Understanding & Discussing Sexual Abuse

1. What is abuse and what is sexual violence?

2. Signs and symptoms

3. What is Grooming?

4. Consent

1. What is abuse and what is sexual violence?

Abuse is a form of maltreatment of a child. Somebody may abuse a child by inflicting harm or failing to act to prevent harm.

The child might be abused by an adult or another child or children. A child can also abuse or harm her or himself.

Types of Abuse:

There are many types of abuse. Some include

  • Radicalisation
  • Honour-based Violence
  • Peer on peer abuse
  • Neglect
  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Sexual

We will be focusing on sexual abuse or violence for this training today.

Sexual Violence

Some professionals use the term sexual violence some use sexual abuse. Both terms can be used to describe sex acts that are non-consensual and that occur to children and young people or vulnerable adults. These acts against children are both abusive and violent. During this training we will be using the term sexual violence.

What is Sexual violence?

When a child or young person experiences sexual violence, they are forced or tricked into sexual activities. They might not understand that what is happening to them is abuse or that it is wrong. They are often afraid to tell someone about what is happening to them. Sexual abuse can happen anywhere – and it can happen in person or online.

  • There are 2 types of sexual violence – contact and non-contact abuse
  • Sexual violence does not always involve a high level of physical violence
  • The child may not be aware of what is happening
  • Sexual violence can be perpetrated by men, women and other children or young people, this is called peer to peer abuse/violence

Contact abuse:

Contact abuse is when a child is touched in some way by the abuser.

  • Sexual touching of any part of a child’s body whether they are 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 involve kissing, touching and oral sex, it is not just penetrative sex.

Non-contact abuse:

This is where a child is being abused without being touched by the abuser. This can be in person or online.

Examples of non- contact abuse

  • Exposing or flashing
  • Showing children pornography
  • Exposing a child to sexual acts
  • Making a child 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 through a smartphone or computer

Physical signs that indicate a young person is experiencing sexual violence:

  • Stained or bloody underclothing
  • Bruising to buttocks, abdomen, thighs, hips, neck
  • Bite marks or scratch marks on back, neck, chest
  • Injuries (e.g. marks on wrists, wounds on knees)
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Unexpected pregnancy especially in very young girls
  • Unexplained recurrent urinary tract infections, discharges or abdominal pain
  • Pain or itching in genital area, anus or mouth

Emotional / behavioural signs that indicate a young person is experiencing sexual violence:

  • Sexual knowledge or sexualised behaviour inappropriate for their age
  • Hinting at sexual activity
  • Sudden changes in their personality
  • Avoiding being alone with or frightened of people they know
  • Lack of concentration, restlessness
  • Socially withdrawn
  • Poor trust in significant adults
  • Regressive behaviour, onset of wetting – day or night
  • Suicide attempts, self-harm/mutilation, self-disgust
  • Eating disorders, hysteria attacks
  • Substance Misuse

What is grooming?

Grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them. Children and young people who are groomed can be sexually abused, exploited or trafficked.Anyone can be a groomer, no matter their age, gender or race. Grooming can take place over a short or long period of time – from weeks to years. Groomers may also build a relationship with the young person’s family or friends to make them seem trustworthy or authoritative.

Types of grooming:

Children and young people can be groomed online, in person or both, by a stranger or someone they know. This could be a family member, a friend, a partner or someone who has targeted them like a teacher, faith group leader, youth worker or sports coach. Anyone who has access to a child or young person could groom them.

When children and young people are groomed online the groomers hide who they are by sending photos or videos of other people. Sometimes this’ll be of someone younger than them to gain the trust of a peer. They might target one child online or contact lots of children very quickly and wait for them to respond.

How groomers groom young people:

Groomers can us a number of different tactics when grooming young people. The relationship they build with the child/young person can take on many forms, examples include…

  • A romantic relationship
  • As a mentor
  • As an authority figure
  • As a dominant and persistent figure

A groomer can use the same websites, apps and games as young people, spending time learning about a young person’s interests and use this to build a relationship with them. Children/young people can be groomed online through…

  • Text, voice and video chats in forums, games and apps.
  • Social media networks
  • Text messaging and message apps like WhatsApp
  • Email
  • Text, voice and video chats in forums, games and apps.

Whether online or in person, groomers can use tactics like…

  • Pretending to be younger than they are
  • Giving advice and showing understanding
  • Buying gifts
  • Giving attention
  • Taking them on trips or holidays

Groomers may also try and isolate children from their friends and family, making them feel dependent on them and giving the groomer power and control over them. They might use blackmail or make a young person feel guilt and shame or introduce the idea of ‘secrets’ to control, frighten and intimidate.

It is important to remember that children and young people may not understand that they’ve been groomed. They may have complicated feelings, like loyalty, admiration, love as well as, distress and confusion.

Signs of grooming:

It can be very difficult to tell if a child is being groomed – the signs aren’t always obvious and may be hidden. Older children might behave in a way that seems to be “normal” teenage behaviour, masking underlying problems.

Some of the signs you might see include:

  • being very secretive about how they’re spending their time, including when online
  • having an older boyfriend or girlfriend
  • having money or new things like clothes and mobile phones that they can’t or won’t explain
  • underage drinking or drug taking
  • spending more or less time online or on their devices
  • being upset, withdrawn or distressed
  • sexualised behaviour, language or an understanding of sex that’s not appropriate for their age*
  • spending more time away from home or going missing for periods of time.

A child is unlikely to know they’ve been groomed. They might be worried or confused and less likely to speak to an adult they trust. If you’re worried about a child and want to talk to them, we have advice on having difficult conversations

Effects of grooming:

Grooming can have both long and short-term effects. The impact of grooming is different for everyone and can last a lifetime, no matter whether it happened in person, online or both.

A child or young person might have difficulty sleeping, be anxious or struggle to concentrate or cope with school work. They may become withdrawn, uncommunicative and angry or upset.  Children, young people and adults may live with:

      • anxiety and depression
      • eating disorders
      • post-traumatic stress
      • difficulty coping with stress
      • self-harm
      • suicidal thoughts
      • sexually transmitted infections



Everyone has the right to say ‘no’ to sex, to withdraw or withhold their consent for any sexual act, on any occasion and under any circumstances, regardless of whether they’ve given consent to sex with that person in the past and regardless of whether they’re in a relationship with the other person. Sex without consent is rape.

According to section 74 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, someone consents when she or he “agrees by choice…and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.”

There are no grey areas when it comes to consent for example:

      • If someone is under the age of 16, they don’t legally have the capacity to consent to sex.
      • If someone is asleep or unconscious, they don’t have the capacity to consent.
      • If they’ve been kidnapped or held against their will, they don’t have the freedom to consent


To learn more about consent visit our Sexual Consent page.