What are the Signs & Symptoms of 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


Sexual abuse comes in many forms, causing long-term issues in victims with their behaviours, relationships and sex life. There will be some victims who are not even sure whether they are experiencing sexual abuse, others will be forced or manipulated in to believing it is normal. In this guide we will discuss the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse, helping to protect yourself or your loved ones from this harm.

How does Sexual Abuse start and what triggers it?

Sexual abuse can be carried out by anyone and the victim can be anyone, it can happen regardless of gender, age, sexuality, race or any other factor. It can be difficult to understand why perpetrators choose to abuse and what causes it.  However, all sexual behaviour is a matter of choice and people who sexually abuse choose to abuse. We can try to look for factors that may contribute to this choice but it’s only fair that abusers are held accountable for their actions. Whilst childhood abuse, trauma or other events could severely impact an individual’s behaviour into adulthood, it doesn’t change the fact that they had a choice, a choice not to cause harm or suffering to another person. The only exception would be if the abuser had a mental disorder in which they failed to understand the implications of their behaviour.

What are the tell-tale signs I am being (or have been) sexually abused?

Some of the tell-tale signs that you are being sexually abused (or have been) include:

  • The abuser physically hurts you in a sexual way
  • The abuser is touching you in an inappropriate way
  • The abuser asking you to lie to family members or authorities about your injuries
  • If the abuser raped you or attempted to rape you
  • Incest-the abuser is too closely related – sexual contact between two people who are so closely related that their marriage is illegal, i.e. uncles/aunts and nieces/nephews
  • The abuser sends you explicit videos or has explicit conversations
  • You are forced to pose for sexual pictures
  • You are forced to perform for a sex video
  • You feel like you have been isolated from friends and family

This list is not exhaustive and the signs will depend on the type of abuse that is happening/happened to you. Remember if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, trust your instinct and share your concerns with a loved one or someone external to help you with this.

What are the tell-tale indicators if a friend or family member is being sexually abused?

The sexual abuse may not cause visible injuries, some of the injuries could be internal. The signs will of course vary depending on the nature of the abuse and other factors. However, some of the tell-tale indicators include:

  • Bruising
  • Bleeding
  • Broken bones
  • Difficulty walking
  • Soreness
  • Torn, stained or bloody clothing
  • Signs of depression
  • Mood swings
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Alcohol or drug misuse
  • Loss of confidence
  • Anxiety

The subtle signs of sexual abuse may be more difficult to detect especially when the victim doesn’t even realise that it is happening to them. However, this can be equally as destructive as violent assaults like rape. Remember if you suspect any signs of sexual abuse, it’s important to follow this up and help the victim.

What are the tell-tale signs of a child being sexually abused?

The effects of the abuse will of course depend on a number of factors such as the age of the child, the length and severity of the abuse, the environment and the personality of the child. Every child will react differently to what has occurred. However, the following are some tell-tale signs of a child being sexually abused:

  • The child cries for no obvious reason
  • He/she is quieter than usual or appears more distant
  • Starts to wet the bed
  • Has nightmares
  • Trouble with sleeping and eating patterns
  • Is aggressive for no obvious reason
  • Becomes more clingy
  • Asks questions like “does everyone have to keep secrets?”
  • Complains of tummy pain or headache but there doesn’t appear to be a physical cause
  • Has difficulty walking or sitting
  • Pain when going to the toilet
  • Loses interest in playing, or avoids certain places or people
  • Seems to be doing less well in school
  • May start to display disruptive behaviour

Please note that this list is not exhaustive and there will be many other tell-tale signs, the difficulty is that all children respond differently to sexual abuse and some may not show any signs at all. It’s also important to remember that changes in behaviour or emotions may not necessarily mean the child is being sexually abused, however, it is should not be ruled out as a possibility.

What are the tell-tale signs of someone being trafficked for sexual reasons?

Trafficking someone for sexual reasons may not be easy to recognise, however, some of the tell-tale signs include the following:

  • Physical abuse such as bruises, cuts or burn marks
  • Withdrawn or depressed
  • Not allowed to speak freely from themselves
  • Seems overly attached to one person
  • Not in control of their own ID or passport
  • Has few belongings, and wears the same clothes over and over again
  • Normally paid in cash, has no bank accounts or control over their finances
  • Appears to be fearful, submissive, nervous, tense or paranoid
  • Seems to be taking permission for basic things
  • Appears to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol

Remember human trafficking is a global problem and is far too serious to ignore, no one should be allowed to treat another in this way. If you suspect someone is being trafficked, then be sure to report your concerns to the police.

Is it possible to have been sexually abused and not remember?

This will, of course, depend on the circumstances, for example, being under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time, the victim may not remember or be confused as to what occurred. However, if you are ever in this position, remember it was not your fault. If you were too intoxicated to consent to any sexual activity, then the blame lies with the abuser. Depending on the timing of the incident, you may consider using a rape kit. This is a medical kit that is used to gather evidence from the body and clothes of a victim who has been raped or sexually assaulted.

There may be instances where the sexual abuse was carried out when the victim was a child, they may have been too young to understand what was happening and cannot recall the experience. In some ways ‘forgetting’ can be the brain’s way of coping with the trauma.

Does it count as sexual abuse if a consensual relationship was already established, such as with a partner or spouse?

When an individual commits a sexual act without the consent of their spouse or against their will it is classed as marital rape. Marital rape has been illegal since 1992, before this date forced sexual activity within marriage was not considered as an illegal offence.


We understand how difficult it is to see someone you know or love experiencing abuse, sometimes trying to help 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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