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Facts about child sexual abuse

There are several common and dominant beliefs and myths about child sexual abuse held by parents, community members and professionals. A person who sexually abuses children can rely on these myths to hide their abuse or use them as part of a threat they make to a child or someone else to keep the abuse secret. These myths may also prevent professionals from seeing and understanding risk to children (Esposito, 2014; Esposito and Field, 2016; Richards, 2011; The Leadership Council, 2005). Consider the following facts to support your understanding of child sexual abuse:

Fact - Children behave differently as a result of sexual abuse.

  • Noticing different behaviour and asking about it can increase the chances of disclosure (Brennan and Graham, 2012).
  • Some children who have been sexually abused may not appear emotionally distressed; they may even respond warmly towards the alleged abuser. This does not mean the child has not been abused and does not mean the child is not traumatised by the abuse.
  • Children may mask their emotions for a number of reasons and may hold conflicting views about the alleged abuser. For example, they may love him as their dad but want the sexual abuse to stop.

Fact - Some acts of sexual abuse (for example oral and digital abuse) may leave no physical trace.

  • Looking for ‘signs’ that sexual abuse has occurred can be very challenging as they may be absent, or they may be social, emotional, behavioural or verbal. Considering a child’s holistic presentation is vital.
  • A meta-analysis of 323 studies from around the world, across 28 countries and considering 9.9 million children who have been physically examined for sexual abuse, found that the great majority (90%) of sexually abused children did not have any abnormal physical findings. (Herrmann, et al. 2014).

Fact - There are strong links between the presence of domestic and family violence and increased rates of sexual abuse of children, particularly when the abuse is perpetrated by a family member (Hamby et al, 2011; Finklehor et al, 2010; Hanson et al, 2006).

Fact - There is an increased risk that a child will be sexually abused by a brother or sister within a family where there is physical and emotional violence, harsh discipline styles, parental neglect and pornography (Righthand and Welch, 2004).

Fact - The separation of parents may present the first safe opportunity for a child to disclose sexual abuse.

  • Most allegations are not false and the view that mothers make false allegations of sexual abuse has been frequently refuted by the research (Weston, Gray, Qu, Smyth and Moloney, 2007).
  • It is understandable that it can take parents time to accept what their child tells them or others. Parents may question allegations, consider alternative explanations and fact check with other people. Initial disbelief does not mean the parent cannot believe their child or will never believe their child or be able to provide for protection of their child even when they remain in a state of denial at some level. Practical responses for helping to build belief are further explored in the Working with parentssection of this practice kit.

Fact - While some abusers may prefer one gender or age group, many do not. A person who sexually abuses a child is more likely to do so due to having access and opportunity to abuse a child rather than having a sexual attraction to a child. The gender or age of previous victims does not mean another gender or age group is not vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Fact - It is true that the more times an abuser has committed acts of sexual abuse against children the more likely they are to reoffend. However, not all abusers will reoffend. In 2001, research found that less than one quarter of the surveyed abuser or offenders had previous convictions for sexual offences (Smallbone and Wortley, 2001).

Fact - Not all abusers or offenders will reoffend. An Australian study of 1,092 male offenders who were proceeded against for a child sexual offence between 2004 and 2013, found 7% reoffended within 10 years (of their first police proceeding for a child sexual offence), 42% reoffended but did not include sexual offences, and the overall risk of both sexual offences and non-sexual offences was highest in the first two years (Dowling et al, 2021).

Fact - Children also sexually abuse other children.

  • Australian police reports show that between 9% and 16% of all sexual offences are committed by young people towards other children (Boyd and Bromfield, 2015).
  • The reported numbers of sexual offences committed by young people toward other young people is hard to establish due to lack of reporting. Researchers suggest that the number of offences is likely to be much higher than recorded crime data and may be as high as 50% of child sexual abuse offences (Esposito and Field, 2016).
  • Children in care, in boarding schools or youth detention centres, are more vulnerable to sexual abuse from other children. This is partly due to a lack of staff understanding and awareness of children’s harmful sexual behaviour and a lack of appropriate supervision by staff and foster carers. (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Final Report, vol. 10, 2017).

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