Early Sexual Experiences Checklist

Early Sexual Experiences Checklist


Self-report biases and definitional problems have plagued studies of sexual abuse of children. Various investigators have forced respondents to label themselves as “sexually abused” (e.g., Kercher & McShane, 1984) or to make subtle distinctions among vague categories (e.g., “kissing or hugging in a sexual way”; Kilpatrick, 1986) in order to be counted as victims of deleterious, unwanted childhood sexual experiences. Miller, Johnson, and Johnson (1991) created the Early Sexual Experiences Checklist (ESEC) to provide an efficient, accessible procedure for detecting such experiences that avoids these methodological and conceptual problems. The ESEC merely asks respondents to check any specific, overt sexual behaviors that occurred when the respondents did not want them to. Coupled with reports of (a) the respondent’s age during the events, (b) the age of the person who initiated the events, or (c) any coercion, the ESEC allows diverse operationalizations of unwanted sexual experience that span the existing literature on sexual abuse (Kendall-Tackett, Williams, & Finkelhor,

1993). The straightforward, mechanical checklist method eschews evaluative, pejorative terminology and is thus relatively noninvasive. It is also simple and direct and very inexpensive, making it practical for use with large heterogenous populations.


The ESEC contains nine items listing explicit sexual behaviors and two additional items that allow respondents either to describe a further sexual event or to pick none of the above. The checklist ordinarily includes additional questions—which may vary according to investigators’ needs—that obtain (a) the respondent’s sex, (b) the respondent’s age at the time of the most bothersome event,

(c) the age of the other person involved, (d) the identity (e.g., “stranger”) of the other person, (e) the frequency and duration of the most bothersome experience, and (f) the presence and type of any coercion. Items using a 1 (not at

1Address correspondence to Rowland Miller, Division of Psychology and Philosophy, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX 77341–2447;

e-mail: [email protected]


all) to 7 (extremely) Likert-type format also obtain various ratings of the most bothersome event (e.g., “How much did it bother you then?” “How much does it bother you now?”).

Response Mode and Timing

Respondents are ordinarily instructed to indicate with a check any sexual behaviors that were unwanted and that occurred before they were 16 years old. (This age limit may be changed for different applications of the checklist.) Thereafter, because many respondents will have encountered more than one type of sexual experience, respondents are typically asked to circle the experience that bothered them the most and to answer any further questions with regard to that specific event. The checklist and any additional questions usually fit on two sheets that take only 4 or 5 minutes to complete.


Respondents who report unwanted sexual experiences can readily be distinguished from those who do not, and the percentage of the sample reporting each type of unwanted experience is easily calculated. A useful distinction can also be made, however, between those who have encountered relatively severe events, such as oral-genital contact or anal or vaginal intercourse, and those who have encountered less severe events, such as the exhibition of, or fondling of, sexual organs. Miller et al. (1991) showed that such distinctions are made by lay judges, and Anderson, Miller, and Miller (1995) demonstrated that the two different types of experiences are linked to different adult outcomes.

The results obtained by the ESEC resemble those obtained by the laborious, much costlier face-to-face interviews often advocated by methodologists (Wyatt & Peters, 1986). Anderson et al. (1995) found that 9% of the women and 3% of the men in a heterogenous college sample reported a youthful history of severe victimization by another person 5 or more years older than themselves. An additional 15% of the women and 6% of the men reported less severe experiences that were initiated by substantially older partners. Remarkably, if all such experiences are counted—regardless of the age of the partner—nearly half of the sample (48%) had some unwanted sexual experience during childhood or young adolescence.


Using Cohen’s kappa, a conservative statistic that corrects for chance agreement among diverse categories, the

average 1-month test-retest reliability of the ESEC is .92 (Miller & Johnson, 1997).


