Child Sexual Abuse: The Sources of Anxiety Making and the Negative Effects
Arnold Veraa, PhD*
ABSTRACT: Christian moral belief about child sexuality and feminist theory and practice are considered as the primary causes for the anxiety about, and exaggeration of, child sexual abuse. The negative effects of this anxiety making are discussed in relation to research and literature, the negative influences this has had on professional performance, and the subsequent deleterious consequences upon institutions, families and children. It is proposed that the manufactured moral alarm about child sexual abuse has done more harm than good.
“Child sexual abuse” seems an elusive term and its specifying characteristics may vary in relation to personal values and moral preferences held. Most would agree that the term includes some sexual activity by an adult with a minor
As a societal issue, the child sexual abuse problem went virtually unrecognized until the mid seventies. Then feminists in particular began querying sexual abuse accounts and commenced publishing articles and books about the topic. Somewhat later the satanic sexual abuse fiascos surfaced in the United States and these were successfully transported to other western countries including Australia and New Zealand.
Following conferences and workshops, feminists and professionals soon spread the word. Eventually, the child sexual abuse message was embraced by all manner of agencies, some university schools, and relevant government departments. The popular press assisted in making child sexual abuse the scourge of society, imminent and almost inevitable, and with predicted severe short- and long-term effects in all cases.
To date, criticism about the child sexual abuse progression, and its undesirable side effects, has been sporadic and uncoordinated. Such critical comment has also been easily ignored or dismissed on the grounds that critics favor adult/child sexual interactions or are “in denial”.
This paper reviews the likely historical causes of this exaggeration of child sexual abuse with emphasis on the fundamentalist Christian and feminist contributions. The negative consequences of this emphasis on child sexual abuse are discussed in relation to the literature and research, its effects upon professional performance, and the undesirable consequences this has had upon the community.
Christian Anxiety Making
The emphasis on child sexual abuse in our society seems related to the Christian suppression of sexuality. This repression became particularly evident during the sexual liberation of the sixties. Comfort (1963) went as far as to say that this was the major negative achievement of Christendom; no pornographer has ever exploited sexuality so thoroughly, he added.
Much moral energy seemed indeed directed towards resisting the seduction of the flesh with abstinence, virginity, or celibacy being lauded. The enjoyments of sex appeared tolerated but heavily regulated. Non-compliance was viewed as a sin. This irrational obsession with sexuality resulted in deep seated feelings of anxiety and guilt many people still experience today (Runkel, 1998; Haroian, 2000; Levine, 2002; Haught, 2004; Paul, 2005).
It appears that this discomfort about sexuality is transferred to children by parents who perceive it their duty to discourage and suppress their children’s sexuality. An idealized notion develops where children are seen as pure, innocent and vulnerable but above all as non-sexual (Finkelhor, 1983; Fortune, 1983; Straus, 1994; Paris, 1997; Krivacska, 1993). Children thus learn that sex is indecent and immoral and is not to be talked about (hence, perpetrators need not instill this notion, only take advantage of it).
Freud (1905; 1908) seemed the first to challenge this idealized child sexual innocence. As his thesis essentially implied that infants and children desired and experienced sexual pleasure this, at the time and to this day, drew much criticism (see Jones, 1964; Masson, 1984). The other important historical work supporting the existence of child sexuality was that by Kinsey et al (1948; 1953). This work also attracted great interest but equal condemnation from a Christian society that felt its moral beliefs about sexuality, and child sexuality, threatened.
Much research since then has strongly supported the notion that children are sexual beings. It has been shown that children, without prompting by adults, think sexually, may engage in a wide range of sexual activities, and enjoy them despite sanctions imposed by adults. (Langfelt, 1981; Martinson, 1981; Goldman and Goldman, 1982; 1988; Haugaard and Tilly, 1988; Okami, 1992; Paris, 1997; Sandfort, 2001; Bancroft, 2003; Denov, 2003).
It has also been long known that adult/child sexual activities in other cultures, such as routine stimulation of infant’s and children’s genitals and actively instructing them as to the pleasure of sex, has produced positive rather than negative effects on children. (Ford and Beach, 1951; Yates, 1978; Herlihy, 1993; Barr, 1996; Paris, 1997). Also see Kincaid, (1998). The distaste of child sexuality in our culture seems therefore induced and not intrinsic; culturally or religiously relative, in other words.
