The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on the by Christopher J. Bruce, Ph.D. & Daniel V. Gordon, Ph.D.
This article first appeared in the autumn 2007 issue of the Expert Witness.
One of the most complex issues facing the courts in any sexual abuse case is the determination of the impact that the harm has had on the plaintiff’s earning capacity. Not only is very little statistical evidence available on this issue, but the data that do exist have often proved to be unreliable.
Recently, this lack of a reputable source has been resolved with the publication of a Statistics Canada survey in which a representative sample of Canadians was asked about their experiences of victimization. From this survey, we were able to obtain information about a large set of (adult) women who had suffered sexual abuse as children.
The purpose of this paper is to report our findings concerning the consequences of that abuse on the educational attainment and earnings of the victims. Our surprising result is that, among most such victims, abuse does not have a statistically significant effect on adult education and earnings. Furthermore, in the only group for which abuse
was found to have a significant effect – women who were first abused between the ages of seven and thirteen
– education and income were higher than among women who had not been abused.
The remainder of the paper is divided into three sections: a review of the existing literature; the development of an economic model concerning the effect of abuse; and a summary of our statistical findings.
The academic literature concerning the effects of childhood sexual abuse is composed of two streams. In the first, researchers have attempted to develop theories of childhood social-psychological development that can be used to understand the pathways by which abuse affects its victims. In the second, researchers have used statistical tests to identify correlations between abuse and its predicted outcomes, such as depression, alcoholism, and school completion rates.
Many theories concerning the impact of sexual abuse are founded on the ‘core-symptom’ model, in which a
core problem or event is presumed to have led to one or more symptoms. The most common of these models characterize sexual abuse as a trauma, leading researchers to predict that abuse will result in post traumatic stress disorder.
An alternative interpretation suggests that, rather than
having a single effect, sexual abuse might produce multifaceted effects. Finkelhor and Browne (1985), for example, argued that sexual abuse had four primary effects: traumatic sexualization, stigmatization (i.e. low esteem and self-destructive behaviour), betrayal, and powerlessness.
A third approach, ‘developmental models,’ proposes that sexual abuse may affect victims by interfering with development in areas such as social- and self-functioning. In this view, therefore, the age at which the child is abused may be a critical determinant of the long-term effects of that abuse. For example, Celano (1992) suggested that the impact of sexual abuse may differ among Piaget’s three stages of childhood moral development (Piaget, 1965): preschool (ages 0-6), latency (7-13), and adolescence (14-19). She hypothesised that whereas preschoolers may not recognise that abuse is morally reprehensible, and adolescents may consider their moral culpability to be ameliorated by failure to provide informed consent, children in the latency period may consider themselves (at least in part) to be responsible for many of the types of abuse. Accordingly, she predicts that abuse will be most harmful if it occurs in the latency period.
Statistical studies can roughly be divided among those that investigate the effect of sexual abuse on: psychological factors, (such as depression, self-esteem, and sexuality); social outcomes, (such as alcoholism and delinquency); and economic outcomes, (specifically, schooling and adult income).
This literature is virtually unanimous in its finding that childhood sexual abuse has statistically significant effects on the victim’s psychological well-being. The outcomes that are most commonly found include: low self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, affective and personality disorders, and anti-social behaviour.
The sociological literature has provided evidence concerning the effect that abuse has on criminal activity. Studies that aggregate across a number of different types of childhood abuse
– neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse, for example
– commonly find that criminal activity is correlated with
this aggregate; although some find no statistically significant correlation. Importantly, however, when ‘abuse’ is separated into its components, it is only ‘neglect’ that is found to be correlated with criminal activity. Neither physical nor sexual abuse appears to be a significant determinant in this formulation.
Very mixed results have been obtained when researchers investigate the impact of abuse on schooling and income. Slade and Wissow, (2006) found that individuals who had been maltreated as children had lower high school GPAs than the control group, but no greater problems with teachers, with completion of homework, or with school absences. And some studies have found evidence that victims of childhood sexual abuse performed better in school than those who had not been abused (e.g. Eckenrode, et al. 1993 and Buckle, et al. 2005).
