Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales


This article attempts to provide estimates of the prevalence of child sexual abuse in England and Wales - the number of offences, the number of children affected and the number of child sexual abusers, both convicted and unreported. These figures provide a context for individual press reports or personal experience of abuse.

In summary, this article estimates:

- 400,000 child sexual offences each year against 75,000 children

- 5% of child sexual offences are reported

- half as likely to be reported by boys

- 0.5% of child sexual offences result in a conviction

- 108,000 convicted paedophiles

- 1 million unconvicted paedophiles (2.4% of all adults)

- 90% of paedophiles are never exposed

(See also Index, scale of sexual offending in Ireland and Child sexual abuse in Sevenoaks School, Kent)


The terms "paedophilia" and "paedophile" are often used interchangeably with "child sexual abuse". In psychiatry, paedophilia describes a disorder in which a mature person has a strong or exclusive sexual interest in prebuscent children - for instance ICD-10 describes an interest in prebuscent or early pubertal children by someone older than 16, and at least 5 years older than the child. Although paedophilia and child sexual abuse strongly overlap, they are not interchangeable - some paedophiles do not sexually abuse children directly and some child sexual abuse is committed by similar-aged peers.

More importantly, many people who have been subjected to child sexual abuse have no use for academic distinctions between different abuses of power, and may feel that arguments about whether their experience is paedophilia, hebephilia, ephebophilia, peer abuse or non-paedophilic opportunism are insensitive and offensive.

I will therefore use child sexual abuse to refer to sexual abuse of a child by an older peer or an adult in a position of care, trust or responsibility. This is typically where the "child" is under the age of consent, but includes young adults by a carer or authority figure. I will quote the term paedophile when referring to press and broadcast media reports.


There are 56 million people in England and Wales, 10.6 million are under 16 (5.4 million boys, 5.2 million girls). There are 62 million people in the UK (11.6 million under 16) and similar estimates could be extended to the larger population.

England and Wales is used because the systems of reporting by the national agencies - police, Ministry of Justice and National Statistics - provide available data for this geographic area.

The Experience of Childhood Sexual Abuse

- 400,000 child sex offences each year against 75,000 children

The NSPCC Report on Child Abuse and Neglect states that 11.3% of children (17.8% of girls and 5.1% of boys) have experienced contact sexual abuse at some point. This implies that 75,000 children each year (11.3% of 10.6 million children per 16 years) experience contact sexual abuse for the first time. This number consists of 17,000 boys and 58,000 girls sexually abused for the first time each year.

The NSPCC also reports that 0.6% of under 11 year-olds and 9.4% of 11-17 year-olds experienced sexual abuse in the past year, which would lead to a lifetime exposure of 53% by age 18, compared to the 11.3% that the same children report. This indicates that the children who are sexually abused experience an average of about 5 incidents during childhood - some children are sexually abused only once, some are sexually abused many times. This imoplies that the number of offences is about 5 times greater, or about 400,000 child sexual offences each year.

(Other studies have reported that between 3% and 37% of boys, and between 8% and 71% of girls are sexually abused at some point in childhood. As is apparent in the estimates below, the scale of under-reporting of child sexual abuse is immense whichever point within this range is used.)

- 5% of offences are reported

- Offences against boys are half as likely to be reported

- 90% of reported offences do not result in a conviction

There is no comprehensive system for reporting child sexual abuse in England and Wales. The NSPCC generated figures by a comprehensive Freedom of Information request to each of the 43 police forces in England and Wales in 2010 and 2011. More than 23,000 incidents were recorded overall in the year to 2010. This is just 5% of the estimated number of annual offences calculated above.

Girls were six times more likely to be assaulted than boys, as opposed to the 3.5-to-1 ration reported by the NSPCC Report. This implies that sexual offences against boys may be about half as likely to be reported, indicating a reluctance to report such offences.

- 0.5% of offences result in a conviction

The number of convictions for child sexual offences in England and Wales has been reported by the Ministry of Justice, also following a Freedom of Information request from the NSPCC. The number of convictions has risen steadily to around 2,000 in 2010. This is 0.5%, or 1 in 200, of the estimated number of offences each year calculated above.