Thus, the belief promoted by Christian fundamentalists, and sympathizers, that children are inherently ultra fragile sexual innocents derives little support.
What does receive support are the capacities customarily attributed to perpetrators namely the inclinations to deceive, mislead and manipulate yet immature human beings. Paradoxically, it was the fundamentalist Christians themselves, and their professional sympathizers, that were some of the most determined abusers of “childhood sexual innocence”.
For historical elucidation we refer to the satanic sexual abuse cases which were to have a lasting effect upon the way child sexual abuse was to be dealt with, and promoted, in subsequent decades.
The McMartin Preschool fiasco (California, 1983), is the most illustrative and infamous of these. This charade was originally influenced, and later supported, by the authors of “Michelle Remembers” (Smith and Pazder, 1980; Smith being a “victim” of satanic abuse and Pazder a Catholic psychiatrist).
The event was strongly supported by local practicing Catholics of the American Martyrs Church (Eberle and Eberle, 1986; 1993; Kennedy, 2004). Social workers from the Children’s Institute International repeatedly interviewed the infants who recounted most extraordinary happenings.
The infants revealed that their teachers had made them participate in the mutilation and killing of animals and infants and been made to drink their blood. They also confessed to having been sexually abused in hot air balloons. As well, the infants revealed that they had been made to travel through sewers and underground tunnels to places where they were sexually molested. (Nathan and Snedeker, 1995).
Summit, the psychiatrist author of the well known article “The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome” (1983), despite all evidence to the contrary, continued to maintain that the underground tunnels were real (1994a; 1994b).
Such revelations by children were extracted by professionals intent on proving that satanic sexual abuse of children existed. Highly questionable interviewing methods were employed to cajole and persuade infants into answers social workers wanted to hear.
No less than 360 infants in the McMartin saga were deemed to have been sexually abused by teachers of which 120 had been confirmed by a doctor. No teacher was ever convicted. (Coleman, 1986; Green, 1986; Benedek and Schetky, 1987; Wakefield and Underwager, 1988; 1989; Coleman and Clancy, 1990; Nathan, 1990; 1991; Putnam, 1991; Victor, 1991; 1993; Nathan and Snedeker, 1995; Gardner, 1996; Robinson, 2005).
Despite a serious lack of evidence of satanic sexual ritual abuse (Lanning, 1989; 1991; Bottoms and Davis, 1997), Christian evangelical fundamentalists and sympathizing professionals managed to export this satanic sexual abuse culture to Europe and to Australia and New Zealand. (See Jenkins, 1992; Gedney, 1995; La Fontaine, 1998; Cohen, 2002. For references relevant to Australia and New Zealand see Guilliatt, 1996; Hood, 2001; Hill, 1998; 2005).
A Christian ethic that expands so much effort in attempting to keep its children sexually innocent is bound to react defensively when genuine research reports that adult/child sexual interactions are not necessarily traumatic events and do not automatically result in short or long term psychopathology. In fact, that the negative results reported by fundamentalist Christians and sympathizers are often iatrogenic in nature.
An example of this is the response by the American religious right to the work of Rind and Tromovitch (1997) and Rind et al (1998). These were meta-analytic reviews of other researcher’s studies demonstrating that adult/child sexual interactions do not necessarily have ill effects despite of the perceived immorality. A Christian moral outrage ensued culminating in a congressional resolution condemning Rind et al and accusing them of trying to normalise sexual interactions between children and adults, trivializing the effects, and promoting pedophilia.
Many social scientists perceived this as a moral attack on the integrity of social science (for example see Rind et al 2000a; 2000b; 2001; Oellerich, 2000; Levine, 2002; Bullough, 2005).
Of interest is that many researchers had come to similar conclusions much earlier; for instance see Bender and Blau (1937), Kinsey et al (1948; 1953), Weiss et al (1955), Luckianowicz (1972), Maisch (1973), Meiselman (1978), Finkelhor (1979a), Constantine (1981), Fromuth (1983), Brown and Finkelhor (1986), Kilpatrick, (1992).
