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Boys and Sexual Abuse: An English Opinion

By: D.J. West, in: Archives of Sexual Behavior, 12/1998


The upsurge of public anxiety about threats to children from sexual predators began with concern for the safety of girls. Influenced by feminist protest against the perceived tendency of males to dominate and exploit females, research on child sexual abuse at first concentrated on victimization of girls by fathers, stepfathers, or other males in the family circle. Research on the sexual abuse of boys developed later (Hunter, 1990). Awareness that women also may offend with minors, especially boys, came later still (Elliott, 1993). In view of the popular stereotype of priestly pederasts chasing after choir boys and the many newspaper reports of scoutmasters and the like "interfering" with boys under their care, the initial lack of professional interest seems odd, but probably reflects a tradition that boys should be able to look after themselves.

The experience of child care professionals is generally limited to incidents serious enough to lead to a complaint to police or social services. The impression gained from such cases is that any kind of sexual incident involving a child is likely to cause great and lasting harm (Wyre and Tare, 1995). The emotive terms adopted in professional discourse - abuse, perpetrator, victim survivor - have reinforced this idea and introduced a tone of moral revulsion alien to scientific inquiry. The highlighting by the media of horrendous cases of sexually motivated abductions and killings of children has spread the notion that all sexual interest in children is likely to be violent and life-threatening. The result has been an unprecedented public outcry against pedophiles and the introduction of extra penal measures. In Belgium, following the discovery in 1996 of the bodies of gifts who had been kidnapped, imprisoned and left to die by the murderous pedophile Dutroux, a quarter of a million protesters marched through the capital demanding reform of police and judicial practice.

In the United Kingdom, following similar legislative moves in the United States, the Sex Offenders Act 1997 requires everyone, male or female, who is convicted or cautioned for one of a schedule of sexual offenses, including any involving a minor, to register with the police and report where they are living. Police have authority to reveal the whereabouts of registered offenders to school heads, potential employers, and others in the community, including, when considered necessary, immediate neighbors. No other types of criminal, not even drug dealers or armed robbers, have been thought to require such measures. The provisions have to be enforced without discrimination and apply to offenders as young as 10 years. The Guardian (25 Oct. 1997) reported that a boy of 14 had been included following a conviction for misconduct with two even younger boys. The Sex Offenders Act 1993 lowered to 10 years the age at which a boy can be charged with rape. Had the four boys ages 10 and 11 tried at the Old Bailey for rape and then for indecent assault been found guilty, they too would have been placed on the register (Guardian, 17 Feb. 1998). In January 1998, when seven men were convicted for group sex activities with each other (which is illegal for male homosexuals) one of them was found to have been 6 months under the age of 18 at the time. Although he protested he was a willing participant, not a victim, those who had had contact with him were placed on the register on grounds of pedophilia (Guardian, 23 Jan. 1998).

Young girls can also be offenders. On 26th Oct 1997 the Observer reported that two girls ages 14 and 11 had been cautioned for repeated sexual assaults on a boy of 6 for whom they were baby sitting. The boy's parents, enraged that the girls had escaped a trial, were threatening a private prosecution. At least one academic has argued that pursuing charges against children for sexual assaults on other children is often ineffectual and damaging to the children involved and to their families (Soothill, 1997).

The Home Office has estimated that if the 1997 Act had applied retrospectively some 125,000 men in the community would have had to be registered as sex offenders (Marshall, 1997). They will not be entirely immune, however, for the Crime and Disorder Act, 1998, which is now in force, allows for anyone who has at any time been cautioned or convicted for a sexual offense whose behavior attracts suspicion or disapproval to be made subject to an order restricting their movements and activities for a minimum of 5 years. The orders are to be instigated by police or local authorities "for the purpose of protecting the public" and include the same requirements as for those on the sex offender register.

Given the climate of opinion and the ease with which newspapers learn when a pedophile is released from prison, it is unsurprising to hear of pedophiles and their families injured by vigilantes, hounded out of their homes by neighbors, or driven from town to town by protesters. The government has been obliged to issue guidelines to discourage housing authorities from routinely refusing to accommodate sex offenders.

Coinciding with this media-fed moral panic, attention has extended to the sexual abuse of boys. In Belgium, the Dutroux scandal was swiftly followed by press allegations of pedophile activity with boys made against the Deputy Prime Minister and other politicians who were known to be homosexuals (Reekie, 1997). Belief in the dire consequences of any kind of sexual involvement with older persons now attaches to children of both sexes. Indeed, male victims have featured prominently in a spate of recent legal cases in which adults have claimed compensation for lasting psychological damage allegedly caused by sexual abuse experienced many years previously, usually when at a residential school or children's home or at the hands of now aging parents. Churches have had to pay out large sums to settle claims against their priests by men alleging they were sexually abused as boys (Jenkins, 1996).

