1 in 6 Australian men reports sexual feelings towards children. Here's what experts say must happen.

Content warning: this story includes information about child sexual abuse that may be distressing to some readers. 

Australian research has found that around one in six Australian men reports sexual feelings towards children.

This was the headline splashed across the country earlier this month reporting on a new study, one of the largest of its kind in the world, that looked at child sexual offending behaviours and attitudes among Australian men. 

The research, which was lead by the University of New South Wales, surveyed nearly 2,000 men and uncovered more disturbing statistics: around one in 10 Australian men have sexually offended against children, amounting to around one in five Australian men who report sexual feelings for children and/or have sexually offended against children.

The study used the benchmark of 18 years of age to define sexual offences or feelings, as the age of consent varies across jurisdictions. However, the research also asked specifically about sexual feelings towards younger ages and found that around four per cent of men said they would have sexual contact with a child under the age of 10 years old "if no one would find out".

Dr Michael Salter, the lead author of the study, tells Mamamia he was unsurprised by the statistics that the research uncovered. 

"We constantly talk about child sexual abuse being a public health emergency and it can only have the massive health and social impact it has if there's a significant amount of perpetrators," Dr Salter says. 

According to a landmark study published in April of this year, around 28.5 per cent of Australians aged 16 to 65 years old report having experienced child sexual abuse. 


However, girls experience childhood sexual abuse at higher rates, with more than one in three girls experiencing child sexual abuse, as compared to one in five boys. 

Approximately half of men who report having sexually offended against children say they do not have sexual feelings towards them and Dr Salter stated that this offending can be motivated by a number of other factors, including aggression or entitlement, and there are men in the community who seem to offend opportunistically. 

However, for those men who have sexually offended against children and also report sexual feelings towards them, the research discovered important demographic information, including that they are more likely to be married, three times more likely to be working with children, and more than six times more likely to report having been sexually abused as children. 

The study also revealed some key information that Dr Salter believes needs to be introduced into the national dialogue. 

Firstly, some men who reported sexually abusing children did not believe that sexual abuse was harmful. 

"I think we assume that everybody in the community knows and agrees that child sexual abuse is wrong because it hurts kids, but the fact is that the men that we want to stop hurting kids, they don't believe that and they don't know that," Dr Salter says. 

"We need to be connecting with that group of men and really engaging them." 

Watch: Former PM Scott Morrison apologises to victim survivors of institutional child sex abuse. Article continues after video. 

Video via APH 

Secondly, the study found that overall, four-and-a-half per cent of men want help to deal with their sexual feelings towards children.

Investigations such as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have raised national awareness about the profound consequences of child sexual abuse for victim survivors and provided eligible people with access to the National Redress Scheme, but so far, there has been comparatively little awareness or structures to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. 

"At the moment, Australia does not have adequate services for men who realise that they might pose a risk to children and they want to manage that risk and make sure that they're safe," Dr Salter says. 

Following the Royal Commission, the Federal Government established the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse, committing $22.5 million over five years to take action against and address the impacts of child sexual abuse on victim survivors.

In October, the Federal Government launched a national campaign called 'One Talk At A Time' to prevent child sexual abuse with online and television ads that encourage adults to have ongoing conversations with children about abuse.

One limited trial service, Stop It Now!, also saw success after it was launched late last year. The service was an anonymous online chat and phone line operated by Jesuit Social Services that could be accessed by people worried about their own or someone else's sexual thoughts or behaviours around children. 


Senior research fellow from the University of Melbourne, Dr Gemma McKibbin, says that the trial service filled an important gap in Australia's response to child sexual abuse.

"I noticed that there was a massive gap in secondary prevention services, both for kids who are at risk of developing harmful sexual behaviour and for adults who are at risk of perpetrating child sex abuse," Dr McKibbin says. 

While Australia has sex and consent education to varying degrees across the nation, Dr McKibbin says there has long been a "missing piece of the puzzle" when it comes to tackling the enormous issue of child sex abuse. 

Both Dr Salter and Dr McKibbin expressed concern that there was little intervention for people experiencing sexual feelings for children before they come into contact with the criminal justice system. 

Research shows that there can be around a 10-year gap between people realising that they have sexual thoughts about children and when they first come into contact with the justice system, and Dr McKibbin says that the service was aiming to intervene within that time frame. 

The Stop It Now! helpline trial used trained clinicians to speak to people who were worried about committing child sex offences and ran for one year. In that time, the line received more than 200 calls and live chats, and more than 12,000 people accessed its website.

Dr McKibbin says that the Australian Federal Police were particularly supportive of the project. 

"They have something that they've said for a long time, which is, 'We can't arrest our way out of child sexual abuse perpetration.'"


Dr McKibbin also notes that there have to be stronger responses from the technology industry and social media platforms to prevent people from being dragged into what she refers to as a "rabbit hole" of child sexual abuse material. 

While she says that people are always responsible for their actions, platforms are continuing to facilitate these behaviours and feelings, and she wants to see more accountability from companies that are failing to prevent online crimes. 

Dr McKibbin believes that, following the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the Federal Government has shown more commitment to holistically dealing with the widespread issue of child sex abuse. 

"Slowly but surely, we're puzzling together initiatives that can all kind of work together. Not one of them's going to solve this problem [on its own]. But together, strategies across primary, secondary and tertiary [levels] would dramatically reduce or address the problem of child sexual abuse in Australia."

Elfy Scott is an executive editor at Mamamia. 

If this brings up any issues for you, contact Bravehearts, an organisation dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse, on 1800 272 831.

For help and support for those with complex trauma, the Blue Knot Foundation is there to help. Blue Knot Helpline and Redress Support Service provides specialist trauma counselling to adult survivors of childhood trauma including child sexual abuse.

Image: Canva.