Child Sexual Assault

Child sexual abuse is any behaviour imposed on a young person or child, usually by a male (93%), taking advantage of his position of power and trust within the family. Less than 11% are abused by strangers (Australian Crime: Facts and Figures, 2011).

Sexually abusive behaviours are associated with children and adolescents. This behaviour is varied and may include acts that make the child or young person feel scared or uncomfortable. This behaviour can range from exhibitionism to penetration.

Whether the abuse occurs once or many times, the traumatic effect is maintained due to fear instilled by threats, fear of further abuse, or promises of rewards for ‘keeping the secret.’

Secrecy and community denial of child sexual abuse gives permission for the abuse to continue. Similarly, the community’s reluctance to interfere in ‘private’ family matters, and the desire to maintain the illusion of family as a ‘safe’ unit, hides and condones the widespread incidence of incest.

Laurel House has broadened the definition of child sexual abuse because:

  1. The restriction of incest to mean sexual intercourse between two related persons only accounts for a small proportion of the total range of sexually abusive behaviours.
  2. Sexual abuse of children often involves other people who have the same kind of trust and power for example, parents, step-parents, uncles, family friends, grandparents, teachers, church members, neighbours, and siblings.

Child sexual abuse is characterised by the betrayal of trust and abuse of power implicit in relations with children.


What is child sexual abuse?

There are several alternative ‘labels’ or definitions for child sexual abuse.

  1. Incest is a term that is often used. It can be defined as ‘sexual intercourse between closely related persons where marriage is legally forbidden.” It is a criminal offence. However, this doesn’t define the problem for several reasons.
    – Adults, other than relatives, sexually abuse children. They are often adults with the same kind of trusting relationship that is found within the family.
    – Children can be sexually abused in ways other than sexual intercourse.
  2. Sexual assault is a fairly good term to use, but it implies physical force; more often, a child is kept compliant through lies and threats.
  3. Child rape is a term that again implies force. It also implies some kind of sexual penetration either oral, anal, or vaginal; this does not always occur.
  4. Child molestation is a term that has connotations of ‘the stranger in the playground.’ In an overwhelming number of cases the child knows the offender very well.

It is important to use a term for the problem that defines it clearly and avoids confusion in the mind of the hearer. For this reason Laurel House has chosen to use the words child sexual abuse with this underlying definition:

Child sexual abuse is a sexual act imposed on a child who lacks emotional, maturational, and cognitive development. The ability to lure a child into a sexual relationship is based upon the all-powerful and dominant position of the adult or older adolescent offender, which is in sharp contrast to the child’s age, dependency and subordinate position. Authority and power enable the offender, implicitly or directly, to coerce the child into sexual compliance. (Susan Sgroi)

Child abuse is:

Child sexual abuse is a sexual act imposed on a child who lacks emotional, maturational, and cognitive development. The ability to lure a child into a sexual relationship is based upon the all-powerful and dominant position of the adult or older adolescent offender, which is in sharp contrast to the child’s age, dependency and subordinate position. Authority and power enable the offender, implicitly or directly, to coerce the child into sexual compliance. (Susan Sgroi, 1989)

“The different state and territory governments use their own legal definitions, but child sexual assault is commonly considered to be any sexual activity between a child and an adult, or older person. This can include fondling genitals, masturbation, oral sex, vaginal or anal penetration by a penis, finger or any other object, fondling of breasts, voyeurism, exhibitionism and exposing or involving the child in pornography.

Many definitions of child sexual assault specify the age difference between the perpetrator and the child or young adult, as it is considered that young people are not able to make a free and informed decision (that is, consent) to engage in such sexual activities because of their lack of relative knowledge and power. However, concerns have been raised that definitions that specify age difference between the perpetrator and child or young person fail to take into account non-consensual sexual activity between peers (such as sibling sexual assault, and sexual assault and date-rape perpetrated by adolescents).” (ACSSA Wrap, Adult Victim/Survivors of Child Sexual Assault, . Fergus & M. Keel, 2005)

Usually the form of sexual contact progresses over time.


Who are the victims?

–          By the age of eighteen, approximately 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys will have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact.

–          This can happen at any age – from birth to late teens.

–          At the commencement of sexual abuse the average age of the victim is 7 or 8 years. Currently more than half are under ten years of age at the time of reporting. (Australian Crime: Facts and Figures, 2011).

–          Can be one child in a family, or many.

Who are the offenders?