It is putting reputation at risk to suggest that the catch-all terms "sex abuse" and "pedophile crime" are being used for relatively trivial as well as very serious offenses. Nevertheless, there has always been tension between the findings of retrospective surveys of adult populations, which suggest a casual sexual encounter with an older person during childhood is too common an occurrence to be routinely and seriously damaging and, in contrast, the experience of clinicians that incidents of child sexual abuse provoke posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), adult sexual maladjustment, and psychiatric illness. In the case of boys, the conflict of evidence is particularly acute. The majority of perpetrators being male, clinicians observe that boys experience particular distress through the arousal of anxiety about their sexual orientation, but men from nonclinical samples, when questioned about their sexual past, often recall homosexual approaches when they were young which they dismiss as inconsequential.

Claims that intergenerational sexual contact, provided it is consensual, gentle, and loving, is not harmful, is supported by a certain amount of research (Constantine and Martinson, 1981; Geraci, 1997). Protagonists of this view - often referred to as the pedophile lobby - have from time to time formed organizations, such as the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), to promote tolerance of consensual sex below the legally permitted age. These organizations, from whatever country they originate, seem more concerned with men "loving" boys than with the commoner phenomenon of men attracted to small girls (O'Carroll, 1980; Brongersma, 1986, p. 105). The classical Greek tradition, in which young males were held to benefit from having an older male lover and mentor, is cited repeatedly (Dover, 1978). Although heterosexual pedophiles, when in a situation to express their ideas freely (Li et al., 1993), put forward similar arguments to justify their actions, they have been less inclined to propagandize. Academic reports favoring the conclusion that some consensual pedophile relationships are relatively innocuous also tend to concentrate on intermale affairs (Baurmann, 1983, cited in Brongersma, 1990, p. 17; Bernard, 1985).

The aim of this paper is to review the nature and significance of sexual incidents between boys and older persons.


Questioning adults about their recollections of sexual incidents with older people during their childhood has produced wildly differing statistical estimates (Peters et al., 1986). Much depends on what is meant by childhood and by the kind of incidents counted. Some authorities take childhood to mean before puberty, or before 14; others regard as children anyone below the legal age for consensual sex, which can be anything up to 16 or 18 years. The very different meaning of a sexual experience to a child of 7 and a lusty adolescent becomes obscured. Some surveys ask about actual genital contact or touching with clearly sexual intent, others extend the questions to include noncontact experiences such as exposure to pornography, adult sexual exhibitionism, seductive posturing, or verbal indecency. Estimates of the prevalence of child sexual abuse histories are usually halved if noncontact cases are excluded (Nash and West, 1985). A minority of inquiries limit their questions to sexual behavior that was unwanted, assaultative, or perceived as overintrusive; others include behavior that was not felt abusive at the time. Most surveys specify a minimum age gap between the child and the older perpetrator, but this usually allows for misbehavior of older juveniles with children younger than themselves to be included. Some surveys are so overinclusive as to suggest that it is a minority who are free from abuse (Russell, 1984, p. 185).

There are other problems with retrospective research. What people are prepared to reveal is affected by how they are approached. A confidential exchange with an understanding interviewer can yield more than a postal questionnaire or an impersonal interview conducted on market research lines. What people can remember depends on the passage of time and whether they attach significance to an event. Findings from small samples that are convenient for research, such as psychology classes, may be untypical and misleading. In large-scale surveys that aim to recruit a nationally representative sample, substantial numbers of subjects may fail to respond to a questionnaire or decline to be interviewed. Those who do respond may include a misleadingly high proportion of individuals who reply because they have something they want to discuss.

In a meta-analysis of North American surveys, Gorey and Leslie (1997) estimated that about half the variability in prevalence estimates between surveys was due to differences in operational definitions of abuse and differences in response rates. They concluded that an apparent increase in child sexual abuse found in more recent surveys was likely due to a decrease in response rates rather than a real change in behavior. After excluding noncontact incidents and adjusting for the effects of response rates and varying operational definitions they estimated that the aggregate prevalence of histories of childhood sexual abuse was 16.8% among females and 7.9% among males. This is somewhat higher than was found in a nationally representative British sample questioned by the M.O.R.I. (Market Opinion Research International) organization, when 12% of females and 8% of males acknowledged having had a sexual encounter with a mature individual when they themselves were under 16 years (Baker and Duncan, 1985).

Nearly all surveys show girls more likely to be affected than boys (Laumann et al., 1994). For example, among an English cohort of men born in 1953, by the time they were 40, 0.7% had acquired a conviction for a sexual offense involving someone under 16, usually a girl (0.6 vs. 0.1%) (Marshall, 1997). Among 15-year-old pupils in Finland, depending upon the definition of abuse, 6-8% of girls, but only 1-3% of boys, reported having had such experience (Sariola and Uutela, 1994). In a survey of an American student population, Wellman (1993) found the prevalence of early sexual abuse among males and females to be in a ratio of about 2:1. In an extensive Canadian national survey conducted by the Gallup Poll organization (Badgley, 1984, pp. 175-193), 23.5% of women reported having experienced unwanted sexual touching, nearly half (47.5%) of whom recalled the first such incident as having happened when they were under 16. In contrast, only 12.8% of males reported having experienced unwanted sexual touching and only 18.6% of these men said it had happened to them when they were under 16. In a British survey of males, using a sample from the electoral register, 20% of men recalled some sexual encounter with an older person when they were under 16 (West and Woodhouse, 1990, p. 99). This compares with 42% of English women reporting having had some such experience while under 16 (Nash and West, 1985).

