Evidence supporting a possible decline in child sexual abuse rates: An Irish population study
McGee, H., Garavan, R., Byrne, J., O’Higgins, M., & Conroy, R.M. (2010). Secular trends in child and adult sexual violence – one decreasing and the other increasing: A population survey in Ireland. European Journal of Public Health, 21(1), 98-103.
Recent data in many industrialized countries have pointed to a decline in rates of child sexual abuse. Questions have been raised as to whether this decline is actually occurring or whether it reflects changes around the way child sexual abuse is dealt with. The decline could reflect lower reporting rates and/or changes in the way cases are screened in, investigated, and/or substantiated by child protection services. In order to assess the situation in Ireland, McGee and colleagues conducted a national cluster-randomized telephone interview study of Irish adults concerning their experiences of sexual abuse and violence.
The study found that child sexual abuse was more frequent among females than males (30% females vs. 24% males reported at least one childhood sexually abusive experience). When divided into cohorts (born: 1911-1929; 1930-1949; 1950-1969; 1970-1983), the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse appeared to be lower in the oldest (1911-1929) and youngest (1970-1983) generations, and higher in the middle generations (1930-1949 and 1950-1969). Results related to adult sexual violence show a different pattern; for both genders, prevalence of sexual violence appeared to be on the rise for all cohorts, with the youngest cohort (1970-1983) reporting the highest rates of abuse. When comparing risk of sexual violence by gender and age period (i.e., childhood and adulthood up to age 30), women bear about the same risk of being abused in both age periods. Further, while men’s risk in childhood was lower than that for women, and the male adulthood risk decreased threefold from male childhood risk.
This study brings important elements to the analysis of child sexual abuse rates, although a word of caution is warranted. The decline observed does not appear to be a reporting artefact created by methodological differences in the way child sexual abuse is conceptualized, as all participants were asked the same questions within the same time period. As well, the authors argue that the decline observed in relation to child sexual abuse is unlikely to be caused by an underreporting by the younger generation; because this generation reported high rates of adult sexual violence, they are unlikely to have been underreporting child sexual abuse. Nevertheless, it remains critical to acknowledge that widespread abuse experienced by many adults in State-run institutions around the middle of the 20th century impacted the prevalence of sexual violence reported by the middle generations. As a consequence, child sexual abuse rates for the younger generation is indeed lower, although this decline may not be related to any advances in preventative programs or greater social actions against child sexual abuse.
The data used in this study were gathered in 2001 through random digit dialling (response rate 71%). The final sample comprised 3,120 adults 18 years old and over. Participation was anonymous. Interviewers provided support resources if needed and a follow-up call was made to the participants to ensure their well-being a few days after the original interview.
Participants were asked about potential abusive experiences in a specific and explicit way. The interview included 12 childhood sexual abuse-related items and 10 for adult sexual violence. Participants responding ‘unsure’ were re-categorized as ‘no’.
One of the main limitations of this study is that it relies on retrospective self-report to calculate the rate of child sexual abuse and sexual violence; the results could therefore be attributed to either a change in prevalence rates or inter-generational variations in recall patterns. In addition, note that the risk for adult sexual violence for the younger generation had to be estimated, given that not all participants had reached 30 years old at the time of the study.