5/17/05 Intervening Variables

Intervening Variables Relevant to the Consequences of Sexual Activities Between Boys and Older Males

 

Abstract

 

Cross-cultural studies, autobiographical accounts, and social research in Western society all suggest that the outcome of a sexual relationship between a boy and an older male can be negative, neutral or positive. This study uses selected questions and answers from an extensive questionnaire about sexual relationships between boys and older males. The data is used to measure the impact of four intervening variables that might explain a great deal of the variability in outcome. The four intervening variables focused on are 1. the context of a larger caring relationship, 2. the degree of coercion or willingness associated with participating in the sexual activity, 3 key beliefs about the sexual activity, and, 4. the social consequences of discovery. The most striking outcome of the research has to do with the degree to which the outcome measures – especially the retroactive assessment of mental health – correlate with indications that the sexual activity took place in the context of a larger caring relationship.

Introduction

 

Previous research has shown that harm is not an invariable outcome of sexual activities between minors and adults. (Sandfort, 1987, Bauserman and Rind, 1997. [others?]) Bauserman and Rind (1987, p. 129) suggest that a number of “moderator variables” may be important with regard to the psychological outcomes of cross-generational intimate relationships. The present research explores the impact of four of these “moderator” or intervening variables which may have explanatory value with regard to why relationships in which sexual activities take place between boys and older males are harmful in some cases and either neutral or even positive in others. The four intervening variables are 1. the context of a larger caring relationship, 2. the degree of coercion or willingness associated with participating in the activity, 3 key beliefs about the sexual activity, and, 4. the social consequences of discovery. Specifically this research is focused on the following hypotheses:

 

1. The experience of the sexual activities taking place in the context of a larger caring relationship will correlate positively with a positive experience of the relationship, and a positive assessment of its consequences.

 

 

2. The perception of having been coerced or pressured into unwanted sexual activities in a relationship will correlate positively with a negative experience of the relationship and a negative assessment of its consequences.

 

 

3. The belief that the sexual activity was either a sin or a sign of mental disorder will correlate positively with a negative experience of the relationship and a negative assessment of the its consequences.

 

 

4. The social consequences following any discovery of the sexual activities by authorities will correlate positively with a negative retroactive assessment of the relationship.

 

In this study we used the results of an extensive Internet questionnaire to explore in a preliminary manner the degree of relevance of each of the intervening variables outlined above, and to test the hypotheses based on them. Questions were selected from the questionnaire that seemed to be appropriate measures of the four variables, and the responses to these questions were correlated with two outcome measures – the degree to which the child felt that the relationship satisfied his need to feel loved, and the respondent's retroactive assessment of the impact of the relationship on his mental health.

 

 

 

Method

 

Participants

 

Respondents were solicited from a posting on “BoyLinks” (http://www.boylinks.net./). Through this source it was possible to find 76 men who had experienced sexual contacts as boys with older men, and who were willing to fill out an extensive questionnaire. This sample was divided more or less evenly between men who were peer attracted and men who were attracted to boys.

 

Instrument

 

The questionnaire was designed to gather various data on multiple aspects of the sexual experiences of minor males with older males, and inquired about general demographics, adult sexual attraction, sexual background and experiences, the nonsexual and sexual aspects of their primary relationship with an older male, and the perceptions of the negative and positive effects of that relationship. Informed consent regarding participation in this survey was addressed in the preamble to the document, and potential participants were assured that no attempts would be made to identify any individual. Code was written into the processing software which required that each question be answered, and that also prevented anyone from submitting the same set of responses multiple times in rapid succession.

 

Outcome measures

 

The specific questions that were selected for outcome measures were as follows:

 

1. To what extent did this principal relationship fulfill your need to feel loved and wanted?

 

(1) Not at all, (2) Only a little, (3) Some, (4) A lot, (5) Almost completely.

 

2. How did this principal relationship contribute to your present mental health and emotional stability

 

        (1)Very negatively, (2) somewhat negatively, (3) Neither positively nor negatively, (4) Somewhat positively, (5) Very positively.

 

The measures of the intervening variable

 

The specific questions used to measure the four intervening variables were as follows:

 

Activities that suggested the presence of a larger caring relationship:

 

1. To what degree did you and this principal older male engage in sports?

 

(1) Not at all, (2) Only a little, (3)Some, (4) A lot, (5) It was our main common interest.

