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Journal Issue: Sexual Abuse of Children Volume 4 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1994

Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Sexual Abuse
David Finkelhor

Sexual Abuse Involving Family Members and Other Known Perpetrators

Abusers can be classified by their relationship to the child victim into three categories: family, acquaintances, or strangers. Sexual abuse is committed primarily by individuals known to the child, unlike the child molester stereotype that prevailed until the 1970s. In adult retrospective surveys, victims of abuse indicate that no more than 10% to 30% of offenders were strangers, with the remainder being either family members or acquaintances.13

Although offenders are generally known to their victims, whether sexual abuse is primarily an intrafamilial problem is an issue about which there has been much uncertainty. Most of the sexual abuse that comes to the attention of child protection authorities does involve family members, leading some to contend that sexual abuse is primarily a family problem. But in most states, child protection authorities receive reports only about abuse at the hands of family members or custodians, so that much of the extrafamily abuse does not come to their attention or get counted in CPS samples.

The picture is somewhat different in adult retrospective surveys, which give a more comprehensive picture of sexual abuse than data from child protection agencies. These retrospective studies show that intrafamily perpetrators constitute from one-third to one-half of all perpetrators against girls and only about one-tenth to one-fifth of all perpetrators against boys. There is no question that intrafamily abuse is more likely to go on over a longer period of time and in some of its forms, particularly parent-child abuse, has been shown to have more serious consequences.56 But it is important to keep in mind that intrafamily perpetrators constitute less than half of the total in retrospective studies. The importance of acquaintance perpetrators—especially neighbors, teachers, coaches, religious leaders, and peers—should not be obscured by an exclusive emphasis on family abuse.

Recent awareness has also been drawn to juvenile perpetrators. These cases, too, tend to be underrepresented among reported cases compared to what is disclosed in retrospective surveys.57 It has been estimated from the retrospective studies that about one-third of offenders are themselves under the age of 18.57 Of course, this percentage is heavily affected by whether date rape and other sexual assaults against teenagers by their peers are included in the definition of sexual abuse.

Confusion also persists about female perpetrators. Although they constitute a small percentage (under 10%) of cases substantiated by child protection agencies, suggestions have been made that much abuse by females is undetected, that the number of such cases coming to public attention has been mushrooming recently, and that, when all is revealed, it may turn out that females actually abuse children as frequently as males.58

There is no question that women do sexually abuse children, that much of this abuse goes undetected, and that, until recently, it received little professional attention. However, statistics do not suggest that cases of abuse by females have been growing much more rapidly than cases of abuse by males. Finkelhor and Russell59 scoured the adult retrospective studies to see if adults recalled large quantities of childhood sexual abuse involving female perpetrators that was escaping detection, even perhaps because it was not labeled by the participants as abuse or exploitation. They focused on sexual experiences (whether or not labeled abusive) which occurred when the child participant was prepubescent and the other participant was postpubescent and at least five years older than the child. Summarizing data from several surveys, the authors concluded that about 20% of the sexual contacts that prepubescent boys have with older partners involve female partners; about 5% of prepubescent girls' sexual contacts with older partners involve female partners. Some student surveys since that review suggest that the 20% figure for boys may be low,60,61 although no such findings have yet appeared in a community survey. Even if all of these sexual contacts were defined as abusive, these studies do not suggest that women victimize as many children as men do.

Studies of female perpetrators of child sexual abuse in recent years have documented certain distinct types,62,63 including: (1) many women who act in concert with or in the service of abusive boyfriends or husbands, (2) adolescent girls particularly in baby-sitting situations, (3) lonely and isolated single-parent mothers with small children, and (4) some women who develop romantic relationships with adolescent boys.