feel like this. 

    Some things you might be worried about:
    - what people might think
    - upsetting a parent or carer
    - making the abuse worse for yourself or a brother or sister
    - getting the person who’s abusing you into trouble
    - breaking up the family.

    The most important thing is that you are safe and you feel like you can talk to somebody. We don’t want you to go through this on your own.

  • What happens if I tell a teacher, police officer or doctor?

    If you decide to report the abuse to a teacher, police officer or doctor they have a duty to report it to a social worker. A social worker’s job is to talk with you and your family to see what the best way to keep you safe is. Lots of young people worry that they will ‘take you away’ or ‘break up the family’ – but they want to make things better for you, not worse. If they can, they will always try and sort things out in the family before they think about moving anyone out of the house.

    Depending on the information they have and whether they know of your family already, a social worker may do a ‘safety check’ within seven days. This usually means a social worker coming round to speak to you and your parent or carer. If the abuse is happening at home, you can tell a teacher that you’re afraid and would prefer to speak to a social worker at school instead. You could also try and plan a bit of what you want to say before you talk to them. If you have any evidence then it’s a good idea to give them that too. If you do decide to tell someone you can still talk to us about what is happening for you. Watch our video about what’s it like to contact ChildLine about sexual abuse.

  • What will happen if I tell ChildLine?

    If you are worried about people finding out about the abuse or you’re not ready to tell somebody just yet, you can speak to a ChildLine counsellor on 0800 1111. We are here to listen and support you like a friend would. Watch our video about what’s it like to contact ChildLine about sexual abuse.

    We are a private and confidential service which means that what you say stays between you and ChildLine. It is free to call and the number won’t show up the phone bill, including mobiles. Read our confidentiality promise for more information.

  • I think my friend is being sexually abused. What should I do?

    If you are worried that your friend might be being abused, it’s important to speak to your friend about it. You can let them know that you are there for them to talk if they want to. Be prepared for the possibility that they may not want to talk to you about it. They may be scared about what will happen if they tell someone.

    If they do tell you about what’s happening to them, you could encourage them to tell a trusted adult about it. Let them know that you are there for them and they can talk to you. You and your friend can also talk to ChildLine at any time. We are here for you. Call free on 0800 1111or chat to us online.  Sometimes it can be good to sit with your friend and have a look at the ChildLine website, so they can see what we do and how we can help.

  • I’m over 18 and was sexually abused. Who can help me?

    If you’ve been sexually abused in the past it can be very difficult to cope with what has happened. You may have experienced flashbacks or nightmares, possible anxiety and depression. If you are an adult survivor, the NAPAC website provides helpful advice and support for anyone who was abused in childhood. Working through this takes time and it may be painful to remember back to what happened. But there is support out there to help you deal with the memories and look forward to the future.Visit the NAPAC website for information and support for adults abused in childhood.

Other sites that can help

Help for women and girls who have been raped or experienced sexual violence. They also have information for family and friends.
Rape Crisis

Free confidential help for victims of crime, witnesses, their family, friends and anyone else affected by sexual violence.
Victim Support

Survivors UK supports men and boys who have experienced sexual abuse and rape.
Survivors UK

For adults who have been abused in the past

  • NAPAC is the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. They provide support and information for people abused in childhood.NAPAC

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