 

2. To what degree did you and this principal older male engage in hobbies?

 

(1) Not at all, (2) Only a little, (3) Some, (4) A lot, (5) It was our main common interest.

 

3. To what degree did this principal older male provide encouragement and support in your education, help with homework, etc.?

 

(1) Never, (2) Rarely, (3) Fairly often, (4) Quite often, (5) Extensively.

 

4. To what degree did this principal older male provide significant counsel with your personal development?

 

(1) Never, (2) Rarely, (3) Fairly often, (4) Quite often, (5) Extensively.

 

Beliefs:

 

1. While you were a child and adolescent, to what degree did the religious instruction you received create a sense of wrongfulness and guilt about your interest in your sexuality?

 

(1) I did not receive religious instruction to any significant

degree,

(2) My religious instruction did not address the issues of

sexuality,

(3) My religious instruction was not particularly negative about

sexuality,

(4) My religious instruction indicated that boys did not and

should not think about sex,

(5) My religious instruction indicated that boys did not and

should not think about sex, and that until I was "old enough,"

any sexual feelings I had were sinful and must be repressed,

(6) My religious instruction indicated that boys did not and

should not think about sex, that I must repress any sexual

feelings that I had, and that being sexually attracted to

another boy or older male was particularly evil.

 

2. Some people would describe your relationship as "child sexual abuse." Do you agree that it was?

 

(1) Not at all, (2) A little, (3) Some, (4) A lot, (5) Completely.

 

 

Consent:

 

1. When you began this relationship, to what extent did you have a desire for sexual activities with an older male?

 

(0) The idea never occurred to me, (1) Not at all, (2) Only slightly, (3) Somewhat, (4) Quite a bit, (5) Intensely.

 

2. How willing were you the first time to engage in sexual activities?

 

(1) I objected and was not at all willing, (2) I was passive, and neither objected nor consented, (3) I was a little bit willing, (4) I was moderately willing, (5) I was very much willing, (6)I was completely willing.

 

 

3. After the first few times, how willing were you to continue to engage in sexual activities?

 

(0) We only had sex once or twice, (2) I objected and was not at all willing, (3) I was passive, and neither objected nor consented, (4) I was a little bit willing, (5) I was moderately willing, (6) I was very much willing, (7) I was completely willing.

 

 

4. The first time or two, to what degree were you physically forced, against your will and after you had objected, to engage in sexual activities with this principal older male?

 

(1) I was not at all physically forced to engage in sexual activities, (2) Only a little, (3) Moderately, (4) Very much, (5) My participation in sexual activities was entirely the result of being physically forced.

 

Societal reactions

 

1. To what extent were you teased or harassed by your peers about your relationship with this principal older male?

 

(0) None of my peers knew about the relationship, (1) Not at all, (2) A little, (3) Some, (4) A lot, (5) A whole lot.

 

2. Was there an informal inquiry or formal investigation into your relationship?

 

(1) There was no inquiry or investigation of any kind, (2) There was an informal inquiry not involving either school authorities, "children's services" or equivalent social agency, or law enforcement personnel, (3) There was an informal inquiry involving school authorities and/or "children's services" or equivalent social agency, but not law enforcement personnel, (4) There was a formal investigation involving school authorities and/or "children's services" or equivalent social agency, but not law enforcement personnel, (5) There was a formal investigation involving school authorities, "children's services" or equivalent social agency, and/or law enforcement personnel.

 

 

Each of the questions that we used as indicators of the four intervening variables was cross tabulated with the two questions that we used for the outcome (dependent) variables -- first with the question that pertained to feeling loved in the relationship and then with the question that pertained to the retroactive assessment of how the relationship effected the respondent's mental health. These tables were collapsed into a two by two tables for statistical purposes, and Fisher's exact test was used to ascertain whether the elements were correlated to a significant degree. Fisher's test was used because even after collapsing the tables, on two out of the 24 correlations we obtained less than 5 respondents in one of the boxes. However, we also ran Chi Square tabulations, and they were in agreement with the Fisher exact test with regard to which correlations were significant, and in general, to what degree. We used the standard .05 level of probability as the cut off point for significant, though in two cases we included correlations that were just a fraction higher, and referred to them as “marginally significant.” Although we treated the intervening variables as independent variables for statistical purposes, conceptually, the relationship in which there was sexual activity between a boy and an older male was the independent variable. The four factors that we measured were conceptualized as intervening variables.

