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Gay and Bisexual Men's Age-Discrepant Childhood Sexual Experiences 

Stanley, Jessica L., Bartholomew Kim, & Oram Doug

The Journal of Sex Research 41-4


This study examined childhood sexual abuse (CSA) in gay and bisexual men. We compared

  • the conventional definition of CSA based on age difference with
  • a modified definition of CSA based on perception [CSA-P or CSE - Child Sexual Experience] to evaluate which definition best accounted for problems in adjustment.

The sample consisted of 192 gay and bisexual men recruited from a randomly selected community sample. Men's descriptions of their CSA experiences [id est: CSA-P or CSE] were coded from taped interviews.

Fifty men (26%) reported sexual experiences before age 17 with someone at least 5 years older, constituting CSA according to the age-based definition.

  • Of these men, 24 (49%) perceived their sexual experiences as negative, coercive, and/or abusive and thus were categorized as perception-based CSA. Participants with perception-based CSA experiences reported higher levels of maladjustment than non-CSA participants.
  • Participants with age-based CSA experiences who perceived their sexual experience as non-negative, noncoercive, and nonabusive [51%?] were similar to non-CSA participants in their levels of adjustment.

These findings suggest that a perception-based CSA definition [CSA-P or CSE] more accurately represents harmful CSA experiences in gay and bisexual men than the conventional age-based definition [CSA].


This research incorporated the conventional definition of CSA and a modified definition of CSA to evaluate which definition best accounted for problems in adjustment.
CSA is typically defined as a sexual interaction between a child or adolescent and a person who is at least 5 years older (Rind et al., 1998). This age-based definition maps onto moral beliefs and the American legal criterion of CSA (Kilpatrick, 1987; Nelson & Oliver, 1998; Okami, 1991). However, the age-based definition aggregates all children's sexual activity with older persons and thus masks the degree to which experiences can vary.
For example, incestuous and coercive sexual activity that involves a young child is not distinguished from consensual sexual activity between an adolescent and an unrelated adult. Focusing solely on whether an age-discrepant sexual activity occurred, as directed by the age-based criterion, diverts attention away from examining the nature and context of the sexual activity. 

For gay men, negative perceptions of their sexual experiences are related to age at the time of experience and to the presence of coercion (Dolezal & Carballo-Diéguez, 2002; Doll et al., 1992).
Thus, nonsexual factors such as assent and age of the child and the older person may better explain children's adjustment to CSA than simply whether age-discrepant sexual activity occurred.
The age-based definition of CSA is based on an implicit assumption that CSA invariably leads to harm, an assumption that has limited empirical support. 

Although it is commonly assumed that CSA is invariably an intensely negative experience, research consistently shows considerable variability in retrospective perceptions of CSA experiences. Moreover, these perceptions predict associated outcomes. 

By defining CSA solely on an age-related basis, differences in experiences that affect outcome are relegated to a position of secondary importance.
Therefore, we adopted a perception-based definition of CSA (CSA-P) which refers to age-discrepant sexual experiences perceived as negative, coercive, and/or abusive. In contrast, the term childhood sexual experience(CSE) refers to age-discrepant sexual experiences that were perceived positively or neutrally from a childhood perspective, that did not involve coercion, and that were not perceived as abusive.

Sexual encounters that

    (a) were perceived as negative, and/or
    (b) involved coercion, and/or
    (c) were perceived as abusive from a childhood or adult perspective
    were labeled as perception-based CSA (CSA-P).

Sexual encounters that the men experienced as

    (a) positive or neutral,
    (b) nonabusive, and
    (c) noncoercive
    were placed into the CSE category. 

In conclusion,

the standard convention of defining age-based childhood sexual abuse as uniformly negative, harmful, and coercive may not accurately represent gay and bisexual men's sexual experiences.

Combining perception-based CSA experience with noncoercive, nonnegative, nonabusive experiences, as the age-based definition does, presents a misleading picture of childhood sexual abuse.

An age-based CSA definition inflates prevalence rates of childhood sexual abuse and inaccurately suggests that the maladjustment associated with perception-based CSA [CSA-P or CSE] experiences applies to all childhood age-discrepant sexual encounters.

In contrast, these results suggest that gay men with histories of nonnegative, non-coercive childhood sexual experiences with older people are as well adjusted as those without histories of age-discrepant childhood sexual experiences.

However, both definitions of CSA account for only a very small proportion of the variance in adult adjustment problems. Contrary to popular belief, negative outcomes do not inevitably follow from gay and bisexual men's childhood age-discrepant sexual encounters.


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