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Child sexual abuse

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Most children and young people in Australia grow up in an environment where they feel safe and do not experience sexual abuse, however, this is not the case for all children. Experiences of childhood sexual abuse can cause immediate, short- and long-term harm to a child’s health and wellbeing. These harms can lead to developmental, mental, physical and social problems and potentially impact other aspects of life such as education and employment (Cashmore and Shackel 2013; RCIRCSA 2017c).

This topic page covers the extent, nature and impacts of child sexual abuse. For broader information about the experiences of, and responses to, family, domestic and sexual violence for children and young people, see Children and young people.

What is child sexual abuse?

The National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse 2021–2030 (the National Strategy) defines child sexual abuse as any act that exposes a person aged under 18 to, or involves them in, sexual activities that:

  • they do not understand
  • they do not or cannot consent to
  • are not accepted by the community
  • are unlawful (NOCS n.d.).

The National Strategy’s definition includes child sexual abuse in all settings, including within families, by other people the child or young person knows or does not know, in organisations and online, see Box 1 (NOCS n.d.).

The definition of child sexual abuse can vary between data sources, legal frameworks, policy responses and organisations (Mathews and Collin-Vézina 2019). Unless otherwise stated, this page uses the terms children and young people for people aged under 18 years.

What do we know about child sexual abuse?

While child sexual abuse can be perpetrated by anyone, most child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the child or young person, including other children and young people and family members (NOCS n.d.). With the increased availability and ease of access to the internet, online forms of child sexual abuse are an increasing risk for children (ACCE 2022; NOCS n.d.).

Child sexual abuse can occur anywhere, however, children can be at greater risk in institutional settings, such as those attended for educational, recreational, sporting, religious or cultural activities (RCIRCSA 2017e).

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Royal Commission) investigated institutional child sexual abuse in Australia, see Box 2. While the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission focussed on the extent, nature and impacts of institutional child sexual abuse, many also related to and could help responses to child sexual abuse more broadly (RCIRCSA 2017e).

Risk and protective factors

Factors that may be associated with an increased likelihood of a child or young person experiencing sexual abuse (risk factors) include:

  • gender, with girls generally more likely
  • sexuality, with an increased risk for children with diverse sexual orientations
  • age and developmental stage, with the risk for sexual abuse increasing with age
  • past experience of maltreatment
  • family characteristics, such as unstable living arrangements, and a history of FDV
  • parental characteristics, such as lower levels of parent education and employment, drug use, mental health
  • experiences of disability (Esposito and Field 2016; Haslam et al. 2023; Quadara et al. 2015; RCIRCSA 2017d).

Factors that may be associated with a decreased likelihood (protective factors) include:

  • supportive and trustworthy adults
  • supportive peers
  • an adequate understanding of appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour
  • the ability to assert themselves verbally or physically to reject the abuse
  • strong community or cultural connections (Esposito and Field 2016; RCIRCSA 2017d).

For risk factors for experiences of FDSV that relate to the general population, see Factors associated with FDSV.

Disclosure of child sexual abuse

Many people do not disclose child sexual abuse until adulthood and some choose to never disclose to anyone. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017) found that of the people who provided information about disclosure, 57% first disclosed as adults with 43% disclosing during childhood. On average, it took victims and survivors of child sexual abuse 23.9 years to disclose the abuse to anyone (RCIRCSA 2017b).

Younger children may be more likely to disclose sexual abuse to parents, particularly their mothers, while young people may be more likely to disclose to their friends than to adults (Esposito 2014). Some of the challenges to disclosure for children are similar to those for other victims and survivors of family domestic and sexual violence. For example, feelings of fear, shame, embarrassment, concerns about not being believed and not recognising the behaviours as abusive (see also How do people respond to FDSV?).

However, there are some specific challenges for children and young people when disclosing abuse. This includes not having the language skills to communicate the abuse, fear of upsetting their parents, lack of parental support and lack of confidence in adults and their ability to help (Alaggia et al. 2019; Esposito 2014). Findings from the Royal Commission indicated that victims and survivors were more likely to disclose to someone they had a trusting relationship with and that children might not disclose sexual abuse if they feel there is no one they can tell (RCIRCSA 2017b).

Additional barriers to disclosing sexual abuse have been identified for First Nations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) children and children from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. For First Nations children these barriers include fears related to authorities and the potential removal of children from their family and previous negative experiences with justice systems and service providers. For children from CALD backgrounds, different views about what constitutes child abuse and neglect, fears related to visa status and patriarchal cultures that value men’s views over women and children can affect disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse (DCYJMA 2022).

