0145.2134/90$3.00 + .(X1 Copyright 10 I990 Pergamon Press plc

C/,r/d~hxw& Nr~,&r. Vol. 14. pp. 19-28. 1990 Pnnted in the U.S.A. All rights reserved.


FINKELHOR of New Hampshire


of Lowell

I. A. LEWIS Los Angeles Times Poll



Abt Associates.


Abstract-This paper reports on the first national survey of adults concerning a history of childhood sexual abuse. Victimization was reported by 279n of the women and I690 of the men. Higher rates of abuse were found among men who grew up in unhappy families, lived for some period with only their mothers. who were currently residing in the West and who came from English or Scandinavian heritage. Higher rates of abuse were found among women who grew up in unhappy families. lived for some period without one of their natural parents, received inadequate sex education. were currently residing in the West or who were born after 1925.

MUCH OF THE IMPORTANT SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE about the nature, prevalence, and impact of child sexual abuse has come from community surveys of adults, reporting on their histories of abuse (e.g., Bagley & Ramsay, 1986; Finkelhor, 1984; Russell, 1986; Wyatt, 1985). The revelations of these studies have suggested that even larger studies and ones using nationally representative samples could provide additional, valuable answers to questions about prevalence and risk factors. This paper reports on a large, national survey on the subject of sexual abuse and presents its findings concerning prevalence and risk factors. Other findings from the survey are available in Finkelhor, Hotaling, Lewis, & Smith (in press). Two newspaper reports (Timnick, 1985a, 1985b) appeared about this study, and its prevalence findings have been analyzed previously (Peters, Wyatt, & Finkelhor, 1986). The data analysis 90CAl215.

was supported

by funds

from the National


Other papers concerning sexual abuse and family violence, including by writing the Program Administrator, Family Research Laboratory, 03824. Received

for publication


24, 1988: final revision

Reprint requests to David Finkelhor. Durham. NH 03824.

on Child Abuse




other analyses from this survey, are available University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH

received April 24, 1989: accepted

Ph.D.. Family Research

and Neglect



April 28, 1989.

of New Hampshire,

126 HSSC.


D. Finkelhor.

G. Hotaling.

I. A. Lewis. and C. Smith

METHODOLOGY The survey was conducted in late July 1985. The Los Angeles Times Poll, a highly respected and experienced survey research organization, interviewed a sample of 2,626 American men and women 18 years of age or older, over the phone. The sampling frame was all residential telephones in the U.S., including the states of Alaska and Hawaii. Phone numbers were randomly generated by computer to insure that both listed and unlisted households were properly included. The sample of 1,145 men and 1,48 I women were questioned for approximately a half hour on topics related to sexual abuse-their attitude toward the problem, their own experiences, and their opinions about what should be done. Respondents were not identifiable to the researchers by either name or address. The sample conformed in all respects to census demographics for the United States as a whole and to demographics for other similar telephone surveys. Results were weighted to take account of household size and times at home. The refusal rate for the survey was 24%. A history of sexual abuse was elicited through responses to four questions: 1. When you were a child (elsewhere indicated to be age 18 or under), can you remember having any experience you would now consider sexual abuse-like someone trying or succeeding in having any kind of sexual intercourse with you, or anything like that? 2. When you were a child, can you remember any kind of experience that you would now consider sexual abuse involving someone touching you, or grabbing you, or kissing you, or rubbing up against your body either in a public place or private-anything like that? 3. When you were a child, can you remember any kind of experience that you would now consider sexual abuse involving someone taking nude photographs of you, or someone exhibiting parts of their body to you, or someone performing some sex act in your presence-or anything like that? 4. When you were a child, can you remember any kind of experience that you would now consider sexual abuse involving oral sex or sodomy-or anything like that? These screening questions are more comprehensive than some that have been used in earlier surveys, but they also have some problems, in part because they allow for a partially undefined interpretation of sexual abuse (for a review of screening questions, see Peters, Wyatt, & Finkelhor, 1986). Experiences some researchers might define as abuse could be left out because the respondent did not consider them as abuse. Other experiences of a minor nature that many researchers would exclude could have been counted because of a respondent’s broad like that.” Unfortunately, no subsequent questions interpretation of the phrase, “anything were asked about the sexual acts that could have been used to exclude experiences that did not meet researchers’ criteria. On the other hand, these screening questions are an improvement over surveys which asked only a single broad question about a history of abuse. Comparison among studies has shown that respondents disclose more experiences when they are given multiple opportunities to disclose and a variety of cues about the kinds of events researchers are interested in as opposed to a single screening question (Peters, Wyatt, & Finkelhor, 1986).


