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Abuse and Traumas

The unique nature of adolescence means that young people experiencing abuse and trauma in this phase of life may have different needs to younger children or adults.

One in five people experiences at least one form of child abuse before the age of 16

Sexual abuse and assault

It is not possible to establish the number of sexual offences against children in the UK, as the age of the victim of the sex offence is often not given. Only a very small minority of sexual offences against children will get as far as a prosecution, and most sexual abuse is not reported. Interviewing children about sexual abuse is a very skilled area of research and requires particular ethical scrutiny. This is an area where estimating prevalence is extremely difficult.

Approximately 50 children in each state-funded secondary school in England and Wales will have experienced contact sexual abuseAnother area of difficulty for both research and definitions is abuse that may be going on between children and young people themselves including sexting behaviour, and the consequences of image sharing for both parties involved. One in 20 young people report a sexual image being shared after a relationship break-up (NSPCC, 2020).

However, some studies have suggested that a significant proportion of young people aged 10-24 will have experienced sexual abuse. For example, in 2011 the NSPCC undertook a major piece of research interviewing 1,761 young adults aged 18-24 years, 2,275 children aged 11-17 years and 2,160 parents of children aged under 11 (Radford et al, 2011). The authors estimated that 1 in 20 young people will have experienced contact sexual abuse in the UK. Rates were higher (up to 1 in 6) for all kinds of sexual abuse. In the 2015-16 Crime Survey for England and Wales, 7% of people aged between 16 and 59 reported that they were sexually abused as a child (ONS, 2020a) but it is not known what proportion of this occurred age 10-24. The HM Government has estimated that this equated to around 50 children in each state-funded secondary school in England and Wales in 2014 (HM Government, 2017). 

6.9% of 16-24 year olds say they have been pressurised to have sex against their willThe Natsal-3 survey provided important data on rates of non-consensual sex in the 2013 wave. Respondents answered questions about whether anyone had made them have sex against their will. In the 16-24 year old group (of whom there were 1,700), 16.4% reported that someone had attempted to have non-volitional sex with them, and 6.9% reported that they had experienced non-volitional sex. In one quarter of the cases, the young people had told the police (Macdowall et al, 2013). The median age for the whole sample (aged 16-74) to report non-volitional sex was 18 in women and 16 in men. The majority of the perpetrators were reported to be family, friends or current intimate partners.

Chart 8.4 shows that young people age 16-24 are more likely to be victims of sexual assault than any other age group.

Young people aged 16 to 24 years are more likely to be victims of sexual assault than any other age group

Rates of recorded sexual offences against young people have approximately doubled in all the countries of the UK over recent years. Age ranges vary between databases, but the NSPCC (2020) estimates are provided in Chart 8.5. Increases could be due to a range of factors including increased rates, changes in policing and changes in court procedures and sentencing.

Rates of recorded sexual offences against 11 to 18 year olds are increasing across the UK

All data correct as of 1st November 2021