The erroneous religious conception that perceived immoral behavior inevitably results in harm led to the usage of the term “moral panic” to denote the exaggeration of child sexual abuse by moralists.
Sociologists see such moral responses as emanating from underlying sources of anxiety and stress which cause exaggerated perceptions of a particular immorality being widespread and being a menace to society in general (Goode, 1990; Eberle and Eberle, 1993; Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994; Cohen, 1980; 2002; Ungar, 2001). When a moral panic relates to children it will tend to strike a chord even with people who are not particularly religious.
The suppression of sexuality by Christians continues even though it is known that it causes sexual dysfunction among adults and actually contributes to the commission of child sexual abuse.
Significant correlations have long been found to exist with regards to Christian fundamentalism and child sexual abuse (Gebhard et al, 1965; Justice and Justice, 1979; Frude, 1982). More recently, Holderread Heggen (1993) reports that, after alcohol/drug addiction, the second best predictor for child sexual abuse appears to be that the parents belong to a conservative Christian religious group with traditional role beliefs and rigid sexual attitudes. (A variable that seems often ignored by other studies).
The present Christian preoccupation with child sexual abuse appears a continuation of its negative obsession with sexuality rather than a genuine concern about child protection per se. It seems this sexual moral Christian ethic which has caused us to focus on the sexuality in the abuse of children rather than on the more frequently occurring neglect and physical and emotional abuses.
However, while on their own such moral panics as satanic sexual abuse might have been largely ignored and attributed to religious fanatics and misguided fringe professionals, momentum was maintained and the topic broadened by a new unlikely ally – feminism.
Feminist Anxiety Making
Feminism became an unlikely ally with Christian sexual morality in that it seemed not to have previously championed Christian values such as those to do with marriage, the family, and children. Rather, feminism had been critical of the churches by promoting equality of men and women and denouncing the dominance of men, if not their oppression of women.
The feminist concern about child sexual abuse began in the mid seventies when there was some public hysteria about missing children and somewhat later the satanic sexual abuse scare.
Feminists had already been fighting basic inequalities between men and women, domestic violence and society’s tendency to trivialize rape. They were thus particularly receptive when reports filtered through that another vulnerable group, children, were being sexually victimized and whose stories were also being disbelieved and discredited.
Whatever criticism may be directed presently at the way feminist thought influenced perceptions of child sexual abuse, it must be acknowledged that feminist efforts contributed vitally in having the social problem recognized. This after a long history of culturally ingrained obfuscation, concealment and outright denial of many men’s sexual molestation of girl children. Consequently, the feminist values expressed resonated with many professionals and particularly with women.
The early feminist analysis about child sexual abuse was directly based on its knowledge of patriarchy and rape. This by the early authors such as Brownmiller (1975), Herman and Hirschman (1977), Rush (1980), and Herman (1981) and was continued in later publications by Herman (1983), Bass and Thorton (1983), Russell (1983; 1986), and Dworkin (1986). (Dworkin, 2002, is also of interest).
We found Rush (1980) proclaiming that the problems children faced in families were essentially the same as those created by rapists (chickens facing hungry foxes) and that the sexual abuse in families embodied the typical coercive characteristics of rape and the “desecration of children” (Herman, 1981; Bass and Thorton 1983). Children, it was argued, were by definition incapable of desiring sex or having the capacity to voluntarily cooperate in sexual interactions with adults. They could only be victims.
Yet, to equate child sexual abuse with the violent act of rape and aggressive abuse of male power made little sense as much earlier research clearly indicated that such adult/child sexual activities were not typically characteristic of brute force, violence or penetration of orifices.
Earlier theorizing as well seemed dismissed as was Freud’s initial thesis (1905; 1908) about adult/child sexual interactions within families being reasonably common and likely leading to neuroses (that is, he believed his women patients). As Freud’s theorizing about the Oedipus complex developed however he came to believe that such experiences could be fantasies.
Along with authors such as Peters (1976) and Masson (1984) it was this the feminists seized on with enthusiasm. It was indeed true that psychoanalytically oriented therapists had followed Freud’s later thesis to the letter and mindlessly dismissed women’s memories of childhood sexual victimization. Feminists were also right in condemning family therapy methods based on such theorizing that, ostensibly, blamed the victim and the mother and in doing so appeared to exonerate the father/perpetrator in the interest of family preservation.
