Who perpetrates child sexual abuse?
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Understanding more about child sexual abuse, including who might perpetrate it, helps us to prevent and better respond to it. The term 'perpetrator' refers to an adult who has committed a child sexual abuse-related offence. This includes offenders who have been convicted by a court.
There is no typical profile of a person who sexually abuses children and young people. Not all perpetrators have the same traits, behaviours or motivations, and they come from different backgrounds and circumstances. There is often very little that makes perpetrators stand out from the general population.
One common misperception is that all child sexual abuse perpetrators are paedophiles. The terms 'paedophile' and 'child sexual abuse perpetrator' are often used interchangeably. However, the terms have different meanings.
Currently there is no universally agreed definition of 'paedophile'. Paedophilia, however, is considered a psychiatric diagnosis that indicates a persistent sexual interest in pre-pubescent children, as reflected by sexual fantasies, urges, thoughts, arousal patterns, or behaviour. Individuals may or may not act on this attraction.
Some child sexual abuse perpetrators are attracted to and may have a sexual interest in children as well as adults. They may also offend against both children and adults, and may act out of opportunity or a range of sexual and other interests, rather than an exclusive sexual interest in children. 1,2
Types of perpetrators
While perpetrators do not fit neatly into discrete categories, researchers have developed different ways to understand their motivations and behaviours. These methods are used as a way of understanding, rather than a tool to develop specific profiles. With this in mind, the Royal Commission identified 3 types of perpetrators. 3
Fixed, persistent perpetrators
Fixed, persistent perpetrators tend to have a long-term sexual attraction to children or young people. They are often repeat offenders, abusing multiple children and young people throughout their lives. They are more likely than other perpetrators to have a paedophilic interest in children and young people, and are less likely to have age-appropriate sexual relationships. Most perpetrators do not fall in this category, despite common stereotypes.
Opportunistic perpetrators tend to be less fixated on the sexual abuse of children and young people, and they may also be involved in criminal behaviour other than child sexual abuse. They may be more sexually attracted to adults, but use children or young people for sexual gratification. These perpetrators are less likely than other adult perpetrators to deliberately create situations where they can abuse children and young people, instead doing so when they see an opportunity. These perpetrators are less likely to use grooming strategies.
Situational perpetrators do not usually have a sexual preference for children or young people. They tend to have similar patterns of sexual arousal to people who do not sexually abuse children and young people. They sexually abuse children or young people in response to things happening in their own lives. This can include things like social isolation, lack of positive adult relationships and low self‑esteem. A range of risk factors may play a role in someone's decision to sexually abuse a child or young person, or the possibility that they will commit child sexual abuse. These factors include:
- adverse experiences in childhood, such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect
- interpersonal, relationship or intimacy difficulties, such as difficulties connecting with other adults
- distorted beliefs that may lead to child sexual abuse, such as the belief that abuse is not harmful
- indirect influences, such as the situation they are in or 'trigger' factors (for example, severe stress, substance misuse and mental health issues).
These factors show some of the things that can contribute to someone perpetrating child sexual abuse. It is important to note, however, that these are not an excuse or justification for child sexual abuse. Most people with these factors in their lives will not sexually abuse a child or young person. Also, some perpetrators of child sexual abuse may not show any risk factors. However, these identified risk factors provide opportunities for early intervention and rehabilitation.
Common characteristics of perpetrators
While it is true that there is no typical profile of a child sexual abuse perpetrator, there are some statistically important characteristics.
Perpetrators are usually known by their victims
Research indicates that most child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the victim or survivor. In a study of people who experienced sexual abuse before they were 15 years old, 79% of individuals were abused by a relative, friend, acquaintance or neighbour. 4 Only 11% of people who experienced sexual abuse before they were 15 were abused by a stranger. 5
Perpetrators are generally men
Studies of child sexual abuse show that men are more likely than women to commit sexual abuse in non-institutional environments (such as online or in the family home).6 Similarly, reports to the Royal Commission by victims and survivors revealed that 93.9% of institutional child sexual abuse was perpetrated by an adult man.7
Difference between online and offline perpetrators
Evidence suggests that the characteristics of those who commit in-person or contact child sexual abuse are different from those who only access online child sexual abuse materials. Studies show that perpetrators who only access online child sexual abuse material tend to be younger than contact offenders, have a higher income and higher level of education, have greater sexual deviancy, have more problems with sexual preoccupation and sexual self-regulation, and have greater barriers to committing contact offending (for example, greater victim empathy).8
1 Richards, K. 2011, Misperceptions about child sex offenders. Accessed August 2023 from: https://www.aic.gov.au/publications/tandi/tandi429.
2 Proeve, M., Malvaso, C. and DelFabbro, P. 2016, Evidence and Frameworks for Understanding Perpetrators of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: A report commissioned and funded by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, University of Adelaide, page 6. Accessed August 2023 from https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/sites/default/files/file-list/Research%20Report%20-%20Evidence%20and%20frameworks%20for%20understanding%20perpetrators%20of%20institutional%20child%20sexual%20abuse%20-%20Causes.pdf.
3 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017, Final Report: Nature and cause – Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Volume 2, page 127.
4 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2019, Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia: continuing the national story, page 71. Accessed August 2023 from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/Reports/Domestic-Violence/Family-Domestic-Sexua….
5 Australia Bureau of Statistics 2018, Personal Safety Survey 2016, Australia (Cat. No. 4906.0). Findings based on use of ABS TableBuilder data. Accessed July 2021 from: https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/crime-and-justice/personal-safety-australia/latest-release#key-statistics.
6 Proeve, M., Malvaso, C. and DelFabbro, P. 2016, Evidence and Frameworks for Understanding Perpetrators of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: A report commissioned and funded by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, University of Adelaide, page 6. Accessed August 2023 from: https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/sites/default/files/file-list/Research%20Report%20-%20Evidence%20and%20frameworks%20for%20understanding%20perpetrators%20of%20institutional%20child%20sexual%20abuse%20-%20Causes.pdf.
7 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017, Final Report: Preface and executive summary – Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, page 1.
8 Gannoni, A. et al. 2023, Preventing child sexual abuse material offending: An international review of initiatives, Research Report no. 28. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. Accessed August 2023 from: https://doi.org/10.52922/rr78764.