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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Final report

B.2: The nature and characteristics of child sexual abuse

5. In addition to the accounts recorded in Victims and Survivors’ Voices, the Inquiry heard evidence of the sickening, painful and degrading sexual abuse of children.[1] Each of these acts is a crime. Chief Constable Simon Bailey, at that time the National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Child Protection and Abuse Investigations and now retired, told the Inquiry that the police were encountering:

levels of depravity that are – if they could get worse, are getting worse. We are seeing babies being subjects of sexual abuse.[2]

6. Some victims were forced to repeatedly perform sex acts, including acts of mutual and group masturbation, or were sexually assaulted and raped as forms of humiliation. Sexual abuse was often accompanied by extreme violence and acts of sadistic nature.[3]

7. As the UK government’s April 2019 Online Harms White Paper observed, “The sheer scale of CSEA [child sexual exploitation and abuse] online is horrifying”.[4] Some child sexual abuse is live streamed. The sums paid to watch and, in some cases, to direct live streamed sexual abuse of children can often be trivial, facilitating the engagement of would-be offenders in child sexual abuse on a significant scale. One seven-year-old victim in the Philippines was paid US$6 to perform online sexual acts on a webcam for foreigners three times a day.[5] The Inquiry is also aware of a case where a perpetrator paid just 93 pence to watch a girl being sexually abused.[6]

The impact of sexual abuse

8. Some children experience acute physical injuries, often, but not exclusively, as a result of penetrative abuse.[7] Sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy are an additional risk to an abused child’s health.[8]

9. Victims and survivors also experience emotional distress, including fear, anger, sadness and self-blame, manifesting itself in panic attacks, flashbacks, anxiety and signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.[9] Some engage in self-harming behaviours, such as cutting, hitting and burning their bodies.[10] Some children were so distressed that they tried to take their own lives.[11] Longer-term physical and mental health problems were also common, impacting upon an individual’s quality of life. Depression and anxiety disorders were particularly prevalent.[12] There are often difficulties developmentally (including educational achievement and prospects on the labour market) and in relationships (both familial and later in life).[13] Some victims and survivors adopted coping mechanisms as a way of dealing with the impacts of the abuse, some of which were disruptive or harmful.[14]

Key characteristics

10. While there is no stereotypical victim of child sexual abuse, there are a number of characteristics that may make some children more vulnerable to sexual abuse. These include age, sex and ethnicity, which are examined further below.

11. There are also a number of other characteristics that may make some children more vulnerable to sexual abuse.

11.1. Those who had experienced childhood neglect were nearly five times as likely to have experienced child sexual abuse as those who had not.[15]

11.2. Surveys also suggest that children who lived in a care home were nearly four times as likely to have experienced child sexual abuse. As at March 2021, there were 80,850 children in care in England and 7,263 children in care in Wales.[16] Children in care are some of the most vulnerable children in society, due to both the experiences and situations that led to them being placed in care and certain factors associated with being in care, such as going missing from care and being placed a long way from home. As set out in the Child Sexual Exploitation by Organised Networks Investigation Report, in England in the year to March 2018, child sexual exploitation was identified in 3,160 assessments for children in care. This equated to 16 percent of all the assessments which identified child sexual exploitation.[17]

11.3. In surveys, disabled participants were twice as likely to describe experiencing child sexual abuse as non-disabled participants.[18] Of those who participated in the Truth Project, a higher proportion of individuals who reported other forms of abuse and neglect were disabled.[19] As noted in the Inquiry’s Child Sexual Exploitation by Organised Networks Investigation Report, research indicated that children with disabilities were at an increased risk of being sexually exploited.[20]

11.4. Research indicates that children who are lonely or socially isolated may be more likely to be targeted, whether online or offline, by perpetrators. In relation to online offending, children who are exploring their sexuality, particularly LGBTQ+ children, may also be more vulnerable to abuse.[21]


12. Both girls and boys can be victims of child sexual abuse. The data show that a greater proportion of victims are girls, but there is evidence to suggest that boys may be less likely than girls to report sexual abuse in childhood.[22] In the year ending March 2021, of those children on child protection plans in England under the primary category of sexual abuse, 59 percent were girls and 41 percent were boys.[23] Police recorded crimes for the same period showed that the number of rapes and sexual assault offences of under 13s recorded on girls far exceeded the same offences against boys.[24] The Truth Project data recorded that 70 percent of victims and survivors were females.[25] In relation to reported online-facilitated child sexual abuse, girls are more likely to be the victims.[26]

13. The overwhelming majority of evidence heard by the Inquiry related to male perpetrators of child sexual abuse. Male perpetrators featured in 89 percent of accounts given to the Truth Project and studies examined by the Inquiry’s Rapid Evidence Assessment found that perpetrators of online-facilitated child sexual abuse are “mostly men”.[27] This accords with official data showing that, where the sex of the alleged perpetrator was recorded, most individuals convicted of child sexual abuse (98 percent) were males.[28]

14. In its 2021 annual report, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) noted that where an offender is visible in child sexual abuse material “they are most often a man”. However, over the course of a two-month study in 2021, the IWF analysed the prevalence of female perpetrators in child sexual abuse material seen by the IWF. It encountered images showing a female abuser “on average 13 times per working day. In half of the images and videos (49%) showing a female abuser, she was abusing a boy”.[29]


15. Children of all ages are at risk of abuse but younger children are at greater risk, as shown below.

15.1. For participants in the Truth Project, 79 percent of the victims and survivors were aged 11 or under at the time the abuse began.

