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Understanding and responding to child sexual abuse

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This page was updated on 19 September 2022. To view changes, please see page updates

This section gives you a broad overview about the dynamics of child sexual abuse, including factors that increase the risk a child will be sexually abused, and the impact of sexual abuse on children. It helps to understand why it is important that child protection practitioners see, understand and respond to child sexual abuse.

Factors that increase the risk of child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse occurs across all cultural groups, genders, ages and socioeconomic groups. The risk of child sexual abuse can increase significantly through the presence of a number of stressors and vulnerabilities which place pressure on the family. The table below (Esposito and Field, 2016) gives a brief overview of these risks and vulnerabilities:

Individual factors

Gender

Girls are more likely to be victims of child sexual abuse.

Sexuality

Sexually diverse young people are at increased risk of sexual abuse.

Gay and bisexual males are more likely than heterosexual males to be sexually abused.

Lesbian and bisexual females are more likely than heterosexual females to be sexually abused.

Age

Children are most vulnerable to abuse between the ages of 7 and 12.

Children abused by a family member are more likely to be younger than those abused by non-family members.

Teenagers report sexual abuse more often than younger children. In the majority of cases the person who sexually abused them is another teenager.

Disability

Children with mental health issues, intellectual or physical disabilities, neurodevelopmental disorders or learning difficulties are more likely to be sexually abused than other children, and to have been abused more than once.

Children with intellectual and sensory disabilities, communication impairments and behavioural difficulties are at heightened risk of sexual abuse compared to children with other types of disability.

Experiences of other forms of abuse

It is likely that children who have been sexually abused have also experienced another form of abuse.

Social Isolation

Children with few friends, who lack confidence and have low self-esteem are at increased risk of child sexual abuse.

Family and community factors

Family size and make-up

Children living without either biological parent are at increased risk of sexual abuse.

Children living with a single parent who has a live in partner are 20 times more likely to be victims of child sexual abuse.

Children living with another child or sibling who has been sexually abused are at increased risk of being sexually abused.

Family functioning and domestic and family violence

Children who experience domestic and family violence are at significant risk of child sexual abuse. If a mother is assaulted by her partner, her daughters are nearly six times more likely to be sexually abused than other girls. Young people who were exposed to violence in the home when they were growing up are twice as likely to have been forced to have sex and four times as likely to have forced a partner to have sex later in life.

Marital conflict and separation are linked to increased risk of child sexual abuse.

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.

Homelessness and housing instability

There is a small amount of evidence suggesting homelessness and moving house regularly makes children vulnerable to child sexual abuse.

Parent age, education and employment

Children of mothers who are young with low levels of education and employment are at increased risk of sexual abuse.

Parent mental health

There is a strong link between parental (especially a mother’s) mental health issues and a heightened risk of child sexual abuse for their children.

Parent alcohol and other drugs use

Parental drinking and drug use is strongly associated with risk of sexual abuse, especially if both parents drink.

Children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder are 10 times more likely than those without to be sexually abused.

Parental history of abuse

Children whose mothers were sexually abused as children are at increased risk of child sexual abuse.

Parent / child relationship and emotional availability

Poor parent-child attachment, including neglect and emotional unavailability, is associated with children being sexually abused.

Cultural and social experiences, attitudes and practices

A growing body of evidence shows the risk for child sexual abuse can be influenced by cultural and social attitudes and practices such as:

  • ideas about gender roles which may give men more power in the family or community and make them expect women to be compliant
  • attitudes towards sexuality that limit women’s sexual expression and support
  • aggressive male sexual behaviour
  • a lack of encouragement for open communication about sex and appropriate sexual behaviour
  • a limited understanding of child sexual abuse and associated indicators.

The risks outlined in the above table highlight that the children Child Safety works with are particularly vulnerable to child sexual abuse. We know that children who experience other types of childhood abuse are more likely to be sexually abused and that children in care, including foster care and residential care, are more at risk of experiencing child sexual abuse.

Further reading

Read the New South Wales Office of the Senior Practitioner Child sexual abuse What does the research tell us? A literature review (2016) for more detailed information about the vulnerabilities and risk factors that may be experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities.

Read the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Final Report, vol. 2 (2017), for more information about factors that make children more vulnerable to child sexual abuse.

