Myth 10: It is known that a large proportion of children are severely sexually abused in childhood.
Researchers disagree on the the prevalence of sexual abuse. Estimates for boys range from 1% to 30%. Variations are due to several factors:36
- differing definitions of abuse
- reliance on retrospective reports by adults whose accuracy depends on the reliability of respondents' memories
- varying ways of framing questions which affect how respondents decide whether their experiences constitute abuse
Definitions of abuse are usually very broad:37
- They define youth in middle to late adolescence as children.
- They define as abuse kissing and non-contact experiences such as exhibitionism, suggestive remarks, consensual viewing of pornography, and verbal propositioning.
- They include consensual sexual relationships with someone over 18, or with an older child or adolescent, regardless of the nature of the interaction.
Some scientists have written that this leads to inflated and shocking estimates of the prevalence of abuse, and misleads the public into believing that all incidents are similar to the rape of young children.38
David M. Fergusson, Christchurch School of Medicine, and Paul E. Mullen, Monash University:
The popular rendition of the literature on CSA has frequently resulted in trite conclusions that are chanted like sacred mantras about the proportion of children who are sexually abused. However, underlying these trite and perhaps socially convenient claims, there is a complex body of evidence that is both highly variable and by no means easy to interpret. Reducing this evidence to claims that one in four (or whatever fraction of) children is subject to sexual abuse conceals the very real uncertainties, debates, and issues that surround this evidence.39
For more information about the definition of child sexual abuse, see the section on this site about terminology.
37. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1999*; Haugaard, 2000; Li, 1990a; Okami, 1990; Okami & Goldberg, 1992; West, 1998.
38. Okami, 1990; Okami & Goldberg, 1992.
39. Fergusson & Mullen, 1999.
*Will open an off-site article in a new window.