Keeping children and young people safe is the responsibility of everyone. To do that job, it helps to understand the range of factors that increase the risk of abuse. It also helps to understand when and how a child’s safety is betrayed.

Most children who are sexually abused are harmed by people they know. Abusers take advantage of opportunities to abuse children and can use planned behaviour to encourage children to trust them and as a result to create opportunities for abuse.

Safeguarding children against child sexual abuse is the process of protecting children and preventing children’s exposure to sexually abusive behaviours and environments. The better we understand what abuse is, where it occurs and by whom, the better we can safeguard them.

What is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse is when adults or other children involve children in any type of sexual activity. It may be with or without physical contact.

It is difficult to estimate how many children have been sexually abused, as abuse is not often reported. In 2005, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimated that nearly 1.3 million people living in Australia (of a total population of about 20 million) had experienced sexual abuse before the age of 15. Of these, about a quarter were male and about three quarters were female.

Children can be at risk of sexual abuse at any age. Research estimates that victim are aged as follows:

  • 25% are under 8 years of age
  • 36% are aged 9-12
  • 39% are aged 13-16.

The sexual activity is often beyond a child’s understanding and goes against accepted standards of intimacy. Sexually abusive behaviours can include the fondling of genitals, masturbation, oral sex, vaginal or anal penetration by a penis, finger or any other object, fondling of breasts, voyeurism, exhibitionism, involving the child in pornography and also exposing the child to pornography. Sexual abuse can also happen online.

Child sexual abuse includes child grooming which refers to actions that aim to befriend a child or young person and establish an emotional connection to lower the child’s ability to protect themselves and to create for the abuser the opportunities for sexual activity.

It can be difficult for a child to understand and share what is happening during abuse. Historical records tell us that it takes an average of 23 years for victims to report child sexual abuse.

Who commits child sexual abuse?

Most children and young people who are sexually abused are harmed by people they know. Just under half are abused by family members (immediate, or extended family). Only 11% of children who are sexually abused are abused by strangers. Most people who sexually abuse children and young people are male.

People who sexually abuse may not have a specific or exclusive sexual interest in children. Most take advantage of situations that offer them an opportunity to abuse. Some plan their predatory behaviour and then seek out opportunities to act out the sexual abuse.

Peers and siblings do sexually harm other children. A fifth of offences reported are committed by people under the age of 18 years.

Read more about grooming, behaviour to watch out for and risk factors

Why do people sexually abuse children?

People who sexually abuse children and young people may not have a specific or exclusive sexual interest in children. Most people who sexually abuse place themselves or find themselves in situations where they take advantage of the opportunity to abuse. People who sexually abuse children and young people can use planning as predatory behaviour and the right opportunity to act out the sexual abuse.

Where do people sexually abuse children?

Child sexual abuse will often occur in situations where a potential offender can spend time alone with a child and without the prospect of anyone else interrupting. A significant number of children and young people are sexually abused by adults in positions of authority and responsibility. It can occur in youth-serving institutions such as churches, schools, sports clubs and care providers. Children and young people should expect these institutions to be safe environments but in the past organisational processes and individual practices have treated the reputations of the abusers as more important than the safety of the children.

Safe environments that limit opportunities to groom and harm a child can prevent child sexual abuse. These measures, sometimes referred to as ‘situational crime prevention’ are an important role in keeping children safe. These measures prevent would-be abusers from grooming behaviour and limit the opportunities for abuse.

By involving children in decisions about their safety and keeping them at the centre of our thinking and our actions, we can keep them safe and help them grow.

Related articles

What is grooming?

Understanding how it happens and who is at risk.

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Child maltreatment in organisations

Risk factors and strategies for prevention.

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Keeping children safe

How can child welfare and youth-serving organisations keep children safe?

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What we know

Read our research on safeguarding children and young people in institutions, including reports, articles, webinars and child-friendly animations.

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Risk profiles and prevention strategies

Risk profiles in faith-based settings, early education, schools, healthcare; out-of-home care, and sports programs.

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Protection through participation

Involving children in decisions to create child-safe organisations.

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Trigger warning:

This website may contain material that is confronting and disturbing, particularly for survivors of sexual abuse, violence or childhood trauma. Issues raised might cause you distress.

Support lines

If you are feeling distressed, seek support:

Lifeline 13 11 14
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
beyondblue 1300 224 636
1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)
ReachOut 1800 633 937


If you believe a child or young person is in immediate danger, or you are in immediate danger, call 000.