–          93% are male

–          85% are familiar to the child; only 11% are strangers, in 4% of cases the relationship of the victim to the offender is not specified at the time of reporting. (Australian Crime: Facts and Figures, 2011)

–          Most offenders are relatives or close friends of the child and/or family, someone whom the child trusts. The most common relationship of the offender to the victim is the father (biological or social); “Fathers, step-fathers and other male relatives (including siblings) made up more than half (51.6%) of perpetrators for females, and approximately one-fifth (21.4%) of perpetrators against males” (ACSSA, “The Nature and Extent of Sexual Assault and Abuse in Australia, C. Tarczon & A. Quadara, 2012)

–          Offenders come from the full range of socio-economic, racial, cultural and religious backgrounds.

–          There is no distinctive psychological profile of an offender. Most offenders are ‘average’ men.

–          Many sexually assault more than one child.

–          Commonly they are heterosexual men (even if the victim is a boy)

When and Where are Children Sexually Assaulted?

–          It is rarely a one-off occurrence. Usually the sexual abuse continues over a period of years, sometimes in an established time and place pattern.

–          It can happen at any time that the child is accessible to the offender.

–          Children are often sexually assaulted in their own home or in a place familiar to the child.


Children’s reactions to an experience of sexual abuse

Children react to frightening events in many different ways so there are no ‘typical’ responses. Their developmental stage and level of experience and understanding will have a direct bearing on the way in which they are able to cope with the abuse. Children’s difficulty in talking about their feelings can lead to withdrawal and to what is termed ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour. They may also misread adult attempts to appear emotionally in control in that they may sense the emotional undercurrent, internalise it, and believe that they are somehow responsible. Additionally, children may receive the unspoken message that emotional expression is unacceptable.

Despite there being no ‘typical’ responses, there are some reactions that are likely to occur. For instance, young children may become increasingly fearful or timid, they may regress to an earlier developmental stage, resume bedwetting, wanting a bottle or dummy, they may cling to a trusted parent or to a toy even though they may have previously outgrown these behaviours. Nightmares, disturbed sleep patterns, health difficulties, and ‘mysterious’ aches and pains are also common.

As with adults, children’s reactions will diminish over time with the appropriate support. Children can best be helped by exploration of, and practical assistance regarding their safety needs. Children need to be reassured of their physical and emotional safety and have the opportunity to talk about their experience and their feelings. It is useful to encourage questions and when they arise, to answer those questions honestly, openly and fully.


Child victims of sexual abuse face secondary trauma during discovery or the disclosure of their abuse. The child’s normal coping behaviour contradicts adult expectations, which causes the child to be stigmatised as being a liar, manipulative or imaginative. This response can come from parents, teachers, police, the courts, the medical profession and/or therapists. This reinforces the child’s sense of self-blame, and self-hatred.

Children respond to sexual assault in ways that do not live up to adult ideas about ‘normal’ victim behaviour. Rather than being calculated or practiced, the child is most often fearful, tentative and confused about the nature of the experience and the eventual outcome of disclosure. For instance, when an emotionally distraught child accuses a usually respected adult of sexual violence, many adults who hear the disclosure will fault the child.

The potential impact of this can be understood according to the following:

  1. Secrecy
  2. Helplessness
  3. Entrapment and accommodation
  4. Delayed, unconvincing disclosure
  5. Retraction


The consistent impression gained by a child is one of danger and a fearful outcome based on secrecy surrounding the sexual abuse. They may be told:

–          “This is our secret, nobody else will understand”

–          “Don’t tell anybody”

–          “Nobody will believe you”

–          “Don’t tell your mother because she will hate me/she will hate you/she will kill you/she will kill me/it will kill her/you will be sent away/I will be sent away/you will break up the family”

–          “If you tell, I won’t love you/I’ll hurt you/I’ll kill your dog/I’ll kill you”

The secret is therefore both the promise of safety and the source of the fear. This is reinforced by the fact that most attempts by the child to tell are countered by adult silence and/or disbelief. Consequently children rarely ask and rarely tell. This is contrary to social expectations that ‘real’ victims seek help. Even when children complain at a later stage, there is little understanding of the reasons for the delay in disclosing.


Adults expect children to not only tell immediately, but also to fight back. This expectation ignores the basic powerlessness of children in relation to adults. Children may be given permission to avoid the attention of strangers, but are required to be obedient and affectionate to any adult entrusted with their care.

The reverse side of the expectation that children should fight back is the assumption that uncomplaining children are acting in a consenting relationship. As with adult rape victims, the child is expected to forcefully resist, to scream for help and to attempt to escape. This is an unrealistic expectation. Many children’s reaction is to ‘play possum’ pretend to be asleep, or pull up the covers. Children are simply unable to use force to deal with overwhelming threat and they generally learn to cope silently with the terror.

