Why are children and young people still being sexually abused?

  • Community Awareness
  • Prevention
  • Victims & Survivors
Dr Leanne Beagley, CEO, National Centre

The answer is that we do not, as a community, believe that it is important enough to act – comprehensively and urgently.

Child sexual abuse is a contemporary issue, not something that has only happened historically in institutions. It is still a problem in Australia with 28.5%¹ of the population having experienced child sexual abuse (18.5% of all Australians aged 16 and over have been abused by an adult such as a parent or adult family member, a teacher, or a stranger). This means that more than 1 in 3 females and almost 1 in 5 males have been, or are being, sexually abused. These children have been, and continue to be, subjected to sexually abusive exposure, touching, attempted rape and rape. We know that child sexual abuse is extremely harmful with an often-lifelong trajectory of trauma and impact.

So why is it still happening?

When the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Royal Commission) was initiated, the focus was tightly defined, of course, to the institutional context. However, the Commissioners themselves noted “the number of children who are sexually abused in familial or other circumstances far exceeds those who are abused in an institution.”A significant number of children are sexually abused by someone they know and trust, such as a family member, family friend or an adult in a position of power or authority, such as a teacher or sports coach.

So, the facts are – this is happening now; it is not only historical.

While there has been some decline in the number of adults perpetrating child sexual abuse, there remains too many adults choosing to violate and abuse children in this way. In a recent study, Salter et al (2023) found that 5.7% of Australian men would have sexual contact with a child between 12 to 14 years if no one would find out; 4.6% would have sexual contact with a child between 10 to 12 years if no one would find out; and 4.0% would have sexual contact with a child younger than 10 years if no one would find out. (p. 12).3 The report also “validated the observations of countless survivors that the men who abused them are well respected members of the community who enjoy high esteem and the confidence of those around them.” (p. 36).

The idea that it only happens to some children, in particular demographic groups, is also a myth. The facts are that in Australia, sexual violence and child sexual abuse occurs across all demographics, with significant, wide ranging and long-lasting impacts on their emotional and physical wellbeing.

There is an emerging picture that general awareness and understanding of child sexual abuse is increasing in Australia. Nonetheless, some unhelpful societal attitudes (e.g. victim-blaming, discrediting children’s accounts) persist, which perpetuate feelings of shame and stigma for victims and survivors. Unhelpful attitudes and responses also mean victims and survivors are less likely to disclose their abuse and seek support. There remains a need to enhance the community’s ability to identify risks related to child sexual abuse and instil confidence to provide support and intervene appropriately and effectively to protect children. This is vital given sexual violence and child sexual abuse occurs across all demographics in Australia, with significant, wide ranging and long-lasting impacts on emotional and physical wellbeing.

“It is time for a whole of community movement to stop child sexual abuse before it starts.”

So, not only is it still happening across the community, child sexual abuse is being perpetrated by adults who know it is a crime. There are indicators that as a community we turn away from the possibility, from allowing ourselves to know it is happening and then subsequently from acting to protect children. Parents regularly say they are confident their children would tell them if they were uncomfortable or feeling unsafe. However, we know that often children won’t tell their parents about bullying or other issues within their lives, and we know that they don’t tell about child sexual abuse either. The Royal Commission found that, on average, it took more than 20 years for individuals to disclose child sexual abuse. We also know that adults who perpetrate sexual abuse use silencing strategies with children to prevent them from telling safe adults – it’s called ‘grooming’.

The two key areas where we know incidence of child sexual abuse is increasing is firstly via the online environment, fuelled by financial greed and organised crime, and secondly through a growing number of young women under 18 reporting sexual violence from other young people, mostly young men. This includes known adolescents (not in relationships), known adolescents (in a relationship) as well as unknown adolescents. Clearly, in addressing these two areas where increases of abuse are being recorded, specific and comprehensive and urgent prevention responses are needed.

At the heart of the issue is children’s rights to be safe. At the National Centre, we take the view that the general invisibility of children and their structural disempowerment within our community is a key silencing mechanism. Children who know they have a right to be heard are more likely to speak up when they feel unsafe or vulnerable.

There are layers of sustained effort needed to prevent child sexual abuse.

Preventing child sexual abuse is everyone’s business, not just those who work in child and youth-servicing organisations/services. Those working with children know how important it is to create a safe relationship within which to listen to and believe them – and to make them safe. Those working with adults who are struggling need to ask about and hear the inner child and respond to their trauma.

It is complex and there are multiple actions needed. It is time for a whole of community movement to stop child sexual abuse before it starts.

We need to hear the data, open our eyes and recognise that this is happening now across our communities. We need to build positive attitudes to children, strengthen their voices, value and believe them and enhance compassionate responses. And we need perpetrators to stop.

This change requires the activation of every member of community – there is no room for bystanders nor for those who turn a blind eye. As a community we need to drive urgency for change through our own actions, our systems and through our leaders.

References:

  1. ACMS, 2023
  2. Royal Commission Report 2017
  3. Salter et al (2023) Identifying and Understanding Child Sexual Exploitation Practices and Attitudes Amongst Australian Men
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Child sexual abuse is a national health crisis that the National Centre is committed to addressing. Please join us in Reshaping the Conversation, a safe space for understanding, dialogue and collaboration in child sexual abuse response and prevention. Secure tickets now.

Understanding child sexual abuse

Supporting Victims and Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse: Rapid Evidence Reviews
Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
Reshaping the Conversation: Development of a shared language and preferred definitions guide endorsed by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
Child safe practices using contextual safeguarding strategies
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future
Delivering trauma-informed support for child sexual abuse victims in Victoria: mapping the knowledge gaps and training needs of the specialist sectors
Online child sexual victimisation and associated mental health outcomes
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Response to child sexual abuse

Supporting Victims and Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse: Rapid Evidence Reviews
Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Evaluation of the Multi-Agency Investigation & Support Team
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
Effect of multi-agency deliberation on perceptions of risk in responses to child abuse and neglect
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Building trauma-responsive sexual health and relationship education
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
The dignity by design project: survivor-led system redesign
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Reshaping the Conversation: Development of a shared language and preferred definitions guide endorsed by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Australian Child Maltreatment Study
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
Child safe practices using contextual safeguarding strategies
Enhancing the capacity of rural and regional respectful relationship educators
Strengthening relationships and connections for young people in therapeutic residential care
The safeguarding capability of adults in Catholic Church ministries: a global perspective
Creating safer futures: raising public awareness of child sexual abuse among young adults through digital storytelling
Survivor perspectives on institutional use of child sexual abuse material
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future
Delivering trauma-informed support for child sexual abuse victims in Victoria: mapping the knowledge gaps and training needs of the specialist sectors
Online child sexual victimisation and associated mental health outcomes
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Needs of victims and survivors

Supporting Victims and Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse: Rapid Evidence Reviews
Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
Evaluation of the Multi-Agency Investigation & Support Team
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Building trauma-responsive sexual health and relationship education
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
The dignity by design project: survivor-led system redesign
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley
Enhancing the capacity of rural and regional respectful relationship educators
Creating safer futures: raising public awareness of child sexual abuse among young adults through digital storytelling
Survivor perspectives on institutional use of child sexual abuse material
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future

Prevention of child sexual abuse

Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Australian Child Maltreatment Study
Strengthening relationships and connections for young people in therapeutic residential care
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Identification of child sexual abuse

The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
The safeguarding capability of adults in Catholic Church ministries: a global perspective

Disclosure of child sexual abuse

Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley