Sexual abuse: why boys are less likely to ask for help

Sexual abuse: why boys are less likely to ask for help...and what you can do to help them

Many children who are sexually abused don’t ask for help or tell anyone. Find out more about why boys are less likely to speak out, and what you can do to help them.

Parents text content

At least 15% of girls and 5% of boys experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 16, according to research. The actual figures are likely to be higher, because we know many children who experience abuse don’t tell anyone what has happened – and boys, in particular, are less likely to report it.

Sexual abuse of boys is as serious as that of girls

A survey by Barnardo’s found that one-in-five UK adults reacted more strongly to stories of children being groomed if the perpetrator was male and the teenage victim female. Nearly two-thirds of those who felt this said it was because they think teenage girls are more vulnerable than teenage boys.

Attitudes like these can make boys and men feel that they should be able to ‘protect themselves’ – and that, if they tell someone about abuse, they may not be believed. It’s important to recognise that sexual abuse of boys is just as serious as sexual abuse of girls.

Sexual abuse of boys online

Some offenders don’t pretend to be someone else. They target young men who they think are vulnerable.

Other offenders do what’s known as ‘catfishing’ – where they pretend to be a boy/girl of a similar age and seek an online ‘relationship’ with a boy (this can happen to females too). Victims may send images to the offender in the belief they are having a legitimate relationship. We often hear from young people that they were asked to share images in order to ‘prove’ that they liked someone, and were made to feel that this was normal and expected. If the offender receives images or videos, they can then blackmail the boys for more images.

Mark’s story

The NSPCC interviewed Mark, a 15-year-old victim of online sexual abuse, who was ‘catfished’ by an offender. He describes how he felt when it happened:

“I feel quite stupid obviously because I let it happen. Looking back, it was so obvious, just the way they were talking… the picture they sent was a grown woman… I think, how did I not notice?”

Mark’s feelings of self-blame are common for victims of online sexual abuse – but he should never be held responsible for what happened. These relationships can feel very real. Fake video footage used by offenders can look genuine, when, in reality, it may be of another victim. This can sometimes result in victims not recognising the abuse. It’s really important that we all reinforce the message that victims are never at fault for the crime that has been committed against them.

Mark says that his initial reaction to the abuse was a strong desire to deal with the situation by himself:

“Normally, if I’ve got a problem, I’ll confront the person about it and I’ll talk to them, just sort it out there with them rather than on online media where… everything comes across wrong. It was really hard for me to deal with on the media because I just wanted to go up in their face and be like ‘look stop it now, delete things off your phone, I won’t tell anyone, just stop,’ but I couldn’t because every time I tried to send a message it was, ‘shut up, you have no say in this’… So I had no way I could get power over them, no way I could get some control.”

The fact that the abuse took place online contributed to Mark’s feeling powerless. Mark did tell someone and got the help he needed.

We are all responsible for keeping children safe. Children should never be expected to take responsibility for getting help. being able to identify the signs that something may not be right in a child, can help you to get the right support for them, for example:

  • Are they sad or withdrawn but won’t say why? Your child might be feeling trapped, like they can’t talk about it. Let them know you’re there to listen.
  • Do they seem distracted? If they seem unusually preoccupied it might be because things are weighing on them which they feel they can’t talk about. 
  • Are they very up and down? This could be a sign that there is someone else affecting their moods. 

Whatever it is, if you feel like something doesn’t feel quite right, follow this up in order to protect them.

Parents text content

What you can do

Much of the advice to support your child is the same regardless of gender. Some additional considerations when supporting boys:

Start a conversation about feelings and mental health.

Ask how they are, and be a role model by talking about your own feelings. Help them develop a language for talking about their emotions and reactions to everyday occurrences which affect them, and make sure they feel listened to. Make this an ongoing part of your family life.

Help them make a choice about where to go for help.

Assure them it’s a sign of strength to have the courage to tell someone if they’re worried. They don’t have to feel that they have to protect themselves and cope on their own. Mark described his feelings of powerlessness in the face of messages from the offender. A young person shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of pressure alone. Make sure your child knows about reporting to CEOP.

Make sure they know it’s never their fault.

Anyone can be tricked online, adults included. Offenders  will deliberately make their victims feel they have done something wrong, even though they haven’t. We can counter these messages by making sure young people know that they won’t be blamed.

Consider sexuality.

Some may need help to access LGBT support services. They can use the ‘What’s In My Area’ function on the Stonewall website. 

Talk to them about managing risk.

Young people have told us about a range of things they have learned to do to manage the risk of ‘catfishing’ – for example by keeping account settings private; making sure they know everyone in a group chat; declining requests from people they don’t know; and talking to a friend, sibling or parent about a person who has contacted them online.

If you’re worried that something has happened to your child, you can read our advice to parents on supporting children who have been a victim of sexual abuse. This has specific advice on how to respond if something has happened, what you will need, and what to say to your child. If your child is ever worried about online grooming, they can report to CEOP directly.