What are the statistics and facts about sexual abuse in Australia?
Did you know that:
- A child is abused in Australia every nine minutes.
- A child abuse report is made in Australia every two minutes.
- Indigenous children are five times more likely to be the subject of a substantiated notification than other children, and seven times more likely to bein care.
- There are often no physical injuries following a sexual assault, even in children.
Imagine a society afflicted by a scourge which struck down a quarter of its daughters and up to one in eight of its sons.
Imagine also that this plague, while not immediately fatal, lurked in the bodies and minds of these young children for decades, making them up to sixteen times more likely to experience its disastrous long-term effects.
Finally, imagine the nature of these effects: life-threatening starvation, suicide, persistent nightmares, drug and alcohol abuse and a whole host of intractable psychiatric disorders requiring life-long treatment.”
Dr William Glaser, Honorary Senior Lecturer,
Department of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne
The violation of sexual assault targets not only the physical self but also the emotional and socially defined self. Sexual assault attacks the victim’s inner emotional life – their dignity, honour, confidence, esteem and sexuality – it also violates their confidence as a valued social being.
It disrupts the child victim’s normal physiological, emotional, psychological and social development. While a child may not understand what is going on, there are signs that may indicate they have been subjected to sexual abuse or assault.
Legal Definitions of Sexual Assault in Queensland
Section 352 of the Criminal Code Act 1899 (Qld) (Criminal Code) deals with sexual assault.
The offence of sexual assault occurs where a person:
- unlawfully and indecently assaults another;
- procures another person without their consent to –
- commit an act of gross indecency;
- witness an act of gross indecency.
The maximum penalty is 10 years imprisonment, or 14 years if there is a circumstance of aggravation.
The offence of sexual assault can include conduct involving penetration, as well as other sexual touching or indecent conduct not involving penetration.
Indecent assault: ‘Indecent’ is not specifically defined in the legislation. The case law indicates that what constitutes indecency is to be judged by prevailing community standards.
Gross indecency: The Criminal Code does not define the meaning of ‘gross’, but it has been held to have its ordinary dictionary meaning of plain, evident or obvious.
Assault with intent to commit rape: It is an offence to assault a person with intent to commit rape (s 351 Criminal Code). This offence is punishable by a maximum term of 14 years imprisonment.
An assault is any touching without consent. The assault does not have to be of a sexual nature. However, this means that without the other person’s explicit consent, sexual intercourse is sexual assault.
Behaviours constituting sexual violence can include:
- touching or penetration of the vagina or anus with a penis, finger,
tongue or any implement;
- touching or penetration of the mouth by a penis or vagina;
- any other unwanted sexualised behaviour such as:
- grabbing a person’s breasts or penis;
- exposing genitals;
- showing pornograghy to an adult who does not wish to view it or
to anyone under 18 years of age
Sexually violent behaviour:
- is NOT part of a normal, healthy relationship;
- is not about showing someone you love them or being close to them by force or
ignoring them if they say no;
- is all about gaining power, control and domination by one person over another.
Any act of a sexual nature, or sexual threat, or exhibition of sexual behaviours, imposed on a child under the age of 16 years is a serious crime.
It is against the law for adults to behave in a sexual way towards children. It is also against the law for older children to sexually harm younger children.
Those who sexually assault children take advantage of the child’s trust, innocence and vulnerability.
Child sexual assault is committed against both girls and boys by both males and females, although, males make up the majority of offenders.
Statistics show the perpetrator is most often a family member or a person known to the child.
Common Myths around Sexual Assault
Myth: It could never happen to me.
Fact: Anyone can be sexually assaulted. Aged, gender, disability or socio-economic status is irrelevant.
Myth: Women ask for it by the way they dress.
Fact: Having money in your pocket doesn’t mean you want to be robbed. This myth takes the responsibility away from the person committing the crime and places it on the innocent victim.
Myth: Sexual assault is about uncontrolled lust.
Fact: Sexual assault is a violent criminal act driven by the desire for power and control over another person.
Myth: Sexual assault is committed in dark alleys by strangers.
Fact: Most victims know their attackers.
Myth: If a person has had sex with a person before, it’s not sexual assault if it happens again.
Fact: Having sex without consent is a criminal assault. It doesn’t matter if the person has consented on previous occasions.
Myth: A husband cannot sexually assault his wife.