Men are said to be less confiding than women, so the prevalence figures for boys could be underestimates. Heterosexual men who think that to be targeted by a homosexual means being perceived as effeminate may not like to admit that it happened to them. Adolescent boys who have contacts with older females may not view this as abusive or mention it when questioned in later years, unless specifically asked about it. Among one sample of American college students (Fritz et al, 1981), the men were not very far behind the women in reporting childhood incidents, 7.7% of the women and 4.8% of the men saying they had been sexually molested by older persons when they were preadolescents. It is suggestive of unusually comprehensive reporting that, in this survey, a majority of the molestations of males (60%) were by females.

Although incidents with older females are quite common, contacts between boys and older males are more frequent than might be expected given the relatively small minority of homosexual males in the community. Yet research suggests that the generality of homosexual men are, if anything, less likely to have pedophile interests than heterosexuals (Freund, 1981, p. 162; Howitt, 1995, pp. 4449; Newton, 1978). Contrary to popular belief, mature male homosexuals oriented towards adult sex seem less likely to "regress" in later years to child molestation than do heterosexual males (Groth and Birnbaum, 1978). Some of the pedophiles who molest prepubertal children are essentially attracted by smooth, hairless undeveloped bodies and target boys and girls somewhat indiscriminately. Homosexually oriented seekers after adolescent boys find many who are amenable and often achieve innumerable contacts. A few such men can swell the numbers of male "victims."

Because the prevalence figures yielded by retrospective surveys are so much a function of how abuse and childhood are defined, the precise statistics are of less interest than the fact that even the most conservative estimates show that sexual encounters with adults feature in the lives of a great many children and young persons (Li et al., 1993, p. 148). More females than males report experiences and describe more ongoing experiences at younger ages, but the number of boys involved is still considerable, especially when contacts with women are taken fully into account.


The retrospective accounts of abused men and women differ. Women more often describe distress at the time as well as long-term adverse effects. They tend to report even trivial-seeming incidents with considerable negative emotion. For example, Wellman (1993) found that male students took minor incidents less seriously than women students who, even when they had had no such experiences themselves, were convinced that early sexual encounters must be harmful. Meta-analysis of published surveys of nonclinical samples (Bauserman and Rind, 1997; Rind and Tromovitch, 1997) have shown that, among nonclinical female samples, there is usually a substantial majority who report negative short-term reactions, whereas a majority in most male samples report positive or neutral short-term reactions. Complaints of long-term deleterious effects are also made much more often by females. Girls have different kinds of experiences from boys as well as perceiving sexual incidents in a different light. Incidents with girls tend to start early and are more often incestuous (Baker and Duncan, 1985).

If the severity of sexual abuse of girls is to be judged by the degree of violence employed, or whether sexual penetration occurs, then the majority of incidents are at the less severe end of the spectrum. Since its findings have proved broadly consistent with more modern research, it is worth looking back on the classic survey of American women by Kinsey et al. (1953, pp. 116-122). They were questioned about sexual encounters when they were under 14 with males who were at least 5 years older than themselves and not less than 15 years of age. Of the 4441 in the sample, 24% recalled at least one encounter. Of these women, 80% had experienced only one incident. Verbal or exhibitionistic approaches without physical contact accounted for 62% of the reported incidents. Only 3% involved coitus and only one of the 4441 women reported a serious injury incurred as a result of sexual assault. Nevertheless, 80% had been emotionally upset or frightened by their experiences. The authors concluded with what would nowadays be an extremely politically incorrect comment: "It is difficult to understand why a child, except for its cultural conditioning, should be disturbed at having its genitalia touched" (p. 121).

In the British sample of women studied by Nash and West (1985) about a fifth reported sexual encounters involving physical contact with an adult at least 5 years older than themselves when they were under 16. Most consisted of bodily caressing and genital fondling; only 2% of respondents reported sexual intercourse. However, in spite of most intrusions being limited, the great majority of women reported having reacted at the time with fear, confusion, anger, or shame; neutral reactions of curiosity or amusement were each mentioned by only 14% of the abused women. This is a typical result.

In the sexological literature there is comparatively little discussion of the possibility that girls' sexual encounters with adults can be other than harmful (Okami, 1991) or that many girls below the legal age of consent are nevertheless sexually mature and active. Some years ago I participated in a television discussion on the legal age of consent led by Kilroy Silk, a former politician specializing in penal affairs. Included in the studio audience were some nubile girls, close to 16 years of age, who complained bitterly that their boyfriends had been arrested for having sex with them. It can be argued, of course, that the exploitation of young girls' readiness for sex is an abuse because, when they are older, they may come to regret their earlier behavior.

