Some conceptions of sexual abuse create a rigid dichotomy between adult-child and child-child sexual activities. Adult-child sexual contacts are regarded as problematic because of power differentials, whereas child-child contacts are seen as "just part of growing up", unlikely to be harmful so long as there are no obvious marked inequalities between the "participants". Usually, an age differential (of five years or so) is held to demarcate an abusive from a peer sexual experience. But, otherwise, the rationale for why adult-child sex is considered harmful and peer sex almost healthy is missing.
It may well be a worthwhile dichotomy but one that cannot taken for granted since this would be to disregard
two major issues:
The answer to the first question
is complex and requires a sweep through research history rather than a current summary of cumulative research findings (Howitt, 1992).
There is no doubt that serious social and psychological harm can be caused to some children by sexual abuse in childhood. But this is not quite the same as saying that it is universally seriously harmful or that the physical acts alone were responsible rather than adult responses to them.
There is a sense in which the research evidence creates an extreme picture of the harm done by abuse through concentration on clinical samples of victims
These may well be very selected samples of people who have failed to deal effectively with their abuse or are suffering psychological problems that were not caused by their abuse. The rates of psychological problems, including ones requiring hospitalization, are high in the general population. It is not surprising, then, to find abuse in the childhoods of a high proportion of people requiring
psychiatric or psychological treatment.
Studies of samples of clinical patients have tended to be more common in the modern professional literature and associated with the greatly increased concern expressed by professionals during the 1980s about the severe effects of sexual abuse.
In earlier decades, evidence of great trauma tended not to be found
and the hysterical responses of parents held to be largely responsible for the upset caused to the child
In many ways abuse was regarded as having essentially neutral outcomes or even to be of positive value for at least the lonely child. But much the same thesis is common among pro- paedophilia lobbyists.
General population surveys of the victims of sexual abuse, as opposed to clinical samples, have not produced the devastating evidence of the harm done by abuse that might be expected
This is partly because they produce somewhat inconsistent findings, but what trends there are may not be unequivocal evidence of the adverse effects of abuse (Howitt, 1992).
The Dutch research by Sandfort (1988, 1989) is important in so far as he is careful to examine the question of how adult-child sexual contact was experienced by the child. Thus, some experiences might be forced and undesired whereas others may have been what the child wanted or was happy to go along with.
Non-consensual adult-child sexual activity was found to be associated with later problems in terms of sex with new partners and psychosomatic health problems. On the other hand, consensual sex simply predicted higher levels of sexual desire, increased sexual arousability and fewer anxieties about sex. In other words, consensual sex resulted in a positively sexualized adult.
A study of boys involved sexually with adults suggested them to be overwhelmingly consensual, with little or no sign of an adverse influence on their general sense of well-being (Sandfort and Everaerd, 1990).
Sandfort (1992) makes an important comment on the role of research:
It is interesting to note that some of Sandfort's findings are challenged by one major figure in sexual abuse research (Finkelhor, 1991) not on the grounds of their veracity, but on ,oral principles:
To this we might add the research of Farrell, who suggests that the experience of incest is largely positive in two-thirds of the cases he obtained through newspaper advertisements. One category -- adult male with pre-teenage female -- seems rather more harmful.
According to Farrell, writing of the incestuous relationships that were viewed as positive, over 50% were still continuing. These may be of twenty or so years' duration. Farrell claims that three previous studies had tended to support his contentions, although none of these had been published.
The answer to the second question,
that of the consequences of sexual activity between children, is even more difficult. Theoretically, at least, child-child sexual activity is conducive to paedophilia since one might expect that a pleasurable activity is repeated on future occasions. When these early experiences are with underage partners, a preference for young sex might be established.
Such a possibility is not normally raised. Sexual attractiveness is socially defined in terms of youthfulness; fantasy of a young, nubile sexual partner is not uncommon in literature and elsewhere. If socialization achieves this, why should not youthful sexual contacts produce at least a residue of life-long sexual orientation to underage partners? After all, there is no absolute distinction between the physical characteristics of age-legal partners and age-illegal partners.
Since the evidence of sexual abuse in the childhoods of offenders is fairly strong, but not enough to account for all subsequent offending by any means, the "cycle of abuse" explanation is an incomplete explanation of all sexual interest in underage children.
Traumatic child abuse is almost certainly responsible for the sexualization of at
least some offenders, as we have seen. The extent to which non-traumatic experiences and peer-sex might also be responsible for some of the early sexualization of paedophiles has not been explored. In o her words, rather than dwell on the effects of sexul abuse, the question could be extended to include the influence of all aspects of early sexualization on the offender.
Two principles underlie the suggestion that general should be studied:
There is nothing in this to suggest that the age of the sexual "partner" is crucial in the process. Neither is it suggested that the experience has to be pleasurable; it may well be that unpleasurable experiences are equally influential, as "re-enactment" theory suggests. Of course, the age differentials may influence how the child experiences the sexual behaviour. Furthermore, psychological processes such as identification with the aggressor may be involved in some cases.
In other words, there is likely to be considerable variation in how a particular sexual act is experienced due to factors such as the relationship with the other individual, the child's level of psychological and social maturity, and the pleasure or pain caused by the act. It may also be that there are considerable variations in terms of the child's capacity to generate fantasy for future masturbation based on these experiences.