Prrvalence and Characteristics The responses to the four screening questions are shown in Table 1. If we count as a victim anyone who answered yes to any one of the four questions, a history of sexual abuse was

Childhood Table 1. Responses


sexual abuse

to Screening Questions

About Sexual Abuse

Men (n = 1145)

Women (n = 1481)




I. Sexual intercourse 2. Touch, grab. kiss 3. Exhibition, nude photos, performing Photos Exhibition Performing Other 4. Oral sex, sodomy

9.5 4.5

14.6 19.6

I.0 .3 .3 .4

.I 3.2 .3 .I .I

disclosed by 27% of the women and 16% of the men. (The 95% confidence interval around each of these estimates is plus or minus 3%.) More information on the nature of these experiences appears in Tables 2, 3, and 4. The median age of abuse was 9.9 for boys and 9.6 for girls, with the victimization of 22% of the boys and 23% of the girls occurring before age 8. Boys were more likely to be abused by strangers (40% vs. 2 1% for women), whereas girls were more likely to be abused by family members (29% vs. 11%). Of the girl victims, 6% (somewhat less than 2% of all women in the sample) were abused by a father or stepfather. Half the offenders were seen by the victims to be authority figures. Both men and women reported that most of their abuse was perpetrated by men: 83% of the offenders against boys and 98% of the offenders against girls. Most of the offenders were 10 or more years older than their victims, but boys were more likely to be abused by younger offenders, most of whom were older adolescents. Very little of the abuse was by peers. Of the male victims, 62% (9% of all men) and 49% of the female victims ( 13% of all women) said they had experienced actual or attempted intercourse. Force was used in only 15% of the incidents to boys and 19% of the incidents to girls. A majority of the experiences were one-time events, and there was no significant gender difference in the percentage of experiences lasting more than a year (8% for boys and 11% for girls). However, boys were somewhat more likely (42% vs. 33%) never to have disclosed the experience to anyone. Table 2. Characteristics of Sexual Age of Victim

Abuse Experience:

Men 169)

(n =

Characteristic Age at time of abuse O-6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16-18 Don’t know Median

90 12 10 12 6 I1 7 11 II 8 3 6 3 9.9

Women (n = 416) 070 14 9 II 7 15 8 14 8 4 2 6 2 9.6


D. Finkelhor.

G. Hotaling.

Table 3. Characteristics

I. A. Lewis. and C. Smith

of Sexual Abuse Experiences: Men (n = 169)

Characteristic Ciender of perpetrator Male Female Age difference 3 years or less 4 to 10years IO years or more Don’t know Relationship to perpetrator Stranger Known Friend Cousin Uncle/aunt Sibling Grandparent Stepparent Natural/parent Other Authority figure

Perpetrators Women (n 7 416)



83 I7


3 34 61 2

4 19 72 5

40 31 13 5 5

21 33 8 5 14 2 2 3 3 9 49


0 0

5 49

Overall, the description ofabuse experiences from this national survey conforms to findings from other surveys (for a review, see Finkelhor, 1987; Russell, 1986) with two main exceptions. There was an unusually large amount of actual or attempted intercourse (49% of girls in this survey compared to only 20% in Russell’s survey) and an unusually small amount of coercion (only 19% of the incidents to girls in this survey compared to 4 1% in Russell). Both

Table 4. Characteristics

of Sexual Abuse Experience: Men (tz = 169)

Characteristic Actual or attempted intercourse Yes No Don’t know/missing Force used Yes N0 Don’t know/missing Duration I time only I month or less I month to 6 months 6 months to I year More than 1 year Don’t know/missing Did you tell anyone? Yes. within year Yes. later No. never

Dynamics Women (n = 416)



62 34 4

49 47 4

I5 82 3

1’) 80

73 9 5 3 X 2

64 I0 6 3 II

43 I4 42

41 24 33




sexual abuse

Table 5. Risk Factors for Child Sexual Abuse % Victimized




(n) (1139)

Unhappy family life Lived w/o a natural parent Few friends Inadequate sex education

35** 21* -

(57) (190)

Pacific region Older respondent

23* -


21** 25*

(198) (63)

Ethnicity: Ethnicity:

(60 +)

English Scandinavian




Unhappy family life Lived w/o a natural parent Few friends Inadequate sex education

60*** 39*** -

(79) (270)



Pacific region Older respondent

401 19

(161) (409)

Ethnicity: Ethnicity:

(60 +)

