Child abuse in the eyes of the beholder: Lay perceptions of child sexual and physical abuse

Brian H. Bornstein, Debra L. Kaplan, Andrea R. Perry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


Objective: The purpose was to explore the effects of victim and perpetrator gender, type of abuse, and victim-perpetrator relationship on university students' and non-students' perceptions of different kinds of child abuse. Method: One hundred and ninety-nine participants (including university students and non-student adults) evaluated each of 24 vignettes (within-subjects design) describing an abusive interaction between a child and an adult. The following four variables were manipulated: the victim's gender, the perpetrator's gender, the type of abuse (physical, relatively mild sexual, or relatively severe sexual), and the perpetrator's relationship to the victim (parent or babysitter). Participants rated each vignette on a number of dimensions: degree of trauma and severity, likelihood of general occurrence and reoccurrence, victim believability, and "repressibility" of the event. Results: Significant interactions emerged on each dimension. For example, sexual abuse (whether mild or severe) was rated as being more traumatic and severe if perpetrated by a parent, but relationship type did not affect perceptions of physical abuse. In addition, significant perpetrator gender by victim gender interactions indicated that homosexual abuse was perceived as more traumatic and repressible than heterosexual abuse, but as less likely to occur; and male participants tended to be more affected by the gender of the perpetrator and abuse type than female participants. Conclusion: The results suggest that people have stereotypes about the circumstances and consequences of child abuse. These stereotypes are often, though not always, consistent with existing empirical findings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)375-391
Number of pages17
JournalChild Abuse and Neglect
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2007


  • Child abuse
  • Lay perceptions
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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