Exploratory Study of the Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse

January 1, 1989


Research on the frequency of sexual abuse takes one of two forms:

1. Incidence studies which count the number of new cases within any one year. The Department of Health began collecting and collating figures from all social service departments in 1989. The figures for 1989 are 23,000 additional children placed on at risk registers of which 14% were sexual abuse cases. Since these figures are limited not only to cases that are reported, but also to those where the child is placed on the at risk register, they underestimate incidence by a substantial amount.

2. The problems with assessing incidence have led researchers to study prevalence – the proportion of the general population who have experienced abuse. Using questionnaires or interviews a selection of adults are asked if they had such experiences in childhood. Only two such studies have been conducted in Britain, although many have been done in the US. Findings vary greatly – from one in twenty to one in two women and one in twenty to one in fifty men. Some of the reasons for such different findings are: the research methods used; how sexual abuse is defined by the researchers; the adults selected to participate; and the ways questions about abuse are asked.

The primary aim of this study was to begin building a stronger knowledge base in Britain, as well as to discover:

  • how research methods and definitions of sexual abuse affect estimates of prevalence;
  • whether gender, race, class, age and disability affect prevalence rates;
  • how children and young people cope with abuse at the time and later;
  • the factors which affect whether they tell anyone;
  • how as children and young people they attempted to avoid/escape abuse.


A detailed questionnaire was completed by 1,244 students aged 16-21 attending seven Further Education colleges in England, Scotland and Wales. 60% of the sample was female and 17% of the whole sample was Asian or African-Caribbean. The questionnaire was completed in class time and students were given permission not to participate or to skip any questions they did not want to answer. Only 3% chose either to not participate at all or to only fill in small sections of the questionnaire. Every student was given a list of support services in their area to take away.


Among the principal findings are:

  • Including any unwanted sexual event/interaction that occurred before age 18, over one in two females and one in four males had experienced at least one such event.
  • The most common form of sexual abuse was ‘flashing’, constituting 27% of these experiences, while the second most common was ‘touching’ – 23%.
  • If flashing, abuse attempts which were successfully resisted, and ‘less serious’ forms of abuse by peers are excluded, the prevalence figures are one in five for women and one in fourteen for men.
  • The forms of abuse which more commonly result in prosecution, and which the general public associate with ‘sexual abuse’ (all forms of rape and forced masturbation), were experienced by one in twenty women and one in fifty men.
  • Definitions of what counts as ‘sexual abuse’ have dramatic impacts on estimates of how common sexual abuse is. Excluding on the basis of either the abusive acts or the age of the abuser (i.e. only including abuse by adults) means losing events which were defined as very victimising at the time and which had serious long-term consequences.
  • Women are between two and three times more likely to experience sexual abuse than men. Moreover, women are more likely to be abused by a family member and men by strangers.
  • The prevalence rates for Black and white women and men are the same.
  • Most discussions of who commits sexual abuse focus on adults and either strangers or family members. This study revealed that over one quarter of assaults are committed by peers (i.e. individuals under 18) and that the highest proportion of abusers is known adults/peers (e.g. family friends, neighbours, private tutors, vicars, scout leaders, babysitters, current and ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, acquaintances).
  • 2% of our sample reported ‘incestuous abuse’ (i.e. by a parent or sibling) – 21 women and 3 men. Half were abused by fathers or stepfathers, the others by brothers and one by a sister. A further 4% were abused by other close family members: grandfathers, uncles, one aunt. Some of these other relatives were living in the same household at the time of the abuse.
  • The vast majority of abuse was committed by men. Female abusers were 15% in the peer abuse category and 5% in the adult category. Most of the events involving female abusers were reported by young men.
  • Women were more likely to report ongoing areas of distress or difficulty linked to experiences of sexual abuse.
  • One fifth of the experiences reported were attempts – the actions of the child/young person resulted in them escaping/avoiding the assault. Some of these were attempted rapes and abductions. The strategies used included ‘saying no’, physically resisting, running away and avoiding the abuser. However, these same strategies were also used by 90% of those who were unable to stop the abuse.
  • About one half of those who had experienced abuse told someone about the abuse at the time. The person they told was most likely to be a female friend or relative. Less than one in ten was disbelieved but the major reason given for not telling anyone was fear of being disbelieved. Only 5% of incidents were ever reported to any agency. Of 1,051 incidents, only ten resulted in any form of prosecution.
  • The fact that so many children and young people actively resist sexual abuse suggests that safety programmes with simple ‘no, go tell’ messages may be teaching our grandchildren to suck eggs. They are not ‘prevention’ since they are effective in only one out of five cases. Prevention requires finding ways to stop abusers abusing.
  • Children and young people clearly choose to tell those they feel closest to and trust. This means that everyone needs to know how to respond supportively since any one of us may be the person who someone chooses to tell.
  • The findings of this study in relation to the prevalence of sexual abuse and the range of contexts and relationships in which it occurs call into question some of the more popular explanations of why it happens. Neither family systems theory nor ideas about ‘cycles of abuse’ can explain these findings.

See Research Report: An Exploratory Study of the Prevalence of Sexual Abuse in a Sample of 16-21 Year Olds

Grant Holder: CWASU

Sponsor: The Economic and Social Research Council

  • Project Team:
    Linda Regan, Liz Kelly, Sheila Burton