English Scandinavian


of these differences are probably due to quirks of particular survey questions. For example, the question for ascertaining whether intercourse occurred asked about “anyone trying or succeeding in having any kind of sexual intercourse with you, or anything like that.” Much attempted, but not completed intercourse, plus a great deal more that respondents might consider “anything like that” could well be lumped together with the actual intercourse as a result of this question. The question on coercion also introduced a bias; it asked, “Did this person use any kind of force when this happened; for example, did this person strike you or use a weapon or threaten to harm you in any way or to restrain you by physical strength-or anything like that.” Because force is illustrated in this question with examples of very serious force, victims who were bullied, intimidated or felt that the act was against their wishes may have been reluctant to say yes (as they have to questions about force in other surveys). Half or more of victims in other surveys (Finkelhor, 1979) report force or coercion. We are inclined to discount the findings from this survey on intercourse and force. Risk Factors The survey contained a number of questions concerning respondents’ demographics, family background, and childhood. Using chi-square analyses, abused and nonabused respondents were compared on age, education, race, religion, ethnic background, region of residence, the family structure in which they grew up, and on whether that family life was happy, whether they had many friends, and whether they received an adequate sex education. Then a discriminant function analysis was performed including all variables that were significantly related to abuse at the bivariate level. Several of these background characteristics were statistically related to the risk of victimization both in the chi-square analysis (Table 5) and in the discriminant function analysis (Table 6). Men and women were more likely to have been victimized if they reported that their family life had been unhappy, if their predominant family situation had been one without one of their natural parents, or ifthey were currently living in the Pacific


D. Finkelhor,

Table 6. Discriminant

G. Hotaling, 1. A. Lewis, and C. Smith

Function Analvsis of Risk Factors for Sexual Abuse

Factor Men Unhappy family Lived with mother only Ethnicity: English Ethnicity: Scandinavian



.hO .46 .52 .39 I’:

Women Unhappy family Older respondent Inadequate sex education Lived w/o natural parent Pacific region


.52 _ .43 .44 .34 29 r = .24

region (for men the region variable dropped just below .05 in the multivariate analysis). Men, in addition, were at higher risk if their family came from English or Scandinavian ancestry. Women were at higher risk if they received an inadequate sex education. Older women were also at lower risk compared to younger women. Aside from these factors, other possible background characteristics such as race, parents’ education, and having few friends were not related to victimization. We will discuss certain of these factors individually (For a comprehensive review of risk factors in other studies, see Finkelhor and Baron, 1986).

Unhappy.family life.Growing up in an unhappy family appeared to be the most powerful risk factor for abuse. Both men and women who described their families this way were more than twice as likely to be abused. It is easy to understand why a child from an unhappy family might be vulnerable to the manipulations of an abuser who was offering affection or companionship to trick a child. However, it is also possible that the causal relationship might be reversed. Some victims may have been describing their family life as an unhappy one because they were abused there or because they could never confide their secret there. To test for this, we repeated the discriminant function analysis twice: first, for victims of extrafamilial abuse only; and second, only for victims who had disclosed their abuse to a family member (girls only-there were too few boys who had disclosed). In both cases, an unhappy family life was still a strong predictor of abuse. This suggests that unhappy family life is a true risk factor and not simply a distorted perception that a victim develops as a result of having been abused. Moreover, an unhappy family life may contribute to the risk for abuse outside as well as inside the family for two reasons (Finkelhor & Baron, 1986): first, children in such families probably receive poorer supervision when out of the home; and, such children, who may have particularly strong needs for positive attention and affection, may be more vulnerable to the ploys of nonfamily perpetrators who offer attention and affection as a lure. Living without a natural parent. Separation from a natural parent for a major portion of one’s childhood (the question asked for predominant type of family while growing up) was a risk factor in this study as in a number of other studies (Bagley & Ramsay, 1986; Finkelhor, 1979; Herman & Hirschman, 198 1; Russell, 1986). Interestingly, girls showed markedly higher risk under all family circumstances except that of living with two natural parents and

Childhood Table 7. Predominant


sexual abuse

Family Structure and Risk of Sexual Abuse 9%Victimized






Both natural parents Mother alone Father alone Both nonnatural parents Natural mother/stepfather Natural father/stepmother Other

13 27 7 33 IO I4 I8



(953) (75) (15) (24) (29) (6) (40) x2 = 18.20 p

Sexual abuse in a national survey of adult men and women: prevalence, characteristics, and risk factors.

This paper reports on the first national survey of adults concerning a history of childhood sexual abuse. Victimization was reported by 27% of the wom...
769KB Sizes 0 Downloads 0 Views