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Title: Sexual encounters between boys and adults
Author(s): Donald J. West & T.P. Woodhouse
Affiliation: Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, England
Citation: West, D.J. & Woodhouse, T.P., “Sexual encounters between boys and adults,” in Li, C.K., West, D.J., & Woodhouse, T.P., Children’s sexual encounters with adults, London: Duckworth, pp. 3-137, 1990.



Before presenting their own research, the authors provide an overview of current literature in the area of adult-minor sexual interaction, and problems with that literature. They start by questioning the common definition of abuse:

The use of the blanket term “abuse,” and the popular concept of “corruption,” commonly applied to all sexual contacts between children and adults, obscures the varying degrees of seriousness of the incidents in question and the varying prospects of deleterious consequences. In the case of pubertal children, boys especially, the supposed victim is often claimed to have been an active participant if not an instigator. (p. 3)

Studies attempting to estimate how common boyhood sexual interaction with adults is has resulted in figures ranging from 2% to 30%, depending on the method of questioning used in the survey, the ages that define child and adult, the location of the survey, whether or not only “unwanted” or “abusive” incidents were included, and whether or not non-contact incidents were included. Non-contact incidents involved such activities as indecent exposure, the viewing of pornography, and sexual talk.

Statistics showing high rates of abuse are useless unless the differing frequencies of different types of events involving different age groups are published. Too often, statistics give the misleading impression that all incidents in such surveys are those of intense victimization like those seen in clinical practice.

Not only are clinical cases the most severe, but children referred to treatment agencies often have significant emotional problems that existed before the sexual interaction, so generalizing intensity of harm from such cases is misleading.

Most non-clinical studies show reactions to childhood sexual incidents are extremely varied—some very serious, some not at all. Repeated, coerced incidents are most associated with lasting problems, but seemingly trivial events (such as mild fondling) may assume great emotional significance only when the child absorbs the social condemnation of the event then experiences the resulting guilt and anxiety.

Studies indicate that boys seem to be less likely than girls to experience negative effects of the experience. Various surveys have found from 4% to 38% of boys suffer long-term harm, while 13% to 66% of girls do so. Possible explanations for this difference include differing interpretations of the event, the different ages of the children who tend to be involved, and different circumstances under which the incidents occur.

Researchers note that it is difficult to separate the effects of sexual abuse from the effects of family dysfunction. Surveys of criminal and clinical samples of neurotics, sexually disordered people, prostitutes, homosexuals, child sex offenders, and drug abusers find a higher prevalence of adult sexual contact in their childhoods (although still less than 50% of them experience such contact).

Clinicians and researchers usually assume that this contact has contributed to their current problems, without considering that most of them come from neglectful or violent families and communities. Thus singling out early sexual activity as the only or primary cause of current problems may be incorrect.

Most agree that that sexual attacks involving violence, threats, or pain are the most harmful, as are those where parent-figures are involved, causing anxiety and confusion by requiring secret sexual activity. However, general claims about the effects of any sexual activity are made too readily. Outcomes are extremely variable depending on the nature and circumstances of the activity, and characteristics of the child, including his or her age, stage of development, temperament, and gender.

Most long-term studies of boys who had relationships with homosexual pedophiles do not suggest that homosexuality is a likely outcome.

The authors conclude their overview as follows:

…knowledge on the topic is fragmented and uncertain, evidence conflicting, and debate frequently more polemical than well-informed…Generalizations are put forward with little regard to the wide variety of behaviors encountered…Dubious extrapolations are made from highly deviant minorities, such as imprisoned sex offenders, which cannot give a true indication of what happens to the great majority of children… (p. 18)

The student survey

Thus, this series of studies sought to examine the experiences of men in the general population. In the first study, an anonymous questionnaire survey was conducted with 512 male polytechnic and university students at eight institutions in England. The survey asked about sexual contacts the students had had before adulthood.

The students were asked about sexual experiences they had had before age 11 with someone over age 16, and those they had between age 11 and age 15 with someone over 18. This included both contact and non-contact sexual activity. The authors note that a disadvantage of this type of study, conducted years after the activity, is that memories and attitudes may change over time, especially if they involve guilt or shame.

Of the students who were asked to participate, only 36% responded to the survey. Of those who responded, 79% came from families where at least one parent had a white collar job. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents reported early sexual activity with an older person, but this may not reflect the actual rate among students in general due to the low number of responses.

Institutions with lower response rates reported higher percentages of students having such experiences, indicating that if all students had responded, the actual prevalence would probably have been lower. Based on this fact, the authors calculated a conservative estimate of the true prevalence at 16%.

