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An Empirical Examination of Sexual Relations Between Adolescents and Adults
They Differ from Those Between Children and Adults and Should Be Treated Separately
Bruce Rind, PhD
The American view that adolescent-adult sexual relations are by definition “child sexual abuse” has spread throughout the Western world and reshaped public policy.
This paper, originally presented as a talk, examines the scientific validity of this view. A historical perspective traces the conflation of the adolescent experience with rape, incest, and that of the young, prepubescent child. Biological and cognitive perspectives support the view that adolescents have more in common with adults than children.
Sweeping claims that adolescents react as children are said to is critically tested by examining two types of relations –
Non-clinical empirical data show overwhelmingly that such relations are characterized mostly by positive reactions based on consent if not initiative on the part of the minor, with perceived benefit rather than harm as a correlate.
It is concluded that the American view is false, and that public policy that heightens official reaction to such relations, such as that currently proposed by the European Union, are either misinformed or disingenuous in alleging to protect when the motive is to control adolescents.
How do adolescents react to sexual encounters with adults?
In America today, these encounters are referred to as “child sexual abuse,” and the widespread view is that such encounters are traumatic and psychologically scarring. This American view has spread to other countries and has re-shaped public policy regarding this issue in both the U.S. and abroad.
The purpose of my talk is to examine the scientific validity of this view.
The current heightened concern about child sexual abuse in America can be traced back to the early 1970s. The women’s movement campaigned against inadequate social response to the problem of rape, which they characterized as a crime of violence motivated by the need to exert power and control over one’s victims.
Feminists made dramatic progress in changing public attitudes and social policy. With this success in hand, they next campaigned against incest, using the rape model to characterize it. Mental health professionals incorporated feminist theory in their attempt to deal with these problems.
But soon, the 5-year-old girl’s suffering at the hands of her step-father through repeated episodes of unwanted sexual abuse became the basis for understanding all sexual interactions between minors and adults. The documented trauma of repeated incestuous rape became the assumed reaction of the adolescent, even if years into puberty and voluntarily, if not enthusiastically, sexually involved with an unrelated adult.
Combining children and adolescents into a single category when it comes to sex with adults is problematic. Adolescents are not children in a biological sense, their cognitive functioning is much more similar to that of adults than children, and they are sexual beings with desires and fantasies. In almost all societies except for the modern West, they have been treated as and have functioned as young adults rather than older children in terms of their activities and responsibilities, which have often included sex and even marriage.
Thus, conceptually it seems wrong to call an adolescent’s sexual interaction with an adult “child” sexual abuse. Empirically speaking, how an adolescent reacts to sex with an adult should not be assumed to be inferable from how a young child reacts. Yet it is this type of inference that has dominated social, political, and professional discourse over the past few decades.
In order to examine the validity the sweeping view that adolescent-adult sex is traumatizing, in this paper I will focus on two types of adolescent-adult relations –
Studies based on clinical and forensic samples certainly show that such relations can be traumatic for the teenager, but these samples are selective, biased to the more negative episodes. To investigate the nature of these experiences, it is important to examine data from the general population. I now present such data.
Hetero-sexual adolescent male sexual relations with women
The non-clinical empirical data show that heterosexual adolescent boys react predominantly positively to sexual relations with women.
These high proportions of positive reactions have to do with the high degree of interest and willingness on the part of the boys involved. For example, in studies done by
boys saw themselves as consenting to sex with women more than 85% of the time.
Negative reactions, as in the Condy et al. study, were associated with incestuous contacts and with feeling coerced, which was relatively rare, as just discussed.
In these studies, many youths felt that they benefited from the sexual experiences.
There has been a genre of coming-of-age films about adolescent boys’ sexual awakenings with their interest in and positive experience with women. The best known example in America is The Summer of 42 in which a 15-year-old boy is initiated into sex by a woman in her mid-20s, whose husband is away at war. The boy’s positive and non-problematic reaction is consistent with the empirical data, and is something that many men recognize as resonating with their own adolescence. This film presents a far superior model for the heterosexual teenage boy’s experience than the rape or incest model.
Homosexual adolescent boys' sexual experiences with men
The analogue to the heterosexual adolescent boy’s experience with a woman is the homosexual adolescent boy’s experience with a man.
