How many people have experienced child sexual abuse?
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How many people have experienced child sexual abuse?
Ben Mathews, lead investigator of the Australian Child Maltreatment Study and professor at the Queensland University of Technology School of Law, talks about why it’s important for Australians to be aware that child sexual abuse affects our whole nation.
Read the transcript
My name's Ben Matthews, I'm a professor in the School of Law at QUT and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. I do research in child maltreatment including the measurement of the prevalence of child sexual abuse and its associated outcomes through life.
It's important for Australians generally to be aware of the scale of sexual abuse because it's something that affects our whole nation. It affects our families, our communities, individuals on our streets and neighbourhoods, our schools, our health sectors, our whole community.
As a society, we have a duty to protect kids. That's the bottom line. We have a moral duty to protect kids, to give kids the best chance of a good start in life.
So child sexual abuse includes both contact and non-contact sexual acts against a child by any other person, and our study surveyed eight and a half thousand Australians and we found that 28 and a half percent of people have experienced sexual abuse in childhood. So a bit over one in four and the proportion is higher for girls and women.
Child sexual abuse is preventable, and in fact we've seen some major progress in reducing child sexual abuse in Australia by some types of offender, and these are major public policy successes and we should be proud of this. There's no doubt that child sexual abuse is preventable if we invest more in prevention and early intervention.
The Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS) is the first national study of the prevalence, nature and impacts of all 5 forms of child maltreatment. These are:
- child sexual abuse
- physical abuse
- emotional abuse
- exposure to family and domestic violence.
The ACMS estimates that around 1 in 4 (28.5%) Australians aged 16 years and over have experienced child sexual abuse, with females twice as likely to have experienced child sexual abuse than males (37.3% compared to 18.8%).1
These estimates are conservative as they do not include online forms of child sexual abuse. The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation reports that online forms of child sexual abuse have grown exponentially over recent years. 2
The ACMS found that child sexual abuse rarely occurs in isolation:
- Most (78%) victims and survivors of child sexual abuse said it happened more than one time, 42% said it happened more than 6 times and 11% said it happened more than 50 times.
- Child sexual abuse often happens alongside other forms of child maltreatment. Australians are more likely to have experienced 2 or more forms of maltreatment (39.4%) than to have never experienced maltreatment (37.4%). 3
Impact of child sexual abuse
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) uncovered the hidden nature, complex causes and significant impacts of child sexual abuse in institutions in Australia. During the Royal Commission's private sessions, victims and survivors reported 3 main impacts of institutional child sexual abuse:
- mental health (95%)
- relationships (67%)
- education and finances (56%). 4
The ACMS further identified the profound impacts child maltreatment had on people's mental and physical health. When compared with people who had not experienced child maltreatment, those who experienced child maltreatment were:
- more than twice as likely to have a mental disorder (48% compared with 21.6%)
- 3 times more likely to have Major Depressive Disorder (24.6% compared with 8.1%)
- 3.9 times more likely to have self-harmed in the past year
- 4.6 times more likely to have attempted suicide in the past year. 5
Not all people who experience child maltreatment will experience these difficulties. However, they are an important reminder of the potential for long lasting impacts of childhood trauma, and the importance of supporting victims and survivors.
Visit the Bravehearts website for more information about child sexual abuse or call their information and support line on 1800 272 831.
The Raising Children Network website also contains information for parents about child sexual abuse.
1 Mathews B, Pacella RE, Scott JG, et al 2023, 'The prevalence of child maltreatment in Australia: findings from a national survey', The Medical Journal of Australia, 218
2 Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation – Research and Statistics Page. Accessed July 2023: https://www.accce.gov.au/resources/research-and-statistics
3 Higgins DJ, Mathews B, Pacella R, et al 2023, 'The prevalence and nature of multi-type child maltreatment in Australia', The Medical Journal of Australia, 21
4 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017, Final Report: Private sessions – Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Volume 5
5 Scott, JG, et al. (2023), 'The association between child maltreatment and mental disorders in the Australian Child Maltreatment Study', The Medical Journal of Australia, 218 (6)