Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse
Ralph C. Underwager
I. History and Scope of the Problem
A. Children have been abused by adults throughout history (Bakan, 1971; Wakefield &
B. Beginning with the passage of the initial British child labor laws in the
mid-nineteenth century, care and concern for children began to be addressed through
government institutions and policies. The concept of a protected childhood in the home
took hold in American and Western European culture. The history of the development of the
system responding to child abuse demonstrates the scope and limitations of social change
policies in a democratic society (Nelson, 1984).
1. Orphanages and institutions were built, adoption services, foster care systems,
reformatories, and juvenile courts were established and compulsory education laws were
2. In the United States, following the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and
Treatment Act (CAPTA) in 1974, laws mandating reporting suspected child abuse were passed
in all fifty states by 1976.
3. These laws made child abuse in the United States a national issue beginning in 1972
and focused federal intervention on the goal of assuring every child an abuse free life
4. The result in the United States was that there was a twenty-fold increase in the
number of reports of all forms of child abuse and neglect.
a. In 1993 there were approximately three million reports of child abuse and neglect
compared to 1963 when 150,000 cases were reported (Besharov &
b. Of these total reports, nearly half were for sexual abuse (Lamb, 1994).
c. As a result of the reporting laws, child abuse and neglect deaths have fallen from
3000 to 5000 a year to about 1100 a year (Besharov & Laumann, 1996).
d. Much child abuse still goes unreported in the United States.
e. But there has also been a significant increase in the number of reports that are
unfounded. In the United States the rate of unfounded reports is now between 60% and 65%.
In 1974, the unfounded rate was 45% (Besharov & Laumann, 1996).
f. This dramatic increase in unfounded reports overloads the system and prevents help
from reaching children who actually are being abused. The protective service agencies are
making mistakes on both sides.
5. Most of the other Western industrialized nations have also witnessed substantial
increases in the number of reported incidents of child abuse.
C. How common is child sexual abuse?
1. Incidence and prevalence
a. Incidence is the rate of new cases occurring during a prescribed period of time for
a given population.
b. Prevalence is defined as the ratio of all active cases present in a specific
population at a particular point in time.
c. Reported incidence rates are generally lower than prevalence rates.
d. Both reported incidence rates and prevalence rates of child sexual abuse are very
e. The incidence rate for 1992 in the United States was 0.7 and is lower in other
countries (Lamb, 1994).
2. Estimates for prevalence range from 62% for women and 30% for males to 5% for
females and 3% for males (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988).
3. The discrepancy in estimates is due to differences in methodology and definitions
between studies. Studies differ on the ages of the victim and perpetrator, whether the
study included noncontact experiences, the characteristics of the samples, and the method
of data gathering.
4. A study with good methodology and a community sample of 3132 found a lower
prevalence rate: 5.3% (6.8% for females and 3.8% for males) (Siegel, et al., 1987).
5. Studies in other countries have reported prevalence rates ranging from 7% to 36% for
women and 3% to 29% for men (Finkelhor, 1994).