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Facts about child sexual abuse

There are a number of common and dominant beliefs and myths about child sexual abuse held by parents, community members and professionals. Abusers or offenders can rely on these myths to hide their abuse or as part of a threat they make to a child or someone else to keep the secret of the abuse. These myths may also prevent professionals from seeing and understanding risk to children (Esposito, 2014; Esposito & 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 abuse.

  • Noticing different behaviour and asking about it can increase the chances of disclosure (Brennan & Graham, 2012).
  • Some children who have been abused may not appear emotionally distressed; they may even respond warmly towards the alleged abuser or offender. 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 or offender. 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.

  • Research conducted in 2002 reviewed 2384 children who were referred for medical investigation of sexual abuse. Only four per cent of the total number of children had medical findings that supported/indicated sexual abuse.
  • Even when the abuse involved vaginal or anal penetration only five and a half per cent had a medical finding that supported/indicated sexual abuse (Heger, Ticson, Velasquez, Bernier, 2002).

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 (Finkelhor, Turner, Ormrod & Hamby, 2010; Hanson, Self-Brown, Fricker-Elhai, Kilpatrick, Saunders & Resnick, 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 & Welch, 2004).

Fact - A child who has been physically assaulted in the past year is almost five times as likely to have been sexually abused and more than four times more likely to be the victim of other types of abuse when compared with other children (Finkelhor, Ormrod, Turner & Hamby, 2005).

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 & 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 parents section of this kit.

Fact - While some abusers or offenders may have a preference for one gender or age group, many do not and there are no absolutes. 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 or offender has committed acts of sexual abuse against children the more likely they are to reoffend. However, not all abuser or offenders are compulsive (or committed). In 2001, research found that less than one quarter of the surveyed abuser or offenders had previous convictions for sexual offences (Smallbone & Wortley, 2001).

Fact - Children also sexually abuse other children.

  • Australian Police reports show that between nine and 18 per cent of all sexual offences are committed by young people (Boyd & Bromfield, 2006; Warner & Bartels, 2015).
  • Other authors have found that the number of offences is likely to be much higher than recorded crime data and may be as high as 50 per cent of child sexual abuse offences (Esposito & Field, 2016).

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