 

Findings

 

It might be noted that within this sample, 78% of the respondents felt that the relationship fulfilled their need to feel loved from “some” degree to “almost completely.” 22% felt that it met this need “only a little” or not at all. With regard to the assessment that the respondents made about how the relationship affected their present mental health, 12% felt that it had a negative effect, 38% felt that it was neutral, and 50% felt that it was positive. Although the results were skewed toward a positive overall assessment of the relationships, there was sufficient variation with regard to the dependent variables to obtain significant results with regard to most of the intervening variables. The only exceptions were in those cases where the overwhelming majority responded in the same way on a few of the specific questions that were used to measure the independent variables. For example, almost none of these relationships were discovered by either peers or the authorities, so we were unable to obtain significant results with regard to the societal impact variable.

 

In the tables below the relevant questions under each intervening variable are correlated first with the question of feeling loved and then with the question pertaining to mental health.

 

 

 

Table One: The correlation between participating in four different activities and a report of feeling loved.



Activity

Correlation with feeling loved

Sports

No significant correlation

Hobbies

No significant correlation

Providing educational help

No significant correlation

Providing counsel with problems

Significant: P = .04



Table Two: The correlation between participating in four different activities with a retroactive assessment of the relationship having a positive effect on the mental health of the respondent.



Activity

Correlation with mental health

Sports

Significant: P = .01

Hobbies

Significant: P = .002

Providing educational help

Significant: P = .00001

Providing counsel with problems

Significant: P = .00008



Table Three: The correlation between two key beliefs and a report of feeling loved.



Belief

Correlation with feeling loved

The activity was “abuse.”

Significant: P = .018

The activity was sinful.

No significant correlation



Table Four: The correlation between two key beliefs and a retroactive assessment of the relationship having a positive effect on the mental health of the respondent.

 

Belief

Correlation with mental health

The activity was “abuse.”

Significant: P = .0001

The activity was sinful.

No significant correlation



Table Five: The correlation between four variables relevant to the issue of coercion/willingness and the reported feeling of being loved.

 

 

Indication of willingness/coercion

Correlation with feeling loved

Desire for a sexual relationship

Significant: P = .032

Initial willingness

Not significant

Ongoing willingness

Not significant

Use of physical force

Not significant

 

Table Six: The correlation between four variables relevant to the issue of coercion/willingness and the reported feeling of being loved.

 

Indication of willingness/coercion

Correlation with mental health

Desire for a sexual relationship

Significant: P = .017

Initial willingness

Marginally significant: P = .06

Ongoing willingness

Not significant

Use of physical force

Marginally significant P = .056

 



Note: No significant correlations were obtained with regard to societal responses and either a feeling of being loved or the manner in which the mental health consequences of the relationship were assessed.

 

Discussion

 

 

Our hypothesis was that the four intervening variables that we designated would all correlate in a significant way with indications of a positive or negative effect of the sexual relationships of boys with older males. Finding such correlations would lend support the idea that these are, in fact, important intervening variables that must be carefully and objectively studied if we are to gain an accurate understanding of the effects of this kind of sexual activity. In interpreting the results of our data, we will consider the degree to which they lend support to the importance of each intervening variable.

 

The Context of a Caring Relationship:

 

In general, doing things together did not appear to be strongly related to the degree to which the boy felt the relationship met his need to feel loved and accepted. The exception was the question regarding counseling: “To what degree did this principle older male provide significant counsel with your personal development?” The higher responses to this question correlated with a feeling of being loved at the .04 level of significance.

 

Perhaps the most striking result of this study concerned the degree to which doing positive things together – which was our way of measuring the context of a caring relationship – correlated with a retroactive assessment that the relationship contributed to the present mental health of the respondents. This correlation was found with all four of the activities. Helping with educational matters, and providing counsel with problems produced especially strong correlations – at the .00001 and the .00008 levels of significance respectively. Taken together, these data lend significant support to the hypothesis that whether or not the sexual activity occurs in the context of a larger caring relationship is an intervening variable of major importance.

