Sexual assault within particular groups and communities

Contributed by Penny Pestano and Chrystina Stanford and current to January 2018

This section takes into account special considerations regarding sexual assault faced by those in different populations and communities.


The sexual assault of children can happen at any age and can comprise a broad range of intrusive and inappropriate sexual engagement of a child, often by a known and trusted person. It can involve both contact and/or non-contact activities with a child that is of a sexual nature. The effects of child sexual abuse can include mental health impacts and adjustment in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Factors which can affect the nature of impacts include the child’s age at the time of the abuse, the child’s gender, the form and duration of the abuse and the nature of the relationship with the perpetrator. It is important to know that not all victims experience the difficulties identified above, – family support and strong peer relationships are important in buffering the impacts (Cashmore & Shackel 2013).

Children face many barriers to disclosing their experience of sexual abuse. Often the perpetrator is someone the child and other family members trust and it can also be someone who is related to or cares for the child. Perpetrators of child sexual abuse will commonly force compliance and coerce the child into engaging in sexual activity through the use of non-sexual touch followed by progressively more intrusive acts over a period of time. Tricks, bribes, promises and threats are often used by offenders to manipulate children into keeping “the secret”.

In some cases, child sexual abuse happens in the context of severe systematic abuse over a long period of time. Unfortunately, there are some children who are abused by a number of perpetrators and sometimes these perpetrators can be both male and female. In situations where systematic abuse is happening to a child or children, the abuse may take place at specific times, at particular events, within an institutional structure and may be based on a belief system which is used by the perpetrators to justify the behaviour.

Systematic abuse may not only involve multiple forms of sexual abuse, it may also involve neglect and other forms of abuse, such as physical, emotional and psychological abuse and the abuse may take place in an organised context. Sometimes organised sexual assault may occur in what is known as a ‘paedophile ring’ or in other groups. These groups can be local, national or internationally based. Children who have been subjected to systematic or organised abuse need support as soon as individuals or services become aware of the abuse, which may or may not come from the child’s own disclosure. If you suspect a child is being subjected to organised abuse or any other type of abuse or neglect, it is important you report your concern as soon as possible so the child can get support and the concerns can be investigated. Please contact police or Care and Protection on the numbers listed at the back of this booklet. You can also phone CRCC and we can assist you to make the report or make a report on your behalf.

Children who disclose being sexually abused have often overcome many barriers to make their disclosure, and it is important that they are responded to appropriately, that their safety is prioritised and that they get support as soon as possible. With support, children who have been sexually abused can heal from their experiences. Here at the CRCC, we have supported many children and non-offending parents, and through support children can process their experiences and achieve better outcomes.

Responding to a Child's Disclosure

If a child tells you they have experienced any form of sexual abuse, it is important that you believe them and respond in a caring, supportive and protective way. It is important you do not make any promises that you cannot keep, such as telling the child that you won’t tell anyone else what they have told you. Being calm and containing your emotions can reassure the child and enable them to continue with their disclosure or unfolding disclosures which may take place over the following days, weeks or months. It is also important that you allow the child to speak as much or as little about what has happened in their own way in their own time. Asking probing questions can be interpreted by the child as misbelief and may interfere with legal processes. The most valuable things you can do are to support and listen to the child.

It is important to keep in mind that when adults respond with shock or in an overly-emotional way to a child’s disclosure, including expressing anger towards the perpetrator, the child can misunderstand the emotions and feel they have done something wrong. Children can often be protective of adults and try not to say or do things which will upset them. Also, it is not uncommon for a child to feel ambivalent about the perpetrator, whilst they did not like the abuse, there may be some things they did like about the perpetrator or what they did together.

If you have responded in an emotional way in front of a child when they disclosed sexual abuse, don’t be too hard on yourself. It is normal to feel horrified, shocked and upset to hear of children experiencing sexual assault, let alone your own child or a child you know, and the impact of your response can be repaired with time. Keep in mind that it will usually take some time before a child feels comfortable to speak about the abuse again if the first reaction they received was a particularly emotional one. If you have responded emotionally to a disclosure, you can speak with the child again at a later stage when you have had time to talk things through with someone trusted and are feeling calmer. You can express in your own words to the child how brave you feel they were to tell you what happened, that you didn’t mean to respond the way you did, and that you are so happy they told you because you can help them to be safe. Letting a child know that they can talk to you when they need to about what has happened can create safety and opportunities for healing. It can be incredibly difficult to hear a child’s disclosures, so it is important to remember that you should also get support.