A small minority of adult women, however, do consider as unproblematic childhood experiences which the majority would regard with horror. Nelson (1981), using a sample recruited by advertisement, found a surprising number of women with teenage incestuous experiences which they regarded as positive. The publication of a biography that revealed the artist Eric Gill's erotic interest in pubescent girls, including his own daughters, prompted one of them to comment to a newspaper reporter: "I don't think it harmed me at all. . . . We were all very fond of my father. . . . We were old enough to say if we didn't want to go along with him" (Billen, 1992).


A majority of the childhood sexual experiences recalled by nonclinical samples of adult men are, like those recalled by women, of the less severe variety, that is nonviolent, nonpenetrative, and often limited to propositioning without actual physical contact. Far fewer men than women assert that such experiences have had any significant effect.

Children's reactions are influenced by adult attitudes to sex. Men are said to put greater value on physical pleasure, women to be more concerned with relationships (Baldwin and Baldwin, 1997). Males tend to be more permissive towards teenage sexual activity and to express less guilt and anxiety about sexual experience. Women are traditionally more conservative in sexual habits and sexual politics, more concerned about pornography and the protection of children from premature sexual relationships and hence to be more likely, as they grow up, to develop anxiety about any premature experiences they may have had themselves.

Although gender differences may be decreasing in modern Western cultures, it is still true that boys tend to be sexually less inhibited and more adventurous than girls. The prominence of male genitalia and male erections encourages masturbation from an early age. Competitive sexual displays, sexual horseplay, and experiments in mutual masturbation are more common between boys, but these do not generally signify romantic crushes or presage a homosexual orientation. Sexual initiatives from adult males are perceived as having more serious intent and are apt to provoke anger at the time, but not usually the sustained anxiety than occurs among girls.

Vaginal penetration, the physical imprint of lost virginity and the risk of pregnancy are consequences peculiar to the female. Pubertal boys can experience the pleasure of heterosexual intercourse without incurring these complications. Even the risk of acquiring HIV from intercourse is less for the heterosexual male. Far from feeling victimized by having been seduced into vaginal intercourse with an adult, boys may feel a sense of accomplishment. Girls who have been seduced, even if they were compliant at the time, when they later acquire conventional attitudes, may look back on the event with shame and guilt or with anger against the perpetrator. It has been suggested that boys' attitudes grow in the opposite direction as they absorb a macho image and want to portray themselves as ever eager for and in control of sexual situations. Among the male student sample that was included in the West and Woodhouse (1990) survey, 45 recalled a boyhood encounter with a man, compared with 34 who had had an experience with a woman. The heterosexual encounters mostly occurred when the boys were pubertal or postpubertal and the respondents generally remembered them as enjoyable. One respondent commented on an episode of mutual masturbation with a woman of 30 when he was 15: "It made me more confident about sex in general."

That boys are often aware of the interest in them displayed by homosexual pedophiles, without being greatly concerned about it, was brought home to me by a legal case against a master at a boys' boarding school who was discovered to have behaved indecently with a pupil. Subsequent police inquiries revealed that many of the boys had known of and talked among themselves about the teacher's peculiarities. Some had actually been groped by him on occasion, but until the affair became a public scandal they had looked upon the behavior as a joke and had not thought to report it.

Self-assertion, both verbal and physical, features in the culture of masculinity and in the upbringing of boys. Boys may therefore be better equipped to reject unwanted sexual invitations. Wellman (1993) noted that roughly equal numbers of men and women reported having experienced as children sexual approaches that did not lead to actual contact, but women described more incidents of physical interference. This supports the notion that boys are less submissive and better able to avoid escalation into unwanted intimacy.

From a surprisingly early age boys seem able to recognize when there is a sexual meaning to tentative approaches from adult men and, in most cases, to make clear they do not welcome such attentions. In the British survey by West and Woodhouse (1993) most of the incidents recalled were approaches, propositioning or touching by men encountered in public places or during routine activities by such people as teachers and sports supervisors. The usual reaction was to rebuff the approach and avoid further intimacy. Such incidents were recalled as having at the time aroused curiosity, mild annoyance, or uneasiness and having been talked about among friends of their own age, but rarely revealed to parents or other adults. The reaction of a boy of 11, obliged to share a bed with a friend's father, who fondled him during the night, was typical: "I mean it was a nuisance that I was being kept awake. Other than that it was slightly embarrassing" (p. 53).

Only a minority of this sample admitted having been compliant. One respondent, a heterosexual married man, recalled a period at age 13 when he was one of a group of boys who were taken on outings in a van by a man who engaged them in secretive masturbatory games, which they enjoyed in the spirit of shared sexual experimentation (p. 50). Eventually, parental suspicions brought the outings to an end. The nature of the situation and the characteristics of the initiator can greatly influence a boy's reaction. Another respondent (p. 71) described how, when a boy of 13, he had enjoyed an occasion when a young man approached him and a companion while they were bathing in a river and induced him to participate in mutual masturbation. However, a year later, when an old man seated close to him on a bus fingered his thigh he thought the behavior disgusting and the experience horrible.