Importantly, the ESEC captures reports of childhood sexual abuse that escape other paper-and-pencil techniques. Using the ESEC, Miller and Johnson (1997) found that 56% of a college sample who reported abuse in the form of unwanted, bothersome childhood experiences with partners 5 or more years older than themselves nevertheless specifically reported that they had not been “sexually abused.” Thus, fewer than half of those who had encountered sexual abuse actually labeled themselves as “abused.” Nonetheless, their experiences were detected by the ESEC. Anderson et al. (1995) have also found that adult respondents reporting any unwanted experiences on the ESEC evidenced more depression and neuroticism, and lower self-esteem, than did those who had encountered no such experiences. Furthermore, those reporting relatively severe experiences (i.e., unwanted oral-genital contact or anal or vaginal inter- course) were more impulsive, used more alcohol and other drugs, and were less secure and more anxious and avoid- ant in their interpersonal relations than were those who had not had such severe experiences. The ESEC methodology thus replicated the findings of other techniques for assessing abuse, but also extended those findings by allowing comparison of the sequelae of different types of abuse experiences.

Early Sexual Experiences Checklist

Your sex:    Male    Female Early Sexual Experiences

When you were under the age of sixteen (16), did any of these incidents ever happen to you when you did not want them to?

Please check those that occurred:

        Another person showed his or her sex organs to you.

        You showed your sex organs to another person at his or her request.

        Someone touched or fondled your sexual organs.

        You touched or fondled another person’s sex organs at his or her request.

        Another person had sexual intercourse with you.

        Another person performed oral sex on you.

        You performed oral sex on another person.

        Someone told you to engage in sexual activity so that he or she could watch.

        You engaged in anal sex with another person.

        Other (please specify): 

        None of these events ever occurred.

If any of these incidents ever happened to you, please answer the following questions by thinking about the one behavior that bothered you the most.

In addition, please circle the behavior above that bothered you the most.

  1. How old were you when it happened?         

  2. Approximately how old was the other person involved?         

  3. Who was the other person involved?

           relative     friend or acquaintance     stranger

  4. If the other person was a relative, how were they related to you? (i.e., cousin, father, sister, etc.)                     

  5. How many times did this behavior occur?

           just once     twice     3 or 4 times    5 times or more

  6. Over how long a period did this behavior occur?

           just once     a month or less    several months    a year or more

  7. How much did the experience bother you at the time?








    not at all



  8. How much does the experience bother you now?








    not at all



  9. What kind of psychological pressure or physical force did the person use, if any? Please check all that apply:

        They tried to talk you into it.

        They scared you because they were bigger or stronger.

        They said they would hurt you.

        They bribed you.

        They pushed, hit, or physically restrained you.

        You were afraid they wouldn’t like or love you.

        They physically harmed or injured you.

        They threatened you with a weapon.

        They drugged you or got you drunk.

        Other (please specify): 

        None of these occurred.



Anderson, J. H., Miller, R. S., & Miller, G. A. (1995, August). Adult sequelae of unwanted childhood sexual experiences. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Association, New York.

Kendall-Tackett, K. A., Williams, L. M., & Finkelhor, D. (1993). Impact of sexual abuse on children: A review and synthesis of recent empiri- cal studies. Psychological Bulletin, 113, 164–180.

Kercher, G., & McShane, M. (1984). Prevalence of child sexual abuse victimization in an adult sample of Texas residents. Child Abuse and Neglect, 8, 495–501.

Kilpatrick, A. (1986). Some correlates of women’s childhood sexual experiences: A retrospective study. The Journal of Sex Research, 22, 221–242.

Miller, R. S., & Johnson, J. A. (1997). Abuse victims don’t always feel “abused”: Using checklists to detect childhood sexual abuse. Unpublished manuscript.

Miller, R. S., Johnson, J. A., & Johnson J. K. (1991). Assessing the prevalence of unwanted childhood sexual experiences. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 4, 43–54.

Wyatt, G. E., & Peters, S. D. (1986). Methodological considerations in research on the prevalence of child sexual abuse. Child Abuse and Neglect, 10, 241–251.