If you Suspect a Child is Being Abused

If you suspect a child has been sexually assaulted, it is important that you act on your concern. You can contact Care and Protection, the Police, CRCC or Child at Risk Health Unit (CARHU). It is important to note that in the ACT most professional staff, including those who work for hospitals, government and non-government services are mandated by law to report known or suspected abuse and neglect of children

Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse

The long term impacts of sexual abuse on a child are as varied and different as people are. Many adult survivors have carried a secret of their abuse for years and even decades. Some may never seek help, and others only begin the address the impact when they are in their 30s, 40s, 50s and older. If you are an adult survivor of child sexual abuse, it is important that you know it is your right to access support and we have counsellor / advocates here at the CRCC who can offer you the support you need and deserve.

As an adult survivor, you may have found that over the years, you have had difficulties trusting people due to the betrayal of your trust as a child; you may have experienced relationship problems or found yourself living in an abusive relationship. Perhaps you have had low self-esteem since you were a child, sought isolation from certain people and places or limited your personal relationships for fear of being hurt again.

Some adult survivors find they experience intrusive memories or flashbacks and other psychological, emotional and physical impacts and effects. It is also common for survivors to develop coping strategies that helped with surviving the abuse at the time, but that are not helpful in adulthood. These are some of the things which can be important to address with support and counselling.

It is important to remember it is never too late to ask for help, and many survivors are able to reclaim their life even after decades of keeping the sexual abuse a secret. At the CRCC we do not have a time limit on when you can access support. If you are an adult survivor and are struggling with the impacts of sexual abuse, we encourage you to contact our service for support.

Older Women

Many of the other challenges, impacts and effects faced by survivors of sexual assault and abuse are also faced by older women. In addition to these, many women do not come forward about a history of sexual abuse until they are in their senior years. There can be lots of reasons why older women who have experienced child sexual abuse come forward to seek counselling for the first time or to re-engage with counselling again when they are older. Some of these women have only come forward now as they have only just started to feel they can talk about what happened to them, counselling and support may not have been available to them at the time of the abuse or they may have spent their lifetime focusing on family, work or other pursuits and did not have time to focus on themselves. Many older people are on some type of pension and financial concerns can prevent people from accessing help and support. At the CRCC we provide free, confidential services and can work with older people in addressing any barriers which make it difficult to access support.

Whilst it is often not recognised by broader society, sexual assault can also happen to older women by their partner, family, relatives, people they are living with, people they know or strangers. If you are an older woman who has been sexually assaulted, you may feel a sense of shame coming forward at this later age. It is important to know that the need for support can arise at any age and it is never too late to seek support. At the CRCC we recognise how difficult it can be to come forward and if you contact us, we will do everything we can to support you in accessing counselling and advocacy services and work with you to ensure your safety.

As an older person, if you have been sexually assaulted by someone who is providing you with services or other things you need such as maintenance, meals, personal care or assistance with activities of daily living, it can be difficult to speak out against them for fear of losing the support or services. It is important that you know, that no matter what services a person provides you with, regardless of whether they are related to you, someone you know or someone you do not know, sexual assault is never acceptable and you should not have to endure any kind of abuse.

You might be concerned about others finding out about what has happened or worry that you will be forced to report to police. At the CRCC we respect people’s right to make their own decisions and we will support you in the decisions you wish to make including your choice of whether you would like to report or not report. The information you give us is kept only within our agency and only passed on to others with your written consent unless we are concerned about risk of abuse or neglect of a child or we are concerned about risk to yourself, and in each of these situations, we would normally work with you to pass on the information so that any vulnerable person can also be supported to be safe. If you have any questions or concerns about our confidentiality, you can speak with us and we can give you some more information. It is important that you know that workers at the CRCC will respect your rights to disclose or withhold information and you will never be forced to do anything you do not want to do.

If physical mobility is difficult or you are living in a nursing home you may not be able to get out into the community very often and may feel that you are unable to access services or supports. You have rights to access safe services, and have workers respect you, your body and your choices. You can contact the CRCC crisis line and speak with a worker about your concerns and if transport is a problem, we can discuss some options with you. Remember, no matter what your age is, sexual assault is never acceptable and it is never too late to ask for help.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People

Sexual assault within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia is disproportionately high. Sexual assault against children, young people, women and men is not acceptable in any circumstances in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, and harms the individuals themselves as well as having impacts on the community. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have experienced sexual assault feel significant shame about what has happened and there are many barriers to coming forward. There are strong members of the community who are lifting the silence and speaking out about sexual assault. In 2012, Paula McGrady -Swan from the Nguru Program of the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, interviewed key members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in Canberra, and many shared their personal stories and journeys which were produced into a number of resources (see below). Some of the comments made by these community members included:

A grandmother:

“Always listen to your gut feelings”

“Take the shame away, shame job does not belong here”

“We need more openness about rape and to talk about it with our kids”

A mother:

“I didn’t know that the majority of the perpetrators were known to the victim”

“I was sexually assaulted when I was 14… The sexual assault police and court support at that time were supportive which helped me go through with charging the perpetrator. I didn’t know before this had happened to me that there were special cops who deal with sexual assault and they helped me through all of it. They gave me unconditional support”

“I want the silence to change in our community, if we don’t say anything, then the person does it again”

A father:

“Sexual assault does not discriminate, whether you’re black, white or brindle. It happens in our community”

“Our silence is protecting the perpetrator and not the victim. Speak out, you’re not alone”

To all the men in our community: “Be a man and speak up about violence”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can access support through the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre (CRCC) through the generalist service or through the Nguru Program which is part of CRCC. Nguru provides culturally appropriate counselling for members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, who have experienced sexual assault, and their families. Nguru aims to help clients assess their circumstances and relationships, and to make choices, decisions and plans for the future.