Impacts

The experiences and impacts of child sexual abuse are affected by many factors including the type, duration and frequency of the abuse, individual child characteristics (such as age and gender) and the relationship of the child to the perpetrator. As such, the impacts of child sexual abuse are different for each victim and survivor (RCIRCSA 2017c).

Of victims and survivors who reported the impacts of child sexual abuse to the Royal Commission, 95% reported mental health-related issues, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other impacts reported were related to relationships, physical health, sexual identity, gender identity and sexual behaviour, connection to culture and education, employment and economic security (RCIRCSA 2017c).

The Royal Commission noted that the impacts of institutional child sexual abuse are similar to those of child sexual abuse in other settings. However, some specific effects were identified for children sexually abused in an institution including distrust and fear of institutions and authority and impacts on spirituality and religious involvement (for children sexually abused in a religious institution setting) (RCIRCSA 2017c).

The impacts of child sexual abuse can also extend to secondary victims, such as family, carers and friends. Intergenerational impacts can also be experienced by the children of some victims and survivors (RCIRCSA 2017c).

The lack of services designed specifically for children and young people who experience family and sexual violence has been identified as a key issue in Australia (ANROWS 2016, FVRIM 2022, Royal Commission 2017).

Measuring the extent of child sexual abuse

It is difficult to obtain robust data on experiences of child sexual abuse. Due to the sensitive nature of this subject, most large-scale population surveys focus on adults. However, estimates of adults from surveys are likely to underestimate the true extent of child sexual abuse due to some people’s reluctance to disclose information and reliance on participant’s recollections of events, which may have changed over time.

How many people have experienced child sexual abuse?

There are two sources that can be used to examine the extent of child sexual abuse in Australia – the ABS Personal Safety Survey (see Box 3) and the Australian Child Maltreatment Study (see Box 4). Due to differences in the methods used, findings from these sources are not comparable.

  • 11% of women

    3.6% of men

    in 2021–22 had experienced sexual abuse perpetrated by an adult before the age of 15

    Source: ABS Personal Safety Survey

The 2021–22 PSS estimated that about 1.1 million women (11%) and 343,500 men (3.6%) had experienced sexual abuse perpetrated by an adult before the age of 15. Of people who had experienced childhood sexual abuse, many women (69%) and men (52%) had experienced more than one incident (ABS 2023a).

The 2021–22 PSS collected information about the first incident of childhood sexual abuse that occurred before the age of 15. Some data, such as detailed data about the experiences of men, are not sufficiently statistically reliable for reporting.

Most commonly, the first incident of childhood sexual abuse experienced by women:

  • occurred when they were aged between 5 to 9 years old (49% or 547,000)
  • involved one perpetrator (85% or 953,000)
  • was never reported to police (84% or 935,000) (ABS 2023a).

For women, the perpetrator was most likely to be known to them (88% or 986,000), and was commonly a family member (47%) including non-immediate adult male relatives (25%), their father or step-father (16%) or their brother or step-brother (5.6%) (ABS 2023a).

Most commonly, the first incident of childhood sexual abuse experienced by men:

  • occurred when they were aged between 10 to 14 years old (51% or 175,000)
  • involved one perpetrator (94% or 324,000)
  • was never reported to the police (99% or 340,000) (ABS 2023a).

For men, the perpetrator was most likely to be known to them (82%, or 281,000), and was commonly a family member (32%) or known through an institutional setting (33%*). Note that estimates marked with an asterisk (*) should be used with caution as they have a relative standard error between 25% and 50% (ABS 2023a).

The first Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS, see Box 3) indicated for surveyed people aged 16 years and over in 2021:

  • 3 in 10 (29%) had experienced child sexual abuse
  • females (37%) were twice as likely as males (19%) to have experienced child sexual abuse
  • of those who had experienced child sexual abuse, most (78%) had experienced it more than once; the median number of incidents of child sexual abuse was 3.5 (Haslam et al. 2023).

For more information about this study, see Children and young people: Measuring the extent of violence against children and young people and Data sources and technical notes.

Contact sexual abuse (24%) by any person was more commonly reported than non-contact sexual abuse (18%). Sexual touching (19%) was the most common type of contact sexual abuse by any person, followed by attempted forced intercourse (14%) and forced intercourse (rape) (8.7%) (Mathews et al. 2023).

An ACMS analysis examined child sexual abuse by relational classes and types of perpetrators. It found that almost one in 5 (19%) participants had experienced child sexual abuse by an adult perpetrator and one in 7 (14%) by an adolescent perpetrator. However, among participants aged 16-24, offending by adolescents (18%) was more common than by adults (12%) (Mathews et al. 2024).