Table B.1: Truth Project data – age of the victim and survivor when sexual abuse began
0–3 years old 12% 686
4–7 years old 35% 1,936
8–11 years old 32% 1,745
12–15 years old 18% 1,006
16–17 years old 2% 116
Total 5,489

Source: See data compendium to this report

15.2. This is also reflected in the age ranges of those children in England in the year ending 31 March 2021 who were placed on child protection plans because they were judged to be at significant risk of sexual harm. A child protection plan is a written record for parents, carers and professionals which sets out how the child’s welfare will be checked, what changes are needed to reduce the risk to the child and what support will be offered to the family.

Table B.2: Department for Education data – age of children on child protection plans at significant risk of sexual harm, in the year ending 31 March 2021
0–4 years old 26% 510
5–9 years old 27% 520
10–15 years old 39% 750
16–17 years old 8% 150
Total 1,930

Source: See data compendium to this report

16. Online-facilitated abuse involves ever younger victims. Some online sexual abuse forums require the perpetrator to prove that they have access to or can produce newly created child sexual abuse material. One site on the dark web required its subscribers to upload 20 newly created images of child sexual abuse or a two-minute video of infant or toddler abuse, each month.[30]

17. In relation to other forms of child sexual abuse, some child sexual abuse offences specifically refer to a ‘child under 16’ or a ‘child under 13’ and so it is possible to ascertain the number of police-recorded offences involving children under those ages, as discussed below. However, the data do not provide the age of the victims at the time of the sexual abuse.

18. Statistics recording the age of perpetrators are primarily based on criminal justice agency data which record the age of defendants proceeded against for child sexual abuse offences (Figure B.1). As demonstrated, the number of adult defendants in each age bracket has remained consistently stable. However, the data do not identify the age of the defendant at the time of the commission of the offence, which is a key consideration when analysing trends in cases of both recent and non-recent child sexual abuse. The data also suggest that a relatively low proportion of those defendants were aged under 18.[31]

From a Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse publication: a series of four stacked column charts, years 2017 to 2020, showing the percentage breakdown of defendants proceeded against for child sexual abuse offences broken down by age of defendant.

Figure B.1: Defendants proceeded against for child sexual abuse offences, by age, 2017–2020, England and Wales

Source: Child sexual abuse in 2020/21: Trends in official data, Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse, p32

Long Description
Defendants proceeded against for child sexual abuse offences, by age, 2017–2020, England and Wales
2017 2018 2019 2020
Aged under 18 years 6% 4% 4% 3%
Aged 18-20 years 7% 6% 5% 5%
Aged 21-24 years 7% 7% 7% 7%
Aged 25-29 years 9% 11% 9% 9%
Aged 30-39 years 19% 19% 21% 22%
Aged 40-49 years 17% 17% 17% 17%
Aged 50-59 years 16% 18% 17% 18%
Aged 60-69 years 12% 11% 12% 11%
Aged 70+ years 7% 8% 8% 7%


19. Accurate data on the ethnicity of victims and perpetrators play an important part in enhancing understanding of child sexual abuse and the context in which such abuse occurs. The data assist the relevant statutory agencies to target resources appropriately, including, for example, enabling the police to engage with communities where child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation occur. Victims and survivors may require culturally sensitive support from the statutory authorities.

20. However, data recording the ethnicity of victims and survivors are not easily available. As set out in the Inquiry’s Child Sexual Exploitation by Organised Networks Investigation Report, there were “widespread failures” to record data about the ethnicity of victims in six case study areas, resulting in the police and other agencies being “unable to identify local patterns and trends of child sexual exploitation in respect of ethnicity”.[32] The CSA Centre notes that “it is common for children’s ethnicity not to be recorded in agency data”.[33]

21. Data relating to the ethnicity of perpetrators are also lacking. In the Inquiry’s Child Sexual Exploitation by Organised Networks Investigation Report, the six case study areas also failed to properly record the ethnicity of perpetrators:

Many of the high-profile child sexual exploitation prosecutions have involved groups of men from minority ethnic communities. This has led to polarised debate about whether there is any link between ethnicity and child sexual exploitation networks. Poor or non-existent data collection makes it impossible to know whether any particular ethnic group is over-represented as perpetrators of child sexual exploitation by networks.[34]

22. Analysing any pattern or trends in respect of the ethnicity of victims and survivors or perpetrators is difficult due to the paucity of this data. As considered further below, the government recognises that current methods of data collection are “inadequate” and that:

More robust data collection on characteristics, as well as further analysis of this data, is therefore needed to better understand offenders and victims because community, cultural, and other factors are clearly relevant to understanding and tackling offending.[35]


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