Rates seemed to be higher in larger cities, ranging from 50% (40% with men) in London to 26% (16% with men) in a rural area. 25% of the respondents had such experiences with men, 18% with women. Two-thirds of those who had such contacts, did so between ages 11 and 15. Most who had sexual experiences with adults said they were repeated.

Students were asked to describe the incidents and to indicate their assessment of them, from very disturbing to enjoyable. They didn’t always answer this question. When they did, they showed that sexual interactions with women tended to be different from those with men. With women they tended to involve women they knew, and the most common activity was petting, followed by mutual masturbation. With men, the incident was more often a sexual suggestion or initiative taken by a stranger, which was then rejected by the boy.

The great majority of boys who had such incidents with women and who answered the question said they found the experience “pleasant” or “enjoyable.” Only 29 of those who had such experiences with men answered the question; 15 of them were “indifferent” and 12 of them were “disturbed” or “very disturbed.”

Most who answered negatively had the experience between age 11 and 15; only 2 of 12 who had it below age 11 reacted negatively. The authors suggest that this may reflect the fact that younger children are not old enough to realize the social significance of the activity. For older boys, the incident may seem important because they realize its homosexual implications and are disturbed by them. In addition, incidents with older adults (over 30) were less often rated positively.

Participants were also asked to describe the effects of their sexual experience, but so few responded that no analysis could be made.

The authors also wrote: “It was noteworthy that none of the accounts mentioned physical violence. In fact, in almost all of the heterosexual incidents the boys were willing if not enthusiastic participants. Most of the unwanted homosexual incidents took place in situations that were rather easily terminated.”

Follow-up interviews

A few of the boys described situations where they felt pressured and were quite scared and confused about the man’s advances. However, none reported any adverse effects or attributed great importance to what had seemed strange and isolated experiences.

There were however, two cases which differed from this pattern, in which the boys had repeated willing contacts with older males. Neither of the boys became homosexual.

One of them seemed to have a pressing need to talk about the incidents long after they were over. The incidents occurred with a group of boys who went on outings with the man, at which time they all engaged in mutual masturbation. When the incidents became public, he felt guilty about having to talk about it with his parents, who otherwise never discussed sex. He felt the experience interfered with his feeling comfortable about sex with girls into early adulthood.

The other boy had had extensive sexual interactions with peers of both genders, and had been involved with both men and women. He was the only boy in the study with a protracted relationship with a man. At age 10, the father of a friend, whom he described as “pleasant,” spent time with him and felt him 6 to 10 times over a period lasting a few months. This behavior stopped when others became suspicious.

The student thought it was unusual and embarrassing, and had a slight awareness of it being wrong at the time. However, he never felt threatened or that it was unpleasant; overall he was indifferent. At the age of 15, he had what he described as a “fairly reasonable, nice, adult homosexual relationship” with a teacher. It involved mutual masturbation and oral sex. He felt sad when the relationship ended. He felt bisexual at the time; he had more sex with men as well as intercourse with a woman. He eventually identified as heterosexual.

Three cases that occurred when the boy was prepubescent resulted in police involvement. One of them involved coercion. In two cases, the boy felt unaffected by police involvement. In the other, the boy, whose thigh was rubbed by a man, didn’t realize the sexual nature of the incident. He felt confused by the police involvement, and his parents didn’t clarify what was happening.

A minority of the students were homosexual, and some admitted that they had been willing participants in, if not actual initiators of, early sexual involvements with adult males.

The electoral register survey

For the second study in the series, a questionnaire was administered to 615 men chosen from electoral registers in four areas of England. Almost half of the men responded. Of these, 20% reported childhood (under 16) sexual experiences (including non-contact) with someone over 18. Compared to the previous study, fewer reported contact with men (16% instead of 25%), and far less reported contact with women (6% instead of 18%). They reported the following types of activity:

  Sexual suggestion Touching Exposure Had sex Any sexual interaction
With a man 12% 8% 5% 2% 16%
With a woman 5% 3% 3% 4% 6%

Fifty-eight percent of the respondents considered contacts with men very harmful, while only 16% considered contacts with women very harmful. But the proportion of negative responses was lower among those who actually had such contacts; only 3% of them said sex was very harmful with both men and women, while 29% of those with no such experiences felt the same way.

Twenty-five respondents described the incidents. Of those described, only one was in the family and three involved women. Among these descriptions, the 21 homosexual encounters were mostly casual incidents in which the boys were knowledgeable about deviant sexuality and readily refused unwanted approaches. In the homosexual cases which did go farther, “had sex” meant engaging in mutual masturbation or oral sex.

