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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

C.6: Attitudes to child sexual abuse

61. Alongside elevating the status of children in the political sphere, there remains a need to raise public awareness about child sexual abuse. Myths and stereotypes about child sexual abuse are still held by many. Outdated attitudes that perpetuate myths, for example that children lie about being abused, need to be dispelled, and although society’s attitudes to child sexual abuse have changed, more work is needed to ensure that members of the public are better informed.

Historical attitudes

62. Sexual abuse of children has long been recognised as morally wrong. It was recognised as legally wrong in 1885, when the age at which individuals could consent to sex was raised from 13 to 16 years old to protect the “virtue” of young girls and punish their “violators”.[1] Archaic language was used to describe child sexual abuse and, in the early part of the 20th century, included phrases such as “immoral relations”, “indiscreet fondling”, “fooling” and “philandering conduct”.[2] This language served to minimise abuse and frame it as a contravention of social mores around marriage and relationships.

63. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, child sexual abuse was not believed to be widespread and was thought only to affect certain groups across society (such as the “lower social classes”). Beliefs that there was such a thing as a “seductive child” and that child sexual abuse was “not harmful” persisted into the 1990s.[3]

64. In the 1960s and 1970s, some malign influences advocated to reposition child sexual abuse within broader societal debate about sexual liberation. The Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) was one group that sought to garner support for the idea that paedophilia was a legitimate type of sexual attraction. Organisations such as the Albany Trust and the National Council for Civil Liberties (now known as Liberty) and prominent public figures gave support to PIE.[4] PIE was able to gain a platform for its agenda to lower the age of consent, and argued that sexual activity with a four-year-old should be ‘allowed’ within the family setting, with the age of 10 being applicable in other contexts. In part as a result of the support it received, some of PIE’s suggestions appeared to gain traction.

65. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the idea that child sexual abuse could be attributed to problems within individuals’ families became prominent. In the late 1980s, those involved in political, legal and social-work spheres mooted that some responses to child sexual abuse were “over-zealous”, or constituted a “moral panic” or a “witch hunt”. Such narratives minimised the scale of the problem.[5] Harmful sexual behaviour between children was described as “sexual malpractice” and those who raised concerns were belittled as being “prissy and middle class”.[6] Some placed emphasis on the needs of perpetrators of harmful sexual behaviour as vulnerable and requiring support.[7]

66. Between the 2000s and the 2010s, understanding about and attitudes towards child sexual abuse became more sensitive and victim-focussed. Some individuals deflected blame from perpetrators and institutions, or rationalised it by proposing that abuse was perpetrated by a small group of perverse individuals who had “something wrong with them” or occurred in particularly corrupt or wayward institutions.[8] Others challenged this perspective and increasingly held institutions to account.[9]

67. In the 2000s, there was a growing awareness of the problem of child sexual exploitation. In October 2013, the then Director of Public Prosecutions revised the Crown Prosecution Service guidance on child sexual exploitation, providing a list of stereotypes about young victims of child sexual exploitation that should no longer undermine a willingness to prosecute. Those included the way that a victim dressed or acted, whether they had used alcohol or drugs, whether they were in a relationship with the alleged offender or whether they screamed, fought or immediately complained about their sexual abuse.

68. Such developments were held back by a persistent characterisation of exploitation as being the result of children’s ‘lifestyle choices’, or deliberate behaviour aimed at payment or reward. Terms such as ‘child prostitution’ and ‘slags’ continued to be used through the 2010s to describe some children, including by statutory agencies.[10] This gave some children and young people the impression that they were not believed to be worthy of protection.

69. More recently, this has created and perpetuated notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims of child sexual abuse.[11] This was a wholly inappropriate and unethical way of treating serious criminality against children.