It is crucial to recognise that, no matter what the circumstances, the child had no choice but to submit quietly and to keep the secret.

Entrapment and accommodation

As children are not responsible and are powerless in an abuse situation, they learn to survive the best way they can. As there is no escape from the situation most children learn to accommodate the reality of continuing sexual abuse. Much of what is later considered to be adolescent or adult behavioural and psychological difficulties can be traced back to the natural reactions of a child to a profoundly unnatural and abusive environment.

A child is unable to comprehend that a trusted adult is so ruthless and uncaring. The only acceptable alternative from the child’s point of view is to believe that she provoked the abuse in some way to hope that by being ‘good’ she can earn love and acceptance. She may also believe that if she is good and keeps the secret she can protect her siblings from sexual abuse, her mother from disintegration and preserve the security of her home. Thus conventional morality is reversed for the child, as keeping the secret is a way to be good, and telling the truth would be bad.

All of the accommodation mechanisms (rage, hysteria, self-mutilation, delinquency, lying, and altered states of consciousness) are part of the survival skills of the child, and will only be given up when the child knows that it is safe to do so.

Delayed, conflicting or unconvincing disclosure

While most sexual abuse is never disclosed, when it is, the disclosure may be triggered by conflict during adolescence. The anger generated by an argument may provide a sufficient burst of energy to enable the child to tell the secret. She will be seeking understanding at a time when she is least likely to get it and most adults will tend to identify with the parents’ problems in contending with a ‘rebellious teenager’.

They will assume she has invented the story to get back at her parents. If she has coped by being unusually compliant and eager to please, then she will be faced with disbelief, as it seems impossible that such a thing could have happened to such an apparently well-adjusted child. So no matter how the child has learnt to cope, people will presume that sexual abuse did not occur and will use the ‘evidence’ of whatever behaviour they have observed, to support their belief. The child is likely to be left with the secret and a sense that no one will ever believe.


When everyone’s distress levels rise and uncomfortable things begin to happen, the child usually believes that it is her disclosure that is the cause. Additionally, there may be pressure on the child to change or retract her story, other family members may be angry, upset or in denial, and the offender may increase the level of threats/coercion in an attempt to ensure his safety. As a result the child may ‘admit’ that everything she has said is a lie. Although angry, adults will be relieved, and will accept this lie more readily than anything she has said about the sexual abuse and the offender.

Myths and Facts of Child Sexual Abuse

Myth: Child sexual abuse/incest/child rape only happens in poor families.
Fact: Child sexual abuse/incest/child rape occurs in all racial, cultural and socio-economic groups.

Myth: Child sexual abuse hardly ever happens.
Fact: Approximately 33% of Australian female children will be sexually assaulted before they reach 15 years of age.

Myth: Child sexual abuse is unacceptable in our society.
Fact: Child sexual abuse is prevalent, talking about it is forbidden. Secrecy makes it easier for men to abuse children.

Myth: In the rare instances where it did happen, a child would only have to tell someone for it to be stopped.
Fact: The secrecy that surrounds child sexual abuse ensures that:
– there is enormous pressure on children not to tell
– they may have to tell several people before they are believed
– they may never be believed
– they may be persuaded to change their ‘story’

Myth: Child sexual abuse – ‘incest’ – is an expression of unique love and does not harm the child.
Fact: Child sexual abuse is an expression of power that damages the very basis of a child’s sense of self. It inflicts psychological, emotional and social damage that affects the child’s ability to relate to self and others.

Myth: It is only abuse when violent physical attack occurs.
Fact: Adult power and authority are such that physical force is unnecessary. Children can be coerced, bribed or threatened to make them comply. Offenders avoid doing anything that will lead to discovery.

Myth: Child sexual abuse only happens in dysfunctional families.
Fact: Offenders are ‘normal’ men who are involved in ‘normal’ relationships and have ‘normal’ vocational/professional and social roles.

Myth: Sexual abuse (if it happens) will only occur on a single, isolated event.
Fact: Most abuse continues over a long period of time – usually for years.

Myth: Most children are sexually abused by strangers.
Fact: Less than 11% of children are sexually abused by strangers. 40% are abused by their fathers, uncles, grandfathers, brothers, or other relatives. The remaining 45% are abused by men known to them such as friends, neighbours, etc. 4% of reported cases are not able or choose not to specify their relationship to the offender (Australian Crime: Facts and Figures, 2011).

Myth: Girls fantasise/make up stories/lie about being sexually abused.
Fact: Sexual abuse is a feminine reality. Claiming otherwise provides social and personal protection for the abusers.

