One in 13 adults aged 18 to 74 years – 2.4 million women and 709,000 men – were victims of sexual abuse before the age of 16, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has shown.
This includes rape or assault by penetration (including attempts), other contact sexual abuse, and non-contact sexual abuse.
The abuse was most likely to have been perpetrated by a friend or acquaintance (37 per cent); while around a third were sexually abused by a stranger.
The ONS has been working to produce a comprehensive picture of child abuse in the UK by incorporating questions into the Crime Survey for England and Wales and analysing this alongside other sources of data.
It found that overall, around one in five adults - 8.5 million - had experienced a form of child abuse – which includes sexual and physical abuse, as well as neglect and emotional abuse – before they turned 16.
But many cases of abuse remain hidden, with around one in seven adults who phoned one of the national child abuse helplines saying they hadn’t told anyone about the abuse before.
Around half of adults (52 per cent) who experienced abuse before the age of 16 also experienced domestic abuse later in life; compared with 13 per cent of those who did not experience abuse before the age of 16, according to the findings.
Alexa Bradley, of the Centre for Crime and Justice at ONS, said: “Child abuse is an appalling crime against some of the most vulnerable in society, but it is also something that is little discussed or understood. Today’s release is ONS’s first attempt to fill an important evidence gap on this critical issue.
“Measuring the extent and nature of child abuse is difficult because it is usually hidden from view and comes in many forms. Bringing data together from different sources helps us better understand both the nature of child abuse and the potential demand on support services.”
Figures were compiled using information from government departments like the Home Office, the Department for Education, the NHS, and officials in Wales, as well as the National Crime Agency and organisations like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).
According to the research there were 19,847 counselling sessions given to children by Childline in the UK where abuse was the primary concern in the year to March 2019.
At the end of March last year, 49,570 children in England and 4,810 children in Wales were looked after by their local authority because of experience or risk of abuse or neglect.
Andrew Fellowes, Public Affairs Manager at the NSPCC, said: “This report shows how abuse blights thousands of childhoods around the country, and the devastating effects it can have into adulthood.
“But it is also clear from reading this that we simply do not know how many children are suffering right now, hampering our ability to plan and fund services to help them recover.
“It’s crucial government conducts a prevalence study so we get a true picture of the scale of abuse in the UK. Only then will we know what services are needed to protect and support abused young people.”