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Title: Boys and Sexual Abuse: An English Opinion
Author(s): Donald J. West
Affiliation: Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, England
Citation: West, D.J., “Boys and Sexual Abuse: An English Opinion,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 27, no. 6, 1998, pp. 539-559.


The purpose of this article is to review the literature on child sexual abuse and child molesters, legally defined, and to discuss its policy implications.


Because child care professionals primarily deal with the most serious incidents of adult-minor sexual contact, one is given the impression that any kind of such contact most likely causes dire and lasting harm. The author writes, “The emotive terms adopted in professional discourse—abuse, perpetrator, victim, survivor—have reinforced this idea and introduced a tone of moral revulsion alien to scientific inquiry."

As a result, the United Kingdom has followed the United States in placing all those convicted for any type of sex offense on a registry and having their location tracked and sometimes announced to the community. These procedures are carried out without discrimination, and apply to offenders as young as 10 years old. No other type of criminal, even those who are violent, are thought to require such measures.

The author writes that the terms "sex abuse" and "pedophile crime" are used as catch-all phrases to refer to relatively trivial as well as very serious offenses. As a result, there is an acute contradiction between studies of non-clinical populations suggesting that a casual sexual encounter with an older person during boyhood is too common to be routinely and seriously damaging and, in contrast, the experience of clinicians that incidents of child sexual abuse cause intense psychological harm. Several studies support the claim that consensual and affectionate man-boy sexual contact is often not harmful.

Prevalance estimates

In attempting to estimate the number of men who in boyhood had sexual contact with adults (either men or women), findings of studies vary wildly due to differing definitions of childhood, adulthood, sexual experience, and abuse. Some studies define childhood as the time before puberty, while others define it as any age under age 18, obscuring differences in the meaning of sex over different stages of development.

Some surveys define sexual activity as genital contact, while others include the viewing of pornography or verbal propositioning. A minority of studies limit their investigation to sexual behavior that was unwanted, violent, or over-intrusive; most include behavior that was not felt by the boy to be abusive. Some surveys are so over-inclusive that they conclude that only a minority of children are free from abuse.

Nearly all studies find that the rate at which boys experience sexual contact with adults is lower than that at which girls do. Estimates for boys vary from 1% to 20%, while those for girls vary from 6% to 42%.

Gender differences may result from the fact that men are less willing to confide than women, boys more often than girls do not perceive the contact as abusive, and in the case of contact with men, some fear they will be perceived as effeminate.

As for the number of men involved in sexual activity with minors, one English study found that of men born in 1953, by the time they were 40, 0.1% had been convicted for a sexual offense involving a boy under 16, and 0.6% for an offense involving a girl.

Although incidents involving women are quite common, contacts between boys and older males are more frequent than might be expected given the small minority of homosexual males. Yet research suggests that homosexual men are generally less likely to have pedophile interests than heterosexuals. This apparent contradiction may result from the existence of many adolescent boys who are willing to participate in sexual activity with those homosexuals who are attracted to them.

The author concludes regarding prevalence: "Because the prevalence figures yielded by retrospective surveys are so much a function of how abuse and childhood are defined, the precise statistics are of less interest than the fact that even the most conservative estimates show that sexual encounters with adults feature in the lives of a great many children and young persons."

Reactions to sexual activity with adults

Most childhood sexual experiences recalled by non-clinical samples of adult men are of the less severe kind—nonviolent and non-penetrative. Men significantly less often than women describe distress at the time of the incident as well as long-term harmful effects. Among non-clinical female samples, there is usually a substantial majority who report negative short-term reactions, whereas a majority in most male samples report positive or neutral short-term reactions.

Girls have different kinds of experiences from boys, and they perceive sexual incidents in a more negative light. The author writes that women are traditionally more conservative in sexual habits and sexual politics, and hence are more likely, as they grow up, to develop anxiety about previous childhood experiences with adults. They also must face the consequences of lost virginity and the risk of pregnancy.

However, for boys, rather than feeling victimized for being seduced by an adult, they may feel a sense of accomplishment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that boys tend to be less inhibited and more adventurous than girls, and express less guilt and anxiety about sexual contact.

Boys are often aware of the interest in them shown by homosexual pedophiles, without being greatly concerned about it. Boys also seem to be better equipped to reject unwanted sexual advances, probably because self-assertion is a greater part of their culture.

Furthermore, psychoanalysts and others who have studied homosexual men find that most of them remember homosexual interests and fantasies having developed before puberty and before any contacts had been experienced. As boys, some of them avoided early contacts, but others initiated or encouraged, and enjoyed, boyhood encounters with older males.

Studies have found that the most frequent pedophile sexual activity with boys is fondling, followed by fellatio. The least common is anal sex. Imposing on a willing but unknowledgeable boy the risk of potentially lethal HIV infection by unprotected anal sex is a particularly heinous act.

In general, coercion is rare in man-boy sex. Sometimes boys collaborate in non-threatening homosexual situations out of curiosity, a wish to please, or genuine erotic interest. The boys can and do avoid contacts they do not want, and their potential for reporting a pedophile incident is a powerful means of control.

In light of the wide variety of sexual interactions that occur between men and boys, it is not surprising that nonclinical studies find that the majority of such incidents are evaluated by the boys as neutral or positive after reaching adulthood.

The age factor

The author writes that adolescents and prepubescent children have some understanding and self-determination in matters of sex, although younger children's ideas about sex may be vague. Traditionalists strongly believe it is essential to shield children from premature sexual knowledge and exploration, and from seeing adult sexuality.

