What is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse is the direct or indirect involvement in sexual activity without Consent. This could also be the inability to consent, pressure or induced to consent or take part. Sexual abuse includes rape, indecent assault, indecent exposure, sexual harassment, inappropriate looking or touching, sexual teasing or innuendo, sexual photography, subjection to pornography or witnessing sexual acts to which the adult has not consented or was pressured into consenting.

This also includes the involvement of an adult in sexual activity or relationships, which they cannot understand, or have been coerced into because the other person is in a position of trust, power or authority (e.g. day centre worker, residential worker/health worker etc.)

Denial of a sexual life to consenting adults is also considered abusive practice.

Potential Indicators of sexual abuse include:

  • Person has urinary tract infections, vaginal infections or sexually transmitted infections that are not otherwise explained;
  • Person appears unusually subdued, withdrawn or has poor concentration;
  • Person exhibits significant changes in sexual behaviour or outlook;
  • Person experiences pain, itching or bleeding in the genital/anal area;
  • Person’s underclothing is torn, stained or bloody;
  • A woman who lacks the mental capacity to consent to sexual intercourse becomes pregnant.
  • Bruising to genitals, anus, breast or arms and legs indicating restraint.
  • Damage to mouth, abrasions and tears.
  • Safeguarding adults from sexual exploitation

This section is based on information available in relation to child sexual exploitation, yet much of this information is pertinent to adults who may be at risk of being sexually exploited. It relates to adults who may be exploited due to a learning or physical disability for example. It also relates to young people who have transferred from Children’s Services to Adult Services who have previously been sexually exploited.


Sexual exploitation takes different forms - from a seemingly ‘consensual’ relationship where sex is exchanged for attention, affection, accommodation or gifts, to serious organised crime and human trafficking. Sexual exploitation involves differing degrees of abusive activities, including coercion, intimidation or enticement, unwanted pressure from peers to have sex, sexual bullying (including cyber bullying), and grooming for sexual activity. There is increasing concern about the role of technology in Sexual Abuse, including via social networking and other internet sites and mobile phones. The key issue in relation to the sexual exploitation of adults is the imbalance of power within the ‘relationship’. The source of harm always has power over the Adult at Risk, increasing the dependence of the Adult at Risk as the exploitative relationship develops.

Adults may be groomed into sexually exploitative relationships but other forms of entry exist. Some are engaged in informal economies that incorporate the exchange of sex for rewards such as drugs, alcohol, money or gifts. Others exchange sex for accommodation or money as a result of homelessness and experiences of poverty. Some Adults have been bullied and threatened into sexual activities by peers or gangs, which are then used against them as a form of extortion and to keep them compliant.

They may have already been sexually exploited before being referred to the Safeguarding Adults process; others may become targets of the source of harm whilst living at home or during placements in care settings. They are often the focus of perpetrators of Sexual Abuse due to their vulnerability. All staff and carers should therefore create an environment which educates adults about sexual exploitation, involving relevant outside agencies where appropriate. They should encourage them to discuss any such concerns with them, another member of staff, or with someone from a specialist sexual exploitation project, and also feel able to share any such concerns about their friends.

Indicators of Possible Sexual Exploitation

Staff and carers should receive training on sexual exploitation, and therefore be aware of the key indicators. These include:


  • Physical symptoms (bruising suggestive of either physical or sexual assault);
  • Chronic fatigue;
  • Recurring or multiple sexually transmitted infections;
  • Pregnancy and/or seeking an abortion;
  • Evidence of drug, alcohol or other substance misuse;
  • Sexually risky behaviour.


  • Truancy/disengagement with education or considerable change in performance at school.
  • Emotional and Behavioural Issues
  • Volatile behaviour exhibiting extreme array of mood swings or use of abusive language;
  • Involvement in petty crime such as shoplifting, stealing;
  • Secretive behaviour;
  • Entering or leaving vehicles driven by unknown adults;
  • Reports of being seen in places known to be used for sexual exploitation, including public toilets known for cottaging or adult venues (pubs and clubs).


