Sexual violence

Content warning:

This resource area contains material that is sometimes confronting and disturbing. Sometimes words or images can cause sadness or distress, or trigger traumatic memories for people, particularly survivors of past abuse, violence or trauma.

For some people, these responses can be overwhelming. If you need to talk to someone, support is available.

1800RESPECT: Available for free, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to support people impacted by domestic, family or sexual violence.

Lifeline: Call 13 11 14 anytime for confidential telephone crisis support.

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence (SV) refers to the spectrum of sexual acts or behaviours directed at a person that are unwanted or harmful, including rape, sexual assault, sharing of sexual images without consent (image-based abuse), sexual harassment, and exposing a person to sexual material. SV can involve the use of physical threat or force, but is also perpetrated via coercion, grooming, fear or exploitation of the “freeze” response.

SV is perpetrated against people of all ages, genders and cultures, but is more commonly perpetrated against young people, women, people with disabilities, and people of minoritised genders, sexualities, and cultural groups. Most commonly, perpetrators of SV are family members, partners, or other people with significant connections to the victim-survivor. SV can be an individual instance or perpetrated over time, with many people subjected to SV by a person or multiple people over months or years. This is particularly common where the abuse happens within a family or intimate relationship.

Child sexual abuse

Children cannot consent to sexual activity, so any sexual contact with children, use of children in sexual images or videos, and exposure of children to sexual material is child sexual abuse (CSA).

Sexual abuse of girls is more common than of boys, but all children are at risk of CSA. Those with disabilities and experiencing other forms of abuse or disadvantage (e.g., domestic and family violence) are at particularly high risk.

CSA can masquerade as romantic relationships, especially when it is targeted at teenagers. This often occurs in the context of an exploitative relationship with an older “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”, or other controlling adult. Child sexual exploitation can include all forms of CSA, as well as “selling” sexual access to children and young people – child sexual slavery also exists internationally and within Australia – but systemic work to identify and address child sexual exploitation is limited at present. For more information on child sexual exploitation and training in identifying the signs, contact Project Paradigm.

Perpetrators of child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse is often committed by people who have responsibility for victims’ wellbeing, particularly parental figures (usually fathers or step-fathers), other family members, or people otherwise closely linked to the child or family. While women can be perpetrators of CSA, the vast majority of perpetrators are male.

Recently, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) published national research into men with sexual feelings and/or behaviours towards children. They found that approximately one-in-every six respondents (15.1%) reported they would have sexual contact with a child if no one would find out and more than one-in-11 (9.4%) reported engaging in an activity that comes under the definition of CSA (sexual contact with a child, paying for online sexual interactions with or video/images of a child, etc.). Almost 95% identified as heterosexual and almost two thirds were married or living with a partner, and they were more likely to be married and have a high income than those who did not report sexual feelings or behaviours towards children. Of major concern, they were almost three times as likely to work with children.

This research also found that those with sexual feelings or a history of sexual offending against children were much more likely than other respondents to agree with child sexual abuse myths – that is, they were more likely to blame child victims for CSA, minimise or deny the harmfulness or risks of CSA, or deny that sexual acts are CSA.

Reporting child sexual abuse concerns

In Queensland, every adult has a responsibility to notify relevant authorities if they have a reasonable belief that another adult is sexually abusing or has sexually abused a child, unless specific circumstances apply (e.g., the abuse already being known to police). There are also professionals with specific mandatory reporting responsibilities, such as health and education professionals.

Reducing risk to children

Having conversations about child sexual abuse

While it can be uncomfortable, talking to children and young people about CSA is integral to reducing the risk of CSA and identifying when it may be occurring. The National Office for Child Safety provides guidance on approaching these conversations, as well as talking to other adults (e.g., children’s parents or caregivers) and organisations (e.g., schools) about CSA. If a child discloses sexual abuse, it is essential to respond with messages of belief and support.

Creating child safe organisations

The National Children’s Commissioner has released the 10 National Principles for Child Safe Organisations and a suite of resources to assist organisations.

The first four principles emphasise getting the organisational culture right, including committed leadership and appropriate governance mechanisms, children learning about their rights and being empowered to speak out, addressing children’s diverse needs, and involving families. Principles five, six, and seven focus on organisational processes for recruitment and training staff and dealing with concerns, complaints and incidents. Principle eight focuses on managing risks to children in physical and online environments. The final two principles focus on the need for current, accessible child safety and wellbeing policies and procedures and the need for them to be regularly reviewed and improved.

The ten principles collectively show that child safe organisations (CSOs):

  • Consciously and systematically create environments where children’s safety and wellbeing are at the centre of thought, values and actions
  • Place an emphasis on genuine engagement with and valuing of children
  • Create conditions that reduce the likelihood of harm to children and young people
  • Create conditions and that increase the likelihood of identifying any harm they respond to any concerns disclosures or allegations or suspicions of harm.

Addressing child sexual abuse determinants and myths

The UNSW report also highlighted key actions to address factors that allow or minimise CSA. The Principles are aimed at reducing the potential for abuse within community organisation settings.