Myth: Only adolescent girls are sexually abused.
Fact: 10 to 14-year-olds had the highest rate of sexual assault victimisation regardless of sex. Males were victimised at a rate of 112 per 100,000 males, while for females, the rate was 534 per 100,000 females (these are just the cases that are reported to police, we know that many more cases go unreported). (Australian Crime: Facts and Figures, 2011)

Myth: The girl seduces her father because girls all wish to seduce their fathers.
Fact: The adult offender approaches the girl in a variety of ways, such as going into her bedroom while she is asleep, waiting or organising for her to be alone, threatening to kill her or significant family members. Assaults are planned well in advance and will include limiting or removing escape and support systems.

Myth: Mothers should have protected their children from the offender.
Fact: Both parents have a responsibility to protect their children, and it is unrealistic to expect mothers to perpetually guard their children for 24-hours of every day, especially from those in their own family or others whom they know and trust.

Myth: Men are forced to turn to their daughters for sex because their wife/partner is either denying them sex or is unable to provide a satisfying sexual relationship.
Fact: Men who sexually abuse their daughters are usually also engaged in a sexual relationship with one or more partners. This myth serves to shift responsibility from the offender to the mother by implying that sexual abuse is a matter of sex rather than an abuse of power and act of violence. This also supports the notion that women are responsible for men’s sexual gratification, that men have an unquestionable right to sex.

Myth: All mothers collude with the offender, or know, either consciously or unconsciously, that abuse occurs.
Fact: This myth is supported by the belief that mothers should have known. However, as offenders are extremely careful that no-one should know, and will go to great lengths to ensure that no-one does know, it is unrealistic to expect otherwise. This is complicated by the fact that many mothers, when they learn of the abuse, are able to look back and recognise instances where abuse could have occurred. It is important to note that they do this with the benefit of hindsight – at the time they did not, and could not know what was happening. If they had known they would have acted then. Again, it is a way of diverting responsibility from the offender to the mother.

Myth: Abusers are ‘sick’, ‘deviant’, ‘mad’
Fact: The realities of sexual abuse involve highly emotive issues – issues that most of us would like to avoid because they are extremely painful. Labelling offenders as being different to the norm intellectualises these issues, externalises the causes, denies responsibility, implies infrequent occurrence, and effectively negates the experience of those women and children who have been abused.

Some established characteristics of child sexual abuse

  1. 1.       It is common

Its widespread incidence is becoming increasingly well researched and documented.

  1. 2.       Very few offenders are mentally abnormal

Clearly the offenders see it is wrong because they hide it. While there are few instances where they openly justify their behaviour by saying that they are introducing the child to sexuality, in the vast majority of cases the offender threatens, coerces or confuses the child into keeping silent about the abuse.

  1. 3.       Offenders are generally not strangers to the child

Studies have found that 90% of child sexual abuse cases involve family members. Similarly over 80% of offences occur in the child’s home, the offender’s home, or their mutual home.

  1. 4.       Child sexual abuse is seldom a solitary, once only act

The nature of sexual abuse tends to change over time, e.g. touching may lead to penetration. As this occurs, the abuser increasingly uses force, or threats of force to keep the child silent. The abuse, in many cases, continues over days, weeks, months, or even years.

  1. 5.       Child sexual abuse rarely involves a violent physical attack on the child

It always involves coercion or threats of some sort, e.g. offenders may say they will not molest a girl’s younger sister if she will allow the abuse of her to continue, thus leaving the child feeling that she must protect her sister, and allowing the abuse to continue.

  1. 6.       Child sexual abuse occurs in all socio-economic groups

Judges, police inspectors, university lecturers and doctors offend as much and as often as bricklayers, truck drivers, process workers and bikies. The Adelaide survey found that tertiary educated offenders were slightly over represented in their study.

  1. 7.       It is untrue that child sexual abuse occurs because men have an uncontrollable sexual urge

The male sexual urge is no greater or less controllable than that of the female. There is a great resistance to holding adult males responsible for their own sexual behaviours both within the community and among professional helpers.

  1. 8.       It is untrue that children often lie about child sexual abuse

It is very rare for a child to lie about being abused. The myth of the lying child reflects adult fear at believing that such a thing could happen and the belief that children cannot be trusted.