Psychoanalysts and others who have recorded the reminiscences of men who identify themselves as exclusively homosexual find that most of them remember erotic interests and fantasies, directed towards their own sex, having developed before puberty and before any overt contacts had been experienced. Some homosexually inclined boys strive to avoid early contacts through awareness of the taboo or from fear of appearing unmasculine (Friedman, 1988, p. 195), but others say they not only enjoyed boyhood encounters with older males but deliberately encouraged or initiated them. This was certainly true among a sample of male homosexuals interviewed as part of the West-Woodhouse survey.

Potentially traumatic anal penetration, although more frequently experienced by boys, is not the most common pedophile sexual activity. Erickson et al. (1988) compared what was done with boys and girls under 14 according to descriptions supplied by known child molesters, men who might be expected to be at the more severe end of the scale of severity of offending. Fondling was much the most frequent activity with both boys and girls, followed by actual or attempted vaginal intercourse in the case of girls. With boys, fellatio was more common than invasive anal sex. Anal penetration can cause severe pain and result in tears and bleeding when forcefully performed on an inexperienced subject without preliminary lubrication and gradual dilatation. The physical sign of chronic anal dilatation may result from repeated, brutal, coercive penetration, but often it indicates that probably there has been a longstanding compliant relationship with the boy. The risk of potentially lethal HIV infection from unprotected anal sex, imposed by taking advantage of a boy's compliance and possible ignorance, is a particularly wicked act.

Given the massive publicity about pedophilia, children today are alerted to the possibility of adults taking a sexual interest in them. Indeed, teachers' unions have been concerned at the increasing number of unjustified and damaging allegations of sexual impropriety made against male teachers by disaffected pupils. In many sexual incidents with older persons outside the home boys are effectively masters of the situation. They can and do avoid contacts they do not want. Their potential for reporting a pedophile assault is a powerful means of control. On occasion, boys collaborate in nonthreatening homosexual situations out of curiosity, wish to please, or genuine erotic interest. The risk-taking sexual aggressor, who uses threat or force to secure a boy's compliance, is a relative rarity. When the wide variety of sexual interchanges between boys is appreciated, it becomes easier to accept the conclusion of Bauserman and Rind (1997), from their survey of findings from nonclinical samples, that the majority of such incidents are "evaluated by males as neutral or positive."


Discussion so far has been largely based on the recollections of adults of incidents when they were old enough to have identified the behavior as sexual and to have remembered what happened. Adolescents and preadolescents have a degree of understanding and self-determination in matters of sex. Younger children's ideas about sex may be vague, but they know when activities are necessarily secret and therefore forbidden. Babies and infants, however, can be manipulated at a time when they have no concept of what is happening to them and are unable to speak to others about it or to remember it in later years. From the recipient's standpoint there are great physical similarities between adult attention to their ano-genital hygiene, innocent cuddles and tickles, and behaviors motivated by adult erotic interest. It is not necessarily the case that sexual stimulation is always more traumatic the younger the child.

Traditionalists adhere with moral fervor to the view that it is essential to shield children from premature sexual knowledge, sexual exploration, or observation of adult sexuality. It used to be supposed that children are asexual until puberty, or that in postinfancy they pass through an asexual latency period. Empirical evidence shows these impressions to have been derived from adults' reluctance to accept children's sexuality and children's secretiveness in the face of adult disapproval.

Kinsey (Kinsey et al., 1948, p. 176) has been posthumously attacked for citing evidence, allegedly improperly obtained, that very young boys, some under a year old, can respond to masturbation with erections and apparent orgasm. Such observations lend credibility to anecdotes about nursemaids pacifying infants by sexual stroking. Anthropological observers of permissive societies, before their cultures were affected by Western influences, report masturbation and copulatory practices carried out freely by very young children and also, in some cases, adults participating openly in the sexual stimulation of infants and young children (Ford and Beach, 1952, p. 188). Even in modern Western society, at least in relatively uninhibited cultures like Norway, infants left to their own devices, but observed unobtrusively by kindergarten teachers, are seen to engage in much spontaneous sexual behavior, including "bodily exploration, genital manipulation and coital training" (Gundersen et al., 1981).

The relevance of these observations to child sexual abuse is twofold. First, claims made by many offenders that some young children seem to enjoy sexual stimulation by an adult gain plausibility. Second, with the possible exception of the promotion of precocious sexual interest and responsiveness, the adverse effects of noninvasive sexual manipulation by an adult appear to be connected with the psychological meaning rather than the physical nature of the behavior. However, absence of physical damage, and the fact that some primitive societies have viewed these behaviors as unproblematic, is irrelevant to the potential psychological harm when a culture defines sexual contacts between adults and children as horrendous crime.


