Importance of context in preventing child sexual abuse

Dr Carlene Firmin says the context of child sexual abuse plays a pivotal role in assessment, intervention and prevention

Girl walking near some gates

Children and young people experience child sexual abuse (CSA) in many different contexts.

They might experience abuse from adults or peers, abuse at home, in school, in their neighbourhood or any environment they spend time.

When young people are abused in different ways and different environments, the context of abuse itself requires assessment and intervention.

Relationship with the abuser

The relationship a child has with the person or people who abused them is critical to understanding their case and their ability to engage with support.

If a child is abused by another young person they may feel threatened by the loss of their friendship, or becoming socially isolated from other peers if they seek help.

If it’s a relative, they may fear removal from the home, or disrupting their entire family life if they tell someone what’s happening.

It’s crucial this relationship is considered before decisions are made regarding the nature of care and intervention for the child.

The context of abuse

Young people form relationships in different environments, many of which are beyond the control of parents or carers. Some of these spaces have little or no management by adults with a duty to safeguard children, and yet the cultural norms within them inform young people’s behaviour.

If harmful attitudes are accepted within an environment, relationships and behaviour that occur within it may be abusive.

For example, if young people experience sexual harassment in school corridors as they walk between lessons, unhealthy norms, expectations and relationships can develop within their school environment.

However, if a school actively promotes healthy social behaviour across the whole of its environment, this should be reflected positively in the pupils’ behaviour.

The legacy of spaces

It’s important to recognise a space can have its own legacy in the context of child sexual abuse (CSA).

I studied the case of a young woman who was sexually assaulted by her peers in a poorly lit housing estate stairwell, notorious for assaults and antisocial behaviour.

The young woman was relocated and the young people who abused her were prosecuted. But the stairwell remained a hotspot for assault and abuse.

The stairwell itself had developed a legacy; a legacy in which CSA in that space was normalised in the minds of young people.

This legacy also created a worrying culture of blame. When victims were assaulted in this space, there was a tendency to ask what they were doing there in the first place: a sense they were somehow asking for trouble by being there.

Changing a space with a reputation, improving lighting or introducing community patrols, for example, can contribute towards the prevention of CSA.

Young people who abuse

Around one third of CSA cases involve a young person as the abuser.

In order for a child to report abuse and seek help, and to prevent future CSA, it’s important we encourage peer groups to challenge harmful behaviour, creating a safe peer environment.

One programme adopted by schools in Scotland works with young people to encourage bystander intervention (Goulden, 2016; Williams, and Neville, 2016). This helps young people utilise their own power in challenging and preventing harmful sexual behaviour (HSB).

So, for example, if a school has a problem with bullying associated to pupils sharing sexually explicit images, individuals are encouraged to break that chain by challenging the perpetrator(s).

This type of programme works best in a supportive environment where the whole school and staff have bought into a policy that supports bystander intervention. Staff members need to know exactly how to respond if a student discloses abuse and the policy needs to be handled carefully so it doesn’t escalate any pre-existing fear the students have around CSA.

Assessing the context of abuse

It’s vital that relevant questions about context are asked during assessment.

If a young person has been abused at school, for example, a practitioner needs to know more about the nature of the school environment, the quality of the sex and relationship education there and what the school can offer in terms of support.

They also need to know about the young person’s relationships, including the position they have in their peer group. Social isolation, for example, can be a feature of the lives of young people who display harmful sexual behaviour. Support to develop healthy, same-age friendships can provide a good source of early intervention.

Young people will not necessarily offer information on these dynamics when they talk to us - and it’s not necessarily included in practitioner assessment - but obtaining this contextual picture is very helpful. It needs to be built into assessment processes and inform the way we speak with young people.

Contextual and community assessment

If we just work with a young person in isolation of the situation they’re in, there’s a risk we’re raising their awareness of abuse, highlighting how difficult their life is, without actually changing anything about it.

One-to-one intervention helps young people who have been abused build safe and trusting relationships and receive therapeutic support to aid recovery. However, contextual and community assessment and intervention can complement this approach and maximise its impact.

We need to create safe environments and cultural norms for young people.

In some areas of the country where taxis were being used to transport children who were being exploited, taxi drivers were given safeguarding training by the local authority and police force in child sexual exploitation (D'Arcy and Thomas, 2016).

As a result of that engagement, rather than playing a part in the cycle of abuse, taxi drivers are alert to the warning signs of abuse, have been able to raise concerns and therefore become part of creating a safe environment in the area.

By twinning individual intervention with contextual and community work, we can help young people find more safe spaces and prevent future CSA.

Get involved

If you’re interested in this work, there’s an emerging community of practitioners encouraging such responses and working towards contextual safeguarding.

For more information or to join the network visit Contextual Safeguarding Network by The International Centre: Researching child sexual exploitation, violence and trafficking at the University of Bedfordshire.

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  1. D'Arcy, K. and Thomas, R. (2016) Nightwatch: CSE in Plain Sight. Ilford: Barnardo's

  2. Williams, D.J. and Neville, F.G. (2016) Qualitative evaluation of the Mentors in Violence Prevention pilot in Scottish high schools. Psychology of Violence. Online First.