SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Children are not responsible for sexual abuse.
- Sexual abuse is a crime.
- Children often talk about the abuse in bits and pieces and to different people, making it difficult for adults to ‘join the dots’.
- It is very common for survivors to repress memories of abuse.
- Sexual abuse is experienced by girls and boys. Children cannot stop sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse (also referred to as sexual assault) can be experienced by anyone. When a child experiences sexual assault, it is commonly referred to as child sexual abuse. In recent years, survivors of child sexual abuse have been better supported to speak out their experiences.
Increased openness and a willingness by adult survivors to discuss sexual abuse, as well as the development of service support networks, has led to greater community understanding of this issue. Healthcare professionals have also learned a great deal about child sexual abuse and its effects from these stories.
Childhood and sexual abuse
In telling their stories, many adult survivors have found common factors in their experiences, including:
- They were usually abused by someone they knew.
- The abuse often started when they were very young.
- The abuse was generally not an isolated one-off incident and happened over many months or years.
- The abuse was often accompanied by threats and verbal or emotional abuse, and sometimes physical violence.
Fear stops sexually abused children from seeking help
Most people are too scared to report the abuse when they are children. Reasons for being afraid include:
- The abuser might have threatened to harm them and other family members if they tell anyone about the abuse.
- They might feel that there is no one they can trust to talk to.
- They don’t think anyone will believe them
- They fear they might be taken away from their home.
- They think they might lose their mother or father if they know.
- They think the abuse is their fault.
Common misunderstandings of sexual abuse
Many misunderstandings surround the sexual abuse of children. Some of these include:
- 'Children fantasise and lie about sexual abuse' – this is not true. Children rarely lie or imagine sexual abuse.
- 'Males who have been abused, grow up to become abusers' – the research does not show this to be true.
- 'Males will become homosexual because of the abuse' – again, the research does not support this.
- 'It’s only dirty old men or homosexual men who abuse' – most abusers are heterosexual males from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Some abusers are female.
- 'Child sexual abuse is harmless' – this is not true. Sexual abuse of children has the capacity to cause serious damage to a child’s physical, social and emotional development, including mental health issues, difficulties with substance misuse and dependence, difficulty in developing healthy interpersonal relationships, an increase in high-risk taking behaviours, especially in adolescence. The longer the abuse goes on, the greater the will be.
- 'Children provoke the abuse and enjoy it' – this is not true. Abusers often tell this lie to their victims.
Signs of sexual abuse
The main message from survivors is about the importance of paying attention to children’s behaviour. If children are being sexually abused, there may be physical signs such as bleeding from the vagina or anus (back passage), sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or poor hygiene.
However, signs in a child’s behaviour are more likely. These include:
- significant changes in behaviour, aggressive behaviour or regression (going back) to an earlier stage of development (for example, bed wetting)
- sexual behaviour that is not appropriate for the child’s age
- or social withdrawal
- getting into trouble at school (sometimes to avoid going home)
- (for example, self-mutilation, or prostitution)
- other risk-taking behaviour such as substance abuse, poor sexual boundaries and disregard for personal safety
- running away from home
- unexplained deterioration in academic performance
- poor self-care
- difficulties with peer and family relationships.
Talking to children about sexual abuse
It can be distressing to discover or suspect a child has experienced sexual abuse. Most people feel a range of emotions, including anger, sadness, shock, disbelief, disgust, and helplessness:
- If the child appears to be under stress, ask the child how they are, and if everything is ok. It can be helpful to reflect to the child that they seem worried about something. Children will often tell little bits of information at a time to test the reactions of adults. It is important to stay calm, remain open and curious, and don’t convey strong emotional reactions to the child, as this may prevent the child from saying any more.
- If the child tells you information that indicates they may be experiencing sexual abuse, try to ask open questions, rather than closed questions, for example, ‘you said someone has hurt you, can you tell me more about that?’, or, ‘you mentioned that uncle Bob took you in to his room, can you tell me what happened when he took you into his room?’.
- Do not interrogate the child, and if they stop talking, respect this, do not pressure them to tell you anything.
- The child’s feelings about themselves may be influenced by your initial reaction to the abuse. If the child senses a horrified response, this may reinforce and perpetuate a child’s feelings of guilt and shame.
- Be supportive and tell them you believe them.
- Reassure them that whatever has happened, it is not their fault.
- Reassure the child that they did the right thing in telling you. Many abusers threaten the child to prevent disclosure.
- Tell the child that some adults do wrong things, and that the abuser is responsible for the abuse.
- Do everything possible to comfort and reassure the child. Explain what action you will take next. Do not make promises that you will not be able to keep or promise the child confidentiality. The child has enough secrets and needs someone to act on their behalf to stop the abuse.
Reporting your concerns of sexual abuse
Taking action to help protect a child can be difficult. You do not need proof that a child is being sexually abused to report your concerns, only a reasonable belief that a child or young person is being harmed or is at risk of harm.
Remember, you may be the only person who can help stop the abuse by reporting your concerns.
Recovering from sexual abuse
Where to get help
- within the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing – to report child abuse. Contact your local office during business hours or the Child Protection After Hours Emergency Service, Tel. outside of business hours.
- Police – to report that a suspected crime has been committed and to protect the child from further harm. Victoria Police has specialist police officers for responding to and investigating child sexual abuse.
- National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence hotline Tel. (24 hours, 7 days) – for support
- Tel. (24 hours, 7 days)
- . Tel. (24 hours, 7 days) – for support and counselling