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What is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse can occur within families, by other people the child or young person knows or does not know, in organisations and online. For the purpose of this definition, children and young people are those under the age of 18.

The National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse 2021-2030 provides a framework for federal, state and territory governments to address child sexual abuse in all settings. You can read the National Strategy for more information about child sexual abuse and what we’re doing to keep children and young people safe.


Child sexual abuse is any act that exposes a child or young person to, or involve a child or young person in, sexual activities that:

  • they do not understand
  • they do not or cannot consent to
  • are not accepted by the community
  • are unlawful.

Victims and survivors are those who have experienced child sexual abuse. The Australian Government recognises that not all people with lived experience of child sexual abuse will identify with these terms. Victims and survivors of child sexual abuse come from all walks of life.

Prevalence of child sexual abuse

The Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS) is the first national study of the prevalence and impacts of all 5 forms of child maltreatment, which are child sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and exposure to family and domestic violence.

The ACMS estimates that around 1 in 4 (28.5%) Australians have experienced child sexual abuse, with most (78%) experiencing child sexual abuse multiple times. The ACMS found that females were twice as likely to have experienced child sexual abuse compared with males (37.3% females compared with 18.8% males).1

The ACMS estimates are conservative as they do not include online forms of child sexual abuse. The ACMS found that nearly 1 in 5 (17.7%) Australians aged 16–24 experienced online grooming by adults when they were a child2. Nearly 1 in 10 (7.6%) of Australians aged 16–24 had sexual images of them from when they were a child shared without their consent.

Research and data from the ACMS indicates that child sexual abuse does not only happen in institutions. The 3 most common perpetrator types reported were:

  • known adolescents (12.9%)
  • parents/caregivers in the home (7.8%)
  • other known adults (7.5%).

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. The 3 main impacts of institutional child sexual abuse that victims and survivors reported during the Royal Commission’s private sessions were impacts on:

  • mental health (95%)
  • relationships (67%)
  • education and finances (56%).3

The ACMS further identified the profound impacts child maltreatment has on mental and physical health outcomes. When compared with people who have not experienced child maltreatment, those who experienced child maltreatment:

  • are more likely to have a mental disorder (48%), compared with around 1 in 5 (21.6%) of those who did not experience maltreatment
  • are 3 times more likely to have Major Depressive Disorder (24.6% compared with 8.1%)
  • are 3.9 times more likely to have self-harmed in the past year
  • are 4.6 times more likely to have attempted suicide in the past year.

Sexual abuse rarely occurs in isolation. It 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 never experience maltreatment (37.4%)4.

Helpful resources

Visit the Bravehearts website for more information about child sexual abuse. Their information and support line is also available 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. Ibid.
  3. 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, page 384
  4. 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, 218