about child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse is experienced by 1 in 4 Australian children. Learn more about this crime below and how you can play your part in prevention.
PLEASE NOTE: The following information may be triggering for survivors of child sexual abuse. If you or someone else is in need of information or support, please contact Bravehearts on freecall 1800 272 831 (Mon-Fri, 8:30am-4:30pm AEST).

What is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse is a global problem that knows no physical, financial, socioeconomic, geographical, cultural or gender boundaries. Its impacts are far reaching for children, families and communities.

Research defines child sexual abuse as any sexual act between an adult and a minor or between two minors when one exerts power over the other; forcing, coercing or persuading a child to engage in any type of sexual act.

All forms of child sexual abuse are a profound violation of the human rights of the child and a crime under law.

Read on for statistics about child sexual abuse and information about the effects, indicators and prevention of child sexual abuse. 

Quicks stats

More than 1 in 4 Australians (28.5%) have experienced child sexual abuse.1

More than 1 in 3 girls and almost 1 in 5 boys experience child sexual abuse.2

Among Australian children who have been sexually abused, for more than three-quarters (78%), it happened more than once.3

In up to 90% of child sexual abuse cases, the offender is known to the family.4

Approximately 1 in 3 cases of child sexual abuse are instigated by other young people.5


What are the effects of child sexual abuse?

Children and young people who have been sexually abused can suffer a range of psychological and behavioural problems, ranging from mild to severe, both in the short and long term. These effects vary depending upon the circumstances of the abuse, the child’s developmental stage, responses to the child's disclosure and the level of support the child receives in the disclosure's aftermath. Children who are supported and believed when they disclose abuse are less likely to endure long term negative impacts. Learn more about responding to disclosures.

  • Increased illness, body aches or other physical complaints
  • Poor attendance or performance at school
  • Difficulty concentrating or memory loss
  • Mood changes
  • Regressive behaviours
  • Sleeping and eating disorders
  • Lack of self-esteem
  • Nightmares
  • Self-harm or suicidal thoughts
  • Self-hatred or reduced self-esteem
  • Disinhibited behaviour
  • Aggression
  • Zoning out or not listening

  • Suicidal ideation
  • Self-harm
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Inability to form lasting relationships
  • Identity difficulties
  • Relationship problems
  • Parenting difficulties
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • The development of violent behaviour
  • The development of criminal behaviour

What are the signs of child sexual abuse?

Below is a list of potential indicators that a child or young person may be experiencing sexual harm. If you or someone else is in need of information or support, please contact Bravehearts on freecall 1800 272 831 (Mon-Fri, 8:30am-4:30pm AEST).

  • Unusual or new fears, sometimes around touch
  • Difficulty concentrating or with memory
  • Eating or sleeping changes
  • Fear of being alone with a particular person
  • Sexual themes in artwork, stories, play etc.
  • Showing a knowledge of sexual behaviour beyond their years
  • Bed-wetting or soiling after being toilet trained
  • ‘Acting out’ behaviours (aggression, destructive behaviours, truanting behaviour)
    ‘Acting in’ behaviours (withdrawal from friends and family, depression)
  • Vaginal, penile or anal soreness, discharge or bleeding
  • Problems with friends and schoolwork
  • Vague symptoms of illness such as headache or tummy ache
  • Self-harm (cutting, risky behaviour)
  • Zoning out or not listening

How can child sexual abuse be prevented?

1. Breaking the silence

Bravehearts has been working to prevent child sexual abuse for a quarter of a century, dragging this insideous crime out of the shadows and shining a light on the devestating effects it has on victims, families and society.

Before Bravehearts began speaking out about child sexual abuse, it was a taboo subject in the media and society at large. Survivors rarely shared their stories publicly and there was scant support services for those who did. 

Perpetrators of child sexual abuse thrive on silence, secrecy and shame, which is why breaking the silence around this crime is an important key to prevention. 

2. Educating children and those who care for and support them

An essential aspect of preventing child sexual abuse is personal safety education from a young age. Providing children with age-appropriate information around body ownership and the right to be safe allows for these messages to become part of their everyday language and helps build children's self-esteem and resilience, and importantly, teaches them the language they need to speak up if they feel unsafe or are harmed. 

Bravehearts Ditto's Keep Safe Adventure program provides children with these foundational personal safety skills, to date having educated over one million children throughout Australia.

There is much parents and carers can do at home to help build their children's personal safety skills and knowledge too. Bravehearts has some great resources available to get parents and carers started with this - check out the Resources for Parents and Carers section of this site.

3. Responding to disclosures and supporting survivors

Preventing child sexual abuse means believing victims and taking childrens' disclosures of harm seriously. Every adult, especially those who work with or around children, should learn how to respond appropriately to a disclosure so the child feels safe and heard. Likewise, adult survivors need to be supported and feel safe and heard.

When a survivor of child sexual abuse, whether they be a child or an adult, feel safe, seen and heard, their disclosure may lead to the conviction of the perpetrator and the prevention of further harm.

1-3) Haslam D, Mathews B, Pacella R, Scott JG, Finkelhor D, Higgins DJ, Meinck F, Erskine HE, Thomas HJ, Lawrence D, Malacova E. (2023). The prevalence and impact of child maltreatment in Australia: Findings from the Australian Child Maltreatment Study: Brief Report. Australian Child Maltreatment Study, Queensland University of Technology. 4) Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017; Quadara, Nagy, Higgins & Siegel, 2015  5) Der Bedrosian, 2018; McKibbon, 2017; Finkelhor, Omrod & Chaffin, 2009 6) Watson & Halford, 2010; Tarczon & Quadara, 2012; Quadara et al., 2015; Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017 9) Helton, Gochez-Kerr & Gruber, 2018; World Health Organisation, 2018 10) Christensen & Jansen, 2019. 9. El-Murr, 2017

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