However, while the notions of patriarchy, male power and consent, which had been useful in explaining rape, evoked powerful sentiments among many when applied to children, they turned out to be unhelpful. To this day the rationalized and intellectualized terms of “power” and “consent” are the “in” words to explain child sexual abuse by lay persons and professionals alike. Yet both, while emotionally appealing, seem not helpful constructs in themselves.
Misuse of power by adults over children may be said to occur in many adult/child interactions notably in seemingly accepted disciplinary procedures, in forcing children to attend a school they do not want to, or in the indoctrination of a religion. Thus, “power” seems not a unique analytical construct in the explanation of child sexual abuse.
Feminists, in their zeal to fit comment about child sexual abuse around conceptions of patriarchy, rape, and power, have also neglected other abuses of children, particularly neglect. Such abuses may be perpetrated by women (rather negating the gender-based causality theory), including some sexual abuse (Finkelhor et al, 1988; Sommer, 1997; deYoung, 1997; 1999; Denov, 2003). For genital mutilation of infant females by women see Hicks, 1996; Greer, 1999; Baumeister and Twenge, 2002. Also see Sommers, 1994.
Directly transferred from conceptualizations about rape to child sexual abuse also was the concept of “consent”. However, enlightened feminists became more acceptable of the more subtle thesis on consent as presented by Finkelhor (1979b) which relied on “informed consent”. This suggested that children are not likely to be aware of the biological and social meanings of sexuality and its consequences. As well, that children are not in a position to refuse because of their dependence on adults as authority figures.
For feminists, and sympathizing professionals, this supported the belief that even if a child had seemed to consent it could still be considered abuse and the child could therefore always be considered a victim. It seemed a significant development in the feminist explanation of child sexual abuse akin to the Christian absolutism about childhood sexual innocence. The term ‘no excuses’ was soon adopted.
Indeed, the proposition was accepted with such enthusiasm by feminists and sympathizers that they also applied the “power” and “consent” paradigm to the sexual activities children engaged in amongst themselves (despite Finkelhor’s caution that it should not be interpreted in this way). They are now referred to as children’s “problem sexual behaviors” (see the heading “Child Protection or Promoting Morality” below).
Constantine’s contemporary work (1981; 1983) about child consent was unwelcome and ignored by feminists. He saw consent to exist as it was perceived by the child or adolescent – if the minor perceived that he/she had the freedom to participate voluntarily, and could have refused if wanted to, consent was said to have been in place. That is, consent was not related to a given level of knowledge or awareness of possible consequences.
Constantine found that “conventional moral negatives” were a likely cause in undesirable outcomes in adult/child sexual relations because of absorbed negative beliefs regarding sexuality while positive outcomes were due to auspicious feelings and an absence of guilt or shame about sexuality.
As with the discussion on power above, we might again ask why the feminist emphasis on consent deserves such prominence in child sexual abuse situations (as opposed to rape considerations). Parents/adults, as a rule, do not ask children for permission when requiring them to engage in most activities. They certainly do not ask for their agreement when they physically and emotionally abuse or neglect them yet feminists, and similarly thinking professionals, do not discuss “consent” in relation to these abuses.
It is also apparent that the present feminist position about child sexual abuse is still much influenced by the feminist gurus of old and their strong anti-sexual messages. In fact, these feminist views seem curiously in line with Christian repressive sexual dogma in that they appear attracted to the sexual component of child sexual abuse rather than to child protection concerns as such.
This anti-sex persuasion is clearly evident in the feminist-initiated and professionally supported prevention programs for children designed to “empower” them. It is also evident in efforts to brand children, as young as four, as “offenders” or “perpetrators” when engaging in sexual activities amongst themselves (for instance, see Johnson, 1988; 1989; 1998). The feminist notions of power and consent were used as justifications for this invasion of the sexual privacy of children and the practice continues today under the name of “problem sexual behaviors”.
