What is Sexual Abuse Under the Law?

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Written by Aiswarya Sasikumar.

The National Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence Awareness Week is a yearly event from 1st February – 7th February in 2021, where organisations across the UK organise activities raising awareness and campaigning against sexual violence.


Sexual abuse refers to non-consensual crimes that exploit people sexually such as rape, assault, child sexual abuse, grooming, and so on.

These crimes include domestic sexual abuse, rape, sexual offences, stalking, harassment, marital rape, ‘honour-based’ violence including forced marriage, female genital mutilation, human trafficking focusing on sexual exploitation, prostitution, pornography, and obscenity.

A Women with her hand up in front of her, depicting stopping sexual abuse.
Stop Sexual Abuse

Rape is defined in Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 as non-consensual penile penetration of another person’s mouth, vagina and/or anus. However, under this definition, only cisgender men can rape women.

If a victim is forcefully penetrated with an object other than a penis, this is classed as Assault by Penetration under Section 2 of the same act. While there have been calls to amend the act to make rape a gender-neutral crime, the government has confirmed that they have no current plans to change the legal definition of rape.

Sexual assault is an act of physical, psychological, and mental violation of someone in the form of a sexual act, inflicted on someone without their consent.

Section 74 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines consent, as someone engaging in sexual activity if they agree by choice and they have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

Lack of consent is typically the most important factor in determining sexual abuse. Section 74 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines consent, as someone engaging in sexual activity if they agree by choice and they have the freedom and capacity to make that choice. It is important to note that people can consent to one sexual activity but not to another, and consent can be withdrawn at any time.

You cannot truly consent if there has been violence, threats of violence, if you were asleep, unconscious, drugged or incapacitated by alcohol or your disability meant you were not able to communicate your lack of consent.

If people have been coerced or threatened into consenting, then they did not actually consent and have been sexually abused/exploited.

According to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, in Britain, 1 in 10 women and 1 in 70 men have experienced sex against their will since they turned 13.

However, many people who have been coerced do not believe that they have been abused or exploited. That is because there is a powerful culture that normalises coercion. This is rooted in complex gender norms, unequal power dynamics and a pop culture that perpetuates damaging myths about consent.

Results from the British Crime Surveys show that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 30 men experience rape or a serious sexual assault at some point during their lives.

Most of these cases will not enter the criminal justice system. Less than one in five victims of rape or assault by penetration reported their experience to the police. Victims face many barriers when deciding whether to report offences relating to sexual assault. These include shame, guilt, fear of the process, fear of not being believed, shock, cultural context, embarrassment, language barriers and fear of rejection from their communities.

Many have also been sexually abused, assaulted, or inappropriately touched by people they know, for example-friends, lovers, family members, etc. They are unable to understand that what happened to them was wrong. Children, especially, are too young to differentiate between a good touch and a bad touch.

Everyone reacts to trauma differently. If someone has been abused, it is common for their brains to block out the experience to protect them. So, they are unable to clearly remembers what happened. This is also another reason why people do not come forward, as many would ask them how they were assaulted if they cannot remember it.

The Crown Prosecution Service shares the deep public concern that while the number of Rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO) reports to the police have increased in recent years, the number of cases going to court has fallen. In response, they have launched RASSO 2025.

This strategy sets out their ambition to narrow the disparity between the number of offences reported to the police and cases going to court, as well as encouraging more people to come forward and report with confidence.

When a RASSO case has been referred to the CPS for a charging decision, a two-stage test in the Code for Crown Prosecutors is applied:

  1. Does the evidence provide a realistic prospect of conviction?
  2. Is it in the public interest to prosecute?



If you have been raped, sexually assaulted, or sexually abused, you can go to a Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARC) who will give you advice, take forensic evidence, and provide you with sexual health and counselling services. You can find a Centre near you by searching for your location on the NHS website or by calling 08088010818.

You can also go to Rape Crisis England & Wales on their website. They are an umbrella body for a network of independent rape crisis centres. They provide specialist support and services for victims and survivors of sexual violence.

If you decide to go to the police, you can ask to speak to a specially trained Sexual Offences Liaison Officer (SOLO or SOIT).

If you are an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) can help you. You can call them on 0808 801 0331.

Mankind provides one-to-one counselling, therapeutic groups and couple counselling to men who have experienced sexual abuse at any time in their lives.

Safeline has a large team of counsellors and therapists dedicated to helping people who have experienced sexual abuse at any time in their lives. Contact them on 01926 402498, email: office@safeline.org.uk or fill in a self-referral form on their website.


The Bar Pro Bono Unit is the pro bono charity of the Bar, supported by the Bar Council. They match members of the public who need free legal help with barristers who are willing to donate their time and expertise in cases for those who are unable to obtain legal aid and cannot afford to pay.

The Survivors Trust lists local specialist services for survivors of sexual violence, including advocates and Independent Sexual Violence Advisors (ISVAs). They can be contacted on 08088 010 818 or on their website.

If you are a woman looking for free legal advice, you can contact Rights of Women. They are a non-profit organisation providing high quality, free legal advice to women regarding a wide range of sexual offences.

If you have been wrongfully accused of sexual offences, you may be eligible for legal aid if you can show that it is in the interests of justice that Legal Aid be granted to you. This might be because you are at risk of imprisonment, or that you suffer from some disability. You must also pass a means test. This is based on the weekly income of yourself and your partner. If false allegations have been made against you, CPS will prosecute these cases wherever there is sufficient evidence, and it is in the public interest to do so.

To conclude, if you have been sexually abused, it was not your fault. It can make you feel afraid, isolated, or ashamed. But it is never your fault and it is never too late to tell someone. There are people who can help you. If you know someone who been sexually abused, it is important you believe them and help create a safe environment for them. Your loved one may need help and support in redeveloping trust in the world around them. Building a new sense of trust and safety is one of the most difficult steps in recovering from sexual abuse.


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