In our model, we assume that individuals divide their time among three activities: solitary leisure activities, such as reading, watching television, and playing video games; social leisure activities, such as team sports, club memberships, and interacting with friends; and “market” activities, such as investing in education and working in the labour market. The value of each activity increases as additional time and effort is devoted to it. And the “cost” of time spent in any one activity is the value that is foregone from the other activities (the “opportunity cost” concept so familiar to economics students).
We hypothesize that the effect of sexual abuse is to reduce the benefits that individuals obtain from each of the three activities. Normally, one would expect that this would lead to a reduction in each of them. However, assume that the negative effect on the time and effort devoted to two of the activities was greater than it was on the remaining one. In that case, it is possible that the victim might “substitute” away from the more seriously-affected activities towards the less-seriously affected one. As a result, the latter might even increase.
For example, if abuse had a much more significant (negative) impact on the individual’s ability to socialize than on
her ability to undertake schoolwork or to compete in the labour market, abuse might lead to a lesser reduction in the latter activities than expected, and could even lead to an increase in those activities. In common parlance, the individual might be said to have compensated for the harm to her socialization skills by ‘throwing herself’ into academic and work-related activities. In such a case, abused individuals might be observed to complete more years of education than the non-abused, and might earn higher incomes; but this would come at the expense of a significant withdrawal from normal social activities. We propose to test for this effect in the analysis reported in the next section.
We obtained information concerning 6,528 adult Canadian
women, (drawn from the 1999 General Social Survey), of whom 607 reported that they had been sexually abused as children. Using the data from this survey, we conducted two statistical tests.
In the first of these, we estimated the effect of a series
of variables on educational achievement. The variables that are usually found to be important – such as parents’ education, individual’s place of birth, and whether the individual belonged to a “visible minority” – all proved
to be significant in our data. In addition, we found that if the individual had first been sexually abused between the ages of seven and thirteen, she obtained more education than did individuals who had not been abused or who had first been abused before seven or after thirteen.
In our second test, we estimated the effect of a number of background variables on adult earnings. As expected, we found that variables such as the individual’s education and whether she belonged to a visible minority had significant effects on income. And, again, we found that individuals who had been abused between the ages of seven and thirteen had statistically higher levels of income than did those who had not been abused or who had first been abused before seven or after thirteen. Importantly, this effect is in addition to the increase in income that would have arisen from the effect of abuse on education.
To summarise, we found: first, that abuse before the age of seven or after the age of thirteen had no statistically discernable effect on either the victim’s education or her adult income. Second, abuse between the ages of seven and thirteen increased average educational levels and increased average incomes, both directly and indirectly (through the effect on education).
We have found that, on average, sexual abuse is not associated with lower educational levels or lower adult incomes among victims. This does not mean that all victims have higher income levels than those who have not been victimised: some victims will be above-average and some below. When the court is dealing with a particular plaintiff, it should always rely on factors that are specific to that individual. Nevertheless, our results suggest that it cannot be concluded, without such specific information, that the individual’s adult income will be adversely affected by sexual abuse.
Buckle, S., S. Lancaster, M. Powell, and D. Higgins (2005) “The Relationship Between Child Sexual Abuse and Academic Achievement in a Sample of Adolescent Psychiatric Inpatients,” 29 Child Abuse and Neglect, 1031-1047.
Celano, M. (1992) “A Developmental Model of Victims’ Internal Attributions of Responsibility for Sexual Abuse,” 7 Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 57-69.
Eckenrode, J., M. Laird, and J. Doris (1993) “School Performance and Disciplinary Problems Among Abused and Neglected Children,” 29 Developmental Psychology,
Finkelhor, D., and A. Browne (1985) “The Traumatic Impact of Child Sexual Abuse: A Conceptualization,” 55 American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 530-541.
Piaget, J. (1965) The Moral Judgement of the Child, (New York: Free Press).
Slade, E., and L. Wissow (2006) “The Influence of Childhood Maltreatment on Adolescents’ Academic Performance,”
Economics of Education Review, (in press).