Sunday, January 3, 2010

Childhood Abuse (as Etiology)

One of the most persistent narratives in the popular and scholarly understanding of kink is that it is a result of childhood sexual abuse (see Weinberg 2006 for a bibliography). This argument is in fact articulated by a large number of kinky people in their self-explanatory narratives. It is also used by both psychiatry and radical feminism to depict kink as a disorder that is at least symptomatic of social wrongs, if not wrong in and of itself. Likewise, it is used to question the consent claims of kinky people, by arguing that they are traumatized and therefore incompetent to give meaningful consent.

Given the popularity of this theory, and the considerable attention it has attracted over the years, the hard evidence for this etiology is rather weak.  This is in large part due to the variety of operational definitions that are used in research on abuse, and other methodological difficulties in studying abuse in general (Sanderson 2006).  In the United States, for instance, the range of published estimates for childhood abuse span a twelve-to-one ratio. The extreme values plausibly serve the purposes of those who wish to either downplay or exaggerate the prevalence of sexual abuse. More generally, though, they reflect the very wide range of possible abusive behavior, and wording of survey questions. “Were you raped as a child?” is a far narrower question than “Did your parents ever make you feel that you were no good?” But both those questions may ultimately be reduced to summary statistics on the prevalence of abuse, which are cited without further explanation. Similarly, different surveys focus on different age groups in defining childhood abuse, further blurring the statistics.

Gorey and Leslie (1997), in a metastudy of sixteen US reports, suggest a prevalence for child contact sexual abuse at 15% of girls and 7% of boys; figures cited in the popular media are usually a good bit higher (25% and 15% are common). Much higher figures are claimed by operationalizing broad definitions of emotional abuse, or by making currently unsupportable claims about the prevalence of sexual molestation.

Unfortunately, all of this creates a very poor environment for making comparisons between study groups. Unless a survey contains a control group being asked the same questions (which most kink surveys do not), it is hard to make much sense of abuse rates.

Direct Evidence

Richters et al (2008) is the only survey I am aware of that employs a control group in this regard. They find that Australian BDSM practitioners were slightly more likely to have “experienced sexual coercion” either before or after the age of 16, but that the difference with the control was statistically insignificant. In particular, their female respondents reported almost no difference at all for sexual coercion as children: 13.3% of non-kinky and 13.6% of kinky women. It is possible, of course, that respondents had been sexually abused in ways that they did not identify as coercive.

To my knowledge, the only other study that makes a direct comparison with general population figures (though not with a control group) is Nordling et al (2006). Their sample is a much smaller and almost entirely male group. They compare their own results with national data for Finland. They found that 8% of kinky men in their sample had experienced sexual abuse, while the nationwide rate was 1-3%. They also found that 23% of kinky women in their sample (which is to say, 5 out of 22) had experienced sexual abuse, while the nationwide rate is 6-8%. These results, especially for women, are obviously quite distinct from the Australian study.

Moving on to the United States, we have no studies with control groups, or which even make an effort to compare their question sets to national surveys. However, Bienvenu and Jacques (1999) found rates of childhood emotional, physical, and sexual abuse among kinky women to be 60%, 35%, and 44%, respectively. For kinky men, those figures were 32%, 17%, and 17%. Note that if we compare Bienvenu and Jacques' “sexual abuse” to Gorey and Leslie's figures for “contact sexual abuse,” we see rates 2-3 time higher in the kinky population than in the overall population: essentially the same ratios as the Finnish study.

Brame (2000) asked her subjects if there was “domestic violence of emotional abuse” in their family—not necessarily directed at the respondent—and 36% agreed that there was. Again, no comparison data is available.  Shulman and Horne (2006) find that childhood abuse of is associated with women's fantasies of being "sexually forced", though it is not the major factor in predicting such factors.  They do not discuss whether force fantasies are then acted on in the form of BDSM.

Finally, Sanderson (2006, pp. 63, 366-367) claims an association between childhood sexual abuse and adult BDSM, on the basis of two studies: Lewis (1992) and Walsh and Rosen (1988).  However, this claim is erroneous: neither of those studies refers to BDSM at all.  The first is a paper on the neurotransmitters for aggression in humans and rodents, and the second is a monograph on self-harm.

Mechanisms and Indirect Evidence

If sexual abuse can produce kink, at least in some instances, how does it do so? One theory, dating back to Freud (1969 [1905]), is that survivors of abuse experience sexual guilt which may then be expressed as kinky sexuality. This was tested and rejected by Cross and Matheson (2006), who could not find any correlation between BDSM practice and sexual guilt. Perhaps, however, the kink replaces the guilt or trauma, as a sort of coping mechanism, so that the subjects do not continue to experience sexual guilt.

Another common theory is that sexual abuse survivors have diminished self-esteem which may lead them to become submissive. (Some texts even use “submissiveness” and “low-self-esteem” as interchangeable terms.) Cross and Matheson, again, reject any correlation in their study. Moreover, there is no direct evidence that those kinky people who are abuse survivors are, in fact,  disproportionately submissives. Perhaps they are more apt to be dominant. None of the surveys mentioned above have asked this question.

A third possibility is that eroticization of sexual violence and coercion develops as a coping strategy for dealing with sexual abuse, and is then retained as a primary means of sexual expression.  (Sanderson 2006 p. 58; Stein 2007 p. 70).

A final possibility is hypersexualization. A common finding in sexual abuse survivors is that they are more highly sexualized than their peers. (e.g. Saderson 2006 pp. 362-363). This is true for kinky people as well, even leaving kink as-such out of the picture. Perhaps for some abuse survivors, BDSM is simply an aspect of a hyper-exploratory sexual dynamic which in some way is a response to the abuse.

It is noteworthy that in several of these possible etiologies, the development of kink may play a survival role for the abused child.  If that is the case, treating it is a pathology may not be indicated.


While the inconsistencies in these surveys are very substantial, and warrant more research, we can make some provisional conclusions. The largest, best-designed study rejects any connection, but some studies do suggest that kinky adults are up to three times more likely to have survived childhood abuse than their peers.  The mechanism has not been closely examined, but is most likely some type of conditioning or coping strategy, rather than guilt or low self-esteem.

In all events, abuse is not a robust etiology for kink as a whole: in every study, large majorities of kinky people report not having been sexually abused, and in the largest study (and the only study with a direct control group) there is no association whatsoever. Finally, it is clear that most abuse victims do not become kinky: if kink can serve as a coping strategy for abuse, it is only one such possibility among many.

Future research in this area badly needs to distinguish between dominant and submissive roles, the nature of the abuse, and needs to utilize control groups or meaningful comparison population.

Updated 2/6/13

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