Prevalence and characteristics of sexual abuse in a national sample of Swedish seventeen-year-old boys and girls

Authors


K Edgardh, Department of Venhälsan, Söder Hospital, SE-118 83 Stockholm, Sweden

Abstract

The aims of this study, which was part of a survey on adolescent sexual behaviour, were to investigate adolescents' experience of child sexual abuse and to present possible abuse-related problems. Representative samples of 2% of Sweden's 17-y-old male and female students and school non-attenders were selected in a two-step procedure. In all, 1943 students and 210 school non-attenders answered a self-administered anonymous questionnaire, distributed by school nurses. Six out of 170 questions dealt with personal experiences of child sexual abuse, i.e. age at onset, frequency of abuse and relationship to the offender. Peer abuse was excluded by the definitions used. The overall response rate was 92.2% for students and 44.2% for school dropouts. Among male and female students, 3.1% and 11.2%, respectively, acknowledged sexual abuse, 2.3% and 7.1%, respectively, when exhibitionism was excluded. Mean age at onset was 9.1 y (SD 4.3) for boys and 9.0 y (SD 3.9) for girls; 1.2% of the boys and 3.1% of the girls reported abusive oral, vaginal and/or anal intercourse. Suicide attempts or other acts of self-harm were reported by 33.3% of the male students reporting abuse and by 5.1%(p <0.001) of those who had not been abused, and by 30.4% of the abused student girls compared to 9.1% of the non-abused (p < 0.001). Sleep and eating disorders, use of alcohol at an early age and/or experimentation with illicit drugs and consensual coitarche before age 15 y was reported significantly more often by abused than non-abused girls (p < 0.001, differences not found among the student boys). Of school non-attenders, 4% of the boys and 28% of the girls reported sexual abuse. Of the abused girls, 49% reported abusive vaginal intercourse and 64% reported self-destructive behaviour or suicide attempts. No abused boys and few abused girls had confided in a teacher, health professional or social worker.

Results from the student sample should be interpreted as markers of “minimum prevalence”, as female school non-attenders report significantly higher prevalence of sexual abuse. Potential high-risk groups are better included in prevalence investigations of child sexual abuse. The fact that so few adolescents confided in “professionals” about the abuse, despite having severe symptoms and signs of distress, underlines the need to address sexual abuse when recording the social, medical and psychiatric histories of adolescents.

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