For authors detailing the feminist anti-sexual inclination in relation to child sexual abuse see Wakefield and Underwager (1988); Okami (1990); Money (1991a; 1991b); Krivacska (1993); Underwager and Wakefield (1993); Hood (2001); and Angelides, (2004). For a more general perspective about how some feminists might moralistically suppress sexuality among adolescent girls see Bay-Cheng and Lewis (2006).
Like the fundamentalist Christians and their professional sympathizers, feminists and their supporters also found devious ways in inventing “victims” and “perpetrators” in efforts to exaggerate the child sexual abuse phenomenon.
The book “Courage to Heal” (Bass and Davis, 1988; also see Bass and Thorton, 1983), widely promoted and used by sexual assault centres and sympathizing professionals, strongly advocated the retrieval of “repressed memories” even when there was no current awareness of past sexual abuse.
Such dangerous encouragement and confabulation, and creation of false memories, has caused widespread damage to so called “victims” and “survivors” as well as to innocently convicted “perpetrators” and their families. For detailed discussion of these effects see Nathan (1990); Underwager and Wakefield (1993); Loftus (1998; 1999); Cox and Gee (2005).
The dissemination of the feminist ideology about child sexual abuse was much assisted by the wide distribution of “indicators” (LaFontaine, 1998; deYoung, 1999). These were originally adopted from the works of Sgroi (1982) and Cohen (1985), and later from Gould (1986), Klein (1990) and Hudson (1990; 1991) in relation to the satanic sexual abuse of children.
Such lists of indicators, however, became so broad and meaningless as to just resemble general signs of distress in children. Even sexual precociousness in children was routinely identified as resulting from sexual abuse. (Of note is that much the same “indicators” were used to detect masturbation in children only decades before).
Despite that, such indicator lists were spread by feminists and professionals, without appropriate cautions or mention of their limitations. This irresponsible use of “indicators” continues today (even by state child protective services, as we shall see later).
The feminist understanding of child sexual abuse seems guided by ideology and personal convictions and, as we shall see, by thoroughly misleading research. The feminist perspective, like religion, appears also to have been significantly influenced by its anti-sex determination.
Combined, the Christian and feminist beliefs and ideologies exerted a powerful influence on the way the issue of child sexual abuse would be pursued. We now examine the negative consequences particularly the ways in which the search for “victims” and “perpetrators” was maintained.
The Negative Effects of Christian and Feminist Anxiety Making.
Literature and Research:
Professional literature and research efforts have reflected the fundamentalist Christian and feminist beliefs and ideologies. A profound desire to expose the phenomenon of child sexual abuse became evident in the eighties and publications began to outweigh articles and books about the other childhood abuses.
Child sexual abuse enquiry seemed to become dominated not by sober objective analysis but by a desire to locate morally inappropriate behaviour or that which did not comply with Christian or feminist ideological norms. (Kilpatrick, 1987; 1992; Li, 1990; Okami, 1990; Okami and Goldberg, 1992; Bullough and Bullough, 1996; Jenkins, 1998; Pratt, 2005).
This led to much misleading research typifying a distinct blurring between socio-political advocacy and social science.
Erroneous conclusions seemed often based on the manipulation and broadening of definitions of child sexual abuse. These appeared designed to inflate prevalence, exaggerate its negative effects, and underscore its perceived seriousness (O’Hagan, 1989; Jenkins, 1992; Cooper, 1993; Browne and Lynch, 1995; Haugaard, 2000). We do not see such manipulation occurring in research to do with physical or emotional abuse or neglect of children.
Positive or neutral responses to adult/child sexual interactions in research seem often to have been deliberately ignored or re-interpreted as negative. This to suit preconceived notions of Christian sexual morality or feminist perceptions (Besherov, 1985a; 1985b; Schetky, 1986; Okami, 1990; 1991; 1992; Hindmarch, 1991).
Particular methodological issues that prevailed refer to biased selection of samples, failure to employ control groups, lack of differentiation between children and adolescents, and the reluctance to consider cultural or confounding variables when reporting on negative effects. (Wyatt and Peters, 1986; Finkelhor et al, 1988; Friedrich, 1990; 1993; Haugaard, 2000; Haugaard and Emery, 1989; Higgens and McCabe, 1994; Jumper, 1995; deYoung,1999; Goldman and Padayachi, 2000; Denov, 2003).
