Recently, the NSPCC released data obtained by Freedom of Information requests to all 43 police forces in England and Wales. The statistics show police recorded more than 23,000 child sexual abuse offences in 2009/10, an increase of 8% on the previous year.
These recorded crime statistics are important because our other barometer of crime prevalence – the British Crime Survey – doesn’t ask children under the age of 16 about such offences.
Another available data source on this is the national Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) series, most recently carried out by NatCen in 2007 . This general population survey asked adults in a self-completion part of the interview about whether they had experienced sexual abuse in childhood. Professor Paul Bebbington has led on analysis of the data this generated, and the third in a series of papers on the topic has just published online. Please find links to the papers below.
Our study identified a similar profile of cases to that present in the crime records: we found girls to be at greater risk than boys, and most cases to have first occurred between the ages of 12 and 15. We also found similar rates of child sexual abuse across different social and ethnic groups – so it’s clearly an issue for all sections of society .
As the APMS is a mental health survey of adults we were able to examine the impact of child sexual abuse on the mental health of adults. The results are striking: people who had been sexually abused in childhood had significantly worse mental health than those who had not. This impact was lifelong and measurable even among the oldest age groups. People who were abused as a child were also much more likely to experience sexual abuse again as an adult. These findings make it very clear that child sexual abuse is a major public health issue.
The police records indicated 23,000 reported offences last year. Our survey data suggests this reflects a tiny minority of events. We found that 2.9% of women and 0.8% of men experienced sexual abuse involving non-consensual intercourse before the age of 16. These figures rose to 11.1% and 5.3% if experiences involving sexual touching were included.
It may be that some young people are now more likely to report the crimes against them, as well as some adults now feeling able to come forward about what happened to them as a child. But as Jon Brown of the NSPCC said last week, "most child sexual abuse goes undetected, unreported and unprosecuted".