The Science of Child Sexual Abuse

Jennifer J. Freyd 1, Frank W. Putnam2, Thomas D. Lyon3, Kathryn A. Becker-Blease4, Ross E. Cheit5, Nancy B. Siegel6, Kathy Pezdek7

Note: this file contains the manuscript version of a policy forum published in Science Magazine, accepted 4 April 2005. This version and the links to the published version are made available by permission of the publisher. Please reference the final copyedited version, available at the Science website at Viewers without a subscription to Science can also find an authorized link to the published version on my trauma publications web page. Once you get to the version on the Science web page you can scroll down to the bottom and find a link to the pdf reprint verson. The final version citation is:

Freyd, J.J., Putnam, F.W., Lyon, T.D., Becker-Blease, K. A., Cheit, R.E., Siegel, N.B., & Pezdek, K. (2005). The science of child sexual abuse. Science, 308, 501.

On-Line Summary: Child sexual abuse (CSA) involving sexual contact between an adult and a child has been reported by approximately 20% of women and 5-10% of men worldwide. A history of CSA leads to serious mental and physical health problems, substance abuse, and criminality in adulthood. Scientific study of CSA is currently under-funded, obscured by contentious forensic controversy, and fragmented by discipline. From public health, economic, ethical, and scientific perspectives, we recommend interdisciplinary consensus panels and increased intellectual investment in CSA research, prevention, intervention, and education.

Follow-up: In the 19 August 2005 issue Science published 4 letters and the authors' response to this policy forum.

Author Notes: 1Department of Psychology, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon; 2Department of Pediatrics, Children's Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati, Ohio; 3University of Southern California Law School, Los Angeles, California; 4Family Research Lab, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire; 5Department of Political Science, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island; 6NBS Associates, Columbia, Maryland; 7Department of Psychology, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California
Correspondence to: Jennifer J. Freyd, Email:


Child sexual abuse (CSA) involving sexual contact between an (usually male) adult and a child has been reported by 20% of women and 5-10% of men worldwide (1-3). Surveys likely underestimate prevalence due to underreporting and memory failure (4-6). Although official reports have declined somewhat in the U.S. over the past decade (7), close to 90% of sexual abuse cases are never reported to the authorities (8).

CSA is associated with serious mental and physical health problems, substance abuse, victimization, and criminality in adulthood (9-12). Mental health problems include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicide (13, 14). CSA may interfere with attachment, emotional regulation, and major stress response systems (15). CSA has been used as a weapon of war and genocide and is associated with abduction and human trafficking (2).

Much of the research on CSA has been plagued by non-representative sampling, deficient controls, and limited statistical power (16). Moreover, CSA is associated with other forms of victimization (17), which complicates causal analysis of its role in adult functioning. However, associations in larger scale community and well-patient samples have been confirmed after controlling for family dysfunction and other risk factors (18, 19), in longitudinal investigations that measure pre- and post- CSA functioning (20), and in twin studies that control for environmental and genetic factors (12, 21).

Most CSA is committed by family members and individuals close to the child (1), which increases the likelihood of delayed disclosure (22), unsupportive reactions by caregivers and lack of intervention (8, 23) and possible memory failure (24, 25, cf. 26). These factors all undermine the credibility of abuse reports, yet there is evidence that when adults recall abuse, memory veracity is not correlated with memory persistence (27, 28). Research on child witness reliability has focused on highly publicized allegations of abuse by preschool operators, and has emphasized false allegations rather than false denials (29, 30). Cognitive and neurological mechanisms that may underlie the forgetting of abuse have been identified (31-33).

Scientific research on CSA is distributed across numerous disciplines, resulting in fragmented knowledge that is often infused with unstated value judgments. Consequently, policymakers have difficulty utilizing available scientific knowledge and gaps in the knowledge base are not well articulated. We recommend interdisciplinary research initiatives and a series of international consensus panels on scientific and clinical practice issues related to CSA. This can promote (a) increased inclusion of CSA education in the curriculum in medical and mental health fields, (b) improved education of the public, the media, and professionals working with alleged CSA victims, (c) greater visibility and improved dissemination of CSA research, (d) increased focus on CSA by researchers in a range of disciplines, and (e) improved cost-benefit analyses of intervention, including prevention efforts.

We call on researchers from social science, medical, and criminal justice fields to gather better information on the prevalence (34), causes, consequences, prevention, and treatment of CSA. A 1996 report from the Department of Justice (35) estimated rape and sexual abuse of children to cost $1.5 billion in medical expenses and $23 billion total annually to U.S. victims. Whereas $2 is spent on research for every $100 dollars in cost for cancer, only $.05 is spent for every $100 dollars in cost for child maltreatment (36). The National Child Traumatic Stress Network is a federally funded network of 54 sites providing community-based treatment to children and their families exposed to a wide range of trauma. The network should be expanded to address the enormous public health consequences of child trauma, and supported to develop new forms of treatment. Even creation of a new Institute of Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence within the NIH would be justified on the basis of the emotional and economic cost of these problems

References and Notes

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2. World Health Organization, World Report on Violence and Health (2002;

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7. Child Maltreatment Report 1990 [-2002] (U.S. Department Health and Human Services, Washington, DC, 2002).

8. R. F. Hanson, et al., Child Abuse Neglect 23, 559 (1999).

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10.. F. W. Putnam, F. W. J. Am. Acad. Child Adolescent Psychiatry 42, 269 (2003).

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17. J.G. Noll et al., Interpers Violence. 18, 1452. (2003).

18. C. L. Battle et al., Personal Disord. 18, 193 (2004).

19. R. Roberts, T. O'Connor, J. Dunn, J. Golding; ALSPAC Study Team, Child Abuse Negl. 28, 525 (2004).

20. S. Boney-McCoy, D. Finkelhor. J Consult Clin Psychol, 64, 1406 (1996).

21. S. Dinwiddie, et al., Psychol Med. 30, 41 (2000).

22. D. W. Smith, et al., Child Abuse Neglect 24, 273 (2000).

23. D. M. Elliott, J. Briere, Behavioral Sciences Law 21, 261 (1994).

24. J. J. Freyd, Betrayal Trauma (Harvard, Cambridge, MA, 1996).

25. J. J. Freyd, A. P. DePrince, E. L. Zurbriggen, J. Trauma Dissociation 2, 5 (Number 3, 2001).

26. G. Goodman et al, Psychological Science 14, 113 (2003)

27. C. J. Dalenberg, J. Psychiatry Law 24, 229 (1996).

28. L. M. Williams, J. Traumatic Stress 8, 649 (1995).

29. S J. Ceci. M. Bruck, Jeopardy in the Courtroom : A Scientific Analysis of Children’s Testimony (American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C., 1995).

30. T. D. Lyon, Cornell Law Review 84, 1004 (1999).

31. M. C. Anderson, et al., Science 303, 232 (2004).

32. A. P. DePrince, J. J. Freyd, Psychol. Sci. 15, 488 (2004).

33. H. Sivers, J. Schooler, J. J. Freyd, in Encyclopedia of the Human Brain, V. S. Ramachandran, Ed. (Academic Press, 2002). vol. 4, 169-184.

34. For example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics only collects data on crimes against people aged 12 and older.

35. T. R. Miller, M. A. Cohen, B. Wiersema, Victim costs and consequences: A new look.  (US Department of Justice, Washington, DC., 1996) .

36. F. W. Putnam.  In Franey K, Geffner R, Falconer R (eds). The cost of child maltreatment: who pays?  (San Diego, Family Violence & Sexual Assault Institute, pp. 185-198., 2001).


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