Sexual assault of a child occurs when a person who is older or bigger than the child, such as an adult or an older child, uses their power or authority over the child or takes advantage of the child’s trust to involve them in sexual activity. This sexual activity does not just mean sexual intercourse; it means any sexual activity including flashing, fondling, masturbating and oral sex.
Sexual assault of a child is a crime. It doesn’t matter whether the child agrees to the sexual contact. It is always sexual assault. Unfortunately, child sexual assault can happen to girls or boys of any age (even to babies), and it can occur in any family.
In most instances, the person who sexually assaults a child is known to that child and to their family. The offender can be a member of the child’s family such as an older sibling, parent or relative, or a family friend.
A sexual assault offender takes advantage of a child’s trust and respect, and often coerces the child into sexual activity — and into not telling other adults about it — by bribing, threatening and/or physically restraining them.
A myth about child sexual assault offenders is that they look different or ‘evil’. However, the vast majority of child sexual assault offenders look ‘normal’ and appear respectable — this makes them hard to recognise unless the child tells a supportive adult about being sexually assaulted.
Children rarely lie or make up stories about being sexually assaulted, however, they may play down what has happened or not tell anyone about it at all.
In the past, people avoided talking about child sexual assault. However, today it is known that speaking about this crime and educating children and their families about sexual assault is a way to protect children and encourage them to tell when a problem occurs. Not talking about child sexual assault is dangerous for children and protects offenders.
Many children do not tell an adult when a sexual assault has occurred. However, if your child tells you something to indicate that they may have been sexually assaulted, it is very important to stay calm, and especially to keep your voice calm, and to tell the child that you believe them. Tell the child they are not in trouble, that it is not their fault, and let them know that you are going to get help and find out what to do next to keep them safe. (See below for advice on what to do if you suspect child sexual assault.)
Children who have been sexually assaulted respond in many different ways, and some children do not display changes in behaviour until some time after the assault has occurred. Indications that sexual assault may have occurred include not wanting to go to school, a drop in school performance, withdrawal from friendships, displaying sexual knowledge and acting out sexual behaviour that seems inappropriate for the child’s age and which seems to be more than just natural curiosity (your doctor can advise you about normal stages of sexual development in children), being aggressive, or repeatedly complaining of unexplained physical aches and pains. Some children may revert to behaviours they displayed when they were younger — thumb sucking, having nightmares, wetting the bed or being afraid of the dark. (Note: although some of these behaviours can also be due to factors other than sexual assault, their presence might still indicate that the child is at risk of harm.)
Often there are no obvious physical signs that a child has been sexually assaulted. However, injury, bruising or discomfort around the genitals, anus or mouth can be a sign of sexual assault, as can difficulty or discomfort sitting, walking or going to the toilet, or a discharge from the vagina.
If you suspect that your child has been sexually assaulted, seek professional help straight away.
You can start by calling the child protection help line in your area (see the Community Pages of your local telephone directory). These 24-hour help lines are confidential, which allows you to voice even the slightest suspicion of sexual assault in confidence. The help line will offer you advice about what to do next, and who can help you and your child. Other points of first contact include your GP, the children’s health unit of your local hospital, and the police. Do not approach the offender directly — leave this to the police and the relevant authorities.
Giving your child the opportunity to speak confidentially with a trained counsellor can be helpful to the child. Continuing to deny sexual assault can lead to problems later in your child’s life, such as having difficulty trusting or relating to other people. If your child is believed, supported and protected after sexual assault, the impact of the assault on his or her life can be lessened. A trained sexual assault counsellor can also help you and other family members come to terms with what has happened to your child.
Last Reviewed: 02 December 2009