What is Sexual Abuse?

This post is a part of our guide series to support anyone who may have been sexually abused or has questions around the topic:

What is Sexual Abuse? Definitions & Meanings
Who Commits Sexual Abuse & Why?
What are Signs & Symptoms of Sexual Abuse?
Handling & Dealing with Sexual Abuse
How to Heal and Recover from Sexual Abuse
What Impact Does Sexual Abuse Have on Victims, Families & Friends?
How to Report Sexual Abuse (and Who to Report it to)
How is Sexual Abuse Proven in Court?
Punishment & Sentencing for Sexual Abuse
How can Sexual Abuse be Prevented?
Sexual Abuse Data & Statistics
Sexual Abuse Helplines, Support & Further Reading


It can be difficult to know what to look out for when considering sexual assault. To complicate matters some victims will not display signs of being sexually assaulted, others may be unsure if they have experienced sexual assault. In this guide we will discuss the different signs and symptoms of sexual assault helping people to recognise when this is happening to them or someone they know.

What is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse is sexual behaviour or a sexual act forced upon another person without their consent. It often involves the perpetrator using force or taking advantage of the victim

How does the law define Sexual Abuse?

Any behaviour of a sexual nature which is unwanted and takes place without consent.

How many types and forms of sexual abuse exist?

There are many form of sexual abuse, some of which include the following:

  • Physical – such as kissing, rape and attempted rape and threatening someone into non-consensual sexual activity.
  • Sexual harassment – can include unwanted sexual comments, sexual jokes or explicit pictures or videos.
  • Sexual exploitation – where the victim is forced or manipulated to engage in sexual activity for a financial gain or status that will benefit the perpetrator.
  • Incest – sexual contact between two people who are so closely related that their marriage is illegal, i.e. uncles/aunts and nieces/nephews

This list is not exhaustive and there will be many other form of sexual abuse. Mental/emotional abuse can be a form of sexual abuse, whether it be through physical contact or non-physical. The victim will be left with lasting trauma which can be difficult to recover from.

Is Sexual Abuse always Physical?

Sexual abuse does not have to be physical or leave the victim with visible injuries, this can include:

  • The perpetrator exposing themselves to the victim
  • Sharing pornographic materials with the victim
  • The  perpetrator sending  obscene text messages, phone calls or photos to the victim
  • The perpetrator talking explicitly, making the victim feel uncomfortable.
  • Forcing or manipulating the victim to engage in sexual activity, such as watching porn or showing body parts.

There will of course be many other forms of sexual abuse that will not be physical, in fact it is probably shocking for most people to find that victims can be repeatedly sexually abused, without the use, or threat of violence.

Who is most vulnerable or likely to become a victim of Sexual Abuse?

Unfortunately some individuals are more vulnerable to sexual abuse than others, for example these individuals may:

  • lack mental capacity
  • are elderly
  • have a physical or learning disability
  • live in inappropriate accommodation
  • have mental health problems
  • have low self esteem
  • lack support
  • misuse drug and alcohol
  • have financial circumstances which increase their risk of being abused
  • be socially isolated

Although these factors contribute to making individuals more susceptible to sexual abuse, the reality is sexual abuse can happen to anyone, making everyone vulnerable.

What does sexual exploitation mean?

Sexual exploitation is when someone takes advantage of another, sexually for their own benefit. Normally the perpetrator does this through manipulation, bribes, threats and violence, they will usually control the victim because of their physical strength or status. An example of this is prostitution, when the perpetrator sexually exploits a person for a financial benefit.

Is trafficking a form of sexual abuse and how do people fall victim to it?

Trafficking is when an individual engages in any sexual activity through force, fraud or coercion. The perpetrator normally has control over the victim and the sexual act/s benefits the perpetrator, usually financially, therefore trafficking is a form of abuse.

Sex traffickers can approach victims in different ways, they can pretend to be potential partners and manipulate their victims through seduction and romance. Sex traffickers may pose as recruitment agents for modelling jobs and approach victims through social media. Victims may be threatened or even kidnapped.

Is grooming a form of sexual abuse and how do people fall victim to it?

Grooming involves the building of trust and emotional connection with a person for the purposes of exploitation and abuse, if done in a sexual context, then this would amount to sexual abuse. The perpetrator normally targets their victim, they will then try to befriend them with gifts and promises. After gaining the victims trust and building a connection, the perpetrator will begin to manipulate the victims and ask for something in return, eventually leading to abuse. The victims will be approached in various ways, the perpetrator may pretend to be a partner or friend who is looking out for the victim. The victims are often tricked into thinking that they are safe and the perpetrator manipulates them into believing the abuse is normal, not knowing this is preparing them to be exploited for further abuse.

Is sexual abuse the same as sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment can be a form of sexual abuse, as it can include sexual behaviour in physical, verbal and emotional actions. The behaviour is normally carried out to hurt the victim, make them feel upset, scared, offended or humiliated.

Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. This provides protection to people in certain places, for example work, colleges and universities. If someone was to be sexually harassed in these places, the victims will have the right to take action against the perpetrator.


We understand how difficult it is to see someone you know or love experiencing abuse, sometimes trying to help a victim is not easy. It’s important to remember that you are not alone and the first step that you should take is to talk to someone. No one should have to deal with abuse alone.

Here at the Criminal Injuries Helpline, we help victims of violent crime and abuse recover compensation. You may want to help the victim gain some justice, get in touch with us today to see if the victim would qualify.

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