A Qualitative Study of the Meaning and Impacts of Sexual Abuse in Childhood

January 1, 1998


The primary themes in this study were to explore the ways in which the gender and age of victim and abuser affected the meanings and impacts of sexual abuse in childhood in a non-clinical sample of women and men.

Methods used in the project included: literature review of previous studies; secondary analysis of ESRC prevalence study data; questionnaires and in-depth interviews.

Information from previous research

The predominant views in literature on sexual abuse are that:

  • sexual abuse of boys and abuse by women are under-reported;
  • sexual abuse of boys and abuse by women are ‘worse’ for the victims;
  • at least one fifth of abuse is perpetrated by other children and adolescents;
  • ‘cycle of abuse’ has become a powerful framework, and informs work with children and adults;
  • some studies have noted gender differences in definitions of abuse, impacts and coping strategies.

Secondary analysis of ESRC prevalence study data

Secondary analysis of our previous prevalence study data revealed that:

  • whilst boys were less likely to tell overall, this difference disappeared where abuse involved forced sex/rape;
  • men were more likely to report feeling positive at the time of incidents than women, and less likely to report feeling victimised at the time;
  • a higher proportion of men reported using forgetting as a coping strategy, although many women used this too;
  • girls were more likely to use resistance, including physical resistance when assaults occurred, but their resistance made less difference to the outcome.

New data collected for this project

The new data collected for this project came from 136 women and 25 men:

  • A narrower range of abuse was reported in this study – probably because it was presented from the outset as a study of sexual abuse – with almost all incidents involving some form of physical contact, and a much higher proportion than the prevalence study including some form of penetration/rape.
  • A minority of participants endured various forms of organised abuse – with multiple perpetrators, sexual exploitation (pornography and prostitution) and in several cases ritualised elements.
  • All of the men in this study reported feeling victimised at the time, and were in fact more likely than women to say they felt ‘very victimised’.
  • Both girls and boys were far more likely to have been abused by men.
  • Despite strenuous efforts very few women or men who had been abused by women were found to participate in the study, suggesting that the current estimates from prevalence studies – that between 5-8% of sexual abuse is committed by women – are accurate.
  • Most of the women abusers identified in this study were connected to men who were also abusing the child and could be defined as the initiators of the abuse.
  • There was less ambiguity in definition for abuse by children and adolescents where some level of explicit force or coercion was always present.
  • The meaning of abuse by children and adolescents was sometimes dealt with through ‘putting it down to experience’ or ‘experimentation that went wrong’.
  • Abuse by adults involved both more ambiguity in terms of definitions and additional impacts, meanings and consequences; it was much more difficult for participants to explain or make sense of.
  • Sexual abuse in childhood involves a violation of the body, a profound threat to the self and a severe disruption in connections with others.
  • The earlier abuse began in childhood the more complex the levels of impact and consequences were, since young children had far fewer resources to cope with, and make sense of, what was happening than older children and adolescents.
  • The most common coping strategies used at the time and over time were forms of ‘disassociation’ – splitting of the mind and body at the time of assaults, creating safe fantasy worlds and/or imaginary friends, and forgetting incidents or even whole periods of life.
  • Over time and currently the coping strategies used tended to focus more on controlling the impacts and meanings of abuse, and for some, when the levels of distress became intolerable might involve forms of self-harm, alcohol and drug abuse.
  • The meanings and consequences of abuse were profoundly connected to gender and sexuality, since women predominantly experienced opposite sex abuse and men same sex abuse. All had to find ways to negotiate the complex implications of this for their own developing gender and sexual identities.
  • Media representations of False Memory Syndrome had profound impacts on many interviewees, creating a sense of insecurity and fear. In their accounts, rather than searching for a history of sexual abuse, those that had forgotten resisted this knowledge. One woman reported having disturbing dreams which she could not make sense of as a young adult. Her mother subsequently told her of an incident of abuse as a child, which the participant herself had forgotten.
  • Many of our interviewees had attempted to confront their abusers as adults (this is often recommended by counsellors and in self-help manuals). The outcomes were seldom those desired or anticipated, and frequently resulted in additional difficulties, such as the breakdown in relations with family and friends.
  • The power of populist discourses to discount experiential knowledge was very evident in relation to the ‘cycle of abuse’ theory, since there was minimal evidence to support it in our participants’ lives, yet many of them ‘believed’ it as a fact.
  • The positioning of children and adults as either victims or survivors was found to be far too simplistic, with both or neither being seen as relevant by the majority of our participants.
  • Sexual abuse leaves legacies, both about oneself and one’s relationship to others – what these are and how they are dealt with at the time and over time is far more complex than much previous research and documentation suggests.

See Research Report: Legacies of Abuse – “It’s More Complicated Than That”: A Qualitative Study of the Meaning and Impacts of Sexual Abuse in Childhood

Sponsor: The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

  • Project Team:
    Linda Regan, Liz Kelly, Sheila Burton