Men accused of sex offenses against children often report having been sexually abused themselves when they were young (Groth, 1979). Self-exculpatory recollections are difficult to verify, but they are produced both by clerics, who are socially conformist except in their sexuality, as well as by the more socially deviant offenders (Haywood et al., 1996). Clinicians and psychodynamic theorists are seriously concerned that sexual molestation of boys may cause them to become molesters themselves. Molested girls are not thought to carry the same risk, though it has been suggested that when they become mothers they may fail to protect their children from sexual abuse or may display lack of parenting ability in other respects (Banyard, 1997).

Wisdom and Ames (1994) have published an important prospective study of a cohort of children that included a substantial number with validated child sexual or physical abuse histories, together with matched non-abused controls. They were followed up and their subsequent arrest histories analyzed. The majority of abused boys did not become offenders, but there was a significant statistical association between either early sexual or physical maltreatment and subsequent offending, both sexual and nonsexual. Sexual abuse was specifically linked with running away from home as a juvenile and with subsequent prostitution, but it was not significantly more often associated with the generality of sex offending in adulthood than was a history of physical abuse or neglect. Physical abuse, but not sexual abuse, was significantly linked with adult crimes of sexual violence.

These results are consistent with other evidence that maltreated children are at risk of becoming adult offenders and that violently mistreated children are at particular risk of becoming violent offenders, but they yielded no evidence for the supposed unique link between early sexual molestation and becoming a molester. It seems likely that any genuine link between early abuse and later crime is mostly caused by exposure to the conglomeration of traumatic influences, including family pathology and criminal justice intervention, that so often accompany it.


The notion that sexual attention from women does not harm boys is widely held and has influenced penal decisions. In 1997, a married woman who had become enamored of a boy of 14 absconded with him to Florida, where she was arrested and sent back to England to be prosecuted in a blaze of publicity. Had the couple's gender been reversed, the older partner would undoubtedly have been imprisoned, but a High Court judge, noting that the boy appeared to have suffered no long-term harm and did not consider himself abused, put the woman on probation (Guardian, 5 Dec. 1997). Of course, the fact that many who have experienced sexual contact with or approaches from adults when they were boys claim to have been unaffected in no way detracts from clinical evidence that sometimes serious, lasting, and occasionally devastating effects may follow (King, 1997; Watkins and Bentovim, 1992).

The cases seen in clinical or counseling situations may be self-selected and untypical, but they highlight the psychological trauma some young victims experience (Mendel, 1995). In an investigation of a sample of men who had contacted the British counseling organization "Survivors" about sexual assaults, a majority had been assaulted when they were under 16 years of age. Most of the men reporting early sexual abuse had been subjected to anal penetration, nearly all by an older male who was known to them, most often a family member. Very few had had contact with police or helping agencies at the time. Unlike those assaulted as adults, the great majority who had been abused as boys had not become insecure about their heterosexual orientation, yet, after an average lapse of 17 years, they still felt the need to unburden themselves.

Social deprivation, family conflict, and poor parenting are responsible for a statistical, but not necessarily causal, link between early sexual abuse and later maladjustment. Mullen et al. (1993) studied a large sample of women in New Zealand, selected at random from the electoral rolls of Dunedin. Some form of unwanted sexual confrontation with an older person while they were under 16 was reported by 32% of the women, nearly all of whom recalled their experiences as unpleasant and distressing. The abused women and a control group with no memory of abuse were interviewed about their personal history and given tests to determine their current psychological adjustment. There was a very significant association between having been reared in a dysfunctional family with inadequate care and protection and exposure to physical abuse or to sexual abuse. There was also a significant association between sex abuse history and adult problems of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders. However, these problems were heavily concentrated among women from adverse backgrounds. Save for a minority who had been subjected to sexual penetration, those from stable backgrounds showed no significant excess of adult problems despite an abuse history. The authors concluded that it was when sexual irregularities were part of a matrix of adverse factors that long-term problems were likely to ensue. A male population might well have given a similar result, particularly in view of evidence that sexually abused boys more often come from poorer and physically abusive families (Finkelhor, 1984, p. 150).

Children of neglectful parents, lacking protective supervision, may find comfort in attention from outsiders. The psychiatrist Yates (1979) described the precocious and abusive sexual lives of children in the Chicago slums, where erotic play in the hallways of tenements was "a substitute for toys." Many of the young male street prostitutes in London studied by West and deVilliers (1993) described exploitative sexual contacts with adults when they were children, but nearly all had come from disturbed backgrounds or rejecting families which had rendered them vulnerable. Poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and a homosexual orientation were the reasons they gave for their entry into the sex trade; none of them suggested that early sexual abuse was responsible.

Sexual problems can be mistakenly attributed to sexual abuse. In a sample of married men attending a clinic for sexual disorders, a diagnosis of current sexual dysfunction was unrelated to the presence or absence of a history of early sexual abuse, but was significantly associated with current unemployment (Sarwer et al., 1997).

