Reducing child sex abuse

Helping the defenceless ...
Helping the defenceless ... 

Child sexual abuse is not a topic any of us want to talk about over morning tea but we should. With the recent high profile cases of Robert Hughes, Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris, there’s a vital opportunity for discussion beyond adult to adult. It’s time we educated our children.

Read any article or forum where sexual abuse is mentioned and there will be solutions based on vengeance alone. The name-and-shame style ostracization in the form of a paedophile/sex offender registry is one proposed deterrent. More extreme punishments - life sentences, castration – are public solutions to what has sadly been a very private problem.

Focusing on the penalty for such horrendous acts against children is necessary but this is distracting us from the crucial debate. It's time to focus on the child and explore the most effective preventive measures. How can we reduce the incidence of child sexual abuse?

Meghan Butterfield, the supervising solicitor of a Victorian joint legal clinic, which combines the services of the South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Abuse (SECASA) and the Springvale-Monash Legal Service (SMLS), has worked with victims and survivors of sexual abuse for close to 20 years. SECASA is a government-funded service providing counselling to approximately 2500 survivors of sexual assault each year. Meghan sees the effects of sexual abuse on children, and the shattering long-term impact it can have on the lives of victims and their families.

Frightening figures reveal 6 out of 7 penetrative offences against children are not reported. The devastating reality is there are drastic numbers of children suffering in silence. Reasons for non-disclosure and under-reporting are varied. Meghan says it is common for victims to feel they will not be believed. Matters are complicated when ”children feel they have no ‘safe’ adult to report to, particularly if the offender is a parent or guardian.” In these cases, “the victim may worry that, if they report, the offender will ‘go to jail’ and the family will be pulled apart and it will be their ‘fault’.”

In addition, “a victim may be too fearful of the offender to report, particularly if abuse is accompanied with threats of harm.”

Perhaps most concerning is when “childhood victims may not know that the behaviour constitutes ‘abuse’ as they have no frame of reference and the abuse has been normalized.”

Even with the small number of offences reported, few result in charges being laid against the offender. According to Meghan, of the limited cases where charges are laid, approximately 75% result in the offender being acquitted.

Bravehearts is a national organisation dedicated to the prevention of child sexual abuse in Australia. Their research shows “the most vulnerable ages for children to be exposed to sexual assault appears to be the ages from three to eight years of age, with the majority of onset of abuse happening between these ages” (Browne & Lynch, 1994)

We have children who fall within that age range. They play sport, attend music lessons, parties, play dates and sometimes have sleepovers. All with people we trust. Unfortunately trust doesn’t necessarily keep them safe when the offender is known to the child.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2004 statistical analysis of Sexual Assault in Australia, 78% of sexual assault victims had some form of relationship with the offender.

This is the epicentre of the debate.

Offenders are usually in a position of trust and authority, and the abuse is commonly repeated. Promises, bribes and threats are employed to take advantage of the offender’s trusted relationship with the child and their family.

Meghan’s legal experience has convinced her that “the criminal justice system is failing dismally in proving past offences and in reducing the incidence of future offending.”  In her view, “we need to educate children on appropriate touching and what to do if someone oversteps the boundary.”

With “two in five sexual assaults perpetrated by a family member for female victims and 47% for male victims”, Meghan says ‘stranger danger’ accounts for a miniscule proportion of sex offences, clearly illustrating that the ‘don’t speak to strangers’ method is not protecting our kids.

So, what’s the solution?

Education is imperative.

As parents, we feel awkward, embarrassed or simply overwhelmed by the thought of speaking to our children about sex offenders. We don’t want to frighten our children, preferring to preserve their innocence. The truth is, building our children’s knowledge and confidence is the very key to their protection. Meghan is adamant that education with a view to prevention is a necessary path to reduce offences.

“We need to talk to our children about what constitutes appropriate touching, in AN AGE APPROPRIATE WAY and what to do if someone doesn’t ‘play by the rules’. It is not a ‘dirty topic’ and the threat doesn’t go away just because we don’t talk to kids about it. There will always be paedophiles, but they are much less likely to offend against a confident, educated and empowered child.”

As parents we are responsible for teaching our children about their own safety, but this approach fails when the abusers are the parents. This is why the education system must adopt a vital role, giving children the information and support they need to say no and to report offences in a protected environment.

An incorporated program within schools as a compulsory part of the curriculum is the fundamental answer. Despite SECASA and other such organisations offering fantastic safety education programs for primary and secondary school children, it is up to individual schools to request or allow the programs to be run.

We need to get over the distasteful nature of the topic and as a society, suitably equip our children. Demystifying sexual abuse by educating our kids and putting schools in the spotlight to extend safety education into abuse territory will go a long way to reducing the incidence of sexual abuse in children. As Meghan says, “just as a burglar is less likely to rob a house with a guard dog, a sex offender is less likely to target a child who is confident, assertive and likely to disclose.“

Talk to your kids; give them the knowledge and the courage to protect themselves. Ask your school what they’re doing to help facilitate these important discussions. The answer is simple: education equals prevention.


Meghan Butterfield recommends the following age-appropriate books, emphasising that it’s never too early to start talking about the issue.

For Pre-school aged children: 
'It’s MY Body: A Book to Teach Young Children How to Resist Uncomfortable Touch' by Lory Freeman. The book helps pre-school children learn safe boundaries, how to distinguish between “good” and “bad” touch and how to respond appropriately to unwanted touch. It does not mention genitals or any sexual reference. It empowers a child to share their bodies on their terms.

It is available on and from selected educational bookstores.

For mid to latter primary school aged children:
'Some Secrets Should Never be Kept – A Children’s Picture Book to Keep Kids Safe From Sexual Abuse' by Jayneen Sanders. This book is written as a parable. If interested visit

For SECASA’s 'Feeling Safe Together' Schools Program:

For Teenagers
See SECASA’s 'Respect Protect Connect' School Program as well as access to some other fantastic resources and information sheets.

Additional Resources and Support
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual abuse has further information and a list of support services in your area, please see http://www.childabus...t-services.aspx 

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Kylie Orr is a writer and mum of four. A regular columnist on Essential Baby & Essential Kids since 2008. Join in the conversation or visit her