The selective acceptance of quite dubious prevalence findings and the erroneous assumption that prevalence equates with harm led to misleading judgments. As did unacceptable generalizations of clinical studies that reported expected traumatic effects but conveniently ignored iatrogenic consequences.
Such mistaken interpretations have led many authors to the conclusion that we are experiencing an “epidemic” or “disease” of child sexual abuse of serious “public health” proportions. (For instance, see Herman, 1983; Freyd, 1996; 2003; Freyd et al, 2005; Mercy, 1999; McMahon and Pruett, 1999; Purvis and Joyce, 2005; Cromer, 2006).
The research by feminists themselves has been particularly methodologically deficient. For detailed critical comment about research conducted by feminists see Christensen, (1990); Nathan, (1990); Okami, (1990); Hindmarch, (1991); Sommer and Fekete, (1995); and Sommer, (1997). For such biased research in Australia, see the work of Eastwood and Patton (2002) and Taylor (2002; 2004) which seems unreservedly supported by some feminist lawyers such as Scutt (2005).
Such distorted research findings have often been used to ensure that the topic remains on the social and political agenda and convince politicians and bureaucrats to create favorable policies and increase funding (Dubowitz, 1994; Jenkins, 1992; 1998; Kenny, 1999; deYoung, 1999; Partington, 2002).
This manipulation of research findings about child sexual abuse occurred despite the category occupying no more than 10 to 15 percent of notifications to statutory child protective services. (This is not a measure of prevalence, nor an estimation of which child abuse is more or less ‘under-reported’. See the heading “Statutory Child Protective Services” below).
As well, this emphasis on child sexual abuse continued regardless of evidence that there was no increase in its occurrence and that a decline of it was more evident (Mullen et al, 1988; Jenkins, 1992; Dunne et al, 2003). Moreover, research in the United States has reported a drop of more than 30 percent in child sexual abuse notifications (Finkelhor, 1990; Jones and Finkelhor, 2001; Finkelhor and Jones, 2004).
Clinical practice was much influenced by the professional literature and also by the conferences led by (international) “experts”.
Conservative Christian views about child sexuality and feminist perceptions of child sexual abuse were well represented here (de Young, 1999). Such gatherings were quite powerful in spreading the child sexual abuse message and in influencing the way professionals, and quasi professionals, would deal with child sexual abuse and further disseminate such understandings (Hicks, 1991; Hindmarch, 1991).
For pertinent accounts concerning Australia and New Zealand see Goodyear-Smith, 1994; 1996a; Guilliat, 1996; Hill, 1998; 2005.
Consequent practices often reflected ready diagnoses of child sexual abuse without reference to confounding social circumstances or cultural factors (Nash et al, 1993; Pope and Hudson, 1995; Polusny and Follette, 1995; Higgens and McCabe, 1994; 2000; Higgens, 2004).
Professionals were found relying on an astonishingly unrealistic array of “indicators” (Berliner and Conte, 1993; Legrand et al, 2006), and we saw them adhering to negatively geared terminology. Assault and rape became accepted terms rather than abuse or molestation which more accurately reflected child sexual abuse (Okami, 1990; Levine, 1998).
We witnessed the ready labeling of children without regard to the negative immediate and long term consequences (Gelles, 1982; Browne and Finkelhor, 1986; Bromfield et al, 1988; Briggs et al, 1994). And we saw professionals and quasi professionals blatantly involved in the creation or distortion of “recovered memories” both with children and with adults so unnecessarily causing distress and re-traumatization (Herr, 1986; James, 1986; Doris, 1991; Goodyear-Smith, 1996a; Newgent et al, 2002).
A number of authors have detailed the negative effects of such interventions (Coleman, 1986; Sibicky and Dovidio, 1986; Benedek and Schetky, 1987; Wakefield and Underwager, 1988; Wexler, 1991; Underwager and Wakefield, 1998; Camille, 1996).
That the effects alleged were often iatrogenic in nature (that is, actually caused by intervening professionals or feminist amateurs rather than being the result of events under consideration), has been consistently and conveniently ignored as have been the basic civil liberty rights of children and their families.
