This paper reviews recent Australian and international research on the long-term effects of child sexual abuse. Information is presented on what is known about the impact on mental health, behaviour problems, suicide, risk taking, personal relationships, criminality, and physical health, as well as gender differences in outcomes and the methodological issues posed by this area of research. This paper aims to assist practitioners and policy-makers in understanding the significant findings from this large and sometimes complex body of research.

Key messages:

  • Child sexual abuse (CSA) covers a broad range of sexual activities perpetrated against children, mostly by someone known and trusted by the child.
  • The research on the longer-term impact of child sexual abuse indicates that there may be a range of negative consequences for mental health and adjustment in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
  • Not all victims experience these difficulties - family support and strong peer relationships appear to be important in buffering the impact.
  • Recent research indicates that male victims are less likely to disclose their abuse and take longer to do so. Male and female victims may be impacted in different ways.
  • It is not straightforward to tease out the effects of child sexual abuse and other adverse experiences in childhood and adulthood (including being victimised again), but more recent rigorous research is better able to do so.
  • Aspects of the abuse, including the relationship with the perpetrator and the betrayal of trust, the age and gender of the child, and the particular form of abuse are significant factors.
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