Nguru resources which you can get from the CRCC:
  • Nguru (2012). Nguru’s Gecko Activity Book: A booklet for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, Canberra Rape Crisis Centre.
  • Nguru (2012). Ngattai Dhunial: Lets Listen and Talk: A booklet for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are victims of sexual assault, and their supporters, Canberra Rape Crisis Centre.
  • Nguru (2012). Keep Me Safe and Stop the Shame: A booklet for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are victims of sexual assault, and their supporters, Canberra Rape Crisis Centre.

LGBTQ Community

People who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer (LGBTQ) who have been sexually assaulted can have additional concerns and impacts that are not faced by others. They can often experience greater isolation from family and friends than heterosexual people and therefore may not expect support even if they did disclose what has happened to them.

If a survivor is not "out" they may be afraid to come forward if it risks them being "outed." It is common for all survivors to feel confused, embarrassed, and ashamed of the sexual assault and the additional burden of an existing sense of internalised shame about one’s sexuality due to discrimination in society can make asking for help very challenging.

An additional issues faced by the LGBTQ community is the myth that people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or queer do so because they were sexually assaulted. There is no evidence to substantiate this myth, it is homophobic and suggests that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer is a response to trauma rather than a sexual preference.

Members of the LGBTQ community who are sexually assaulted as part of a hate crime - motivated in part or wholly by an attack on the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity- may experience an increased sense of shame, feeling that their sexuality has somehow been tainted. They may also feel the pain they are now enduring is a result of their sexuality. Remember, the perpetrators of hate-crimes are ignorant, malicious individuals who are afraid of anything which they see as different, the failing is with them. Nobody ever deserves to be sexually assaulted, you are not responsible and your sexuality or gender identity is not to blame. The only people responsible for sexual assault are the perpetrators.

Whilst it may not be understood within the broader society, domestic violence and sexual assault can also happen within same-sex relationships. Many individuals who identify as LGBTQ feel their community is a safe haven from hate crimes and discrimination, and so may have difficulty facing sexual assault or violence from someone in their own community. Survivors of same-sex sexual assault have been invisible in many mainstream medical, legal and support services. Living a society where homophobia still exists and, when a LGBTQ survivor seeks assistance from services or wishes to engage in criminal justice processes, they may feel concerned about whether they will be believed or taken seriously.

Trauma effects of sexual violence can be magnified for those dealing with the stress of a heterosexist society. People with diverse sexualities, particularly those in the transgendered community, may go through periods of depression or suicidal thoughts regardless of any additional trauma. The impact of sexual assault on an individual can trigger or exacerbate these thoughts and effect coping responses, so it is important to get support.

At CRCC we are client-centred and aim to have a service free from discrimination. We are also aware of the challenges that discrimination in the broader community can place on people with diverse sexualities and we are able to help you by advocating for your rights in other services or with the police and hospitals if you need it. It is important to remember that you deserve support and that you do not have to face the challenges alone. Here at the CRCC, we can support you on the crisis line and through face to face counselling and advocacy. Please contact us if you would like support, our details are in the contact section at the end of this booklet.

People With Disability

People with intellectual, psychiatric or physical disabilities can experience significant social disadvantage. Unfortunately, the prevalence of sexual assault and abuse against people with disabilities is disproportionately high. Some people with a disability are sexually assaulted by those who are meant to care for them, or by those who belong to an organisation providing a service. It can be incredibly difficult speaking out against the assault, especially if the perpetrator provides a service that is needed. If you are someone with a disability, the perpetrator may have said things which make you feel you were sexually assaulted because you have a disability and/or are responsible for the abuse. You may also feel you have or will have less control over your life, or will lose control and independence if family members, carers or friends find out. The perpetrator may have threatened you to try and stop you from telling anybody about what happened, they may have said that nobody would believe you if you told them what had happened. It is important to know that people will believe you if you can find the courage to speak out about what happened. Nobody ever asks or deserves to be sexually assaulted and if you talk to someone at the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, we will do everything we can to support your safety and stop the abuse from happening. It is also important to know that the abuse did not happen because you have a disability, it happened because the perpetrator chose not to respect you, your body and your rights. You are never responsible for any sexual assault or any other abuse that happens to you.

