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Child sexual abuse

Notes about language

Language shapes the way we perceive risk and undertake our work with children and families (including the person who has or is sexually abusing a child).

Throughout this kit, language which honours the experiences of children and families is used and holds the alleged abuser accountable for their abuse, while recognising this person as part of the family system we are working with. Terms that are most likely to be understood by the children, families and communities that practitioners work with have also been used. Key terms used throughout the practice kit are explained in this section.

Practice prompt

The possibility that children have been sexually abused brings up strong feelings for most people. The kit deliberately uses common language that explicitly and graphically names difficult topics such as types of child sexual abuse, body parts and sexual activity. This should also occur in every day practice.

Jargon and bureaucratic language can distance practitioners from the distress of the child’s experience of abuse. Practitioners may find it helpful to practice having difficult conversations using words that feel uncomfortable with colleagues before entering discussions with children and families.

Child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse occurs when an adult, or a more powerful child or adolescent (including a sibling) involves a child in sexual activity. This may involve physical contact between the abuser and child, or no physical contact between the abuser and the child. Sexual abuse can cause emotional and physical harm and have a range of negative consequences in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

The intended use of power and control, secrecy, and the distortion of adult-child and child-child relationships to coerce the child into sexual compliance are key factors in the sexual abuse of children. Behaviours that are sexually abusive to a child include:

  • sexually suggestive, obscene comments made in person, by telephone, or through social media to a child
  • speaking to a child about graphic sexual matters
  • using online platforms to send messages with obscene or sexual content or images to a child (this can include ‘sexting’, chat rooms and live stream videos)
  • persistent, unwanted intrusion of a child’s personal space that increases the child’s vulnerability to sexual abuse
  • showing pornographic material including films, magazines, photographs or internet websites and smart phones to a child
  • using the internet or social media technologies to lure a child for sexual purposes
  • forcing a child to watch a sexual act
  • covertly or overtly watching, taking photographs or electronically recording a child in bathrooms, bedrooms or toilets, or in various states of undress
  • being inappropriately nude, partially nude, disrobing in front of a child, ‘flashing’ or exposing a sexual body part to a child
  • engaging in a sexual act in the presence of a child
  • kissing or holding a child in a sexual manner
  • fondling a child’s body in a sexual manner or asking the child to fondle another person’s body
  • engaging a child in acts of child prostitution
  • masturbating while a child observes, observing a child masturbate, engaging in mutual masturbation with a child including child masturbating another child/person
  • clothed or unclothed dry intercourse (a person rubbing their genitals against the child’s genital and/or anal areas)
  • fellatio (oral to genital contact for males)
  • cunnilingus (oral to genital contact for females)
  • penile or digital penetration or using an object to penetrate the vagina or anus.

(Faller, 2003; Sanderson, 2004).

Child sexual exploitation

Sexual exploitation involves situations, contexts and relationships where children (or a third person or persons) often receive something as a result of performing or others performing on them, sexual activities. For example, food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts or money.

Sexual exploitation can also occur using online platforms without the child noticing. For example, they may be persuaded to post or send sexual images on the internet or by mobile phone with no immediate payment or gain.

In all cases those exploiting the child have power over them by virtue of their age, gender, intellect, physical strength or economic or other resources.


‘Grooming’ is often used to describe behaviour by the alleged abuser towards the child. This behaviour is focused on increasing opportunities for sexual abuse to occur and reducing the child’s ability to tell others what is happening through manipulation and coercion (Tanner and Brake, 2013).

In this kit, the definition has been extended to include the deliberate manipulation of the child’s family and community (including the professionals involved). Recently, practitioners and researchers have highlighted challenges with the use of the term because it can be difficult to tell the difference between ‘grooming’ and appropriate nurturing activities in relation to a child. The term is then often applied in hindsight (once it is known or reasonably believed a child has been sexually abused by that person).  This means that the term has limited ability to assist child protection workers in casework with a child and their family. As such, this kit refers to ‘manipulation and coercion’ when describing behaviours used by abusers or offenders which allow child sexual abuse to take place and silence victims.

In 2021, grooming was added to the Queensland Criminal Code Act 1899, section 218B ‘Grooming child under 16 years or parent or carer of child under 16 years’. Child protection workers should describe the behaviours of the alleged abuser rather than use the term ‘grooming’ in child protection assessments, due to the possible legal implications.

Children who display harmful sexual behaviours

In order to provide support in relation to a child’s sexual behaviours, it is important to recognise and describe concerns about sexual behaviours that are inconsistent with age appropriate sexual behaviours. The following terminology has been adopted within Child Safety to identify these behaviours:

  • Harmful sexual behaviours is an umbrella term to describe problem sexual behaviours, sexually abusive behaviours and all sexual behaviours of children that could include high risk sexual behaviours that are not harmful to anyone else. Harmful sexual behaviours are developmentally inappropriate and can be displayed in person or online.
  • Problem sexual behaviours describes concerning sexual behaviours of children under the age of criminal responsibility (10 years). Where a child under 10 years displays harmful sexual behaviours are abusive in nature,  their behaviour is described as problem sexual behaviours which are abusive in nature. 
  • Sexually abusive behaviours occur when a child, aged 10 years and over, displays sexual behaviours towards a person with less power. A child displaying sexually abusive behaviour can be charged with a criminal offence.

Alleged abuser

The terminology used has been standardised to ‘alleged abuser’. When referring to the alleged abuser, use the specific term to describe the person responsible.

Within the child protection system, persons who are alleged to have sexually abused a child should be referred to as an ‘alleged child sexual abuser’.

Persons who have been found responsible for sexual abuse following an investigation and assessment by Child Safety can be referred to as a ‘child sexual abuser’. People who have been charged with a sexual offence can be referred to as an ‘alleged sexual offender’.

If a person is then convicted of the sexual offence, they can be referred to as a ‘sexual offender’.

The term ‘paedophile’ should only be used for persons who have been clinically diagnosed as a paedophile. Paedophilia is a psychiatric disorder, usually only assigned to adults, in which the fantasy or actual act of engaging in sexual activity with a child (boys, girls or both) usually of pre-pubertal or early pubertal age (generally less than 13 years), is the preferred or exclusive means of achieving sexual excitement orgratification (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR)).

Developmentally appropriate sexual behaviour

Developmentally appropriate sexual behaviour is an umbrella term used to describe behaviours that are developmentally appropriate and consistent with the child or young person’s physical, cognitive, emotional and social development. Developmentally appropriate behaviours do not harm and we do not need to redirect.

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