THURSDAY, May 19 (HealthDay News) -- One in six adult men reported being sexually molested as children, and -- in a surprise finding -- nearly 40 percent of the perpetrators were female, a new study found.
Women fared even worse, with one in four reporting childhood molestation, in almost all cases perpetrated by males.
Both male and female victims had higher rates of substance abuse, mental illness and troubled marriages.
The findings are contained in a study of more than 17,000 California residents that appears in the June issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
"Children of both genders are vulnerable to childhood sexual abuse," said study lead author Shanta Dube, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "And the long-term effects are similar, regardless of the gender of the victim."
Child molestation has been in the public eye since the 1970s. But much of the focus has been on female victims because awareness of the problem first sprang from the women's movement and rape-crisis centers, explained Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, a research associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire who has studied child sex abuse.
Consequently, the treatment of the health effects of childhood abuse also focused on women. "I don't think they were trying to exclude men, it's just that so many of the patients were women," she said.
In the last few years, the Catholic Church abuse scandal has focused more attention on males who were molested as children. But studies of male sexual abuse have tended to focus on those men who have sought psychological help, Dube said.
In the new study, researchers examined the results of a survey of 17,337 San Diego-area members of the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan between 1995 and 1997.
Twenty-five percent of females reported being molested, as did 16 percent of males. Among female victims, males were responsible for the abuse 94 percent of the time. Among male victims, females made up 38 percent of perpetrators, according to the study.
The high percentage of female perpetrators is unusual in abuse research, Kendall-Tackett said. Other research has suggested higher numbers of male molesters of girls. "But maybe that's changing, maybe we're finding out more about it," she said.
The molestation victims were more than twice as likely to have tried to commit suicide as the other people surveyed. They were also 40 percent to 50 percent more likely to have marital problems.
Dube said the study results should boost awareness of sexual abuse of males and the role of female perpetrators. "The findings will definitely help increase the understanding that child sexual abuse is common," she said.
Kendall-Tackett added that the research could help doctors do a better job of questioning patients, especially men, whose adult response to childhood sexual abuse hasn't been well studied. "It's going to expand physicians' understanding in terms of knowing risk factors and what to ask about."
Learn more about childhood sexual abuse from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.