 

Key Beliefs:

 

We speculated that the key interpretive schemes that would influence the responses of most people in this culture would come either from religion or mental health. The one ideology would label the activity as “sinful” and the other as “sick” or “abusive.” The question pertaining to religion asked about the degree to which a person received religious instruction that focused on sex between boys and older males, and defined such relationships as sinful. We found no significant relationship between having been exposed to such training and either feeling loved by the older male, or seeing the relationship as effecting the respondents mental health.

 

The respondents were asked to what degree did they feel that the activity between them and the older male was “abuse.” A strong majority's of people in this sample (80%) did not view the activity of “abusive.” Nevertheless there was sufficient variation in opinions on this matter to obtain statistically significant results. Whether the activity was seen as abuse correlated at a .018 level of significance with whether the respondent felt he was loved, and at a .0001 level of significance with regard to the respondent's later assessment of the relationship on his mental health. The direction of the correlation is clear enough. Those who did not feel the activity was abuse were more likely to feel loved and more likely to assess it positively in terms of their mental health. However, one could interpret the meaning of this correlation in one of two ways. It is possible that those relationships that were in some ways more abusive were more likely to be labeled “abuse” for that reason, and this would logically lead to the obtained results. However, it is also possible that some of the men believed that the relationship was abusive not because of their experience in the relationship, but because of having been exposed to that view in the media and elsewhere. This could lead to the same outcome with regard to assessments about being loved and the impact on mental health. We do not have sufficient data at this time to resolve this issue. Nevertheless, the strong correlation with regard to the belief about “abuse” clearly demonstrates that the factor of beliefs merits further exploration.

 

It is not immediately clear why such strong correlations with feeling loved and with a positive assessment of mental health were found with regard to the question about “abuse” and similar correlations were not found regarding religious training. It is possible that most of the men in this population rejected the religious beliefs they were exposed to. It is also possible that for this sample, mental health categories of interpretation are generally of more importance than religious ones.

 

Willingness/Coercion

 

Of the four questions that were used as indicators of the degree of willingness to engage in sexual activities, only one showed a clear and unequivocal connection with both feeling loved and with a positive assessment of the consequences of the relationship for mental health. The question about the desire for this kind of relationship (“When you began this relationship, to what extent did you have a desire for sexual activities with an older male”) showed a fairly strong correlation both with feeling loved (p = .032) and with a positive assessment regarding its impact on mental health (p = .017).

 

With regard to the issue of force, 84% (n = 64) of the sample indicated that they were “not at all forced to engage in sexual activities.” Only one respondent said he was “very much” forced. Four reported that they were “moderately” forced and seven said they were “only a little” forced. The fact that most of the respondents experienced no physical force, and the few that did generally experienced lesser degrees of it, provided us with only limited data with regard to the impact of the use of force. This needs to be kept in mind in interpreting the results with regard to coercion.

 

No correlation emerged between the use of force and feeling loved. A marginally significant correlation (p = .056) emerged with regard to how the respondents assessed the consequences of the coercion for their mental health. Given the small number of cases in which there was the use of any force at all, it is safe to say that this datum provides some limited support for the proposition that physical coercion is an important intervening variable with regard to the impact of sexual relationships between a boy and an older male.

 

Willingness as such was measured for the time when the sexual relationship first began, and then as willingness for the sexual activity to continue. There was a fairly wide range of feelings at the point when the sexual aspect of the relationship was first initiated, though even at this point a clear majority (76%) were from a “little bit” to “completely” willing. It was somewhat surprising, then, that the level of initial willingness did not correlate with a feeling of being loved. It did however, correlate to a marginally significant degree (p = .06) with the assessment of the impact of the experience on the person's mental health.

 

 

 

With regard to relationships that were ongoing, only 3 respondents indicated that they were either unwilling or passive with regard to the sexual activity. It is therefore not surprising that the data with regard to this question yields no significant results.

