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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

Changes in the Rate of Sexual Abuse over Time

The rapidly rising number of reports of sexual abuse (see earlier discussion of National Incidence Study) has prompted some to fear that more children are being abused today than in the past. However, with a large underlying and mostly undisclosed prevalence, as suggested by the retrospective surveys (see Box 3), all of the observed increases in reporting could be explained simply by increased awareness and willingness to detect and disclose.

Some efforts have been made to compare adult prevalence rates from different historical eras,34 but gross differences in the methodology between studies make such comparisons very speculative. One analyst compared the 1953 findings by Kinsey and colleagues with findings from more recent studies and concluded that there had been an increase,34 but another researcher looked at the same data and disagreed.48

A different approach to this issue has been to compare the rates of abuse for people of different ages within the same study, that is, among subjects who were recruited the same way and asked the same questions. At least five community studies have reported such age group comparisons for North American women.7,13,16,25,43 Interestingly, all five show slightly lower rates for the youngest age group. Moreover, all three that have rates for subjects born before 1935 also show lower rates for this older age group as well. Although these findings are surprisingly consistent, they can be interpreted in several ways. They may reflect an increase in sexual abuse for children born around and after World War II, followed by some decline in more recent times. But the apparent trends may also simply be an artifact of disclosure patterns. Older women may have forgotten their long-ago abuse experiences or may feel more private about them than younger women. The youngest women may not yet have enough distance from childhood events to feel comfortable talking about them.

In either case, however, the surveys do not suggest any very recent upsurge coinciding with the new interest in the problem that began in the late 1970s. The rise in disclosures at that time and more recent periods is probably explained by changes in public and professional awareness, not increases in true occurrence.