Peer sexual assault

Peer sexual assault

6 February 2013

The issue of children and young people demonstrating problematic sexual behaviours – or acting abusively to other young people (who may be younger, or a similar age) – is complex.

It creates great concern for those involved – including parents, and often staff from organisations, like schools, where such behaviour may occur.

Children/young people with concerning behaviours

AIFS worked collaboratively with the Victorian Department of Human Services to develop specialist practice resources to assist practitioners working with young people and their families on a range of issues. Two of the practice resources deal specifically with issues relating to sexually problematic/abusive behaviours:

Children with problem sexual behaviours and their families (PDF 522 KB)

Adolescents with sexually abusive behaviours and their families (PDF 679 KB)

These resources highlight the importance of being able to intervene early when children or young people demonstrate age-inappropriate behaviours, or behaviours that are concerning because they involve coercion or physical threats.

Rather than blaming children and labeling them as ‘perpetrators’, it is important to understand the reasons why children and young people engage in concerning or abusive behaviours. This is the first step in providing appropriate intervention. Those engaging in concerning or abusive behavior may themselves have been the target of inappropriate or unwanted behavior from other young people – or the victim of abuse by an adult.

Institutional actions and responses

The Institute has also published a paper by the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault on the topic of schools and sexual assault:

Responding to young people disclosing sexual assault: A resource for schools (PDF)

The sexual abuse of young people by those in positions of authority (e.g., clergy), guardianship (including family members) and care (e.g., educational institutions ??, sports coach, foster parent) have been a central focus for many of those concerned about young people’s safety. Unfortunately, sexual assault between young people, for example in dating contexts or peer-to-peer social contexts has been less visible as a public issue.

For schools or other youth-focused organisations to be responsive to young people who have been the victim of sexual assault, it means being aware of the ways in which young people typically make disclosures (often tentatively), and the importance of other people’s reactions to these disclosures (being believed is strongly associated with positive outcomes). The publication outlines a range of ways in which organisations can play a key role to play in preventing sexual assault, and responding appropriately when abusive behaviours occur.

Sibling sexual assault

Finally, the Australian Institute of Family Studies has published a research summary on sibling sexual assault and its effects:

Sibling sexual abuse

The research summary also provides information from child developmental experts on typical and atypical sexual behaviours exhibited by children at different developmental stages. Some of the key messages from the available literature are that:

  • sibling sexual abuse is more prevalent than other forms of intra-familial sexual abuse.
  • there are significant barriers to disclosure for children who are being abused by a sibling.
  • the impacts of sibling sexual abuse can be similar to other forms of sexual abuse.
  • young people with problematic sexual behaviours require not only legal, but also therapeutic interventions.
  • parental support of all children involved in sibling sexual abuse contributes to greater therapeutic outcomes.

Mandatory reporting

Often professionals have questions about their obligations to report concerns they might have about harm or risk of harm to children and young people. For more information about legal provisions requiring specified people to report suspected child maltreatment to statutory child protection services across Australia, see:

Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect


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Associate Professor Daryl Higgins was the Deputy Director (Research) at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, where he had responsibility for the Institute's research program and its knowledge translation and exchange functions.

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