 

 

 

The lack of respondents who experienced significant physical force and the general willingness of respondents to engage in sexual activities made it difficult to obtain significant results with some of the questions that targeted the issue of coercion/willingness. The lack of a significant correlation with regard to the degree of willingness at the initiation of the sexual activity with the degree to which one felt loved is surprising, as in that case there was a sufficient range of responses to yield some results. However, the marginally significant (p = .06) correlation with an initial willingness to engage in sexual activities and the retroactive assessment of mental health does suggest that willingness is a significant intervening variable. Finally, the fairly robust connection between having an actual desire for the sexual part of the relationship and the measure of feeling loved (p = .032) and giving a positive assessment of the impact of the relationship on the respondent's mental health (p = .017) provides additional evidence that the willingness/coercion issue represents a significant intervening variable. Clearly, though, more data is needed of the sort that would allow a better comparison of boys who were willing with those who were coerced.

 

 

 

Societal response

 

 

 

We attempted to measure the impact of the societal reaction on the outcome of the sexual activity with two questions – one regarding peer responses, and the other the response form the larger society. However, it appears that overwhelmingly our respondents were not discovered in their activities and we were therefore unable to obtain any data that had a bearing on this issue. It is our feeling that the societal response – both by peers and by authorities – cannot be neutral with regard to the outcome of sexual activities between boys and older males, but this judgment is made independently from any data we were able to obtain from this study.

 

Conclusion

 

 

The most striking result obtained from this study was that whether the sexual activity between a boy and an older male occurred in the context of a larger caring relationship was an intervening variable of major importance with regard both to how boys experienced the relationship at the time, and how they retroactively assessed the impact of the relationship on their mental health. At least with this sample, when they did things together – especially things that the boy interpreted as helping him with problems -- the relationships were clearly experienced as a positive contribution to the boys lives. More research is needed to ascertain whether similar results will be obtained with other groups.

 

 

 

It was clear that mental health beliefs were an important variable with regard to the outcome of the sexual activity. Whether this meant that relationships that were experienced as intrinsically positive were later re-interpreted as negative on the basis of mental health ideas is less clear. It is possible that those relationships which were experienced in a negative way were interpreted as “abuse” regardless to the degree to which the respondent believed in the dominant mental health point of view. Further research aimed at making this distinction is needed. Also, it cannot be ruled out that religious ideology may have a significant impact on the consequences of this kind of relationship with populations for whom traditional religious categories are more important than they may have been for our sample.

 

 

 

Some of the data was supportive of the idea that the issue of willingness/coercion represents an important intervening variable. We would suspect that the impact of this variable would be even more clear with a sample where there was a greater degree of coercion and a smaller degree of willingness than was reported by our respondents. However, this is in need of more relevant data.

 

 

 

We did not obtain data the was relevant one way or the other with regard to the possible impact of societal responses to sexual activities between boys and older males when they were discovered. It is our suspicion that this variable is probably both very important and quite complex. Studies that compare the outcome of such relationships when they are discovered and when they are not are very much needed.

 

 

 

Another interesting question that will require a fair bit more research to answer has to do with the relative strength of the different intervening variables. In the real world all these variables are in operation – some pushing the consequences for the relationship in one direction, and some in the other. For example, what would be the outcome of a relationship that was desired, was entered into willingly and fit into the context of a larger caring relationship and was thus experienced as a positive thing by the boy, if that relationship was discovered and the boy was strongly encouraged by parents, police and therapists to interpret the event a sick, abusive, and damaging event in his life?

 

 

 

It would seem that the time has come to move beyond a simplistic adherence to the notion that all relationships between boys and older males in which there is any expression of sex are the same, and that all such relationships are equally and powerfully damaging to the boys. An approach based on this assumption gives the answers that research is meant to provide, without bothering to do the research. This is an serious impediment to a scientific understanding of the issue. Rather, an approach that identifies and studies those intervening variables that lead to such relationships having a negative, a neutral, or a positive effect on a boys life is called for. This study attempts to take a small step in that direction.

 

 

 

Bauserman, Robert and Rind, Bruce, 1997. Psychological Correlates of Male Child and Adolescent Sexual Experience with Adults: A review of the Nonclinical Literature. Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 26, No. 2.

 

 

Sandfort, Theo, 1987. Boys on their Contacts with Men: A Study of Sexually Expressed Friendships. Elmhurst New York: Global Academic Publishers.

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