The boys were between 10 and 15 years old when the incidents occurred. Two of the boys were frightened by the event, and one felt ashamed (and described the man as sick but not aggressive). The other 18 boys did not indicate negative feelings about the event, although one said he was required to “suck off” the man, another found it disconcerting but not serious, and a third called it an “indecent assault.”

In the previous survey, no accounts suggested the development of a homosexual orientation resulted from boyhood sexual contact with a man. In the current study, only three men could be interviewed to address this question. Only one of them felt his homosexuality was caused by early seduction, but it became clear that he was troubled and other factors were involved.

No long-term man-boy relationships were revealed in this study, possibly because such relationships are rare among heterosexual boys, or because heterosexual men are reluctant to talk about them. The authors describe such a relationship referred to them by another researcher—one which was positively experienced.

They also describe a case at the other end of the spectrum—a man who was undergoing clinical care and who had been traumatized at age 7 by a man who undressed him, fellated him, and forced him to reciprocate. The painful memory had returned when attempting to engage in sex with his girlfriend, and he became suicidal and obsessed with the memory. The authors write that as is usual in such cases, the patient had many other unrelated difficulties involving mental impairment, childhood victimization by bullies, and poor parental relationships, which explained why the sexual incident assumed such significance.

The study of gay men

The third study entailed distribution of a questionnaire to 22 males aged 16 to 44 who were identified through a gay bar, a gay club, and a gay youth organization. The men were mostly middle class. Sixty-four percent of them had had a sexual experience with an adult before age 16. All but one of the experiences had been with men. Eleven described the activity; at least 5 of them had had unwanted experiences. However, others said they made it clear with men whom they knew quite well what they wanted and what they didn’t want.

The authors conclude that these boys were very open to homosexual experiences, and they knew who they wanted and what they wanted to do with them. They write that the men’s “comments tend to support the view that many boys exercise considerable self-determination in their sexual interchanges with adults…the incidents were overwhelmingly attempts at seduction rather than assaults.”


Enormous numbers of boys have sexual experiences with adults. Precise estimates of how many do so are not of practical importance. More important is to know what kind of sexual contact occurs and the likelihood of adverse effects.

The findings from the student survey are encouraging. Unlike the situations found in clinical or criminal studies, almost all incidents occur outside of the home. Force, brutality, and threats are very rare. Most incidents consisted of approaches or touching, and were rejected. The boys’ reactions were indifference, mild anxiety, or annoyance. Few described lasting effects. Extended sexual friendships were only reported by gay or bisexual men.

The authors write that most of the incidents that produce alarmingly high prevalence estimates are relatively innocuous. Most incidents in their studies were not reported to parents, perhaps because the boys feared being blamed, but more often because they didn’t discuss their sex lives or thoughts in general with their parents. Boys’ reactions were much less negative (sometimes more positive) than those found in studies of girls.

By contrast, the authors write,

Serious cases of sexual abuse of young boys such as come before police and social workers, which may include venereal infection or ano-genital trauma in addition to great mental distress, are altogether different from any of the incidents revealed in this survey. The apparently alarming statistics produced from victim studies such as this cannot be taken to imply that really serious sexual abuse is common…These observations suggest a need for discretion in evaluating incidents that come to light through the suspicions or disapproval of a third party without any complaint from the child or young person…In such situations it may be unwise to over-dramatize what has happened or to do anything to suggest that the children are themselves abnormal or blameworthy. (pp. 122-123)

Physical abuse must reach a certain level of seriousness before drastic action is taken, but a mere suspicion of sexual irregularity is sufficient for similarly drastic action to be taken. Such intervention can have consequences worse than those of the sexual activity. Interruptions of schooling and friendships, and attendant stigma can be detrimental to the child. Police interrogations and court appearances can be traumatic, especially if a boy has participated in sexual activity with a man. The authors continue:

Men who approach boys are generally looking for what amounts to a love relationship and they employ gradual and gentle persuasion. The average pederast is no more seeking a rape-style confrontation than is the average heterosexual when looking for a congenial adult partner. Severely punitive and counter-therapeutic attitudes toward those guilty of relatively minor indecencies with boys not only fail to promote more acceptable behavior by the offenders subsequently, but can have bad repercussions on the boys involved, some of whom may feel they share the blame. (pp. 126-127)

Treatment rather than punishment for the offender may sometimes be in child’s best interest. In the Netherlands, incidents can be handled by medical and social services without involvement by the criminal justice system, if all cooperate and illegal behavior is stopped.

Sensational media accounts with high prevalence figures and lurid descriptions of unusual cases of exceptional cruelty lead to a moral panic. As a result, well-meaning warnings to children not to trust adults pit children and adults against one another.

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