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Prevalence of the sexual abuse of boys

By Jim Hopper, Ph.D

Approximately one in six boys is sexually abused before age 16.

Please note: The preceding section and this section of this page are nearly identical to sections of my page, "Sexual Abuse of Males: Prevalence, Lasting Effects, and Resources." As its name suggests, that page has additional material on the lasting effects of child sexual abuse in the lives of males. It also contains a list of references to all the articles and books cited in this section, as well as others addressing lasting effects, and links to other Web pages for men who were sexually abused in childhood.

The following review is grouped into three sections, according to the sample studied:

1.Male college students.

2.Men from an identified community.

3.Men receiving mental health services.

As noted above, please keep in mind: All of the rates below are likely to be underestimates of the actual prevalence of the sexual abuse of boys in our society.


There is evidence emerging that as many as one in three incidents of child sexual abuse are not remembered by adults who experienced them, and that the younger the child was at the time of the abuse, and the closer the relationship to the abuser, the more likely one is not to remember. Please see the section on Linda Williams' research on my Web page, "Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse: Scientific Research & Scholarly Resources".

Studies of male college students have found prevalence rates from 4.8% to 28%. At the lower extreme of 4.8% is a study by Fritz, Stoll and Wagner (1981) in which 412 students responded to a self-report questionnaire that required them to label their experiences as "abusive"--a method guaranteed to cause under-reporting. Risin and Koss (1987) obtained a rate of 7.3% in a national sample of 2,972 male college students. They used eight self-report behavioral descriptionsthe lower extreme of 4.8% is a study by Fritz, Stoll and Wagner (1981) in which 412 students responded to a self-report questionnaire that required them to label their experiences as "abusive"--a method guaranteed to cause under-reporting. Risin and Koss (1987) obtained a rate of 7.3% in a national sample of 2,972 male college students. They used eight self-report behavioral descriptions about sexual behaviors before age 14.

Higher prevalence rates of 20% and 24% came from Fromuth and Burkhart's (1987) study of students in two separate schools. They compared the effect of different definitions of sexual abuse on prevalence rates. However, their questionnaire utilized a gate question. The highest rates of 20% and 24% came from the most inclusive definition: the same as Finkelhor's 1979 study (including non-contact and age differential criteria), but with the addition that sexual contact between peers involving force or threat was categorized as abuse.

Research on college students also has been conducted by David Lisak and his colleagues, including myself (Lisak & Luster, 1994; Lisak, Hopper, & Song, 1996). The college samples in these studies were not typical, but consisted of men who commuted to an urban university, were an average of 25 years old, and from socioeconomic background more typical of the surrounding community than many college student populations used in this research. This work yielded prevalence rates of:

•Approximately 17% for child sexual abuse of males involving physical contact.

•Over 25% when non-contact forms of abuse were included.

Non-contact experiences (e.g., a relative exposing her or his genitals to a child) were investigated because such acts are sexually exploitive and can have negative long-term psychological and interpersonal effects. However, this definition also includes experiences, like a single "flashing" episode involving a stranger, that many would argue are not abusive because the subject suffered no significant or lasting harm, if any at all. As clarified below, Lisak and his colleagues (1994, 1996) deliberately chose to weight their definition of sexual abuse in terms of the power differential accompanying significant age differences and the older person's presumed deliberate sexual use and exploitation of the younger subject. So long as significant differences in age and power existed, Lisak and his colleagues defined incidents as abusive, regardless of subjects' emotional appraisal or lasting effects (the latter were not measured).

Lisak and his colleagues (1994, 1996) used an anonymous questionnaire which has 17 behavioral descriptions of possible experiences and an 18th item for "other" experiences subjects describe. If subjects endorsed an item, they were then directed to provide further information about the experience, which was used to categorize the experience as abusive or not. If the subject was age 13 or younger when the incident occurred and the other person was at least 5 years older, the incident was classified as sexually abusive. If the subject was age 13 or younger when the incident occurred and the other person was less than 5 years older, two criteria had to be met for the incident to be classified as abusive: the subject reported feeling "negative" about it and reported that some degree of coercion was used by the other person. Similar principles apply to incidents occurring when the subject was age 14-15: the incident was classified as abusive if the other person was at least 10 years older; if the other person was less than 10 years older, the abuse classification was assigned only if the subject reported feeling negative about it and reported some level of coercion by the other person.

Though the definitional criteria in Lisak and his colleagues' studies are complex, they address two important issues.