There was no single perpetrator class that contained the majority of cases. The most common classes of perpetrator were:

  • other known adolescents in non-romantic relationships (10%)
  • parents or caregivers in the home (7.8%)
  • other known adults (7.5%) (Mathews et al. 2024).

Among participants aged 16-24, the most common perpetrators were other known adolescents in non-romantic relationships (13%) and adolescents in current or former romantic relationships (5.7%) (Mathews et al. 2024).

For more information about this study, see Children and young people: Measuring the extent of violence against children and young people and Data sources and technical notes.

Institutional child sexual abuse

Institutional child sexual abuse is where child sexual abuse occurs:

  • on the premises of an institution, such as a school, church, club, orphanage or children’s home
  • where activities of an institution take place, such as a camp or sporting facility
  • by an official of an institution, such as a teacher, religious figure, coach or camp leader (National Redress Scheme n.d.).

Child sexual abuse reported to police

  • 59%

    Most police-recorded sexual assault victims in 2022 had an age at incident of under 18 years

    Source: ABS Recorded Crime - Victims

The ABS Recorded Crime – Victims data allows for reporting of sexual assault by age at incident. Based on national data on crimes reported to police, most recorded sexual assault victims (59%, or about 18,900 victims) in 2022 had an age at incident of under 18 years. Of these victims:

  • 71% (or about 13,400) were aged 10–17 years
  • about 5 in 6 were female (79%, or about 15,000) (ABS 2023c).

For each year between 2014 and 2022, the most common age at incident for victims of sexual assault was 10–17 years (ABS 2023c).

See Children and young people for more information.

Online child sexual exploitation

Online child sexual exploitation is the use of technology or the internet to facilitate the sexual abuse of a child. This includes the production and sharing of child abuse material online, grooming and blackmailing children for sexual purposes. Children sharing self-generated sexual content and ‘sexting’ (requesting, capturing and sharing of explicit material) is an increasing concern (ACCE 2023a, b). See Box 6 for common terminology and definitions of online child sexual exploitation.

The Australian Institute of Criminology published a report on the occurrence of viewing online child sexual abuse material (CSAM) among Australian adults. Using a non-random sample selected through online panel membership, the study found that of 13,300 respondents, 0.8% reported intentionally viewing CSAM in the year before the survey. There were statistically significant differences in the intentional viewing of CSAM between:

  • respondents aged 18-34 (1.3%) and those aged 35 and over (0.6%)
  • respondents who most often spoke a language other than English at home (1.9%) and those who most often spoke English at home (0.7%)
  • respondents with disability (1.7%) and those with no disability (0.7%)
  • respondents who were currently serving, or had previously served, in the military (2.8%) and those who had never served in the military (0.6%) (Brown 2023).

With increases in the global availability of the internet, the possession, production and distribution of pictures and video that capture CSAM has continued to grow as a global issue. The study found that 4.7% of respondents encountered CSAM, but almost 4 in 5 (78%) reported encountering it by mistake (Brown 2023). However, there is limited information on its effects on children and young people in Australia (see Box 7).

Children and young people who have displayed concerning and harmful sexual behaviours

Some children and young people display concerning sexual behaviours (CSBs) or harmful sexual behaviours (HSBs). CSBs and HSBs involve sexual behaviours displayed by children and young people that fall outside what may be considered developmentally expected or socially appropriate.

There are some differences between CSBs and HSBs and how they are identified, and work is currently underway to define these terms and develop a consistent understanding. Enhancing national approaches to HSBs is a key theme under the First National Action Plan of the National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse 2021–2030.

Adverse experiences in childhood have been identified in cohorts of children and young people who have displayed HSBs, with associations between displays of HSB and trauma, prior experiences of abuse, and exposure to FDV and pornography. Some groups are also more at risk of developing HSBs such as: children with learning disabilities, impulsivity and social difficulties; male children; and children living in out of home care (El-Murr 2017; Fitz-Gibbon et al. 2022a; Paton and Bromfield 2022; RCIRCSA 2017a).

It is worth noting that children and young people without adverse experiences or risk factors for developing HSBs can also go on to use FDSV. Conversely, many people with risk factors for developing these behaviours do not go on to develop HSBs (El-Murr 2017; Fitz-Gibbon et al. 2022a; Paton and Bromfield 2022; RCIRCSA 2017a).

