Sexual harm – some context

awareness & education

Rape and sexual offences are crimes and because of that, as an issue, it can be placed into a ‘criminal justice box’, but sexual harm is so much than a criminal justice issue.

Sexual offences impact the physical and mental health of our society, they violate human rights, and they require awareness and education, all of which require a much broader conversation.

To encourage that conversation in can be useful to consider not just sexual offences but sexual harm which is the harm that is caused by an individual when they rape, or commit other sexual offences, against another person or people.

When reporting about this issue it can be helpful to understand the broader context in which sexual harm takes place. That context is far from simple, but below we have attempted to explore just a few themes and which we think help build a picture of why sexual harm is such a prolific issue embedded into our society. These are in no way exhaustive and other sources of information, including academic research and the views of trusted relevant professional organisations, are available.

Sexual harm – some context

For a long time, individuals have been encouraged to ‘protect themselves from rape’

Public narratives around the threat of sexual violence have often focused on ‘what people should do to avoid being raped/sexually harmed’ which has placed the responsibility for preventing harm on everyone other than those who commit sexual offences.

Sexual harm – some context

Generally resources have not been targeted at those who commit sexual offences

To prevent a crime, the first step is to understand what causes it. “If you don’t really understand perpetrators, you’re never going to understand sexual violence” – Sherry Hamby PhD. Although a number of services exist to support those who have been harmed, there are disproportionately fewer services available for those who harm (or who are considered to be at risk of harming others).

Sexual harm – some context

Individuals are sometimes blamed for the crimes committed against them

People should not rape or commit sexual offences against other people, however there are still perceptions in society that a person who has been sexually harmed is in some way culpable for the crime(s) committed against them, particularly in certain scenarios (eg if they are dressed in a certain way, if they have been drinking alcohol or using drugs, if they are a sex worker, if they are in a relationship or have been previously sexually intimate with the person who has harmed them, if they are out alone etc).

Sexual harm – some context

It has been acceptable, legally

Rape has been considered as socially and legally acceptable in this generation. A man raping his wife became recognised as a criminal offence in the UK in 1991 when the House of Lords overturned a common-law rule and upheld a husband’s conviction for rape. This law was later made explicit under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Male rape was recognised in law in 1994.

Sexual harm – some context

Few people face justice for sexual crimes

Despite its prevalence, proportionality few people face justice for the sexual offences they commit. 1.4 % of rape cases were charged / summonsed in England and Wales (for the year ending March 2020) (Source: Home Office) [1]

Sexual harm – some context

False allegations can be used to promote an inaccurate narrative and inhibit debate

Some individuals make false allegations of rape and sexual assault which can devastate lives, and those responsible should be held to account for their actions, but false allegations do not outweigh truthful allegations. A 2005 Home Office report [2] suggested that 4% of cases of sexual violence reported to the police in the UK are found, or suspected, to be false. Crown Prosecution Service data from 2013 indicated that there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and during the same period, there were 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape.

Sexual harm – some context

Children are learning about sex through pornography

In May 2015 one in five under 18s in the UK had visited an adult site. [3] In 2016 a report by the NPSCC indicated that 48% of 11-16 year olds surveyed had seen pornography online [4] and the Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges [5] published in 2021 makes various references to the impact of online pornography on children and young people.

Sexual harm – some context

Women also commit sexual offences and cause sexual harm

Ministry of Justice data for 2018 shows that out of 5,547 offenders found guilty of child sexual abuse in England and Wales, 66 of those were female. Whilst the number of female perpetrators of sexual crimes is vastly fewer compared to males, their crimes and the harm they cause can be equally as devastating. Because stereotypically women can be perceived as nurturers and ‘care givers’ this can create a significant and very real stigma for those they harm, and it can also enable those who commit the crimes to evade suspicion.

timeline of change

To explore further context about sexual harm in our society, view our ‘timeline of change’ which illustrates some of the key points in time which help shape our understanding of what has been happening in the UK.


[1] Table 2:2 on the Crime outcomes in England and Wales 2019-2020 Home Office publication

[2] Home Office Research Study 293 – A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases – January 2005 by liz Kelly and Jo Lovett

[3] Credited to Comscore2015 but sourced from Ending Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy: 2016-2020



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