1.The reality of the power differential which characterizes relationships between adults and children, and between young children and adolescents, because whether or not a sexual experience is abusive can depend on this dynamic.

2.The fact that whether or not a sexual experience is abusive can also depend on one's subjective appraisal and emotional response to the incident.

Lisak and his colleagues argue that the criteria they employed to assess sexual abuse are clear and relatively conservative in their treatment of the issues of power and subjects' responses.

A prevalence rate similar to the Lisak et al. studies was found in another study of college males. Collings (1995) used an anonymous questionnaire and defined sexual abuse as "unwanted" sexual experiences taking place before the age of 18. The term "unwanted" is likely to bias rates downward, as noted above, but the inclusion of subjects aged 16 and 17 is likely to increase the found prevalence rate. Not surprisingly, Collings found that 29% of the 284 male respondents had been sexually abused, with 20% reporting non-contact abuse and 6% reporting abuse experiences involving physical contact.

Studies with community samples have ranged in their prevalence rates from 2.8% to 16%. Again, methodology has been crucial. Kercher and McShane (1984) mailed a single self-report question including the word "abuse" to a random sample of Texas drivers. They found a prevalence rate of 3%. Given the wording of their single question, this rate is not surprising.

Two random-sample telephone interview studies by Murphy (1987, 1989, cited in Urquiza & Keating, 1990) also demonstrate the profound effects of single questions including the word "abuse" rather than instruments with multiple behavioral descriptions. In one of the studies (1987) the former method was employed, and it produced a rate of 2.8% with a sample of 357; in the other study (1989) the latter method yielded a prevalence rate of 11% with a sample of 777.

Bagley, Wood and Young (1994) conducted a community study of men aged 18 to 27 in the Canadian city of Calgary. They first contacted subjects by phone, then administered anonymous questionnaires in their homes via programs on portable computers. Their questionnaire asked about "unwanted" experiences before the age of 17. This wording is likely to result in under-reporting because people who have been sexually abused, but especially males, are sometimes convinced that they wanted and were responsible for the sexual contact. Bagley and his colleagues found a prevalence rate of 15.5%, and that 6.9% of their subjects had experienced multiple episodes of sexual abuse. Interestingly, this rate for multiple episodes was identical to that found for women in a previous study that employed the same methodology, despite the fact that the prevalence rate for any unwanted sexual experiences in that study was 32%, or double that found for males (Bagley, 1991).

The highest community-sample prevalence rate of 16% was found in a random telephone survey of 2,626 men, known as the "L.A. Times survey" (Finkelhor, 1990). However, these findings are very difficult to interpret, since the wording of the questions would be expected to produce contradictory effects: each question used the word "abuse," but ended with the phrase, "or anything like that?"

In contrast to studies with women, published studies using face-to-face interviews with men have yielded very low prevalence rates, perhaps due to subjects' adherence to stereotypes about males not being victims (Urquiza & Keating, 1990). Finkelhor's (1984) face-to-face interview with Boston-area fathers yielded a rate of 6%. Siegel and colleagues (1987), using gate-question interviews with 1,480 Los Angeles-area men, found a prevalence rate of 3.8%. Baker and Duncan (1985) used a single question that described various sexual acts and found the highest face-to-face prevalence rate of 8% in their random sample of 970 men in Great Britain.

Finally, studies with clinical samples have obtained prevalence rates from 3% to 23%. The lowest rate was reported from a study that used psychological records of 954 male and female patients of a large regional medical center (Belkin, Greene, Rodrique, & Boggs, 1994). In a chart review of emergency room records of a Buffalo, New York hospital, Ellerstein and Canavan (1980) found an 11% prevalence rate. DeJong and colleagues (DeJong, Emmett, & Hervada, 1982) reviewed several clinical studies and found rates from 11% to 17%, and in their own hospital population found a rate of just under 14% (1982). Metcalfe and his associates (1990) found a prevalence of 23% in their survey of 100 male psychiatric inpatients.

However, it is important to note here that assessment for sexual abuse histories in hospitals has traditionally been extremely poor, and remains so in many settings. Thus these rates, based on reviews of records, are likely to be vast underestimates. For example, Briere and Zaidi (1989) reviewed intake reports on women presenting to an urban psychiatric emergency room. They randomly reviewed 50 charts before and 50 after the intake staff were instructed to question clients about previous sexual victimization. The first 50 charts had recorded rates of 6%, and the second set, 70%.