Possible long-term effects

–          Fear, mistrust or hatred of men

–          Anger

–          Bitterness, depression, anxiety

–          Loss of confidence/self-esteem

–          Lowered self-image and sense of personal worth

–          Sexual problems/gynaecological difficulties

–          Phobias/psychiatric disorders

–          Asthma

–          Relationship/marriage difficulties or break-ups

–          Compulsive eating/bulimia/anorexia

–          Nightmares/insomnia

–          Suicidal tendencies/self-mutilation

–          Alcohol/drug misuse

–          Difficulties parenting/relating to children

–          Diminished personal growth

Victims of childhood sexual abuse often experience self-hatred and worthlessness. They often have very little confidence and little belief in self. They may want to be noticed but are afraid of being noticed. They are usually afraid of strangers and men. Victims often feel helpless and unable to make decisions or change situations.

Effects on sexuality

–          Feeling cut off, not wanting to be touched

–          Know that sexuality is a natural part of adult ‘loving’ but are unable to believe it

–          Sexual ‘hang-ups’ related to the assault, difficulty in coping with certain advances or touches

–          Doing things for others – trade-offs


Effects of relationship with mother

–          Desire to protect, to not add to her worries

–          Feelings of guilt because she may have been hurt, powerless to prevent the abuse

–          Anger because she did not listen/believe/want to know/or she protected the abuser

–          Keep distant but want to be close


Characteristics of effective protectors

–          A protecting adult believes the child has been sexually abused

–          A protecting adult understands who is responsible for the abuse

–          A protecting adult can talk to the child about abuse when the child is ready

–          A protecting adult can make opportunities to talk about the abuse, indicating that they can manage the discussion

–          A protecting adult can empathise with the child which may include the child’s positive feelings towards the offender or feelings of loss when the abuse is stopped

–          A protecting adult can receive and give feedback to the child about what is right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate

–          A protecting adult takes responsibility for their behaviour in relation to children





–          TO SAY ‘NO’




–          TO PRIVACY

–          TO CRY

–          TO FEEL ANGRY

Every Child has the right to be protected; every adult has the responsibility to ensure children are safe.




Touches/rubs own genitals when nappies are being   changed; when going to sleep, when tense, excited or afraid.


Continues to touch/rub genitals in public after   being told many times not to do this. Touches/rubs self in public or in private to the   exclusion of normal childhood activities.

Asks about genitals, breasts, intercourse, and   babies.



Keeps asking people even after parent has   answered questions at age appropriate level. Asks strangers after parent has answered. Sexual   knowledge too great for age.

Likes to be nude. May show others his/her   genitals.



Wants to be nude in public after the parent says   “No” Refuses to put on clothes. Secretly shows self in   public after many scoldings.
Interested in own faeces. Smears faeces on walls or floor more than one   time.  

Repeatedly smears or plays with faeces after   scolding.


Plays doctor inspecting others’ bodies. Frequently plays doctor after being told “No”  

Forces child to play doctor, to take off clothes.



Puts something in the genitals or rectum of self   and other for curiosity or exploration. Puts something in genitals or rectum of self or   other after being told “No” Any coercion, force, pain in putting something in   genitals or rectum of self or other child.


Plays house, acts out roles of mummy and daddy. Humping other children with clothes on.  

Simulated or real intercourse with clothes, oral   sex.








Asks about the genitals, breasts, intercourse,   and babies. Shows fear or anxiety about sexual topics. Endless questions about sex. Sexual knowledge far   too great for age.


Interested in watching/peeking at people doing   bathroom functions. Keeps getting caught watching/peeking at others   doing bathroom functions.


Refuses to leave people alone in the bathroom.
Interest in urination and defecation.


Plays with faeces. Purposefully urinates outside   of toilet bowl.


Repeatedly plays with or smears faeces.   Purposefully urinated on furniture.


Touches/rubs own genitals when going to sleep,   when tense, excited or afraid.


Continues to touch/rub genitals in public place   after being told “No”. Masturbation on furniture or with objects.


Touches/rubs self in private to the exclusion of   normal childhood activities. Masturbates on people.
Kisses familiar adults and children. Allows   kisses by familiar adults and children. French kissing. Talks in sexualised manner with   others. Fearful of hugs/kisses by adults. Gets upset with public displays of   affection.


Overly familiar with strangers. Talks/acts in a   sexualised manner with unknown adults. Physical contact with adult causes   extreme agitation to child or adult.
Talks about sex with friends. Talks about having   a girl/boyfriend


Sex talk gets child in trouble. Romanticises all   relationships. Talks about sex and sexual acts habitually.   Repeatedly in trouble with regard to sexual behaviour.
Plays games with same-aged children related to   sex and sexuality.


Wants to play games with much younger/older   children related to sex and sexuality. Forces others to play sexual games, or a group   forces a child/children to play.


For further information and support, please contact Laurel House Launceston on 6334 2740, Laurel House North-West on 6431 9711, or email