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Response to Bauserman *

David Finkelhor, PhD
Family Research Laboratory University of New Hampshire  

Journal of Homosexuality, 20 - 1/2, 1990

I do not believe that my views about Sandfort's research are accurately represented in Bauserman's article*, and I will try to present them here.

* Bauserman, R.,
Objectivity and Ideology: Criticism of Theo Sandfort's Research on Man-Boy Sexual Relations
. Journal of Homosexuality 20:1/2 (1990).


Sandfort's findings are probably valid and could be (and need to be) replicated by other investigators. That is, a researcher can find certain children, especially boys, who report that their sexual experiences with adults were positive and had no short-term negative effect on them. The real debate concerns the implications of such findings.


In studies using more representative samples than Sandfort's, only a minority of people, at least in the U.S., report reacting positively to their childhood sexual encounters with adults. This has been demonstrated in a number of studies

(Finkelhor, 1979; Fromuth, 1986; Risin and Koss, 1987; Russell, 1986).

Boys tend to react less negatively than girls, but even the majority of boys (62% ), in one recent national American sample, said they felt somewhat victimized or worse (Risin and Koss, 1987). Sandfort did not try to obtain and correctly does not pretend that his is a representative sample. In fact, it is probably an extremely unrepresentative sample. It is impossible to make policy on the basis of such a sample.


Even among those boys who rate their contacts with adults as positive, there is evidence that these feelings sour over time. In a study of 53 men who had had contact with adults, although 38% said they had viewed them positively at the time, only 15% felt positively about them now as adults (Urquiza, 1987).


There are many children who are seriously traumatized by their sexual encounters with adults. Epidemiological studies show that adult-child sexual contact is a predictor of later depression, suicidal behavior, dissociative disorders, alcohol and drug abuse and sexual problems even when other noxious background factors are controlled for (Browne and Finkelhor, 1986). The association with psychopathology has been shown to be every bit as great among men as among women (Stein, Golding, Siegel, Burnam & Sorenson, 1988). Certainly not all adult-child encounters have such effect, but we are talking about an experience that has a very high risk.


The public policy priority to protect children from unwanted and coercive sexual approaches by adults seems justified given the evidence of its wide prevalence and the high risk for serious effects. The (now grown) children who have had such experiences are very active in lobbying for such protection. I have encountered very few individuals with self-defined positive experiences who are lobbying for legal protections for their kinds of experiences. Mostly it is pedophilicly oriented adults who argue for such rights. Personally, I am much more open to academic discussions about the implications of positive adult-child experiences with those who grant that the problem of unwanted sexual contacts is a very pressing public policy issue (Sandfort is such a person).


Ultimately, I do continue to believe that the prohibition on adult-child sexual contact is primarily a moral issue. While empirical findings have some relevance they are not the final arbiter. The social judgment that slavery is reprehensible would not have been challenged by empirical findings that some slaves felt positively about being a slave (as some undoubtedly did) or even benefitted from it. The social judgment that child labor needed to be prohibited similarly would not have been vitiated by evidence that some children felt positively and benefitted from it (as they undoubtedly did as well). Some types of social relationships violate deeply held values and principles in our culture about equality and self-determination. Sex between adults and children is one of them. Evidence that certain children have positive experiences does not challenge these values, which have deep roots in our worldview. This is the main reason that Sandfort's research has had relatively little attention, and has little relevance for policy .


Browne, A. & Finkelhor, D. (1986). Impact of child sexual abuse: A review of the research. Psychological Bulletin, 99(1 ):66- 77.

Finkelhor, D. (1979). Sexually victimized children. New York: Free Press.

Fromuth, M.E. (1986). The relationship of childhood sexual abuse with later psychological and sexual adjustment in a sample of college women. Child Abuse and Neglect, 10(1): 5-15.

Risin, L.I. & Koss, M.P. (1987). The sexual abuse of boys: Frequency and descriptive characteristics of childhood victimizations reported by a national sample of male post-secondary students. Kent, OH: Kent State University.

Russell, D.E.H. (1986). The secret trauma: Incest in the lives of girls and women. New York: Basic Books.

Stein, J., Goiding, J., Siegel, J., Burnam, M.A. & Sorenson, S. (1988). Long-term psychological sequelae of child sexual abuse: The Los Angeles Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study. In G. Wyatt and G. Powell (eds.), Lasting effects of child sexual abuse. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Urquiza, A.J. (1987). The effects of childhood sexual abuse in an adult male population. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Washington, Seattle.


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