Child Sexual Abuse in the Contemporary Era: Exploring Prevalence Levels Via Media Sources, Empirical Studies, and Official Statistics

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 2309

1 Introduction

In the contemporary era, child sexual abuse (CSA) has risen high on the agendas of policymakers who aim to tackle social problems. Moreover, in recent years, there has been much media exposure in this area due to a string of high-profile cases involving the sexual abuse of children, and this has led to speculation that such abuse may be much more prevalent than previously thought. Indeed, Smith (2016) reports that Britain may in fact have been ignoring an epidemic of child abuse cases, as some 30,000 new cases of CSA have come forwards in the past few years, at a rate of around one hundred per month, as a result of the Goddard Inquiry (which was set up after the discovery of years of CSA by TV celebrity Jimmy Savile). Moreover, it is expected that in the coming years, this figure will mushroom further, with one senior officer predicting that the police will be investigating around 200,000 cases across the country by the year 2020. Therefore, this paper aims to examine CSA in the contemporary era and explore prevalence levels via analyses of media sources, empirical studies, and official statistics, so that a more comprehensive picture of this particular crime can be gleaned.

2 Understanding the Prevalence Levels of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)

Johnston (2017) reports that in 2016, an NSPCC report warned that as many as 500,000 people in the UK could be involved in sharing indecent images of children online, which is a huge number of cases to investigate on increasingly limited police resources. For example, the West Yorkshire police have been investigating 180 cases of child sexual exploitation alone, which is three times as many as the previous year – which includes 124 arrests, and 23 who have been charged and who are awaiting prosecution (Halliday, 2015). Thus, if this is the true extent of this problem, then custodial sentences may not be the answer, as Britain’s prisons could simply not, at their present capacity, house such a large increase in inmates.

Furthermore, as noted, in recent years, the emergence of a number of celebrities and politicians involved in CSA has shocked many people in the UK, with Laville (2015) reporting on 1,400 cases of CSA which have come to light as a result of the Operation Hydrant Inquiry, which has revealed 76 politicians, 43 people from the music industry, and 135 from TV, film or radio who have been involved in CSA cases. Thus, such abuse has involved household names such as Fred Talbot (a TV weatherman), Rolf Harris (a children’s TV presenter), Jimmy Savile (also a children’s TV presenter), musician Gary Glitter, and newsreader Stuart Hall (Laville, 2015) – who were all previously well-loved celebrities who have since been punished with custodial sentences.

In respect of the prevalence levels of CSA, Stoltenborgh, Van Ijzendoorn & Euser (2011) also look at such abuse on a global scale and have carried out a meta-analysis of the combined prevalence figures of CSA in 217 publications that were published between 1980 and 2008 – which included 331 cumulative independent samples, and a total of just under ten million participants. Thus, this is an extensive study. It was found that the overall global prevalence of CSA was at 127/1000, which represents around 12.7% of the world’s population, which is a staggering finding. Moreover, such abuse was also found to be more common among females, at 18% compared to 7.6% for boys. In addition, a similar study has also been conducted by Pereda, Guilera, Forns & Gomez-Benito (2009), who found global prevalence rates of CSA of 19.7% for women, and 7.9% for men, which mirrors the findings of Stoltenborgh, Van Ijzendoorn & Euser (2011) via a meta-analysis this time of some sixty-five articles in twenty-two countries – again, an extensive analysis that when combined with that of Stoltenborgh, Van Ijzendoorn & Euser (2011) offers a rigorous and reliable dataset.

In Britain specifically, a study done in the 1980s by Baker & Duncan (1985) found that in a sample of some 2019 men and women aged fifteen and over, who were interviewed as part of a MORI survey, 10% of the sample said that they had been sexually abused before the age of sixteen (12% for females, and 8% for males), which although lower than the global averages documented by Stoltenborgh, Van Ijzendoorn & Euser (2011) and Pereda, Guilera, Forns & Gomez-Benito (2009), is still a considerable amount. Moreover, in the study conducted by Baker & Duncan (1985), there was no significant correlation found between CSA and social class or location, and it was therefore estimated that around 4.5 million adults in Britain would have been sexually abused as children at this time, with the social and mental health implications being deemed to be enormous; and so, it was urgently recommended that an effective intervention and prevention policy was required. Nevertheless, some several decades on, in light of the fact that CSA has continued unabated since then, it seems that such an intervention has not been found, and so much more needs to be done in this area.