However, scientific evidence shows that prepubescent children are not asexual. Anthropological observers of primitive societies report masturbation and copulatory practices carried out freely by very young children, sometimes with the involvement of adults. Even in modern uninhibited cultures, young children left on their own have been observed to engage in much spontaneous sexual behavior.

These observations are important for two reasons. First, claims made by many offenders that some young children seem to enjoy sexual stimulation by an adult become plausible. Second, harmful effects of noninvasive sexual manipulation by an adult appear to be connected with the psychological meaning rather than the physical nature of the behavior.

However, the absence of physical harm, and the fact that some primitive societies have viewed these behaviors as unproblematic, are irrelevant to the potential psychological harm that can occur when a culture defines sexual contacts between adults and children as horrendous crimes.

Potential for harm

Studies of sex offenders against children show that they often report having been sexually abused themselves when they were young. However, such retrospective studies cannot be used to conclude that abuse causes offending behavior in adulthood, since offenders usually have many other traumatic influences in their childhoods which may have been partly to blame.

Studies following abused children matched with non-abused children for comparison are much more informative. One such study found that the majority of abused boys did not become offenders, but there was a still a significant association between early sexual or physical maltreatment and later offending, both sexual and nonsexual.

Sexual abuse was linked with running away from home and with subsequent prostitution, but it was not a significantly stronger predictor of sex offending than was a history of physical abuse or neglect. Physical abuse, but not sexual abuse, was significantly linked with adult crimes of sexual violence.

These results are consistent with other evidence that maltreated children are at risk of becoming adult offenders, but they provide no support for the supposed link between early sexual molestation and becoming a molester. It seems likely that any genuine link between early abuse and later crime is mostly caused by exposure to the many traumatic influences, including family pathology and criminal justice intervention, that so often accompany it.

Similarly, the existence of children with a history of sexual abuse who are examined by clinicians for psychological problems may suggest that the abuse is the cause of such problems, but these children commonly have a history of social deprivation and family dysfunction which may be as important or even more important as causes. Studies support the thesis that sexual abuse alone is often not a causal factor.

In spite of this caveat, and the fact that clinical situations are atypical, they do illustrate the psychological trauma some children experience as a result of sexual abuse. Terrifying threats or serious violence of any kind can induce severe trauma in children, especially within the family where the child feels trapped.

Abuse perpetrated by parents can be particularly traumatic due to its unwanted nature, the creation of emotional conflicts, and the aura of guilt and secrecy. Violent attacks by outsiders are much rarer than those within the family.

Furthermore, when children are traumatized by sexual abuse, they can experience victimization a second time when they are blamed for allowing it to happen, or when they are subjected to repeated interrogations by police and social workers and questions in court. In addition, a child's feeling of responsibility for sending someone they care about to prison is inevitably stressful.

Policy implications

Failure to control and/or treat known offenders who are genuinely dangerous endangers children. However, when the incidents are moral violations rather than true assaults and have not caused harm, the author believes it is questionable to set into motion legal processes that may harm the supposed victim. It is important to find a balance between harmful over-reaction and dangerous under-reaction.

Scientific evidence fails to support some of the assumptions underlying the present severe legal penalties. Social workers are required to report suspected sex abusers to the police so that informal methods of resolution are no longer available. This is due to the assumed seriousness of any sexual incident involving a minor.

This assumption, which is common among professionals, is held in extreme form by much of the public who seem to want all pedophiles imprisoned for life if not executed. Consequently, the pursuit of offenders through the courts tends to be given priority over the interests or wishes of children.

Several studies and reviews of the literature show that after serving their sentences, sex offenders against minors re-offend at relatively low rates (between 5% and 19%, depending on when the study was conducted and on the length of the follow-up period). However, the chance of re-offending varies widely among offenders, depending on their motivations.

Alternatives to a strictly punitive response appear more constructive and more humane. Many children who have had nonviolent sexual contact with adults could be spared the stress of the long legal process if treatment and supervision of the offender could occur without involvement of the criminal justice system. This approach is currently used in the Netherlands.

Although conclusive scientific proof of the effectiveness of treatment is almost impossible to obtain (since properly designed studies are not feasible or ethical to carry out), imperfect studies have found a variety of programs to be successful. In Britain, group therapy using cognitive-behavioral methods is usually used and is administered by prisons and probation services rather than by psychiatrists and psychologists.

Adequate treatment for offenders could revolutionize the approach to serious sexual abuse of children. However, most current treatment programs are not well-researched, and they lack needed resources. Treatment within the prison system is impeded by the distrustful, anti-therapeutic, and punitive culture that exists there. Treatment through community programs are also rendered very difficult because of community hostility toward anyone labeled as a "pedophile."

As a result, a man whose only offense has been to engage in mutually desired sexual acts with someone a little below the age of consent is treated the same way as an aggressive offender who attacks young boys. For these reasons, the potential benefits of a more discriminating approach remain untested.


The author concludes:

The problems caused by sexual incidents between men and boys could be handled more effectively and humanely if the moral outrage encouraged by the media were reduced. Genuine victims would be better protected if penal responses were more discriminating, recognizing gender differences and limiting draconian measures to manifestly harmful or dangerous behavior. In place of a blanket requirement to involve the police and criminal justice procedures, informal control for suitable cases, through social and therapeutic services, should be supported.
The law setting a relatively high "age of consent" for males, enforced regardless of circumstances, is unnecessary. The fact that the specified age varies so much between different jurisdictions highlights its dubious basis...More important, however, than any readjustment of criminal law, is the need for better informed public opinion and recognition of the need to shield abused children from "secondary victimization."
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