70. The Inquiry’s research found that, from the 1940s onwards, “tendencies to disbelieve allegations of child sexual abuse remained a constant thread”.[12] This led to a fear among child victims that they would not be believed or taken seriously when they disclosed their abuse, a fear that persists today.[13] Similarly, discussions about consent and ‘lifestyle choices’ continue to detract from an understanding of abuse, exploitation and power dynamics.[14]

Changing dynamics

71. In recent years child sexual abuse has been given greater priority on the public agenda. The establishment of this Inquiry in 2015 and its work have given the issue of child sexual abuse greater visibility in society.

72. In January 2021, the UK government published its Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy and in July 2021 its strategy for Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls.[15] It stated that the government is “determined to build on this awareness and momentum for change”.[16]

73. The #MeToo campaign has highlighted the growing visibility and confidence of victims, survivors and whistleblowers. In its wake, the movement Everyone’s Invited brought the concept of ‘rape culture’ dramatically into the mainstream media and public consciousness.[17] It provided an opportunity for many victims and survivors of child sexual abuse to share their stories anonymously.[18] By June 2022, it had received more than 50,000 testimonies.[19] It has been an effective platform for the engagement and empowerment of victims of child sexual abuse.

74. In April 2021, the UK government commissioned Ofsted to conduct a rapid thematic review of sexual abuse between children in schools and colleges. Estyn conducted a similar review in September and October 2021.[20] Both reviews identified the prevalence of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse. Ofsted noted that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are “much more prevalent than adults realise” and that the prevalence of online sexual abuse was “consistently underestimated” by professionals.[21] Estyn found that approximately half of all pupils reported that they had experienced peer-on-peer sexual harassment, some of which took place during school hours but most of which happened online and outside school.[22]

75. In response to the reviews, the Department for Education announced that schools and colleges will be encouraged to dedicate an in-service training day to help train staff on how to deal with sexual abuse and harassment among pupils.[23] It stated that a ‘whole-school’ approach should be put in place to address this. Approaches might include classroom discussions on topics such as consent and the sending of explicit images, routine record-keeping and analysis of incidents of sexual harassment and violence, a culture of zero-tolerance for sexual harassment and online sexual abuse, and training for all staff and (where applicable) governors.[24] It made a number of recommendations for schools and colleges, multi-agency partnerships, the government and inspectorates.

76. These developments have encouraged a number of victims and survivors to discuss their experiences and disclose their abuse. It is important that the government, the media and the public have started to listen to them. This is a positive step towards improving child protection. However, more can be done to encourage and facilitate the engagement and empowerment of children and young people.

77. Storylines and literary portrayals involving child sexual abuse also have an important role to play in influencing public attitudes and understanding of such abuse.[25] Children and young people told the Inquiry’s engagement team that, although they thought some portrayals of child sexual abuse in drama had been dealt with “in a sensitive and compelling way”, the topic needed to include a focus on the long-term impacts of abuse.[26] They expressed the view that when sexual abuse is covered as a topic, it usually concerns abuse of adults and not of children.[27] The Inquiry’s Victims and Survivors Forum emphasised that both social and traditional media had an opportunity to make a positive impact by showing victims and survivors as courageous, rather than showing repetitive presentations of shame and injury.

78. Public attitudes to child sexual abuse may be both influenced by and reflected in the media. It is important that the experiences of victims and survivors are not undermined by the media, and that misleading or simplistic representations do not dominate debate. There have been instances in which the print and broadcast media have played a key role in exposing child sexual abuse and in increasing awareness of particular forms of abuse.[28] In particular, investigative journalism has exposed some of the worst examples of child sexual exploitation.[29] The Office for National Statistics suggested in its 2019 statistical analysis of child sexual abuse in England and Wales that high-profile media coverage of child sexual offences and the police response to reports of non-recent child sexual abuse may have played a part in an increase in police recording of such offences.[30]