Fact: Sexual assault in marriage is a crime.
Myth: Children lie about sexual assault.
Fact: Children very rarely lie about being sexually assaulted. Statistics suggest that approximately 2% of disclosures of sexual assault be children are fabricated.
Myth: Men are not sexually assaulted.
Fact: Many men are sexually assaulted.
Some Sobering Australian Statistics
According to the International Violence Against Women Survey: the Australian Component (2004):
- 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys will experience sexual assault by the time they are 15 years of age.
- Most perpetrators of sexual assault are known to the victims (that is, family members, family friends, former and current intimate partners, acquaintances, neighbours etc).
- Intra-familial (that is, within a family) sexual assault is the most commonly occurring (sibling abuse, in particular).
- Evidence suggests that the risk of sexual violence in adulthood, doubles for women who have experienced childhood sexual abuse.
- Aboriginal women and children are up to 7 times more likely to be victims of sexual assault.
- 1 in 6 women victims report sexual assault to Police.
- Two thirds of reported cases are actually recorded by Police.
- For incidents of sexual assault that were recorded (that is, two thirds of 1 in 6), the offender(s) are charged for approximately 1 in 4 victims.
- Less than 1% of perpetrators are found guilty.
- Sexual assault has among the highest rates of acquittal and lowest rates of proven guilt compared with other offences.
In terms of adult experiences, the 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS) found that two in five people (39% or 7.2 million) aged 18 years and over experienced an incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 15, including 42% of men (3.8 million) and 37% of women (3.4 million). 4 in 10 men (41% or 3.7 million) and 3 in 10 women (31% or 2.9 million) experienced physical violence.
1 in 5 women (18% or 1.7 million) and 1 in 20 men (4.7% or 428,800) experienced sexual violence. The proportion of women experiencing sexual violence remained steady between 2005 and 2016 (1.6% in 2005 compared to 1.8% in 2016). However since 2012, there was an increase, from 1.2% in 2012 to 1.8% in 2016.
More than 1 in 3 Australians experienced violence by a male perpetrator since the age of 15 (36% or 6.7 million), compared to 1 in 10 by a female perpetrator (11% or 2 million).
Approximately 1 in 4 women (23% or 2.2 million) experienced violence by an intimate partner, compared to 1 in 13 men (7.8% or 703,700).
More than 1 in 4 men (27% or 2.5 million) experienced violence by a stranger, compared to 1 in 11 women (9.4% or 880,800). Making women most vulnerable to violence from people known to them.
The Facts Continued …
- 76% of women living with a severe mental illness are sexually assaulted as an adult.
- Over 70% of clients accessing sexual assault services with a history of child or adult sexual assault also have combined mental health and alcohol and other drug problems.
- 50-90% of women with an intellectual disability are likely to be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
- Studies have found that of the sexual assaults of older women that were reported:
- The majority of victims were aged 80-90 years.
- 38% of the assaults occurred in a care facility and 43% in their own home.
- 49% had cognitive impairments (eg dementia) &/or physical immobility.
- 52% suffered physical injuries.
- over half of the victims aged over 70 died within one year of the assault due to the trauma (psychological and physical).
- 26% of the perpetrators were carers.
- 19% of the perpetrators were other residents.
Who are the Perpetrators?
A key characteristic of both forms of violence (physical and sexual) is that they are most commonly perpetrated by people known to the victim. In the case of sexual violence, the PSS reported that women knew the perpetrator in 94.7% of the most recent incidents (since age 15), with current and previous partners and boyfriends/girlfriends comprising key perpetrator groups.
This is also the case in relation to women’s experience of physical violence, with the PSS reporting that 91.6% of incidents were perpetrated by a known person, predominantly known males (specifically current and previous partners and boyfriends).
The breakdown of perpetrator gender shows that men experienced much less sexual and physical violence by a person known to them. Men have higher lifetime prevalence rates of physical violence overall compared to women (48% compared to 34.5% respectively). However, women are significantly more likely to experience such violence by perpetrators known to them.
In another nationally representative sample of women surveyed for the Australian National Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey, Rees and colleagues (2011) measured the lifetime prevalence of four types of gender-based violence: sexual assault, rape, stalking and physical intimate partner violence. Over a quarter of respondents (27.4%) reported experiencing at least one type of gender-based violence. Of these:
- 14.7% had experienced sexual assault;
- 10.9% had experienced stalking;
- 8.1% had experienced rape;
- 7.8% had experienced physical intimate partner violence.
