Prevalence of child sexual abuse
‘There were about 5.7 million children in Australia in 2016. It’s difficult to know for sure how many children are sexually abused, but best estimates put it at roughly 8 per cent of boys and 20 per cent of girls. Put all those numbers together, and you could fill the MCG eight times over with children living in Australia right now who have been or will be sexually abused. Of those instances of abuse, 90 to 95 per cent will be committed by men (Gilmore, 2017)’.
Among the more than 57,000 women participating in the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, the prevalence of sexual violence during childhood was 12-15% of women, depending on the age cohort (Townsend, Loxton, Egan, Barnes, Byrnes, & Forder, 2022).
In a recent study of Adverse Childhood Experiences among almost 250,000 participants across 23 US states, 16.3% of females and 6.7% of males reported experiencing sexual abuse before the age of 18 years (Merrick, Ford, Ports & Guinn, 2018).
According to the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey (ABS, 2017), 11% of women and 5% of men in Australia report having been sexually abused before the age of 15 years. In total, the ABS estimates that approximately 1,410,100 people living in Australia experienced sexual abuse before the age of 15. Greater than half of these respondents (58%) report being sexually abused for the first time before the age of 10 years.
An Australian birth cohort study found that at age 21 years, child sexual abuse was self-reported by 19.3% of males and 30.6% of females (Mills, Kisely, Alati, Strathearn & Najman, 2016).
A review of child sexual abuse studies in Nordic countries found prevalence rates for broadly defined child sexual abuse of between 3 – 23% for boys and 11 – 36% for girls. The prevalence rates for contact abuse, meanwhile, were 1 – 12% for boys and 6 – 30% for girls, while the prevalence rates for penetrating abuse were 0.3 – 6.8% for boys and 1.1 – 13.5% for girls (Kloppen, Haugland, Göran Svedin, Mæhle & Breivik, 2016).
A review of child sexual abuse studies in Japan found a range of contact abuse for females of 10.4 – 60.7%, while the prevalence of contact abuse for males (from just one study) was 4.1%. Further, the rate of penetrative sexual abuse for females was found to range from 1.3 – 8.3%, and for males from 0.5 – 1.3% (Tanaka, Suzuki, Aoyama, Takaoka, & MacMillan, 2017).
A nationwide survey study of youth in the US found that 14.3% of girls aged 14 – 17 years and 6% of boys this same age said they had experienced a sexual assault during their childhood. Completed rape occurred to 4.5% of girls. Sexual assault by a known adult occurred to 4.3% of girls and 1.1% of boys (Finkelhor, Turner, Shattuck, & Hamby, 2014).
High rates of sexual victimisation were found in research with children, young people and young adults in the UK: 7.2% of females aged 11 – 17 and 18.6% of females aged 18-24 years reported childhood experiences of sexual victimisation by any adult or peer that involved physical contact, from sexual touching to rape (Radford, Corral, Bradley and Fisher, 2013).
A 10 year cohort study of 1,745 adolescents in Victoria, Australia collected retrospective data on sexual abuse prior to the age of 16 years, and found rates of 17% for females and 7% for males (Moore, Romaniuk, Olsson, et al., 2010).
Price-Robertson, Bromfield and Vassallo’s (2010) summary of Australian prevalence studies estimates that 4 – 8% of males and 7 – 12% of females experience penetrative child sexual abuse and 12 – 16% of males and 23 – 36% of females experience non-penetrative child sexual abuse.
Research with a randomly selected sample of Australian women showed that 45% reported experiencing at least one unwanted sexual incident by 16 years of age, by family members (31%), friends (54%) or strangers (14%). The large majority (85%) of cases of abuse involved some contact, with intercourse occurring in 20% of cases (Watson & Halford, 2010).
In a review of 38 independent articles corresponding to 39 prevalence studies, Pereda and colleagues (2009) found that the most frequently reported prevalence rate of child sexual abuse for men is below 10%, while for women the most frequent rate is between 10 and 20%. In almost 30% of studies reviewed, however, the prevalence rate for females was approximately 30% (Pereda, Guilera, Forns, & Gómez-Benito, 2009).
Based on a review of population-based studies from developed countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and USA), researchers estimate that between 5 and 10% of girls and up to 5% of boys are exposed to penetrative sexual abuse, and up to three times this number are exposed to any type of sexual abuse (Gilbert, Spatz-Widom, Browne, Fergusson, Webb & Janson, 2009).
