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Title: Self-reported sexual interest in children: Sex differences and psychosocial correlates in a university sample
Authors and Affiliations:
   Kathy Smiljanich, California State University, Dominguez Hills
   John Briere, University of Southern California School of Medicine
Citation: Smiljanich, K. & Briere, J., “Self-reported sexual interest in children: Sex differences and psychosocial correlates in a university sample,” Violence & Victims, vol. 11, no. 1, 1996, pp. 39-50.


In spite of the importance of such information, there is a dearth of studies of adult sexual attraction to children among samples representative of the general population. Instead, studies are of sex offenders or clinical patients. It is likely that most adults attracted to children (whether they act on their attraction or not) never come in contact with the criminal justice or mental health systems.

The current study involved 279 undergraduate students—99 males and 180 females. Their mean age was 28. Sixty-seven percent were single, and 19% were married or cohabitating. Forty percent were white, 32% black, 13% Hispanic, and 8% Asian.

The students were guaranteed anonymity, and were asked to complete questionnaires which asked them about their child abuse history, psychological characteristics, attitudes toward abuse of women and children, and sexual feelings, fantasies, and practices.

The questionnaire asked students whether they had suffered psychological, physical, or sexual abuse before age 17. Psychological abuse was defined as one of seven particular abusive parental behaviors, and was scored on a previously validated scale. Physical abuse was defined as one of seven violent behaviors committed by parents. Sexual abuse was defined as any sexual contact with someone at least 5 years older.

Students were asked about their use of pornography depicting consensual adult heterosexual behavior, forced sex, and adult-child sex. They were also asked about the extent of their current sexual activity and ease of attracting age-appropriate partners (e.g., “Do you have trouble attracting sexual or romantic partners among your peers?”). Students also completed questions from an inventory designed in 1966 to assess degree of sexual conflict, sexual repression, and sexual impulsiveness.

Psychological functioning was assessed with a self-esteem scale, a responsibility scale, and a socialization scale. The responsibility scale measured the degree to which the student was “conscientious, responsible, dependable, and articulate regarding rules and order.” The socialization scale measured “social maturity, integrity, and rectitude, and the degree to which social norms are adhered to.”

Students’ attitudes were assessed in three areas: their acceptance of adult-child sex, their acceptance of sexual dominance and aggression, and their expectation that sexual relationships are fundamentally exploitative.

To assess their sexual interest in children, students were asked to rate themselves on the following scales:

The term “child” was not defined. As is standard practice in aggression proclivity research, all scales were converted to yes/no responses—if the student did not respond “never” to a question, it was coded as “yes.”

Questionnaire results are shown below:

  Male students Female students
Reported a history of child sexual abuse 23% 27%
Used force-oriented pornography 30% 16%
Used child-oriented pornography 14% 4%
Used consent-oriented pornography 69% 53%
Admitted some attraction to little children 22% 3%
Admitted child sex fantasy in last year 4% 1%
Admitted masturbation to child sex fantasy in last year 4% 0%
Admitted possibility of sex with child if undetected 3% 0%

Compared with those who experienced no feelings of attraction for children, those who admitted attraction to children had not experienced different levels of childhood abuse of any kind. They also exhibited no differences on the socialization or sexual repression scales, in the use of forced- or child-oriented pornography, or in any of the attitudinal measures.

They did differ from the others in the following ways: they exhibited lower self-esteem, a lower socialization score, more sexual conflict, more sexual impulsiveness, and more difficulty attracting peers. They used consensual pornography only marginally more than the others.

The best discriminator of attraction to children was low self-esteem. This finding reinforces the likelihood that self-concept is important in the development of sexual interest in children. However, it is also possible that negative self-concept results from the awareness of socially unacceptable sexual feelings. The absence of a relationship between sexual interest in children and abuse history or attitudes towards abuse contradicts other researchers’ findings.

The data do not support the view that exposure to child pornography is associated with sexual interest in children. However, it may be possible that pornography use in general is related to it. It may be that general pornography use and attraction to children reflect greater overall sexual preoccupation and a more “omnivorous” sexual response pattern.

The finding that those who have more difficulty attracting peers are more likely to have sexual interest in children is similar to other researchers’ findings. Along with higher sexual conflict, this finding suggests that these factors place one at higher risk for directing their sexual interest toward children.

However, it may be that those men with this interest are more likely to experience conflict due to the social unacceptability of their sexual feelings, and that such feelings simply make them unmotivated to seek peers as partners. Further research is needed, including asking the subjects themselves about their own perceptions of the relationships among these variables.

The findings of this study are limited by the fact that it was based on college students who are not necessarily representative of the general population, by the small number of students attracted to children (so that statistical analysis is less conclusive), and by the fact actual sexual behavior with children was not assessed. In addition, any self-report of socially unacceptable phenomena is likely to underestimate it.

The authors conclude that to prevent child sexual abuse, intervention with men who have sexual interest in children should address their self-esteem, their use of pornography, their problems relating romantically with adults, their sexual conflicts and impulsiveness, and their anti-social behavior.

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