Okami (1991), in his survey of positive reactions to sexual incidents, found few respondents commenting positively on sexual approaches from family members. Incestuous situations may occur in families of low social standards, where there is much violence and drunken misconduct and where the children are exposed to numerous damaging influences, but even where this is not the case the sexual involvement of children within the family is indicative of unhappy situations. Sexual molestation by family members, especially parents, is unsettling to children, not only because the inappropriate sexual behavior is unwanted, but because of the aura of guilt and secrecy surrounding the activity and the insecurity caused by becoming caught up in the emotional conflicts of adults which threaten the breakup of the home. Although boys are quantitatively at lesser risk than girls from abuse in their own homes, the abuses they may suffer include maternal seductions as well as molestation by fathers, stepfathers, and older siblings or family visitors of either sex.

It seems that, unlike girls, boys are rarely disturbed by sexual improprieties short of physical contact. In one survey of psychological adjustment among men students (after controlling for the intervening variable of dysfunctional parental style, which so often confuses the picture) it was found that a history of noncontact abuse appeared to have no effect, but a history of contact abuse did have some association with later psychological malaise (Collings, 1995).

Terrifying threats or serious violence of any kind are calculated to induce PTSD in anyone, but particularly in children and particularly where genital pain and injury is involved. Small children can be so subdued by the overwhelming power of an adult aggressor that they can do no other than comply, although, like the adult victim of forcible rape, they may be in reality petrified with fear of what may happen to them. Domestic settings, in which the child feels trapped, are the most likely venues for repeated physical and sexual brutality. Violent assaults by outsiders are much rarer, if only because opportunities for perpetrating these atrocities with impunity are limited, since the child will report what happened and describe the offender. Offenders who kill their child victims to avoid detection, or who engage in such violently sadistic practices that the victim dies, often have severe, antisocial personality disorders which render their sexual interest in minors lethal. Though rare, they attract massive publicity. Four men were sentenced in 1989 to a total of 62 years of imprisonment for the manslaughter of a 14-year-old London boy prostitute, Jason Swift, who was smothered in the course of violent sexual activity. Still in the news 8 years later, one of them, following release, was so hounded that police had to take him into expensive protective custody (Guardian, 7 Nov. 1997). Even when he was later put under security in a mental hospital, local protesters demanded his removal.

Many women victims of rape experience victimization a second time when they find themselves blamed for letting it happen, or when they are subjected through the criminal justice system to hostile cross-examinations in court (Holmstrom and Burgess, 1978, p. 236). The trauma can be even worse when the victim is a child. Measures have been taken to protect children from the worst excesses of courtroom drama, but the English Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate has criticized the frequent failures to identify child witnesses who need the protection of screens or video links when giving evidence. Boys are particularly liable to condemnation from family and ridicule from peers if they are suspected of having collaborated with a homosexual. Repeated interrogations by police and social workers, the long wait for cases to be heard and the feeling of responsibility for the imprisonment of someone who may have been a friend, are inevitably stressful. Charges may be bitterly contested by offenders desperate to avoid conviction as a pedophile. In the absence of witnesses to what happened, proof of guilt is difficult and offenders may be acquitted, leaving the child under suspicion of lying and exposed to retaliation if the accused was a member of the family.


The protection of children and young people from serious sexual abuse is not helped by failure to control and/or treat known offenders who are genuinely dangerous. However, when the incidents in question are more like breaches of moral rules than true assaults and have caused no obvious damage, there is questionable justification for invoking legal processes that may be detrimental to the supposed victim. A balance has to be struck somewhere between unnecessary and harmful overreaction and dangerous underreaction.

Scientific evidence fails to support some of the assumptions underlying the present severe penal policies. Social workers in the U.K. are under a professional obligation, and in the U.S. under a statutory requirement, to report suspects to the police. Informal methods of resolution are out of favor because of the assumed seriousness of any sexual incident involving a child and the presumption that, if the offender is not apprehended and incarcerated, offenses will continue indefinitely. These views, which are prevalent among professionals, are held in extreme form by large sections of the public who, judging by recent television programs, want to see all pedophiles given life imprisonment, if not executed. Consequently, the pursuit of offenders through the courts tends to be given priority over the interests or wishes of child victims.

Systematic follow-up research has generally found relatively low reconviction rates among child molesters, 5% over 15 years, 19% after 24 years in one English survey (Gibbens et al., 1981) or 13% over 4 to 5 years in a meta-analysis of 61 published surveys (Hanson and Bussiere, 1995, as cited in Grubin and Wingate, 1996). In an English cohort of men born in 1953, of those convicted of a sexual offense before the age of 40, 10% had a further sexual conviction within 5 years (Marshall, 1997). Reconviction rates have become lower in England in recent years. Among prisoners released in 1987, 6.5% of those with a past or current conviction for a sex offense were reconvicted for a subsequent sex offense during the ensuing 4 years, only a fraction of the percentage of reconvictions of property offenders (Marshall, 1994). Men who offend against children in their own family are reconvicted less often than offenders against unrelated children (Tracey et al, 1983). The most persistent recidivists are found among men who are fixated on hunting boys or young men for sex. The law is likely to change, but convictions and reconvictions in the U.K. have been augmented by the criminalization of sexual contacts with young men even if they are willing participants and over the age when sex with girls is legal.