Children and young people who experience HSBs displayed by other children and young people, can be affected by diverse and complex immediate and long-term negative outcomes as with other forms of abuse and maltreatment. Children and young people who have displayed HSBs may experience negative effects from their behaviour, including experiences of marginalisation, isolation or stigmatisation, which without help, can result in or exacerbate mental health and social difficulties, and further prevent them receiving intervention support (El-Murr 2017; Paton and Bromfield 2022; RCIRCSA 2017a). Early detection and targeted interventions and responses that are tailored to the child or young person can help to reduce the likelihood of HSBs continuing or escalating (El-Murr 2017; Fitz-Gibbon et al. 2022b; NOCS n.d.; Paton and Bromfield 2022; RCIRCSA 2017a).

There are no national data related to the prevalence of HSBs among Australian children and young people and knowledge and education among the broader community is limited. This is in part due to varying definitions of HSBs, difficulties in data collection and socio-cultural factors, including people disregarding children’s capacity for such behaviours (El-Murr 2017; Paton and Bromfield 2022).

A recent review of available Australian research found that between 30–60% of all experiences of childhood sexual abuse are carried out by children and young people who have displayed HSBs (El-Murr 2017).

Box 8 provides data about offenders of sexual assault and related offences who were aged 10–17 and accounts of child sexual abuse perpetrated by another child/ren in institutions, as told to the Royal Commission.

What are the impacts of child maltreatment, including child sexual abuse?

Mental health

The ACMS examined the associations between experiences of child maltreatment and diagnoses of lifetime major depressive disorder, current alcohol use disorder, current generalised anxiety disorder and current post-traumatic stress disorder. For more information about the ACMS, including the types of maltreatment, see Box 3 in Children and young people.

All forms of child maltreatment were associated with a significant increase in the likelihood of experiencing these disorders when compared with people who had no experience of maltreatment. However, the association was strongest for people who had experienced childhood sexual abuse, emotional abuse or multiple types of maltreatment. Child sexual abuse was the only form of maltreatment associated with all severity levels of alcohol use disorders (Scott et al. 2023).

  • Child sexual abuse

    is associated with diagnoses of lifetime major depressive disorder, alcohol use disorder, generalised anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder

    Source: Australian Child Maltreatment Study

When compared with people who had no experience of maltreatment, and adjusting for other forms of maltreatment experienced, those who had experienced childhood sexual abuse were:

  • twice as likely to have severe alcohol use disorder
  • almost twice as likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder
  • around 1.6 times as likely to have generalised anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder or moderate alcohol use disorder.
  • around 1.3 times as likely to have mild alcohol use disorder (Scott et al. 2023).

For more information about this study, see Children and young people: Measuring the extent of violence against children and young people and Data sources and technical notes.

Health risk behaviours

The ACMS included measures for 6 health risk factors: smoking, binge drinking, cannabis dependence, obesity, self-harm, and suicide attempts (see Box 9). All of the 6 health risk factors were more common in people who had experienced child maltreatment when compared with those who had not experience of maltreatment (Lawrence et al. 2023).

Sexual abuse was independently associated with an increased likelihood of all six health risks, even after adjusting for other forms of maltreatment experienced. When compared with people who had no experience of maltreatment, those who had experienced childhood sexual abuse were:

  • almost 3 times as likely to report self-harming behaviour
  • more than twice as likely to report suicide attempts
  • twice as likely to have cannabis dependence
  • 1.6 times as likely to be a current smoker
  • almost 1.4 times as likely to binge drink
  • almost 1.2 times as likely to be obese (Lawrence et al. 2023).

For more information about this study, see Children and young people: Measuring the extent of violence against children and young people and Data sources and technical notes.

Long-term impacts for women

The Australian Longitudinal Study of Women’s Health surveyed 7,700 women born in 1973-78 when aged 28-33 years in 2006. Relative to those with no abuse, these data demonstrated that, at age 28-33 years women who had experienced childhood sexual abuse were:

  • 1.4 times more likely to experience bodily pain
  • 1.3 times more likely to have poorer general health
  • 1.4 times more likely to have experienced depression in the 3 years prior to the survey (Coles et al 2015).

In addition, those who had experienced both childhood sexual abuse and adult violence were, at age 28-33:

  • 2.4 times more likely to experience poor general heath
  • 2.8 times more likely to suffer from depression
  • 3.1 times more likely to suffer from anxiety

compared with women with no abuse (Coles et al 2015).

Further information on health impacts is presented in Health outcomes.

Women who had experienced childhood sexual violence were more likely than those who had not, to have experienced any sexual or physical violence or domestic violence in the last 12 months:

  • 23% compared with 15% among women aged 24 to 30 in 2019
  • 19% compared with 13% among women aged 40 to 45 in 2018 (Townsend et al. 2022).

More information

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