In relation to prevalence rates of child sexual abuse, Price-Robertson (2012) synthesised the findings of five community-based studies that had comprehensive measures on types of sexual abuse. Females had prevalence rates of 4%–12% for penetrative abuse and 14%–36% for non-penetrative abuse. Males had prevalence rates of 1%–8% for penetrative abuse, and 6%–16% for non-penetrative abuse.
Surveys such as the Personal Safety Survey, the International Violence Against Women Survey, and other prevalence studies provide the most statistically reliable picture of sexual violence experienced in the Australian population.
However, they underestimate the actual extent of sexual violence that is experienced. These surveys exclude “the experiences of the most vulnerable members of our community … such as children and young people, very remotely situated Australians, prisoners, people in residential care and other institutional settings” (Tarczon & Quadara, 2012). These are populations with high levels of sexual victimisation experiences (Stathopoulos, 2014; Stathopoulos, Quadara, Fileborn, & Clark, 2012).
Helping the Victims of Sexual Assault
If a person tells you about abuse (known as making a disclosure), it can be hard to know what to do or say. Experts recommend that you:
- React calmly to the information they provide.
- Listen actively and be non-judgemental.
- Do not ask leading questions eg, “Did he touch your private parts?” or blaming questions eg, “Why didn’t you run away? Why didn’t you tell him to stop? What were you doing there?”.
- Reassure them that they have done the right thing to tell and that it is not their fault.
- Let the person know that they are not alone, you know that this has happened to many people.
- Do not make promises that you can’t keep, particularly around not telling anyone else about this information (remember Mandatory Reporting applies in relation to minors).
- If it is appropriate and will not place the child or young person at risk, tell them about your obligation to report.
- Reassure and support caregivers present.
- Make a report to Child Protection authorities and consult with them before taking any further action.
- Do not contact the alleged offender.
If a loved one has experienced sexual assault, here are some practical ways that you can support them:
- Encourage your loved one to express themselves – really listen to what they are saying and don’t tell them not to feel what they are feeling, this does not help.
- Help them to explore relaxing practices such as deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation or yoga.
- Visit websites about sexual assault and services to educate yourself about this traumatic event, such as Queensland Sexual Assault Services Network (qsan.org.au), Brisbane Rape and Incest Survivors Support Centre (www.brissc.org.au), ZIGZAG Young Women’s Resource Centre (www.zigzag.org.au)
- Talk with them about what is reported in the media or portrayed in movies, music videos, television series etc in relation to the messages that reinforce sexual objectification, particularly of females.
- Talk about healthy relationships.
- Honour their boundaries – it will take quite a long time to fully recover from this assault on their bodies and souls.
- NEVER blame the survivor! They have done nothing to make this happen.
You may also like to encourage them to see a mental health professional for counselling.
Counselling may be defined as:
the process of assisting and guiding clients, especially by a trained person on a professional basis, to resolve especially personal, social, or psychological problems and difficulties.”
The Concise Oxford Dictionary (9th Edition)
Counselling is NOT:
- Giving advice.
- Attempting to sort out the problems of the client.
- Expecting or encouraging a client to behave in a way in which the counsellor may have behaved when confronted with a similar problem in their own life.
- Getting emotionally involved with the client.
- Looking at a client’s problems from your own perspective, based on your own value system.
- The process that occurs when a client and counsellor set aside time in order to explore difficulties which may include the stressful or emotionally intense feelings of the client.
- The act of helping the client to see things more clearly, possibly from a different perspective. This can enable the client to focus on feelings, experiences or behaviour, with a goal to facilitating positive change.
- A relationship of trust. Confidentiality is paramount to successful counselling. Professional counsellors will usually explain their policy on confidentiality, they may, however, be required by law to disclose information if they believe that there is a risk to life.
Finally, look for a professional who works in a person-centred, trauma-informed way.
Author: Merryl Gee, BSocWk, AMHSW, MAASW, MACSW, MANZMHA, MPACFA.
Merryl Gee is a psychotherapist working from a strengths-based, person-centred framework. With over 30 years’ experience, she has a particular interest people who have experienced trauma such as sexual assault or childhood sexual abuse.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychotherapist Merryl Gee try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422 .