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Title: The relation between early abuse and adult sexuality
Authors and Affiliations:
    Cindy M. Meston, University of Texas at Austin
    Julia R. Heiman, University of Washington
    Paul D. Trapnell, Ohio State University at Mansfield
Citation: Meston, C.M., Heiman, J.R., & Trapnell, P.D., “The relation between early abuse and adult sexuality,” Journal of Sex Research, vol. 36, no. 4, 1999, pp. 385-395.


The authors note that studies examining the connection between childhood abuse and adult sexuality have tended to focus exclusively on sexual abuse, ignoring other forms of abuse. In addition, research examining effects of childhood physical abuse tends to ignore adult sexuality as a possibly effected area.

Studies of the effects of emotional abuse and neglect on later adult functioning in general are also rare. It is reasonable to expect that all forms of abuse may have some impact on adult sexuality, and that combined effects of different forms of abuse should be addressed.

Thus, they write:

This study extends previous research in this area by (a) examining the correlates of four relatively distinct measures of early abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, neglect) with later adult sexual function, (b) examining the correlates of early abuse with a wide range of sexual measures, (c) using a comparatively large sample of 1,037 undergraduates, (d) examining potential association differences between persons of South Asian and European ancestry, and (f) testing in a confidential laboratory setting.


The study included 1,032 University of British Columbia students (376 males, 656 females). Approximately 45% were Asian. Subjects over 30 were excluded so that the subjects would come from a more similar childhood environment.

The authors administered a questionnaire to assess emotional abuse, physical abuse, and neglect during childhood. Subjects used a scale to measure the frequency with which they experienced abusive/neglectful events. They also responded to six questions addressing sexual abuse, resulting in a score for that type of abuse.

The authors assessed the participants’ sexual behavior using several standardized and recognized tests. They addressed respondents’ experience with intercourse, frequency of intercourse, forms of sexual experiences, restrictedness of sexual behavior, degrees of promiscuity (both recent and over their lifetimes), frequency of masturbation, range of sexual fantasies, liberality of sexual attitudes, sexual satisfaction, body image, sexual orientation, and self-esteem.

Moderated multiple regressions were performed separately on males’ and females’ data based on ethnic identification. No significant ethnic differences were found, so ethnicity was ignored in the remaining analyses. A high inter-correlation among abuse measures was found, so hierarchical regression was used to evaluate the relationships between forms of abuse and the sexual behavior variables.


Among both males and females, emotional abuse was most prevalent. This was followed by physical abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse, in order of prevalence.

After controlling for ethnicity and other forms of abuse, there was no significant correlation between childhood physical abuse and:

There were significant correlations between physical abuse and:

Neglect was not significantly correlated with

Neglect was significantly related to self-esteem among females.

Emotional abuse was not significantly related to:

Emotional abuse was significantly related to:

There was no significant correlation between sexual abuse and:

There were significant correlations for women between sexual abuse and:


The results of this study were consistent with those of a variety of earlier studies. Other researchers had found that family background was a confounding variable. This study did not measure family background factors directly, but measures of physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect may serve as proxy measures for family background. The authors speculate that although increased sexual interest could be related to sexual abuse directly, family background should not be ruled out as a possible alternative explanation.

They also note the “striking gender difference in the relation between sexual abuse and measures of both inter- and intrapersonal sexual behavior.” CSA was related to all measures of sexual behaviors for females and to none for males. This result, while possibly explained by the greater overall incidence of CSA reports by females, is consistent with other research. This study did not assess coercion and the relation of perpetrator to victim, so it was not possible to comment as to whether these factors explain the gender differences.

The lack of significant differences between people of Asian and European ancestry were perhaps surprising considering the findings of other researchers that those groups generally hold different attitudes regarding sexuality.

The authors conclude:

The results of this study suggest an independent relation between childhood sexual abuse and sexual behavior in females, and between emotional abuse and measures of body image and sexual adjustment in males. These findings highlight the importance of examining relationships between early abuse and adult sexuality separately, within gender, and within specific subcategories of abuse.

However, the authors point out factors that limit generalizing their findings. Firstly, they may not have measured neglect reliably. Secondly, the sample was entirely composed of undergraduate students. While basing a study on a college sample has several advantages, such a sample might exclude most persons who are severely troubled. Thirdly, data based on retrospective self-reports can be unreliable. Fourthly, causality cannot be necessarily concluded from correlations. Fifthly, the combined effects of various forms of abuse/neglect could have complex forms of impact that were not distinguished in this study.

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