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Sexual offences

There are a range of crimes that can be considered as sexual offences, including non-consensual crimes such as rape or sexual assault, crimes against children including child sexual abuse or grooming, and crimes that exploit others for a sexual purpose, whether in person or online.

Crimes can occur between strangers, friends, acquaintances, current or ex-partners, or family members. The passage of time does not prevent the effective prosecution of sexual offences, and an increasing number of cases referred to the CPS by police feature allegations of a non-recent nature.

Sexual offences are prosecuted as part of the CPS Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Strategy. This is an overarching framework to address crimes that have been identified as being committed primarily but not exclusively by men against women.

These crimes include domestic abuse, rape, sexual offences, stalking, harassment, so-called ‘honour-based’ violence including forced marriage, female genital mutilation, child abuse, human trafficking focusing on sexual exploitation, prostitution, pornography and obscenity.

This CPS approach to VAWG crimes follows United Nations conventions which the UK government has ratified, and which inform the cross-government VAWG framework. However, the Annual Violence Against Women and Girls report published by the CPS includes data on all perpetrators and victims, irrespective of gender. The CPS is determined to secure justice for all victims, and recently reaffirmed our commitment to male victims.

For more information about how prosecutors should approach the prosecution of rape and sexual offences, including the application of the Code for Crown Prosecutors, please see our Rape and Sexual Offences Legal Guidance.

The specific legal definitions of rape and other sexual offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 can be found on the website.

A rape is when a person uses their penis without consent to penetrate the vagina, mouth, or anus of another person. Legally, a person without a penis cannot commit rape, but a female may be guilty of rape if they assist a male perpetrator in an attack.

Sexual assault is where one person intentionally touches another person sexually without their consent. The touching can be done with any part of the body or with an object.

Assault by penetration is where a person intentionally penetrates the vagina or anus of another person with any part of their body or an object without that person’s consent. The penetration has to be sexual.

A child is defined as any person under the age of 18. Child sexual abuse involves forcing or inciting a child to take part in sexual activity, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening and not necessarily involving a high level of violence.

This may involve physical contact including rape or oral sex, or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or exploiting or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet) or prostitution. Child sexual abuse can be committed by both men and women, or other children.

The Independent Inquiry into Child abuse was established in 2015 to investigate the extent to which public and other non-state institutions in England and Wales failed to protect children from child sexual abuse, and to make recommendations to ensure the best possible protection for children in future. The CPS is cooperating fully with the Inquiry, and is a core participant in several of its strands.

More information: 

There are a number of offences related to prostitution. However it is not illegal for people to exchange money or other commodities for sex. CPS prosecutions focus on those who force others into prostitution, who exploit, abuse and harm them. Our joint approach with the police, with the support of other agencies, is to help those involved in prostitution to develop routes out.  We focus on charging offences of causing, inciting or controlling prostitution for gain, or trafficking for sexual exploitation.

It is however an offence for a person, male or female, to persistently loiter or solicit in a street or public place in order to offer their services as a prostitute, pay for sexual services, operate or own a brothel, advertise prostitution or to engage in kerb crawling, where a person solicits another in a street or public place for the purposes of prostitution. 

Extreme pornography describes pornographic images that are grossly offensive, disgusting or obscene, and portray a range of extreme acts in an explicit and realistic way. This may include images of extreme violence, mutilation, or sexual activity with an animal that are intended to sexually arouse.

Disclosing private sexual images without consent (so-called ‘revenge pornography’). This relates to private sexual photographs and films of a person that have been disclosed without the consent of an individual who appears in them, with intent to cause that individual distress. Such images may be uploaded onto the internet, often by a person’s ex-partner, to cause them distress, humiliation or embarrassment.

Indecent images of children is an offence to take, to permit to be taken, to make, to possess, show, or to distribute or publish an image of a child posed or pictured indecently, for example in a sexual way. This can also include images of adults involved in indecent act where a child is present but not themselves portrayed indecently. Images can include actual photographs or video footage, drawings or tracings, or images created digitally. ‘Making’ an indecent image does not just refer to a person taking a photo or video - it can also refer to a person downloading or printing an indecent image, or opening an email attachment containing an indecent image. 

How does the CPS deal with sexual offences?