Administrative data provides an indication of the number of child sexual assault cases that come to the attention of authorities. It does not provide a reliable estimate of the extent of child sexual assault in the community because the majority of victims/survivors do not report their experiences to police and there are inconsistencies in whether and how data is recorded and counted (Tarczon & Quadara, 2012).
Using data from a meta-analysis of 217 studies published between 1980 and 2008, and from administrative sources including Canadian child protection services and police, Alaggia and colleagues (2017) report that rates of child sexual abuse are 30 times greater in studies relying on self-reports (127 in 1,000) than in those based on administrative data sources (4 in 1,000).
Police data from six Australian states in 2018 showed there were around 3,900 assaults against children aged 0-14 that were considered family violence (approximately 11 per day) and around 3,100 sexual assaults against children perpetrated by a family member (approximately 8.5 per day) (Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, 2019a).
In 2020-21, there were approximately 531,900 notifications to child protection involving around 293,000 children, a rate of 52 per 1,000 children in Australia. Of the notifications, 36% (approx. 192,100) were investigated, with approximately 72,900 substantiations relating to around 49,700 children—a rate of 8.8 per 1,000 children. Sexual abuse was the primary type of abuse or neglect substantiated for 10% of children (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2022).
Between 2016-17 and 2020-21, the numbers of child protection notifications, investigations and substantiations all rose (by 40% for notifications; by 8.5% for investigations; by 7.2% for substantiations, AIHW, 2022).
The rate of substantiations specifically for sexual abuse for the year 2017-18 was 0.9 per 1,000 children. For Indigenous children, the rate of substantiations for sexual abuse was 2.9 per 1,000, and for non-Indigenous children, the rate of substantiations for sexual abuse was 0.8 per 1,000 (AIHW, 2019b).
A retrospective cohort study using linked administrative data to report the cumulative incidence of child protection services involvement from birth to age 18 years in South Australia, has shown that across childhood, substantiated maltreatment was experienced by 3.2-3.6% of non-Aboriginal and 19-25% of Aboriginal children, which is 7 times the reported annual substantiation rates (Segal, Nguyen, Mansor, et al., 2019).
In 2017, there were 7,397 children aged 0-14 years who were recorded by police as being victims of sexual assault (159.4 per 100,000 children). The rate of sexual assault victimisation (recorded in 2017 police data) for male children aged 0-14 was 73.0 per 100,000, and for female children aged 0-14 was 329.4 per 100,000 (AIHW, 2019c).
During 2021, the number of Australian victims aged under 18 years for the following crime categories were as follows:
- Homicide and related offences = 49
- Blackmail/extortion = 81
- Kidnapping/abduction = 114
- Total Robbery = 2,261
- Sexual assault = 15,242 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2022).
During 2021 there were 31,118 victims of sexual assault recorded by police in Australia, which was an increase of 13% from the previous year. Since 1993, the rate of victimisation for sexual assault has increased from 69 to 121 victims per 100,000 persons in 2021. Of these 31,118 victims, 49% were aged under 18 years, with 7.5% aged 0-9 years, and a further 41.5% aged 10-17 years. The majority of all sexual assault victims were female (86%). Female victims of sexual assault aged 10-17 years had the highest victimisation rate of any age group, at a rate greater than eight times the overall rate for sexual assault. The national victimisation rate for sexual assault for 2021 was 121 victims per 100,000 population, while the rate for females aged 10-17 years was 926.3 per 100,000 population (ABS, 2022).
A study of trends in reports of child sexual abuse over a 20 year period in Victoria, Australia, showed that there was a statistically significant increase in reporting rates, from 372.25 in 1993 to 692.15 per 100,000 in 2012. Also from 1993 – 2012, the rate of reporting among boys increased by 2.6-fold, whereas there was a 1.5-fold increase among girls. In 1993, the sex ratio for reporting of girls to boys was 2:1; by 2012 this ratio changed to 1.14:1, meaning that a boy in Victoria was almost as likely as a girl to be the subject of a report of suspected child sexual abuse (Mathews, Bromfield, Walsh, Cheng & Norman, 2017).
In 2014 in Australia, the rate of sexual assault victimisation was highest for females aged 10 – 14 years of age at 559 per 100,000 females in that age group (c.f. a rate for males in this age group at 114 per 100,000). For females aged 15 – 24 years, the rate of sexual assault victimisation was 419 per 100,000 female population compared with 48 per 100,000 for males (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2016).