Empowering conversation

79. Discussion about child sexual abuse remains an uncomfortable subject for many. Respondents to the Inquiry’s 2020 survey indicated that they would feel more comfortable talking about any other topic than child sexual abuse.[31] Younger people were least likely to feel comfortable talking about abuse. It remains the least preferred subject for discussion, with only 37 percent of people feeling comfortable talking about child sexual abuse.[32] Many of the Truth Project participants have emphasised the importance of bringing discussions about child sexual abuse into the public arena.[33] Children and young people who participated with the Inquiry’s Engagement Team also expressed the view that there needed to be a cultural shift at societal level so that talking about child sexual abuse ceases to be a taboo. Participants stated that conversations needed to be frank, without being sensationalist or ‘titillating’:

If they want to make a change, they have to tell it like it is, that’s the only way people will start taking notice of it”.[34]

The Victims and Survivors Forum agreed that action should be taken to bring about cultural change, pointing out that people find it hard to talk openly about a subject that they fear.[35]

80. It is important that adults are able to have discussions with young people about subjects such as sex, sexuality, relationships, grooming and exploitation. Those conversations are part of society’s collective duty to ensure young people are well informed and can navigate the risks of abusive and exploitative sexual relationships. Some professionals, such as youth workers, are well equipped to do so and to understand young people’s perspectives in a way that can help to identify risks of child sexual abuse. But children and young people should feel able to broach these subjects in the more routine aspects of their lives should they wish to, such as with their teachers, parents and peers. Empowering children and young people to talk about this topic, and opening up discussions between them and a broad range of adults, is therefore essential.[36]

81. By June 2022, the UK government and the Welsh Government had undertaken a number of campaigns.[37]

81.1. ‘Stop Abuse Together’, for which the Cabinet Office has responsibility, is part of the UK government’s programme of work under the Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy and provides information to parents, carers and the wider public about child sexual abuse. The campaign ran on the radio, digital audio and social media channels, such as Instagram, Twitter and NextDoor, for three months between January 2022 and March 2022. Its aim was “to educate parents and the general public about child sexual abuse, including its prevalence, the signs to look for, and where to go to find further support”.[38]

81.2. ‘Enough’, for which the Home Office takes responsibility, is a campaign in England and Wales which is part of the UK government’s Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy. The campaign is proposed to run in stages, dealing initially with the nature of such crimes and aiming to make them less socially acceptable and to increase people’s confidence to safely challenge perpetrators. Paid advertising carrying these messages ran throughout March 2022. Subsequent phases of the campaign aim to educate young people about healthy relationships, including consent, and ensure victims can recognise abuse and non-contact sexual offending. These phases are proposed to run through the remainder of 2022 and early 2023.[39]

81.3. In Wales, the campaign ‘This is Sexual Abuse’ was launched in February 2020 and is part of a broader programme designed to address domestic violence. It aimed to highlight the different types of sexual abuse (including sexual assault, rape, sexual or derogatory name-calling, child sexual abuse, harassment and female genital mutilation) and to help people to recognise the signs of sexual abuse and to seek help. It is conducted through a number of channels, including paid advertising and a social media campaign. The broader campaign programme, called ‘Live Fear Free’, is ongoing.

82. Of these campaigns, only ‘Stop Abuse Together’ dealt specifically with the issue of child sexual abuse and exploitation. It is unfortunate that it was scheduled to run for such a short period of time and is unlikely to have the sort of profound and prolonged impact that is required to displace the taboo that is still attached to this subject.

83. The Inquiry therefore recommends that the governments in England and in Wales initiate specific and long-term programmes to increase public awareness of child sexual abuse.

Recommendation 4: Public awareness

The Inquiry recommends that the UK government and the Welsh Government commission regular programmes of activity to increase public awareness about child sexual abuse and the action to take if child sexual abuse is happening or suspected in England and in Wales.

The programmes should:

  • challenge myths and stereotypes about child sexual abuse;
  • make maximum use of different approaches including, but not limited to, public information campaigns, the use of positive role models and creative media, such as television drama; and
  • be supported by continuous evaluation to measure their impact.


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