Non-clinical research in this area yields findings quite similar to the research just discussed on heterosexual adolescent boys with women.
The scientific studies are buttressed by a huge literature in autobiographical narrative among gay males in terms of their coming-of-age experiences with older males, which have much more in common with the “Summer of 42” model than the rape or incest models.
To elaborate on psychological research in this area, I next review a study I published a year ago in the Archives of Sexual Behavior (Rind, 2001) examining data already collected by Cornell University psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams (1997), who was investigating gay development but in the process gathered data about sexual relations between gay or bisexual male teens and older men.
The study included 129 gay and bisexual college-aged men in the state of New York, most of whom were attending college. Each subject was intensively interviewed.
Twenty-six of the men (20%), when they were between the ages of 12 and 17, had sexual relations with men involving genital contact.
Savin-Willians measured two factors relevant to psychological adjustment:
Previous research done by researchers at Penn State University showed that these two factors are the best predictors of current mental health for gay and bisexual college- aged men.
In the current study, the self-esteem of those who had sex with men as teenage boys was just as high as that of those who did not. Moreover, those who had sex with the men achieved a positive sexual identity earlier than those who did not – the proportion in both groups reaching this milestone was the same.
These results indicate that, in this sample, teenage boys’ having sex with men was not associated with psychological maladjustment. In fact, in the case of the self-acceptance measure, there was evidence for somewhat better adjustment.
Many Anglophone researchers would refer to these relations as “child sexual abuse.” Contrary to the term “child,” however, implying naïveté and an unreadiness for sexual experience, in nearly 100% of the cases, before they had sex with the men, the boys had already reached puberty and had already become aware of their own sexual attractions to other males. Often, the subjects in this sample were actually more erotically drawn to men than to same-aged peers.
Contrary to the term “sexual abuse,”
The relations were characterized by consent, not coercion. In almost a quarter of the cases, it was the boy rather than the man who initiated the contact, and in another two-thirds of the cases involvement was by mutual agreement and interest.
Positive reactions were associated with
But reactions were not affected by the boys’ ages or the men’s ages: younger teenage boys reacted just as positively as older teenage boys, and reactions to sex with older men were the same as reactions to sex with younger men.
In four of the 26 cases the subjects reacted negatively. The interviews reveal that it was the circumstances rather than the sex per se that was behind the negative reaction. For example,
But it was positive reactions that predominated. For example,
Calling these encounters “child sexual abuse,” as is so often done in anglophone countries, is scientifically problematic.
The subjects were adolescents already with homosexual desires when they had the encounters, rather than naïve children shocked by strange, confusing, and unwelcome events.
Savin-Williams (1997), the researcher who did the interviews, noted in his book “. . . And Then I Became Gay” that the subjects usually did not construe their early sexual encounters with men as abusive, but often saw the sex as serving an important function. For example, he noted that one
He added that the youths were often grateful for the experience and its positive influence on their development.
An important goal of this paper was to examine the assumption, widespread in anglophone countries, which sex between adolescents and adults is by nature traumatic.
To this end, I focused on non-clinical, non-forensic data to avoid biases inherent in the clinical and forensic populations. I focused on male adolescents involved with adults of the gender they preferred. This focus served as a test of the assumption of inevitable and invariant trauma, although it is important to point out that conclusions cannot be extended to other adolescent-adult combinations (e.g., adolescent girl-man) without specific examination of them.
For heterosexual adolescent boys involved with women and for gay/bisexual adolescent boys involved with men, the non-clinical empirical data are strongly at odds with the assumption of trauma.
Simply put, the rape and incest models, developed 30 years ago in America to describe the horrors of rape of women by men and incestuous assault of young girls by their male guardians, are inappropriate when applied to adolescent boys sexually involved with adults of the gender they prefer.
In these relations, the data point more directly to psychological benefit than harm. Recently enacted EU-legislation requires all EU member states to criminalize a good deal of contacts of a sexual nature engaged in by persons under 18 years of age (with partners over, and also even under, the age of 18). This proposal has as its aim to prevent the exploitation of children.
If this is indeed the true aim, then the proposal is flawed from a scientific, empirical viewpoint, because adolescents are not children, though they are considered children by the proposal, and because adolescents, especially male adolescents, are not at serious risk for the exploitation that the proposal imagines.