Gender and prevalence

  • Australian and international research suggests that girls are more likely to be sexually abused than boys.
  • In Australia, 11% of women and 4.6% of men reported experiencing childhood sexual abuse, most commonly by a known person who was not a family member. (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2021)
  • Both women and men are likely to experience sexual abuse by a known person rather than a stranger.
  • Girls under 15 years are more likely to be abused by a known person who was not a family member (5%), by a relative or in-law who was not a parent or sibling (3.1%), a father or step-father (1.8%) or a stranger (1.2%). Boys under 15 years experienced abuse by a known person who was not a family member (3%), a relative or in-law who was not a parent or sibling (0.7%) or a stranger (0.7%). (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2021)

Further reading

Read the New South Wales Office of the Senior Practioner Child sexual abuse What does the research tell us? A literature review (2016) and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Final Report (2017) for an overview of studies looking at how often children are sexually abused.

The impact of child sexual abuse on children

Adverse childhood experiences, including child sexual abuse, can significantly impact future physical and mental health outcomes throughout childhood and adulthood. While every child’s response to sexual abuse is individual, short and long-term negative impacts have been consistently reported. Even when other forms of abuse or childhood adversity are taken into account, children who have been sexually abused are at higher risk of experiencing a broad range of negative adverse experiences throughout their lives, including:

  • mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety; psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and delusional disorders, personality disorders and eating disorders
  • inflicting pain or injury on themselves
  • suicidal thoughts or behaviour
  • alcohol and other drugs use
  • difficulties learning or concentrating
  • difficulties maintaining supportive relationships
  • difficulties parenting
  • sexual and physical abuse or assault, including domestic violence, in childhood and as adults
  • engagement in risky sexual behaviour such as having sex at a younger age, more sexual partners, and unprotected sex, leading to increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and infections (STDs and STIs), and HIV, and engaging in sex work
  • shame and stigma associated with being sexually abused and therefore not wanting to talk about it or disclose the abuse to others, both during childhood and as adults.

It is important to remember that a child or young person may not show immediate signs of distress, but may present with signs of distress a year or many years later, including in adulthood. This may involve an event that reminds them of past trauma (sometimes described as a ‘trigger’) or may just occur as a function of age or life stage.  

Note

Every child, family and community experiences and responds to child sexual abuse differently. If the child has positive experiences from their network such as belief that the abuse occurred, social supports and therapeutic intervention, it can significantly reduce the negative impact of sexual abuse.

Child Safety’s work in seeing, understanding and responding to child sexual abuse can make the difference between a child feeling heard, understood and believed, and a child feeling silenced and marginalised. Practitioners are most helpful to children and families when they are well informed about sexual abuse dynamics and are psychologically and emotionally equipped to be responsive.

Note

Children and families need practitioners to see child sexual abuse, where others may not; to help others to understand what is happening for the child when it is hard to do so; and to respond in a way that provides safety and leads to support and healing for the child, their family and their community.

Further reading

Further reading

Read the New South Wales Office of the Chief Practitioner Child sexual abuse What does the research tell us? A literature review (2016), Chapter 2, for information on the impact of child sexual abuse on children.

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Final Report, vol. 3 (2017).

Conceptualising the impact of sexual abuse

The Sexual Development in Children and Young People – The Developmental Wall (The Developmental Wall) concept (developed by the Practice Advice and Support team) is a useful visual aid to support stakeholders and families to understand the far reaching and complex effects of child sexual abuse.

Tip

View the video Sexual Development in Children and Young people – The Developmental Wall to conceptualise the impact of child sexual abuse on development.

The Developmental Wall helps practitioners to visually conceptualise that sexual development occurs across childhood and sometimes into adulthood as people explore their sexual and gender identities as part of broader identity development and expression. Like all aspects of child development, sexual development happens sequentially as a child’s physical, emotional, social and psychological capacity and interest grows and changes. When a child experiences sexual abuse, the impact may be far reaching and be seen in many areas of functioning.

Normal development is a continuum of behaviours and there will be many variations in what is considered normal healthy development, taking into account family ‘norms’, cultural and religious context. The Developmental Wall considers trauma as a missed developmental experience and considers that people who have experienced abuse may struggle with complex ideas, like sexual identity, if they have not had the chance to experiment in a safe and supportive environment.  

For a child who has experienced sexual abuse, the order of learning about themselves and others is disrupted; for example:

  • A child who has experienced sexual abuse will not have a first sexual experience with a peer in puberty or early adulthood. As a result, boundaries and the roles of adults and children may be blurred and attachment bonds may be disrupted.
  • A person who has been abused may struggle with social rules, as what they have learnt early in life is that their comfort and boundaries don’t matter.
  • Children and young people may not necessarily have points of reference to help them understand how to negotiate friendships, work or romantic relationships.
  • Neglect often means the children don’t know how to properly care for their body or what ‘normal’ physical changes and development actually are.

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