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9 April 2021 | Podcasts | Article by Alan Collins

HJ Talks About Abuse: 2021 Official Statistics on Sexual Assault

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In this podcast we discuss the recently published ‘Nature of sexual assault by rape or penetration, England and Wales‘.

The report from the Office for National Statistics is concerned with: Information from the Crime Survey for England and Wales on the amount, type and nature of sexual assault by rape or penetration (including attempts) experienced since the age of 16 years.

It provides a very comprehensive picture of sexual offending as it more-or-less is now. Information was collected from the general public and following analysis there are some stark headlines which warrant further consideration:

  • One in 40 women aged between 16 and 24 in England and Wales experience rape or assault by penetration, including attempts, each year, ONS estimates suggest.
  • Overall, 0.1% of men and 0.8% of women aged over 16 said they were victims of these crimes in the year to March 2020.
  • Some 773,000 adults aged 16 to 74 said they were victims of any type of sexual assault during the same period.
  • There were almost four times as many female victims of sexual assault as men, at 618,000, compared to 155,000.

Non-reporting and reporting to the police

Sexual offences are as the ONS noted often hidden crimes that are not reported to the police. The reasons for non-reporting are often based in fear, shame, blackmail, and a lack of appreciation that a complaint will be taken seriously by the authorities.

Therefore, data held by the police can only provide a partial picture of the actual level of crime experienced. One of the strengths of the Crime Survey for England and Wales is that it covers many crimes that are not reported to the police.

The year ending March 2020 Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that 1.6 million adults aged 16 to 74 years had experienced sexual assault by rape or penetration (including attempts) since the age of 16 years.

Of victims who experienced sexual assault by rape or penetration (including attempts) since the age of 16 years:

  • almost half (49%) had been a victim more than once.
  • fewer than one in six (16%) reported the assault to the police and of those that told someone but not the police, 40% stated embarrassment as a reason, 38% did not think the police could help, and 34% thought it would be humiliating.
  • Victims who did tell the police did so primarily to prevent it happening to others (47%), although, believing it to be the right thing to do (44%) and wanting the perpetrator(s) punished (43%) were similarly common.
  • As victim age increased, so did the number of victims telling the police: just 10% of 16- to 19-year-olds reported the assault to the police, compared with 27% of 35- to 44-year-olds).
  • showed that the majority (69%) of victims told someone about the sexual assault by rape or penetration they had experienced since the age of 16 years. Victims were most likely to tell someone they knew personally (60%)
  • victims were equally as likely to tell someone in an official position (28%) as another support professional or organisation (29%) about the assault experienced.

Age and sex

In the years ending March 2017 and March 2020 combined, the majority of victims who had experienced rape or assault by penetration since they were 16 years old reported that the perpetrator(s) were male (98%). Almost two-thirds (65%) reported that the perpetrator was a male aged between 20 and 39 years.

Victims who experienced sexual assault by rape or penetration since the age of 16 years were most likely to be victimised by their partner or ex-partner (44%). This was closely followed by someone who was known to them other than a partner or family member (37%), which includes friends (12%) and dates (10%)

Where does the offending occur?

The most common location for rape or assault by penetration to occur was in the victim’s home (37%), followed by the perpetrator’s home (26%). The assault had taken place in a park, other open public space, car park or on the street for 9% of victims.

Almost half of victims who reported the perpetrator was a stranger, said the perpetrator was under the influence of alcohol when the sexual assault took place.

Method used by perpetrator

For over half (54%) of victims, physical force had been used by the perpetrator to try to make them have sex with them, with 10% reporting the perpetrator had choked or tried to strangle them. Over one-fifth (22%) of victims reported feeling frightened or that the perpetrator had threatened to hurt them, and in 6% of reported cases, threats to kill the victim were made by the perpetrator.

Over a fifth (21%) of victims were either unconscious or asleep during the most recent incident of sexual assault by rape or penetration.


Victims of sexual assault by rape or penetration (including attempts) since the age of 16 years were asked questions on physical injury and other, non-physical effects experienced as a result of the most recent incident of assault.

Nearly two-fifths of victims (36%) reported that they suffered some sort of physical injury. The most common types of injuries were minor bruising or black eye (23%) and scratches (15%)

Victims were presented with a list of other non-physical effects and were asked if they had suffered any of these as a result of the assault. For both men and women, the category most likely to be reported was “mental or emotional problems” (47% of male victims and 63% of female victims). Around one in ten victims (12% of men and 10% of women) said they had attempted suicide as a result.


Behind the numbers and statistics lie real people: victims and survivors each with their own story to tell. That must be an important reminder when trying to understand the figures and attempting to analyse them, let alone draw conclusions. Nevertheless, we attempt to do so….

It remains abundantly clear that victims are reluctant to come forward out of misplaced shame. Even in 2021 sexual abuse is still some thing of a taboo subject. There is a greater understanding of the issue but that does not necessarily correlate in to negating the very human feelings of embarrassment etc. Victims do not necessarily know what kind of reception that will receive when the contact the police: “How do I explain to a stranger what happened?” There have been of course lurid media stories of victims being cross-examined in court and having their reputations trashed. This only serves to re-enforce perceptions or misconceptions that reporting may have unwelcome consequences.

Much of course has been achieved in helping victims come forward to complain and to be assisted in the criminal justice system, but the report shows there is still much to be done. The MOJ’s The code of practice for victims of crime and supporting public information materials is an example of the steps that have been taken to support victims in the criminal justice system. Likewise important steps have been taken to assist victims in giving evidence for example through the pre-recording of their testimony.

In previous podcasts we have discussed offending behaviour and changes in societal norms, for example the prevalence of “sexting”; the misuse of intimate pictures, and sex trafficking. Are we seeing these trends appearing in the statistics? One of the interesting figures concerns strangulation – another podcast subject, and we have seen moves to make this a particular offence.

We encourage anyone who has concerns about sexual abuse to get in touch. You can contact Alan Collins or Danielle Vincent.

Author bio

Alan Collins


Alan Collins is one of the best known and most experienced solicitors in the field of child abuse litigation and has acted in many high profile cases, including the Jimmy Savile and Haut de la Garenne abuse scandals.  Alan has represented interested parties before public inquiries including the Independent Jersey Care Inquiry, and IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse).

Internationally, Alan works in Australia, South East Asia, Uganda, Kenya, and California representing clients in high profile sexual abuse cases. Alan also spoke at the Third Regional Workshop on Justice for Children in East Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok hosted by Unicef and HCCH (Hague Conference on Private International Law).

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.


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