Furthermore, Yates (1990) suggests that this process of sexualization (he calls it eroticization) is more certain among younger children rather than adolescents. The latter may have a sort of phobic reaction to the self-same acts.
Howitt and Cumberbath (in press) noted that if the concept of sexual abuse is replaced by one of sexualization, a much greater proportion of paedophiles appear to be distinctive in terms of their offending behaviour and their early sexualization. So, for example, Terry:
There is a remarkable connection between how Terry describes aspects of his early sexual experiences and the context of his abuse of other children in adulthood:
Of course, there are aspects of his early abuse that do not seem to have been incorporated into his offending and fantasy. There is no easy answer to the important question of why this should be the case, other than in terms of the pleasure aroused.
The case of Adrian is another example of childhood sexual experiences being paralleled very precisely by later offending. All of Adrian's offending was against boys -- indeed, there are other parallels in that he spent part of his life as a school teacher, just as his early abuser was:
In brief, Adrian's convictions were for indecent assault. He describes his typical sexually activity as:
"masturbating them on most occasions, on several occasions I have had I oral sex with them and them with me."
It would be difficult to separate his adult abuse of children from what he was doing with his peers in his adolescence, in which sexual activity with other boys was more extensive than even the above suggests.
Furthermore, Adrian describes how his offending took place within a family group of which he was a temporary member and in the school context -- in other words, very much the same sort of communal situation in which he had first become sexualized.
Another aspect of his offending concerns the nature of his fantasy during offending:
This fantasy recreation of themselves in childhood is a common feature of paedophiles' fantasy. It is strongly indicative of the reincarnation of childhood experiences in sexual abuse.
Others have noted a connection between early sexual experiences and sexual offending. What is different is the idea that sexualization itself may be more important than abuse as such by adults.
O'Brien (1986), in his case studies of paedophiles, points out that half of offenders had been sexually abused in childhood. It is not at all clear the extent to which he systematically explored early sexual experiences: the lack of direct statements about these other than abuse suggests that sexualization was dealt with on an ad hoc basis.
It is worth taking one of O'Brien's positive associations, the case of Charlie:
There is a close correspondence between the age of Charlie's victimization and the age of his victims; it is also clear that the types of activities involved were similar. His pattern with his later victims is very much the same irrespective of their sex. Indeed, other styles of abuse other than fondling were not central to his modus operandi. He did have one boy carry out oral sex on him but that was exceptional.
Similarly, Barnard et al. (1989) acknowledge that there may be sexually abusive experiences in the childhoods of many child abusers. Indeed, they present a variant of the usual theoretical connection:
They present a detailed history of a child molester, which leads them to stress that he was not sexually abused as a child. On hundreds of occasions, the offender had committed reciprocal oral sex with adolescent boys and a small number of girls. He reports numerous acts of sexual play with male and female cousins at the age of about seven, and sexual activity with his sister, which continued for several years, although this appears to be mutual masturbation. When he was 10, he was initiated into oral sex by a younger male cousin.
He was caught at the age of 13 in apparently attempted sexual intercourse with his 11-year-old sister and scolded about the risks of getting her pregnant. His earliest sexual memory was of his mother threatening to cut off his penis for exposing it to his aunt. None of this is construed as sexual abuse by Barnard et al. !
It is significant that his offending "began" at 15 when he had oral sex with a 6-year-old boy, and that virtually all of the boys he offended against were prepubertal and 9 and 10 years old. These were key ages in his own sexualization. He even describes the physical characteristics of his targets in terms of similarity to particularly important figures in his childhood sexual experiences.
His offending against boys involved oral sex but he did not engage in anal intercourse with them because his solitary childhood experience of this was very painful. In view of his father's discovery of his sexual activities with his sister, he justifies his lack of involvement with girls because of the fear of getting them pregnant -- a comment redolent of his father's admonition.
He describes that a dominant sexual fantasy when having sex with boys was of girls approximately 14 years old. The close links between his childhood mutual sexual experiences and aspects of his adult abuse of children seem obvious; his childhood sexualization is reflected in his offending style and preferences.
While it seems that sexual contacts are very common in the childhoods of sex offenders against children, they are also very common in the childhoods of people in general. So, for example, using a sample of US undergraduate students, Haugaard and Tilly (1988) were able to show that over 40% of them had sexual experiences with other children. The main categories of this were
There are really insufficient details available to judge whether these activities are comparable with the childhood experiences of paedophiles, though many of them seem more like courtship exploration than sexually directed acts.
Thus we could not begin to answer questions about the role of subsequent fantasy and
masturbation in these "normal" sexual histories. Do they simply quench the imaginaton of a sexually inquisitive child or are they reinforced by orgasm? What is it about the paedophile that fixes these childhood sexual activities into their sexualities?
There are limits on the information that can be recalled in adulthood about childhood experiences which might help to answer such questions. Perhaps we should end by noting that three-quarters of paedophiles in Bernard's (1985) study claimed to have been first aware of being a paedophile by the age of 20. Only 2% became aware after 30 years of age.