The congressman, who is in a tough re-election fight, said a National Guard unit was primarily responsible for the abuses.
"It was a National Guard unit run amok," Shays said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "It was torture because sex abuse is torture. It was gross and despicable ... This is more about pornography than torture."
In fact, the 372nd Military Police Company from Cresaptown, Md., is an Army Reserve unit not National Guard.
Shays sought to defuse controversy over previous comments suggesting the Abu Ghraib abuses weren't torture but instead involved a sex ring of troops.
"Now I've seen what happened in Abu Ghraib, and Abu Ghraib was not torture," Shays said at a debate Wednesday.
"It was outrageous, outrageous involvement of National Guard troops from (Maryland) who were involved in a sex ring and they took pictures of soldiers who were naked," added Shays. "And they did other things that were just outrageous. But it wasn't torture."
The lawmaker's comments were in a transcript of the debate provided by his opponent, Diane Farrell. Shays' campaign, contacted Friday, did not dispute the comments.
Abu Ghraib is the Baghdad prison where abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers led to an international scandal. Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib were brutalized and sexually humiliated by military police and intelligence agents in the fall of 2003. At least 11 U.S. soldiers have been convicted in the scandal.
In the debate, the congressman had been asked what the government should do to restore the nation's moral image in the wake of torture accusations at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay.
Shays said Friday he wished he had more fully explained his views at the debate.
"I was maybe not as expansive as I needed to be," he said. "Of course, the degrading of anyone is torture. We need to deal with it."
Shays said his debate comments reflected the disturbing photos he has seen of Abu Ghraib abuses: "Naked Iraqis, naked Americans, Americans having sex ... gross and despicable pictures."
Shays is waging a bruising re-election fight against Farrell.
"Once again, Chris is trying to back away from an earlier statement because it's politically expedient," Farrell said Friday. "It's typical Chris."
Shays stirred controversy recently when he defended House Speaker Dennis Hastert's handling of a congressional page scandal, saying no one died like at Chappaquiddick in 1969 when Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy was involved.