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Community Views of Child Sexual Abuse

In 2021, the Australian Childhood Foundation conducted the latest in their series of national community attitude tracking studies about child abuse and child protection (previous surveys were conducted in 2003, 2006, and 2010). Key findings from the 2021 survey included:

• 1 in 3 Australians would not believe children if they disclosed that they were being abused
• 1 in 5 Australians are not confident of being able to recognise that a child is being abused or neglected
• 1 in 5 lack the confidence to know what to do if they suspect that a child is being abused or neglected
• Child abuse rates lower than problems with public transport and roads on a list of community concerns, and level of community concern about child abuse has not changed since the 2003 survey
• 54% felt so poorly informed about child abuse that they were unable to guess numbers of reported cases, an increase of 11% from the 2006 survey
• 44% report feeling tense and anxious when they take part in a conversation about child abuse, an increase of 16% from the 2010 survey
• 86% of adults surveyed believed that the community still needs to be better informed about the extent and nature of child abuse in Australia
• 80% of Australian believed that Commonwealth and State Governments should invest more money in protecting children from abuse and neglect (Tucci & Mitchell, 2021).

The results of the 2021 study reflected earlier findings from the 2003, 2006 and 2010 surveys – there was little change in community attitudes to child abuse and child protection over the eighteen years (Tucci & Mitchell, 2021).

A significant number of people had identified child abuse or neglect in the previous five years – 22% had witnessed physical abuse of a child or teen, 18% had had a child or teen disclose that they were being abused or hurt by an adult, and 18% knew of a child or teen who had experienced sexual abuse or exploitation online. Of those who had identified a case of abuse or neglect, just 16% had reported concerns to child protection authorities, and 14% had reported to police. One in six (17%) had done nothing, while approximately one in three discussed their concerns with a friend or family member for advice. Of those who took no action, 22% didn’t know what was the right thing to do, 25% were worried about making a false allegation, and 24% didn’t want to get involved (Tucci & Mitchell, 2021).

Almost a third of Australians (32%) believe that children can make up stories about being abused. A further 35% oare unsure whether or not to believe children’s stories about being abused. Paradoxically, 85% believe that children can be emotionally harmed if adults do not believe their claims of abuse (Tucci & Mitchell, 2021).

Australians ranked child abuse 13th on a list of community issues, behind issues relating to transport, traffic and roads (Tucci & Mitchell, 2021).

Almost 1 in 5 Australians believed that children were unlikely to know the person who abused them (i.e. abuse is perpetrated by strangers) (Tucci & Mitchell, 2021).

A recent review of public perceptions of sexual offenders in the United States revealed prominent institutional myths surrounding sexual offending and offenders. The literature reviewed in this study highlighted 4 primary myths that are prevalent in public perception – 1) the myth of stranger danger: that most perpetrators of sexual violence do not know their victims; 2) the myth of “crime on the rise”: that sexual offences are becoming more prevalent and that men who commit sex crimes are more dangerous than other types of offenders; 3) the myth of offender homogeneity: that all sexual offenders make up a homogenous group of “specialist” criminals; and 4) the myth of unreformability; that sexual offenders always recidivate at high rates and that treatment is ineffective. While the literature reveals that attitudes towards sex offenders are generally negative, more negative beliefs about offenders are held by females than by males. The authors also found that myths are generally supported by and perpetuated through the media, with one-third of the articles reviewed relating to sexual offence portrayal in the media including at least one sexual offender myth (Zatkin, Sitney, & Kaufman, 2021).

Research published by the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (2020) has found that the top two concerns relating to online safety of children and young people held by parents/carers and other key influencers are: viewing of inappropriate content (22%) and cyberbullying (16%), while just 3% reported online grooming as a concern. Almost one quarter (21%), meanwhile, felt that it was likely that online child exploitation could happen to their child or a young person they know; although the majority (89%) assumed that their child would tell them if something occurred to them online (ACCCE, 2020).

A number of research studies have suggested that while the public are supportive of treatment for sex offenders, including child sex offenders, they are doubtful about the efficacy of treatment – the opinion that child sex offenders are untreatable has been described as “probably the most deeply entrenched belief about sex offenders” (Federoff and Moran in Thakker, 2012:160; cited in Richards, 2018).

A study of victims’ attitudes to sex offenders and sex offender legislation found that victims of sexual abuse reported more positive attitudes toward sex offenders than did non-victims. Additionally, while victims and non-victims did not differ in their attitudes towards sex offender treatment, those who were victimised more often agreed that sex offenders should receive mandated treatment compared with those who did not report sexual abuse (Spoo, Kaylor, Schaaf, et al., 2017).

An analysis of newspaper coverage of child sexual abuse from 2007 to 2009 found that stories primarily focused on criminal justice details of specific cases rather than potential solutions, with prevention rarely being addressed. Almost one-third (30%) of newspaper articles referred to possible solutions, however the majority of these (82%) were interventions, policies and programs designed to address specific instances of abuse that had already occurred, with just 18% detailing potential methods to prevent future assaults. The results were discussed in terms of how news media impacts community perceptions of child sexual abuse, with the lack of visibility of prevention suggested as influencing the public to view child sexual abuse as a largely unpreventable problem (Mejia, Cheyne, & Dorfman, 2012).

A 2010 public opinion poll conducted in the US found that the majority of the respondents (72%) presumed that most convicted sex offenders would commit additional sex crimes in the future. In regards to recidivism-reduction measures, 79% believed that public registers and community notification reduce recidivism, while 64% believed specialised treatment, and 63% believed residence restrictions were effective measures to reduce recidivism rates (Center for Sex Offender Management, 2010).


Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (2020). Online child sexual exploitation: Understanding community awareness, perceptions, attitudes and preventative behaviours. Canberra: ACCCE.

Center for Sex Offender Management (2010). Exploring public awareness and attitudes about sex offender management: Findings from a national public opinion poll. Silver Spring, MD: Center for Sex Offender Management.

Mejia, P., Cheyne, A., & Dorfman, L. (2012). News coverage of child sexual abuse and prevention, 2007-2009. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 21(4), 470-487.

Richards, K. (2018). Born this way? A qualitative examination of public perceptions of the causes of pedophilia and sexual offending against children. Deviant Behavior, 39(7), 835-851.

Spoo, S., Kaylor, L.E., Schaaf, S., Rosselli, M., Laake, A., Johnson, C., Jeglic, E.L. (2017). Victims’ attitudes toward sex offenders and sex offender legislation. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 62(11), 3385-3407.

Tucci, J., & Mitchell, J. (2021). Still unseen and ignored: Tracking community knowledge and attitudes about child abuse and child protection in Australia. Ringwood, Victoria: Australian Childhood Foundation.

Zatkin, J., Sitney, M., & Kaufman, K. (2021). The relationship between policy, media and perceptions of sexual offenders between 2007 and 2017: A review of the literature. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, DOI: 10.1177/1524838020985568.