People with disabilities have the same rights to advocacy and support as everyone else in the community. At CRCC we understand some of the difficulties which you may be dealing with, and we encourage you to access help and support, not matter what situation you are in, and we will respect your rights and wishes. We have trained counsellors who can provide you with counselling, advocacy if you decide to speak with police and offer help with accessing information and further support. Advocacy for Inclusion is another agency in Canberra which provides advocacy and support for people living with a disability, their contact details are at the end of this booklet.

People From Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Backgrounds

Sexual assault and rape are universal and occur in all cultures and nations, regardless of whether or not there is a word for it in the language or laws against it in a person’s country of origin. In Australia, sexual assault and also female genital mutilation are illegal and can result in the perpetrators being criminally convicted. Regardless of cultural background, nationality, or amount of English a person understands or speaks, being sexually assaulted is a crime in Australia and nobody should have to accept it. Unfortunately some people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are subjected to sexual assault within marriage and may be told by their partner, family, friends and the community that it is acceptable. Unfortunately, sexual assault is never acceptable in any circumstances and a person who sexually assaults or abuses another person - regardless of whether it happens in the context of marriage – can be prosecuted under the law in Australia.

Perpetrators of sexual assault will often use all kinds of excuses for their actions and may hide behind their culture as an excuse. Many communities struggle with the idea of sexual assault, and find it easier to say it doesn’t happen, or that the person affected should just try not to think about it. It may be difficult finding someone in your community to help and support you. You may have fear that if you speak out, you will lose friends and family because of it. Sexual assault is traumatic, and you have the right to ask for help and you have the right to feel safe.

Sexual assault is also a known tactic in war and is often used systematically to cause devastation in communities and to display power. The impact of war and sexual assault can have long term impacts on a survivor’s recovery and for refugees, may make adjusting to Australia even more challenging than what it would otherwise be. If you are a survivor of sexual assault in war, you can have counselling with us here at the CRCC and also access support through Companion House, which is an agency in Canberra that offers support to victims of torture and trauma.

It is important that you know that you can get support, at CRCC we will respect your privacy, and our counsellors work with culturally sensitive practice, which means we respect your culture and your perspective and will work to find a process that suits you and is appropriate. You can also have access to an interpreter, and have the right to request the gender of that person, as well as decline the interpreter who arrives. You do not have to do anything you do not want to do.

Male Survivors

The sexual assault of men and boys is under-acknowledged in our society, even though prevalence rates indicate that 1 in 6 boys experience sexual assault before they are adults and 1 in 20 males are sexually assaulted over the age of 15. Male survivors of sexual assault often experience significant levels of shame which often leads them to either not seek support for themselves or alternatively seek support many years or decades after the incidents took place. It can be overwhelmingly difficult for a man to ask for help because of cultural expectations and the myths which are prevalent, fear of ridicule, concerns about sexuality, and concerns about status in the community. Society does not expect men to be victims. This fear and concern can prevent many from seeking counselling, or may make it difficult for men to find appropriate counselling. The CRCC encourages male survivors of child sexual assault and males who have experienced rape as an adult to access support and counselling services. Here at the Centre, we have a specific program for our male clients:

The Service Assisting Male Survivors of Sexual Assault (SAMSSA)

SAMSSA provides counselling specifically for males. They have both male and female counsellors who are all trained in working with victims of trauma and working with men. If you want to seek help or to know more about what you can do, you can contact SAMSSA via the CRCC crisis line.



Only males who are gay are raped

Both heterosexual and homosexual men are raped and statistics show that victims are more likely to be straight than gay. Sexual preference is not generally relevant, except perhaps where the victim is the target of an attack motivated by homophobia.

Males who are sexually assaulted by males turn gay

Being raped does not change a person’s sexual preference.

A strong man can’t be raped. He must have consented.

In fact being strong is no defence against rape and just because a man did not fight off his attacker does not mean he consented. Surprise, a weapon, threats, being outnumbered or frozen by fear, make fighting back impossible for most victims. Any man can be raped when his attacker, for whatever reason, has more power.
SAMSSA and the CRCC also distribute two booklets produced by the Education Centre Against Violence which are specifically for male survivors:
  • Who Can a Man Tell? Information for Men who were Sexually Assaulted as Children.
  • When a Man is Raped: A Survival Guide, Information for Men who have been Raped, Parents, Partners, Spouses and Friends.
As well as a booklet produced by Living Well, an initiative of Spiritus Counselling and Education Services, which covers information for men to assist recovery from sexual assault:
  • Living Well: A Guide for Men
Living well also has an excellent website with information and support for male survivors of sexual assault, which can be found at:

You are welcome to request a copy of any of these booklets from CRCC or SAMSSA.

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