Science and Social Research / Psychology

Studies Call Sex Panic Into Question

 by David Miller

A NEW STUDY bolsters the long-standing claim of NAMBLA activists that consensual sex between men and boys doesn't cause psychological damage.  The "meta-analysis," which combines the results of 59 different studies, was published in the preeminent Journal of the American Psychological Association this summer.

Combining the results of so many surveys of college students confirms, in a newly definitive way, the results of previous studies of "non-clinical" populations: Sex does not pose the danger to minors claimed by police, prosecutors and prudes crusading against man/boy love.  Instead, the majority of boys who have sexual relationships with adults view them as either positive or neutral experiences, and boys with such experiences are not at any greater risk for "adjustment difficulties.”  For both boys and girls, a poor family environment is the main predictor of later problems.

The meta-analysis relied on the concept of emotional and psychological "adjustment" and considered whether "sexual abuse" in childhood was a significant threat to this measure of mental health.  For the purposes of the study, "sexual abuse" included any sexual interaction between minors and older partners.  It also included a minor's sexual interaction with a similarly-aged peer if the episode was unwanted.

Even using these biased definitions, the study revealed there was no correlation between "sexual abuse" and "adjustment" for males and only a very small correlation for females.  (The study leaves open the possibility that an evaluation of girls' consensual experiences during childhood would reveal they were unrelated to later psychological problems.  There are currently no large scale studies, for boys or girls, that directly address the differences between consensual and non-consensual sexual experiences.)

The review also found 37% of males who had sex with an older youth or an adult viewed it as a positive experience; 29% viewed it as neutral, and 33% viewed it as negative.  Moreover, their views of the experiences became more positive over time -- calling into question the definition of "abuse" commonly used by researchers.  On the other hand, girls' experiences seem to be very different.  Only 11% of females viewed their experience positively; 18% viewed it as neutral and 72% viewed it as negative.  Force or threats were reported as part of the experience by 43% of females, but only 23% of males so reported.

The study is the most recent one of three major literature reviews on childhood and adolescent sexual experiences published in the last two years by a research team headed by Bruce Rind, a psychologist at Temple University.  The first of these reviews, published in early 1997, is an overview of findings from clinical and non-clinical studies of male child and adolescent sexual experiences with adults.  The second, published later in 1997, is a statistical meta-analysis of findings from studies of "child sexual abuse" using national probability samples.  All three studies bring together previously disparate information on the sexual experiences of boys.  The two statistical meta-analyses also present separate findings for girls.

The most recent article stands out because it is based on samples of college students.  The results from college samples are considered more relevant to common experiences than the results obtained from studies of prison, hospital, or clinical populations.

The relevance of the findings is also supported by the high degree of agreement between the results of the meta-analysis based on college samples and the meta-analysis based on national probability samples (samples designed to accurately reflect a cross-section of the national population).  Using a broad definition of "child sexual abuse" that included both willing and unwanted sexual experiences between minors and older partners, as well as unwanted sexual experiences between age-peers (as defined above), and additional samples that included only unwanted sexual experiences of minors, the two meta-analyses yielded identical degrees of correlation between "sexual abuse" and later adjustment, for both boys and girls.  For girls, the correlation was of small magnitude (r = .10, where .30 is considered medium strength and where 1.0 is the theoretical maximum).  For boys, the correlation was of an even smaller magnitude (r = .07).

The small magnitudes of these correlations are noteworthy for two reasons.  First, because these correlations were obtained using a skewed data set that disproportionately represents unwanted sexual experiences.  In the case of males, when samples assessing only unwanted experiences are excluded, leaving only mixed samples of both willing and unwanted experiences, the correlation with later adjustment diminishes to a non-significant level.  It is logical to expect the correlation would diminish still further if only willing experiences were assessed.  For girls, excluding the samples of only unwanted experiences, leaving mixed samples of both willing and unwanted experiences, did not significantly alter the result.  But because the remaining data set for girls is still substantially skewed under this condition (due to the high rate of coercion in girls' sexual experiences), it is still logical to assume that the magnitude of correlation with later adjustment would diminish, possibly to non-significance, if unwanted experiences were not included in the assessment.

The small correlations are also noteworthy because, as the study's authors point out, it is often claimed or assumed that "child sexual abuse" (including consensual experiences) is harmful to most or all who experience it.  These findings show that this is not the case, even for a sample biased heavily toward unwanted experiences.  At the levels of correlation reported, the sexual interactions account for less than 1% of the samples' variation in later adjustment.  Both meta-analysis articles noted that the quality of family environment, including physical and emotional abuse and neglect when present, was much more important than sexual experience as a predictor of adult adjustment.  Some of the studies reviewed found that the correlation between sex and adjustment vanished when family environment was controlled for.  This suggests that the real problem is abusive treatment, not sex per se -- even when the two occur together. 

Another important finding of both the 1998 college sample meta-analysis and the 1997 national sample meta-analysis is that there is a significant relationship between the consent of the younger partner in the sexual interaction and measures of later adjustment.  This finding was reinforced by the 1997 literature review on boys' sexual experiences.  According to authors Robert Bauserman and Bruce Rind, even though the younger partners' sexual knowledge may be incomplete at the time of the experience, "self-defined consent, like absence of force, is in all studies associated with positive outcomes or evaluations."

Aside from coercion and force, and gender differences, the only other factor in sexual interactions that has been consistently found to be linked with later adjustment is whether the participants were related or not.  Both the college sample meta-analysis and the literature review on boys' experiences found that incestuous experiences were more likely to be perceived negatively and to be followed by adjustment difficulty than non-incestuous experiences.  Studies reviewed in the national sample meta-analysis did not separately assess the impact of incest.

The full text of the studies reported here can be found in the following journals:

Bauserman, R.  & Rind, B.  (1997).  Psychological correlates of male child and adolescent sexual experience with adults: A review of the nonclinical literature.  Archives of Sexual Behavior, 26, 105-141.

Rind, B.  & Tromovitch, P.  (1997).  A meta-analytic review of findings from national samples on psychological correlates of child sexual abuse.  The Journal of Sex Research, 34, 237-255.

Rind, B., Tromovitch, P, & Bauserman, R.  (1998).  A meta-analytic examination of assumed properties of child sexual abuse using college samples.  Psychological Bulletin, 124, 22-53.

From the NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 19, No. 3.  Pg. 8, 9,  1999
Copyright NAMBLA, 2008


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