What is child sexual assault?
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. It also includes showing children pornography and inducing children to share photos of themselves.
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. Sexual assault can also happen as a result of online communication, and can occur without any physical contact (such as when it involves photos or images).
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.
How to protect your child from sexual assault
Children need to be taught about personal (sexual) safety as openly as they are taught about road safety and water safety.
- Teach your child that it is not OK for anyone to touch the parts of their body that are covered by their underwear.
- Teach your child that it is not OK for them to touch another person’s private parts, even if an adult or an older child asks them to do so.
- Encourage your child to tell you if anyone touches their private parts.
- Encourage your child to tell you about anything that happens that makes them feel scared or worried.
- Tell your child never to keep a secret that makes them feel bad or worried, no matter how much another adult is telling them to keep the secret.
- Teach your child respectful and accurate names for the sexual parts of their body.
- Teach your child that their body can warn them when a situation is wrong or dangerous — they might get a tight feeling in their tummy and feel scared. Talking about what these feelings mean helps children to recognise and trust their own feelings about a dangerous situation.
Be suspicious of any adult wanting to spend time alone with your child, or being overly generous or affectionate towards your child. As you cannot be with your child all the time, ask about the child protection policy of any organisations that are involved in looking after your child.
How to help protect your child online
It’s important to make sure that your child understands how to be safe when using the internet, including apps on phones and tablet computers. Online predators may pretend to be someone they are not in an attempt to communicate with children.
Ways that you can help protect your children when online include the following.
- Supervise your child while they are using the internet – it’s best if computers, tablets and phones are used only in family areas rather than when your child is alone in their room.
- Ensure that all privacy settings are set to the strictest setting and that location sharing is turned off.
- Educate your child about cyber safety. This includes making sure that they understand that they should not be in contact with people they don’t know via the internet. This may be through social media or sharing websites such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, apps such as musical.ly, chat rooms, etc. Many social networking sites have an age limit of 13 years for setting up accounts.
- Make sure that they know to never give personal information online (name, address, phone number, date of birth, school, etc.) and not to share photos of themselves.
- Ensure that your children know to tell you if they come across unsuitable online content (anything that makes them feel uncomfortable) or if anyone they don’t know contacts them or sends them something sexual or inappropriate.
- Check which websites your child has been accessing by looking at the browser history.
- Make sure they know to never agree to meet up with someone they have met online.
Signs of child sexual assault
What your child might say
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.)
How your child might behave
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.)
Physical signs of child sexual assault
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.
What to do if you suspect child sexual assault
If you suspect that your child has been sexually assaulted, seek professional help straight away.
You can start by calling the child protection helpline in your area. These 24-hour helplines are confidential, which allows you to voice even the slightest suspicion of sexual assault in confidence.
The helpline 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 (local doctor), 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. 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.
When children are believed, supported and protected after sexual assault, the impact of the assault on their lives can be lessened. A trained sexual assault counsellor can help you and other family members come to terms with what has happened to your child.