(It should be noted that even taking the lowest estimate of the experience of childhood sexual abuse - 3% of boys and 8% of girls, or 5.5% overall - the conviction rate would still be a mere 1% of offences. It can be assumed that 99% or more child sexual abuse offences do not result in a conviction.)

The Number of Child Sexual Abusers

- 108,000 convicted paedophiles

- 1 million unconvicted paedophiles (2.4% of all adults)

- 90% of paedophiles are never exposed

The Home Office Research Department (as it was in 1998) reported that there were 2,100 child sex abusers currently in prison, with journalist Nick Davies estimating 108,000 convicted paedophiles living in the community and 1.1 million (mostly unconvicted) paedophiles at large.

Obviously these latter estimates were off-the-cuff. However, the Home Office Policing and Reducing Crime Unit has reported that about 0.5% of men have been convicted of a child sexual offence by the age of 30. They further state that over 100,000 people had convictions for sexual offences against children - not far from Nick Davies' estimate.

(Most reports assume that child sexual abusers are male. In reality, between 1% and 5% of reported child sexual abuse involves a female abuser. This would suggest that there might be between 1,000 and 5,000 convicted women child sex abusers, and between 10,000 and 50,000 female paedophiles.)

It is clear that the true number of child sexual offenders must lie between the lower bound of 0.5% who are convicted, and an upper bound no larger than the proportion of children who are abused in childhood - which I have taken as 11.3% of all children. Nick Davies' estimate of 1.1 million paedophiles represents 2.4% of all adults, or 4.9% of adult men, which is a ratio of just under 5 victims per abuser. Many abusers will have a single victim, but a small number of extremely prolific abusers raise the measured average, for instance one extimated to have abused 3,5000 boys. If 100,000 of these 1.1 million (9%) are convicted of a child sexual offence, then 91% will never be convicted.

(It should be noted that 90% of reported child sexual offences do not result in a conviction, so many of the unconvicted offenders will have been reported at some point, without effective action. The Home Office stated that, in fact, 80% of offenders are identified - most are known to their child victims.)

Conclusions Regarding Child Protection

Many child protection policy actions, and the majority of public discussion of child sexual offences, revolve around the notion that abusers or potential abusers can be identified. They also seek to limit physical contact between children and adults, and to limit opportunities for potential abusers to record (in photographs, video etc) children for inappropriate use. At their most extreme, policies require criminal records checks of all adults using premises where children are present (e.g. the family of childminders) and prohibitions on any physical contact, even for reassurance or safety issues.

The estimates of child sexual abuse and particularly the failure to report and convict offenders indicate that most - the vast majority - of people who sexually abuse children are never reported or convicted. There are no particular characteristics that mark out a tendency to offend, nor any demographic characteristic (other than male) that can be used to identify risk. Indeed the "dirty old man" image is grossly incorrect in that most abusers begin abusing peers and younger children whilst they themselves are adolescents, and may commit most (if not all) of those offences whilst young. These public preconceptions are more likely to lead to harassment and victimisation of "unusual" people than to provide any protection from abuse.

The separation of children from contact, including physical contact, with adults is also a problem. Children must learn how to be safe with others, including learning when touch and words are inappropriate. At its worst, a bar on contact may lead emotionally deprived children to seek illicit and secretive contact with adults, increasing the risk of sexual abuse.

Useful References

Wikipedia article about child sexual abuse

NSPCC (2010) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today

60 sex offences against children a day - NSPCC

BBC (2011) NSPCC says child sex abuse has risen to 64 crimes a day

BBC (2011) Convictions for sex offences on children up 60% in six years

Nick Davies (1998) The Sheer Scale of Child Sexual Abuse in Britain

Home Office Policing and Reducing Crime Unit (1998) Sex offending against children: Understanding the risk from the National Police Improvement Agency

Daily Mail (2012) Voracious Paedophile Abused 3,5000 Boys