At least 22% of Americans have been victims of child sexual abuse, although one-third of them told no one at the time and lived with their secret well into adulthood, a Los Angeles Times Poll has found.
In what is believed to be the first nationwide study of the extent of child molestation, 2,627 adults, chosen randomly, talked about their views of the problem and their own childhood experiences, and in the process they shattered some myths about victims, perpetrators and public attitudes.
Twenty-seven percent of the women who participated in the telephone survey and 16% of the men said they had been molested as children--suggesting that the problem is more widespread than earlier, smaller studies have suggested.
The poll also found that Americans are very interested in the problem of child sexual abuse but have many misperceptions about it. The survey also found that very little about the backgrounds or attitudes of victims distinguishes them from non-victims.
Sexual intercourse was involved in 55% of the molestations, while 36% of the victims said they had been fondled, 7% confronted by exhibitionists and 1% sodomized. The majority of molestations were isolated incidents, but 39% of the victims of intercourse reported repeated abuse, which in four cases lasted more than 10 years.
The picture that emerged from the 100-question survey, conducted from July 20 to 25, shows that:
- Two-thirds of the victims were girls, and 93% of their abusers were men.
- The most vulnerable age is about 10, and abusers tend to be about 20 years older than their victims.
- Abusers include friends and acquaintances (42%), strangers (27%) and relatives (23%). About half the abusers could be classified as “someone in authority.”
- Physical force plays a minor role in child sexual abuse. Only 18% of the victims said they were forced to participate. Reasons cited most often for submitting were “I was afraid,” “I didn’t want to make trouble for him” and “I felt there was no one I could turn to for help.”
- Asked their opinion of their abuser’s motivation, 19% of the victims said “mental illness,” and smaller percentages said the molester was lonely, homosexual or alcoholic. Sixteen percent said the molester did not believe that his or her actions were wrong.
- Victims are only slightly more likely than non-victims to come from unhappy or broken families, to have not been close to their mothers, to recall having had fewer friends than most children their age and to feel that their childhood sex education was inadequate.
Contrary to popular opinion, victims are not more likely to come from lower socioeconomic groups or particular ethnic groups, nor are they any more susceptible to other kinds of crime.
- Fewer than half the victims told someone--usually a parent, other relative or friend--about being molested within a year. Only 3% reported the incident to the police or other public agency.
One in three of the victims said they had never told anyone about the molestation until this survey, most often because they were afraid or ashamed, but in 10% of the cases because they did not consider the abuse serious. Seven of 10 who did tell said no effective action was taken.
Victims and non-victims hold similar views about abuse, even when those views are contradicted by the victims’ own experiences. For example, although a majority of each group thinks molesters generally use force against their victims, only 18% of the victims report that force was used with them.
Likewise, although nearly two-thirds of each group said that, generally speaking, children submit to sexual abuse because they are afraid of what will happen if they refuse, more than four out of five victims gave other reasons when asked about their personal experiences.
Again, although about one in seven in both groups believes that the victim is somehow responsible for being molested, only 2% of the male victims and 5% of the female victims said they didn’t tell because they felt guilty about their own abuse.
“There is a strong suggestion here and elsewhere in the responses that victims do not realize that their own experience is typical, that they believe what happened to them is not what happens to others,” said I. A. Lewis, director of the Times poll.
The majority of those polled said that sex crimes are not a serious problem in their own communities and rank them as less serious than the general crime problem. Most, including three-fourths of those who identified themselves as victims, said they had either read or talked about the subject in the last month.
However, those polled tended to slightly overestimate the actual extent of child abuse. They think the incidence of abuse is much lower in their own community but higher overall now than 25 years ago.
Only 3% said they would have great difficulty discussing child molestation, an indication that the topic is not taboo anymore.
Opinion is about evenly divided between those who believe that the news is filled with stories about child abuse because people are more willing to talk about it, those who attribute it to stepped-up media coverage and those who think there is really more abuse.
The survey defined sexual abuse as attempted or completed sexual intercourse, oral copulation or sodomy with a child, fondling, taking nude photographs and exhibitionism. Asked their opinion, those polled broadened that definition to include such acts as making indecent suggestions to a child and said that attempted sexual acts count as abuse.
Presented with several hypothetical situations, the majority said they consider sex between two 14-year-olds to be child sexual abuse when force is involved. However, a 14-year-old girl seducing a grown man, consenting to sex with him or soliciting sex as a child prostitute is not abuse, although adult participation in such activities is criminal in most states.
The public appears to have been well educated about some aspects of child sexual abuse. The respondents correctly perceived that molesters are more likely to be someone the victim knows than a stranger. Friends or acquaintances accounted for 44% of the molestations that involved sexual intercourse, the poll found, while 25% of the intercourse was perpetrated by relatives, usually an uncle but sometimes a parent or stepparent, and 19% by “strangers.”
More than half the victims--and 47% of the public--agree with the statement that “sexual assault within families is very common.”
However, the public tends to overestimate the roles of force and fear in child sexual abuse as well as the proportion of female abusers (in actuality about 7%, not the 30% the public thinks) and to underestimate both victims’ willingness to tell someone that they have been molested and the danger posed by strangers.
As for the effects of sexual abuse on children, 95% of those polled say they believe that sexual abuse would have a “very great” or “some effect” on its young victims--mostly in emotional damage--and would permanently affect their lives. Victims agreed with that assessment. Only 2% of the public said they think childhood abuse has little or no effect.
Slightly more victims than non-victims report that their present sex life is unsatisfactory, that they are divorced or not married and that they are not religious.
Those who had been victimized are somewhat more likely, as adults, to be high school graduates with white-collar jobs and to live in the West, often in suburban areas. Younger adults are more likely than older adults to identify themselves as victims, suggesting either that abuse is increasing or that it is no longer a taboo topic.
The majority of adults interviewed say that current laws against child sexual abuse are inadequate. As remedies, 43% proposed heavier punishment for abusers, frequently more than 20 years in prison, and 41% recommended wider public education. More than half of both victims and non-victims say they think that there is a fairly good chance that abusers can be rehabilitated, despite studies indicating the contrary.
Results from samples of the size used in this poll are generally accurate to within three percentage points in either direction. However, since some may have been reluctant to discuss the matter, percentages dealing with victimization may only be minimums.
A PROFILE OF MOLESTATION
These Los Angeles Times Poll results are from responses from 2,627 adults nationwide questioned between July 20-25.
22% said they have been a victim of child sexual abuse, including 27% of all women asked and 16% of men asked.
The most vulnerable age was 10, while molesters tended to be about 20 years older than their victims.
55% of reported molestations involved sexual intercourse, 1% sodomy, 36% fondling, and 7% exhibitionism.
42% of the victims were molested by an acquaintance or friend, 27% by a stranger, 23% by a relative. Half said their molester was someone in authority.
96% of victims felt that the harm done by sexual abuse is permanent, and 83% said the greatest damage is emotional. Another 2% said child molestation has had little permanent effect.
18% of the molestations involved the use of force.
“Afraid” was cited most often by victims as the reason they submitted, followed by “didn’t want to make trouble” for the abuser and “felt there was no one I could turn to for help.”
Most abuses happened only once. However, 39% of the victims of intercourse reported multiple incidents, in four cases over a period of more than 10 years.
One in three victims never before told anyone about being molested until this survey. Some 42% told someone within a year of being assaulted. Only 3% of victims reported the incident to the police or another public agency; most told a parent, other relative or friend.
Seven out of 10 of those who did tell said no effective action was taken.