Furthermore, more recently, a study conducted by Oaksford & Frude (2001) has also aimed to mark the prevalence of CSA in the UK, and in a sample of 213 female undergraduate students, it was found that there was a prevalence rate of 13% for childhood sexual abuse. To add to this, a study done by May-Chahal & Cawson (2005), which looked at more general child maltreatment, found, in a sample of 2,869 young adults aged 18-24, a prevalence rate of 11% for child sexual abuse involving physical contact, which therefore supports the findings of Oaksford & Frude (2001). As such, there is some level of consistency with these various studies in respect of the prevalence of CSA in the UK and beyond, and so one can say, with some certainty, that a large proportion of the population in Britain (ranging from say 5% to 15%) will have experienced some form of sexual abuse as a child. This then, is a considerable issue that needs addressing, and one that requires radical policy changes and government investment in order to reduce this figure in the coming years.

In addition, Chalabi (2013) has also recently reported on the prevalence level of CSA in the UK, and particularly makes reference to statistics released by the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, and the Office for National Statistics. In the report, it was revealed that 19.6% of females and 2.7% of males had been the victim of a sexual offence. However, this only covered the 16–59-year-old demographic. Thus, Chalabi (2013) goes on to say that it has been found that 38% of all rapes recorded by the police are committed against children under the age of sixteen, and from this it can be extrapolated (roughly) that 7.4% of females and 1% of males under the age of sixteen have reported a rape to the police. In real terms then, some 21,493 sexual offences against children were recorded in 2011/12 (Chalabi, 2013). Furthermore, even more recently, the BBC News (2016) have reported that one in fourteen adults have been found to have been sexually abused as children in England and Wales, which is around 7.1% of the adult population. This then, is derived from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, which found more specifically that 11% of women and 3% of men said that they had been sexually assaulted during childhood – although this of course only includes those who were willing to talk about and admit to their sexually abusive childhood experiences. Moreover, and crucially, it was also found that around three out of four of those abused did not report what had happened at the time, due most commonly to embarrassment or humiliation, or thinking that they would not be believed. What this means then, is that official police data on CSA could only be the tip of the proverbial iceberg, so to speak, and that the reality could be four times what police statistics say – which represents a significant dark figure of crime in this area. Nevertheless, perceptions of CSA and actual levels are not necessarily the same, with media exposure tending to magnify such phenomena, thus changing people’s perceptions of the prevalence of CSA, so that people believe that it is more common than it actually is. However, what studies in this area do show is that prevalence rates are relatively high, and that CSA is undoubtedly a big issue in society, and a very real concern; and something that requires new policies and regulations to ensure that the prevalence of such crime is reduced in the years to come.

Figure 1. Number of Reported Sexual Offences Against

Under 18s in England & Wales (cited in BBC News, 2015)

Furthermore, the BBC News (2015) go on to say that although the number of recorded sexual offences against children in England and Wales has risen in recent times, “It is probable sexual offences are actually falling despite cases coming to light in recent years” (n.p.). This is because as more and more people come forward, and as more offenders get prosecuted with custodial sentences, this will inevitably make potential offenders think twice before committing such offences, due to a greater perceived risk of getting caught. Therefore, although Figure 1 shows a marked increase in the number of reported sexual offences against under-18s in England and Wales, this does not necessarily mean that the number of CSA crimes are on the rise as a whole, but just that more people are reporting such crimes due to perhaps there being more awareness about it.

In addition, on this subject, the BBC News (2015) goes on to say that:

“Police forces have put significant effort into encouraging victims of such crimes to come forward and this seems to be paying off. Prosecutors and chief constables are under instruction to take seriously allegations that are made and, where appropriate, revisit reports made in the past. Britain is only beginning to recognise the appalling scale of child abuse and the criminal justice system still only deals with a fraction of offences” (n.p.).

As such, in this respect, the role of the police and social workers will be of paramount importance in the years to come in the fight against CSA, both in safeguarding children from such abuse, and also in managing a situation once the alleged sexual abuse of a child has taken place. Indeed, when it comes to support for those who have been sexually abused as children, a representative of the NSPCC has said that there is a shortfall of some 50,000 places across the UK for children who need treatment after being sexually abused. As such, this is yet another area that requires some attention and funding in the years to come.

3 Conclusions

This discourse has shown how CSA is a contemporary problem that is rooted in the past. With regard to prevalence levels, it has been revealed that there are some issues with the recording of CSA cases via official crime statistics and through social surveys, as people are often unwilling to come forwards to report such crimes or talk about them, which means that prevalence rates are likely to be much higher than those recorded. However, by looking at data from a variety of studies, it seems that prevalence rates in the UK for CSA can be estimated to be anywhere between 5-20%, which is a significant proportion of the population. Thus, although prevalence levels tend to slightly vary across studies and samples, they don’t seem to vary by much. Furthermore, such statistics are also consistent with global samples in studies looking at CSA, and this means that CSA is fairly consistent across all cultures and nationalities – and represents a global phenomenon and problem. Moreover, as a result of increasing media exposure in this area, there is a growing public sentiment that something more needs to be done about such abuse.


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