In reality, risk of reoffending among child molesters is extremely variable. A heterosexual man who has fathered children, shown no interest in minors until relations with his wife deteriorated and a daughter was coming to sexual maturity, who is devastated when an improper relationship is exposed, is in a different league from a single male who has never been sexually aroused by adults and has organized his life and his work around gaining access to young boys or girls. Child molesters are by no means all pedophiles with a lifelong and exclusive sexual attraction to children; some are individuals who make use of children only when they are frustrated, drunk, or their potency is failing. Sociopaths indulge whatever sexual impulses please them without regard for moral rules or the welfare of others.

Many children who have been the subject of nonviolent sexual incidents could be spared the stress of a protracted penal process if appropriate action, by way of treatment and supervision, could be taken without resort to the criminal justice process. This can be done in the Netherlands through the "confidential doctor," a state official who receives reports from complainants or concerned observers, assesses the situation, directs those suspected of offenses to helping agencies, reporting them to prosecution authorities only if they fail to cooperate. The system enables cases to be identified and dealt with that would otherwise never be reported, but it can operate only if alternatives to public exposure, criminal conviction, and imprisonment can be seen to be efficacious.

Alternatives to a strictly punitive response appear more constructive and more humane, but conclusive scientific proof that "treatment works" is virtually unattainable. Due to the impossibility of matching treated and untreated offenders on all relevant factors, allocation needs to be strictly random to produce clear evidence, but in practice this is extremely difficult to arrange, as well as being ethically dubious. Because of relatively low reconviction rates, to obtain an adequate statistical comparison samples have to be of adequate size and followed up for long periods. Methodological purity is rarely if ever achieved, but indications of treatment successes, derived from an apparent cessation of offending and measurable improvements in attitude, lifestyle, and social circumstances, have been reported from a variety of projects (Marshall and Pithers, 1994). In the U.K., treatment usually consists of group therapy using cognitive behavioral methods and is more often done under the aegis of the prison or probation services (see Grubin and Thornton, 1994, concerning treatment in prison) than by psychiatrists and psychologists within the overstretched National Health Service. A Home Office

sponsored survey of community-based treatment projects for child molesters concluded that only long-term treatment produced beneficial change in the more deviant (i.e., the fixated and recidivist) offenders, but that even short-term intervention helped the less deviant (Beech et al., 1996). Unfortunately, most community projects in England are small-scale, not well researched, lacking in appropriate expertise, and without adequate follow-up or satisfactory criteria for evaluation.

Adequate provision of treatment could revolutionize the approach to serious sexual abuse of boys and girls. Treatment within the prison system has to battle against the distrustful and antitherapeutic culture of prison inmates, the rapid increase in the prison population, which reduces the resources directed to specialist programs, and the essentially punitive ethos of prison regimes. The need is for specialist treatment centers with a multidisciplined and well-trained staff capable of assessing offenders and devising care and treatment plans directed to their very varied needs. Some offenders would have to be treated under conditions of security, but this need not be within the prison system.

In principle, the English legal system provides for these possibilities. Courts have wide discretion in sentencing and before coming to a decision can call for social and psychiatric assessments and reports. Treatment requirements can be attached to probation orders to ensure compliance. Those sufficiently disturbed to be dealt with under the Mental Health Act can be compulsorily detained in hospital. Unfortunately, because facilities are scarce or inadequate, because many psychiatrists are reluctant to undertake responsibility for sex offenders and the community is so hostile to anyone with a pedophile label being out of prison, the legal provisions are underused and the potential benefits of a more discriminating and active approach remain untested. Meanwhile, a man whose only offense has been to engage in mutually desired sexual acts with another who happens to be a little below the legal age of consent has to be treated as a pedophile and risks being dealt with in the same way as predatory and aggressive offenders who ensnare and attack small boys.


The problems caused by sexual incidents between men and boys could be handled more effectively and humanely if the moral outrage encouraged by the media were reduced. Genuine victims would be better protected if penal responses were more discriminating, recognizing gender differences and limiting draconian measures to manifestly harmful or dangerous behavior. In place of a blanket requirement to involve the police and criminal justice procedures, informal control for suitable cases, through social and therapeutic services, should be supported.

The law setting a relatively high "age of consent" for males, enforced regardless of circumstances, is unnecessary. The fact that the specified age varies so much between different jurisdictions highlights its dubious basis. Children are, in any case, protected from unwanted molestation by laws against indecent assault. Most people feel that really young children are incapable of valid consent, but this could be recognized by a presumption of absence of consent, unless proved otherwise, in the case of children under (say) 13 years old. Thirteen is already enshrined in English law on "unlawful sexual intercourse" (the equivalent of American "statutory rape"), which provides for long imprisonment if the girl is under that age. Further protection, such as already exists in some European countries, could be introduced to forbid sexual contacts with older children by adults in positions of trust, such as their parents, teachers, doctors, or employers. More important, however, than any readjustment of criminal law, is the need for better informed public opinion and recognition of the need to shield abused children from "secondary victimization."

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