Data from the Queensland Police Service Annual Statistical Review 2014-15 showed that females aged between 10 – 19 years were most likely to be victims of sexual offences. Females in this age group comprise 44% of total victims of sexual offences (Queensland Police Service, 2015).
Data from the Queensland Police Service Annual Statistical Review 2016-17 showed that of all sexual offence matters dealt with, 57% involved victims under the age of 18, 48% under the age of 16 and 38% between the ages of 0 – 14 years. This same data also showed that 80% of sexual offence victims under the age of 18 were female (QPS, 2017).
Meta-analyses and international comparisons
A meta-analytic study examining the prevalence of child sexual abuse in China found no significant difference in prevalence between males (9.1%) and females (8.9%). The prevalence of child sexual abuse was significantly higher in studies from mainland China than in those from Hong Kong/Taiwan (Ma, 2018).
A review of a series of meta-analyses designed to examine the prevalence of child maltreatment across the globe found that combined prevalence rates for child sexual abuse were higher in Australia and North America than in Asia and Europe (Stoltenborgh, Bakermans-Kranenburg, Alink & van IJzendoorn, 2014).
A meta-analysis of studies examining the prevalence of child sexual abuse in 24 countries found rates of contact abuse of 13% for girls and 6% for boys (Barth, Bernetz, Heim, Trelle & Tonia, 2013).
A review of rates of child sexual abuse across 55 studies from 24 countries found that there was much heterogeneity in rates reported, with rates for females ranging from 8 – 31% and for males ranging from 3 – 17% (Barth, et al., 2012).
Stoltenborgh and colleagues (2011) report on a meta-analysis of child sexual abuse prevalence rates as reported in 217 published studies from between 1980-2008, including 331 independent samples with a total of 9,911,748 participants. The prevalence of child sexual abuse from self-report studies in this meta-analysis was 18% for girls and 7.6% for boys (Stoltenborgh, van Ijzendoorn, Euser and Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2011).
Several meta-analyses have shown lower rates of childhood sexual abuse for Asia and China; for example:
- Stoltenbourgh et al. (2011) found rates for Asian women of 11.3% vs 18.0% for all other countries. For men, the comparison was 4.1% for Asia vs. 7.6% for all countries
- Ji, Finkelhor and Dunne (2013) found 27 Chinese prevalence studies of sexual abuse and confirmed that the pooled rates for women for contact and penetrative sexual abuse (9.5% and 1.0% respectively) were significantly lower than comparable international estimates.
In 2020-21, 14,600 (1 in 23, or a rate of 43 per 1,000) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were the subject of a child protection substantiation – approximately 5 times the rate of non-Indigenous children (8.8 per 1,000). Indigenous children had a lower percentage of substantiations for sexual abuse than non-Indigenous children nationally (AIHW, 2022).
Between 2016-17 and 2020-21, the number of Indigenous children who were the subject of a child protection substantiation increased by 6.2%; from approximately 13,700 to 14,600 children (AIHW, 2022).
In 2019, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were 5.3 times more likely to be reported to child protection, 9.4 times more likely to be subject to a protection order, and 9.7 times more likely to be living in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children (Family Matters, 2020).
A study of reporting rates in Australian Indigenous communities showed that the reporting rate for child sexual abuse of Indigenous children was between two and four times that of non-Indigenous children. Further, this study showed that reporting rates differed by jurisdiction, which may be caused by higher levels of under-reporting in particular communities rather than actual rates of child sexual abuse (Bailey, Powell & Brubacher, 2017).
In 2012, 593 Indigenous children and 3,681 non-Indigenous children aged 0 – 14 years were reported as victims of sexual assault in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory combined. Rates among Indigenous children aged 0 – 9 were 2 to 4 times as high as rates for non-Indigenous children, depending on the jurisdiction, and rates among Indigenous children aged 10 – 14 were 2 to 3 times as high (AIHW, 2014).
In 2011, reports to police showed that there were 8,857 adult and child victims of sexual abuse in NSW, Australia. Data about these victims showed that:
- 651 (7.4%) were Aboriginal
- 4,859 (54.9%) were aged 15 years or younger
- There were 476 Aboriginal victims aged 15 years or younger – which represents 9.8% of all NSW sexual abuse victims aged 15 years or younger, or 73.1% of all Aboriginal sexual abuse victims. Aboriginal children make up 4% of children in NSW (NSW Ombudsman, 2012).
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