Many have identified such practices as abuse by professionals, therapists, or semi-professionals (Wakefield and Underwager, 1989; Richardson, 1990; Nathan, 1991; Nathan and Snedeker, 1995; Kilpatrick, 1992; Gardner, 1996; Loftus, 1993; 1998; 1999; Loftus and Katcham, 1994; Kenny, 1999; Oellerich, 2001).
Child Protection or Promoting Morality:
Although child sexual abuse had now fallen under the umbrella of child protection, strong fundamentalist Christian and feminist influences continued to be evident. This particularly in programs that aimed to educate children about how to protect themselves against sexual advances by adults. But also in the programs that sought to “treat” children, and their families, when displaying “problematic sexual behaviours”.
Programs engaging children to protect themselves proliferated in the late eighties and nineties and were essentially based on the feminist concept of “empowerment”. They later gained ready acceptance in many schools under “safety” or “health” curricula. Some concerns were expressed about unqualified people with strong fundamentalist Christian or feminist ideals being given unconditional access to children on their own terms (Goodyear-Smith, 1994; 1996a; 1996b; King, 1997).
Now, there appears, in fact, to be little evidence that such indoctrination actually enables children to protect themselves better (Krivacska, 1992; Heiman et al, 1998; Woolley and Gabriels, 1999).
As could be expected given our earlier considerations, the programs have been criticized for being basically anti-sexual in nature and as likely to disempower rather than empower children about their sexuality. This as well as inhibit their abilities to interact positively with adults (Money, 1991a; 1991b; Krivacska, 1990; 1991a; 1991b; 1991c; Underwager and Wakefield, 1993; 1994; Angelides, 2004).
This basic anti-sex Christian and feminist stance, the notions of sin and atonement, also became evident in the labelling of sexually precocious children.
That is, those who engaged in sexual activities with other children, as young as four, were designated as exhibiting “age inappropriate behavior”, “children who molest” or whose behavior was criminalized by calling them “perpetrators” or “offenders” (For example, see Cantwell, 1988; Johnson, 1988; 1989; 1998; Johnson and Berry, 1989).
Today, the term “problem sexual behaviors” seems favored (Staiger, 2005; Staiger et al, 2005). But the underlying professional desire to make children and adolescents conform to conservative and uninformed notions of child sexuality appear the same (Wakefield and Underwager, 1988; Underwager and Wakefield, 1993; Okami, 1990; Rind et al, 1998).
Once considered normative and harmless, more overt child sexual behaviors are now being pathologized. One is reminded of the Ford and Beach (1951) research of many cultures illustrating that such child sexual activities are common. They are not necessarily taught by adults, and have, like many other activities engaged in by children amongst themselves, few demonstrated ill effects. Until, that is, they are deemed to be harmful by morally preoccupied professionals (Okami, 1992; Kilpatrick, 1992; Levine 1998; 2002).
The impression that professional activities may be engaged in to promote Christian and feminist moralities, rather than child protection values per se, are confirmed by Carstens (2001). This author’s findings suggest that a diagnosis of aberrant child sexual behavior is closely linked to professionals holding conservative attitudes and their agency setting. This in turn seems to suggest that these professionals may merely follow the Christian and feminist need to identify “victims” and “perpetrators” in the defence of perceived immorality.
The popular dramatic portrayal of child “problematic sexual behaviors” may be queried in relation to whether such efforts are based on a genuine interest in the protection and sexual welfare of children. It could be argued that the motivating source resides in promoting the moral conservative ideation of child sexuality.
It rather seems that Gochros’ reminder in 1982 about children and adolescents being the most sexually oppressed by professionals remains with us.
Statutory Child Protective Services:
The Christian and feminist influence has also taken its toll on public services.
Concerning child protective services, they are sometimes criticized for both causing and maintaining the current hysteria about child sexual abuse; or, conversely, for not doing enough about the problem. These services also readily attract attention simply because of the sheer volume of difficult cases they have to contend with.
The broad negative perception of child protective services concerning child sexual abuse seems largely derived from the highly publicized earlier cases of sexual satanic and ritual abuse. These cases indeed signified overzealous intervention and pronounced unprofessionalism in the name of child protection.