For more information about how prosecutors should approach the prosecution of rape and sexual offences, including the application of the Code for Crown Prosecutors, please see our Rape and Sexual Offences Legal Guidance.

Consent is a fundamental issue in rape and sexual assault cases because the prosecution is required to prove to the court that the victim did not consent and that the suspect did not have a reasonable belief that the victim was consenting.

When it comes to other offences, such as those committed against children, there is no requirement for the prosecution to prove an absence of consent. In such cases it is only necessary to prove the act itself took place and the age of the alleged victim.

Consent is defined in section 74 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 as someone engaging in sexual activity if they agree by choice and they have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

Consent to sexual activity may be given to one sort of sexual activity but not another, e.g. vaginal but not anal sex or penetration with conditions, such as wearing a condom. Consent can be withdrawn at any time during sexual activity and each time activity occurs.

When there is an allegation of rape or sexual assault, prosecutors will consider consent in two stages. First, they will consider whether the complainant had the capacity to choose whether or not to take part in sexual activity, for example whether the use of drugs or alcohol may have affected their ability to consent. They will also consider whether the complainant was free to make the choice, and not constrained in any way.

A complainant who is threatened with violence by an offender immediately before a request for sex is made is unlikely to be exercising a free choice. Assuming that the complainant has both the freedom and capacity to consent, the crucial question is whether the complainant agrees to the activity by choice.

It must be established what steps, if any, the suspect took to obtain the complainant’s consent and the prosecution must prove that the suspect did not have a reasonable belief that the victim was consenting. There is a big difference between consensual sex and rape. 

Non-recent sexual offences 

An increasing number of complaints referred by the police to the CPS feature allegations of a non-recent nature. The significant passage of time does not prevent the effective prosecution of sexual offences and charges contrary to the Sexual Offences Act 1956 and Indecency with Children Act 1960 are still used regularly by prosecutors when dealing with criminality which took place before May 2004.

How the CPS works with, and for, victims of sexual offences

The Crown Prosecution Service has a team of specialist prosecutors across England and Wales who are trained to deal with cases featuring sexual allegations. These prosecutors work within a set of carefully drafted guidelines.

The CPS is committed to taking all practicable steps to help victims through the often difficult experience of becoming involved in the criminal justice system. There are multi-agency Witness Care Units staffed by police and CPS Witness Care Officers across the UK.

Special measures

Special measures can also be applied for and put in place during court proceedings to make the experience less traumatic for victims and witnesses. Where they are available, measures include:

  • Screens to shield the witness from the defendant
  • A live video link to enable the witness to give evidence from a separate room
  • Evidence in private, with the court cleared of the public and most journalists
  • Giving evidence by a video-recorded interview 

Further information on ‘special measures’ in court are available here.

Victims' Code

The Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (Victims' Code) was introduced in 2006 and sets out the minimum levels of service which victims can expect from agencies that are signatories to it.

Policy, reports and publications

The CPS Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Strategy

CPS Annual Violence Against Women and Girls report

Public statement on support for male victims

Toolkit for Prosecutors on Violence Against Women and Girls Cases Involving Vulnerable Victims

Joint CPS and Police rape protocol

Rape Cases – Police referral to the Crown Prosecution Service for early investigative and other advice. This document provides further guidance for police and prosecutors about the existing requirements for early investigative and other advice.

Rape prosecutions: key facts – The Crown Prosecution Service has published a factsheet outlining a range of key facts about how allegations of rape are prosecuted by the CPS. This includes information about charging and volumes in rape cases, issues of consent and disclosure, and key figures and data.

Rape Action Plan - The Crown Prosecution Service and the Police published a joint Rape Action Plan following a National Scrutiny Panel held to consider the falling levels of referrals of rape cases as well as wider issues related to their investigation and prosecution.

What is Consent? This aide-memoire focuses on consent, as allegations of rape often involve the word of the complainant against that of the suspect. The aim is to challenge assumptions about consent and the associated victim-blaming myths/stereotypes and highlight the suspect's behaviour and motives to prove he did not reasonably believe the victim was consenting.

Related legislation

Rape and sexual offences

Extreme Pornography

Disclosing private sexual images without consent

Sexual communications with a child

Further reading

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