Inconsistent retrospective self-reports of childhood sexual abuse and their correlates in the general population

  • Willemien Langeland
  • Jan H. Smit
  • Harald Merckelbach
  • Gerard de Vries
  • Adriaan W. Hoogendoorn
  • Nel DraijerEmail author
Original Paper



Epidemiological research on childhood sexual abuse (CSA) and its consequences in adult life mainly relies on retrospective reports. This study explores their consistency and the correlates of inconsistent CSA self-reports in a random population sample.


A stratified subsample of 2,462 subjects (selected from a large-scale (N = 34,267) representative sample of Dutch adults aged 40 and beyond) participated in a two-phase online questionnaire survey on extra-familial CSA which was conducted on a four- to six-week interval. Subjects reporting CSA were overrepresented. Participants with consistent and inconsistent responses were compared with regard to demographics, family background, abuse severity, and clinical characteristics. Potential correlates of inconsistency were identified using logistic regression analysis. An additional questionnaire (Phase III) administered to inconsistent respondents explored possible reasons for their inconsistency.


Of the 1,992 respondents who had reported extra-familial CSA during Phase I, 707 (35.5 %) denied this in Phase II. Of the 2,462 respondents in Phase II, 727 (29.5 %; 9.2 % when considering sample stratification) gave a discrepant answer to the extra-familial sexual abuse item compared to their answers given in Phase I. Reports of less severe abuse, intra-familial CSA, and early parental separation predicted inconsistency. Reasons provided for inconsistency varied from misunderstanding (e.g., reporting intra-familial CSA rather than extra-familial CSA) to emotional motives (e.g., embarrassment, being overwhelmed) or practical considerations (e.g., lack of privacy while filling out the questionnaire).


Inconsistent self-reports of extra-familial sexual abuse occur on a substantial scale and are associated with less severe forms of abuse (lack of salience) or classification difficulties (perpetrator being a family member or not). Consistency tests and probing for clarifications or corrections should be routinely conducted in order to increase the quality of CSA epidemiological research.


Childhood sexual abuse Survey Adults Reporting practices Consistency 



We are grateful to the respondents who participated in the survey and to the Commission of Inquiry into sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands that made the database available for secondary analysis. We thank ZONMW (The Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development, The Hague) for providing the research grant under contract 16564.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

127_2014_986_MOESM1_ESM.docx (15 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 14 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Willemien Langeland
    • 1
  • Jan H. Smit
    • 1
    • 2
  • Harald Merckelbach
    • 3
  • Gerard de Vries
    • 4
  • Adriaan W. Hoogendoorn
    • 2
  • Nel Draijer
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Psychiatry and EMGO+ InstituteVrije University Medical Center/GZZinGeestAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Research Department GGZinGeestAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Faculty of Psychology and NeuroscienceMaastricht UniversityMaastrichtThe Netherlands
  4. 4.Scientific Council For Government Policy (WRR) The Hague, The Netherlands and Department of PhilosophyUniversity of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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