  • Low self-image, low self-esteem, self-harming behaviour, e.g. cutting, overdosing, eating disorder, promiscuity.


Hostility in relationships with staff, family members as appropriate and significant others;

  • Physical aggression;
  • Placement breakdown;
  • Reports from reliable sources (e.g. family, friends or other professionals) suggesting the likelihood of involvement in sexual exploitation;
  • Detachment from age-appropriate activities;
  • Associating with other young people who are known to be sexually exploited;
  • Known to be sexually active;
  • Sexual relationship with a significantly older person, or younger person who is suspected of being abusive;
  • Unexplained relationships with older adults;
  • Possible inappropriate use of the Internet and forming relationships, particularly with adults, via the Internet;
  • Phone calls, text messages or letters from unknown adults;
  • Adults or older youths loitering outside the home;

Persistently missing, staying out overnight or returning late with no plausible explanation;

  • Returning after having been missing, looking well cared for in spite of having no known home base;
  • Missing for long periods, with no known home base;
  • Going missing and being found in areas where they have no known links.

Please note: Whilst the focus is often on older men as sources of harm, younger men and women may also be involved and staff should be aware of this possibility.

Social Presentation

  • Change in appearance;
  • Going out dressed in clothing unusual for them (inappropriate for age, borrowing clothing from older young people).

Family and Environmental Factors

  • History of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse; neglect; domestic violence; parental difficulties.


  • Pattern of previous street homelessness;
  • Having keys to premises other than those known about.


  • Possession of large amounts of money with no plausible explanation;
  • Acquisition of expensive clothes, mobile phones or other possessions without plausible explanation;
  • Accounts of social activities with no plausible explanation of the source of necessary funding.

This list is not exhaustive.

Staff and carers should be aware that adults who are sexually exploited may not see themselves as victims. In such situations, discussions with them about concerns should be handled with great sensitivity. Seeking prior advice from specialist agencies may be useful. This should not involve disclosing personal, identifiable information at this stage.

In assessing whether an adult is a victim of sexual exploitation, careful consideration should be given to the issue of consent. It is important to bear in mind that:

  • Non-consensual sex is rape whatever the age of the victim.
  • If the victim is incapacitated through drink or drugs, or the victim or his or her family has been subject to violence or the threat of it, they cannot be considered to have given true consent; therefore offences may have been committed;
  • The sexual exploitation of adults is therefore potentially a safeguarding adults issue.

The sexual exploitation training staff and carers receive should also include what information should be given to the police in such cases, for example vehicle registration numbers, names, physical descriptions. It may also include what action staff should take in the case of suspected sexual or physical abuse in order to protect potential evidence, which may be useful in the case of an alleged source of harm being prosecuted.

Internet Abuse: Adults Exposed to Abuse through the Digital Media


‘Internet Abuse’ relates to three main areas of sexual abuse:

  • Abusive images (although these are not confined to the Internet);
  • An adult being groomed for the purpose of sexual abuse;
  • Exposure to pornographic or other offensive material via the Internet.

The term digital (data carrying signals carrying electronic or optical pulses) and interactive (a message relates to other previous message/s and the relationship between them) technology covers a range of electronic tools. These are constantly being upgraded and their use has become more widespread through the Internet being available using text, photos and video. The internet can be accessed on mobile phones, laptops, computers, tablets, webcams, cameras and games consoles.

Social networking sites are often used by sources of harm as an easy way to access and target adults who are at risk of abuse.

Internet abuse may also include cyber-bullying. This is when a person is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another person(s) using the Internet or mobile phones. It is possible for one victim to be bullied by many sources of harm.

E Safety is the generic term that refers to raising awareness about how children, young people and adults can protect themselves when using digital technology and in the online environment, and examples of interventions that can reduce the level of risk.

Potential Indicators of Internet Abuse include:

  • Spending extended amounts of time online;
  • Secrecy over mobile phone and computer;
  • Withdrawal from social contact;
  • Depression;
  • Mood Swings;
  • Unexplained gifts;
  • Sleep disturbances;
  • Self-harming.