|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
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
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
were labeled as perception-based CSA (CSA-P).
Sexual encounters that the men experienced as
(a) positive or neutral,
(b) nonabusive, and
were placed into the CSE category.
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
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.