As highlighted in the report, social media, “dating site” and pornography providers all have current settings that are complicit in abuse and there are clear strategies they and regulators can implement to address these factors, including better regulation of online services and identifying users with patterns of online behaviour associated with increased risk. Families, social groups, schools, clubs, community associations and media can provide education and information that counter CSA myths and violence-supportive attitudes, and take actions to address the related issues of DFV and misogyny.

Adult sexual violence

While some sexual violence (SV) is perpetrated by strangers, the majority of SV is perpetrated by people known to the victim-survivor. Current or former partners, dates, family members, friends and colleagues are among the perpetrators, which can cause additional challenges beyond trauma responses to SV. These difficulties include: being believed when disclosing abuse by a person within the family or social group, having to continue working with a perpetrator, being at risk from an ex-partner during child-handover, and so on. Abuse by service providers occurs frequently, but receiving an appropriate and protective response from employing organisations or regulatory bodies can be difficult.

Intimate partner sexual violence

Where SV is perpetrated by a romantic partner or spouse, this is called intimate partner sexual violence (IPSV). IPSV is often perpetrated within campaigns of coercive control and is a recognised red flag for severe or lethal violence.

IPSV is common within abusive relationships, devastating to those subjected to it, and a recognised risk of severe violence and murder within domestic and family violence (DFV). Yet it is particularly difficult for people experiencing IPSV to receive the service or legal responses they are entitled to, with research interest in this area limited until recently.

Because IPSV is both a form of sexual violence and domestic and family violence, contacting either type of service is appropriate when seeking assistance. IPSV counselling, advocacy and other supports are available through government funded SV services; similarly, DFV services should screen for IPSV and provide supports, including directly giving counselling or other necessary assistance, or supporting the person to connect with a specialist SV service provider.

Indicators and effects of sexual violence

Sexual violence (SV) is associated with increased risks of physical and psychological health problems, behavioural difficulties, self-harm and suicide risk, acute and chronic pain and illnesses, and reduced life outcomes. Among children, potential indicators and effects of SV include physical issues, such as reporting stomach aches and headaches; physical injuries, including to the genitals; changes in habits (e.g., eating and sleeping habits); behavioural disturbances such as bed-wetting and nightmares; disruptive or overly compliant behaviour; reduced personal hygiene; repetitive behaviours; and signs of emotional distress or mental illness.

Effects on the nervous system, cognitive functioning and relationships interact to cause long-lasting and often devastating effects on victim-survivors, as well as family and community issues. Negative effects are exacerbated when the person does not feel able to disclose the abuse and seek support or where a person approached for support does not believe them or responds in a minimising manner.

Reporting sexual violence to police

SV is criminal, whether perpetrated against children or adults. Laws in Queensland identify particular types of sexual violence and maximum sentences if perpetrators are found guilty. However, the vast majority of sexual offences are never reported to police and only a fraction of those reported result in a trial or guilty plea.

Known or reasonably suspected sexual abuse of children must be reported to a relevant authority (either police or child safety authority). Adults are able to choose whether to report any sexual offences committed against them, which may include offences committed when they were children. Both recent and historical offences can be reported, although the earlier a report is made to police, the greater the likelihood of sufficient evidence-collection to support charging and prosecution.

Making a formal complaint to police often involves an initial conversation, the provision of a formal statement (taken through a detailed police interview), and the provision of evidence (e.g., photographs, clothing worn during the assault, results of medical examinations). Police will determine whether to proceed with investigation and if there is sufficient evidence to charge the accused perpetrator (if known). This often takes several weeks or months, and if the case proceeds to prosecution through the courts, the legal process generally takes a minimum of 18 months to conclude.

If an adult wishes to make the offence known to police but does not wish for an investigation and potential prosecution, they may use an alternative reporting option (ARO). By providing information about the offence via an ARO form, the person ensures the police are aware of the details of the offence, which the police may use in attempts to prevent or investigate other sexual offences. For example, the ARO may provide evidence about the identity of an offender who is being sought in relation to other sexual offences or identify a location where prevention efforts must be focused.

Brisbane Rape and Incest Survivors Support Centre (BRISSC) has a series of information sheets about reporting to police and legal processes here.

Information and support

In situations of child sexual abuse (CSA), the belief and support of a trusted adult is a major contributor to recover, with social supports critical for victim-survivors of all ages. Specialised assistance, such as SV counselling, can be invaluable but is not required by all victim-survivors and can be challenging to access. For more information about supporting a victim-survivor, contact an SV service.

There are also services developed to work with particular groups, including organisations that support young people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people with intellectual difficulties and disabilities, young people, and people from non-English speaking backgrounds who have experienced SV. These services understand that SV is a major risk factor for physical, psychosocial, family, educational, vocational, financial and legal challenges, so they can also help identify other services that may be useful.

Funded SV, DFV, and child and family services are in place across Queensland and provide direct supports to affected people as well as information for family, friends, employers and service providers. Local services can be identified through the Queensland Sexual Assault Net work’s (QSAN) website, 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) and DVConnect (1800 811 811).