The Child Abuse Statistic That’s Scary, Ubiquitous – and Wrong

A 17-year-old and a 19-year-old go out on a date. At the end of the evening they kiss goodnight. If that is sexual abuse then it is just possible that, yes, one in four girls and one in six boys might be sexually abused by the age of 18.

If, on the other hand, your idea of sexual abuse is Jerry Sandusky allegedly raping a boy in a shower, then the figure probably is wildly inflated.

In the wake of the Penn State scandal, that one-in-four / one-in-six claim has become nearly ubiquitous. And despite it turning up in scores of news stories and opinion pieces, I have found not one that cited an actual study. So I went looking for it myself and, after a couple of hours of searching on the web, I found it.  

It’s known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences study.  It involved administering questionnaires to thousands of adults who received check-ups at a California HMO between 1995 and 1997.

Among the questions about a long list of childhood experiences was one which asked if:

“An adult or person at least 5 years older ever touched or fondled you in a sexual way, or had you touch their body in a sexual way, or attempted oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you or actually had oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you.”

A lot of what is in that definition is, in fact, sexual abuse, and it is sexual abuse regardless of whether the victim supposedly “consented.”  When you’re a child there is no such thing as consent to sexual touching or any of the rest, period, end of story.  As for teenagers, the use of the five-year age gap probably was meant to exclude so-called “Romeo and Juliet” cases.

But under the study’s definition that goodnight kiss still qualifies as sexual abuse.  If, for argument’s sake, you want to say 19-years-old is not an adult, substitute 21 and you have the same problem.

Or suppose that 19-year-old and 17-year-old are working at a summer job and the 19-year-old pats the 17-year-old on the rear.  That’s certainly sexual harassment, but is it sexual abuse? And if it is, do we really want to lump it together with rape?

So it’s not surprising that when the one-in-four / one-in-six claim concerning “sexual abuse” is broken down, far more respondents said that they were “touched or fondled in a sexual way,” than anything else.

Of course one might wonder why one would answer yes to a question about “sexual abuse” if the incident in question was just an innocent kiss.  But the question itself doesn’t mention sexual abuse.  Rather, respondents were asked:

“Some people, while growing up in their first 18 years of life, had a sexual experience with an adult or someone at least five years older than themselves. These experiences may have involved a relative family friend or stranger.  During the first 18 years of life, did an adult or older relative, family friend or stranger ever: Touch or fondle your body in a sexual way?…”

Subsequent questions go on to list other behavior that no one would doubt is abusive.  But it’s all lumped together as “sexual abuse” in that one-in-four / one-in-six statistic.

Before receiving this questionnaire, the same respondents received a preliminary survey which asked, simply, “As a child, were you molested or sexually abused?” When left to define the term themselves, 6.1 percent answered yes.

The problems with the statistic don’t end there. 

?It was up to the survey respondents to determine if they were touched “in a sexual way” and they had to make that determination sometimes decades after the fact – the average age of respondents was 56.

? And much more recently, another study posed nearly identical questions, and got lower results.

As I’ve noted previously, the best available estimates, from comprehensive reviews of multiple studies suggest that 10 to 12 percent of girls and five to six percent of boys are victims of child sexual abuse.  Those numbers are plenty serious enough.  It’s plenty of reason for concern and action – but not the kind of action that those pushing the hyped numbers want, like urging – or forcing – anyone and everyone to report anything and everything to child abuse hotlines.  That would only deluge those hotlines with more false reports, leaving workers less time to find children in real danger.

And as the one child welfare agency chief gusty enough to say so, Joette Katz, in Connecticut, points out, it also would subject thousands of children who were not otherwise abused to the trauma of a child abuse investigation.

Some of those children likely would end up in foster care, which has problems of its own.  While most foster parents try to do the best they can for the children in their care, study after study finds abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.  The record of group homes and institutions is worse.  The accused in the Penn State cases, Jerry Sandusky, was a foster parent. His charity began as a group home.

It’s a pretty straight line from scare statistics to inanities like the case in Florida in which an assistant principal – a mandated reporter – called in a report, and sheriff’s deputies investigated, after a 12-year-old girl kissed a 12-year-old boy during gym class. The assistant principal called it “a possible sex crime.”

One can only hope the next big “study” doesn’t further broaden the definition of abuse to include cases like that.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.


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