For examples, see Wexler (1991), deYoung (1999) and Levine (2002) for the United States and Canada. For the United Kingdom see O’Hagan (1989), Victor (1991), LaFontain (1994; 1998). For Australia and New Zealand see Goodyear-Smith (1994), Hood (2001), Scott (1995a; 1995b), Scott and Swain (2002) and Hill (2005).
However, today, a distinction might be made between the practice of child protective workers on the ground and the bureaucrats who tend to guide the public’s perception of child sexual abuse.
Child protective workers, and their immediate supervisors, tend to have a good practical appreciation of the sexual risks to a child with an ability to assess this in the wider context of the family and the community.
Their superiors, however, the ones that make the decisions in the high profile cases, seem more guided by theoretical and political considerations. This with a keen eye to control damage, avoid criticism, and sidestep concerns from Christian and feminist lobby groups. Ideals become prominent and the immediate protection of children may receive secondary consideration.
This distinction may be illustrated by an example of a statutory child protective service – here the child protective services arm of the Department of Human Services, Victoria (Australia). Of all the notifications this department received regarding child abuse in 2004/2005 only 10% concerned child sexual abuse (it is not known how many of these were re-notifications).
Of these only 14% were substantiated by child protective workers in the field. Further, the substantiation rate for child sexual abuse in 2003/2004 is lower than that for physical and emotional abuse and neglect, thus contradicting the perception that child protective workers go out of their way to diagnose child sexual abuse. Such figures, in fact, are more likely a reflection of the child sexual abuse panic and the public’s tendency to submit fallacious reports.
A quite different picture from the practical experiences of child protective workers emerges when one peruses this departments’ corporate response. Despite the low comparative notifications of child sexual abuse, departmental publications about this topic far outweigh those having to do with physical and emotional abuse and neglect which make up approximately 90% of all notifications and about which most child protective work in this department revolves.
As well, outdated perceptions and references about child sexual abuse are quoted in these departmental publications. Nonsensical “indicators” (headaches, abdominal pains, personality changes, difficulty with peers) are repeated time after time in documents that are supposed to enlighten its own protective workers, other professionals, parents, and students. (See “Department Human Services” in References).
This unrealistic emphasis on child sexual abuse by bureaucrats is clearly out of tune with the reality of child protective problems, as is its willingness in funding agencies claiming to tackle child sexual abuse. This has frequently been called “the neglect of the neglect” (Dubowitz, 1994; Jenkins, 1992; 1998; Scott and Swain, 2002; Smith and Fong, 2004).
It is an example of how bureaucrats of the state may perpetuate the Christian and feminist alarm about child sexual abuse under the guise of child protection (For elucidation see Wexler,1991; Howitt, 1992; Freckelton, 2001; Pratt, 2005).
While the more independent professionally thinking child protective worker in the field may not have been unduly influenced by the fundamentalist Christian and feminist mantra of moral justice and want for retribution, the simplistic nature of this contention appears to have appealed more to police with their emphasis on apprehending miscreants and bringing them to justice.
Influenced by the fundamentalist Christians, feminists, and professional protagonists, police began “discovering” child sexual abuse cases in unprecedented numbers.
As a consequence of police overzealousness and preconceived assumptions of guilt, hundreds of people in western countries were charged with child sexual offenses. The most obvious of these have been the charges laid in relation to satanic and ritual sexual abuse cases, only quite few of which ever resulted in convictions. (Lanning, 1989; 1991; Hicks, 1991; LaFontaine, 1994; Guilliatt, 1996; Wood and Garven, 2000; Freckleton, 2001; Stuckle, 2004; Pratt, 2005).
An example of corporate zeal in the police force may be found in the United Kingdom practice of “trawling” (practiced to a lesser degree in other countries) (Webster, 1998; Pratt, 2005). This so called proactive police approach involves “fishing” for other “victims” of an accused who may have been involved in previous decades. Subsequently, this police practice was deemed unnecessarily invasive and over-enthusiastic by a Home Affairs Select Committee (2002).
Fuelled by the moral panic, and pretensions about child protection and prevention, the police interest in child sexual abuse remains strong and has now also turned to child pornography on the Internet.
Police appear eager to be seen as “doing something” about the community’s unease about child pornography on the Internet. But, as in its earlier overreaction in dealing with child sexual abuse, its response to present community moral sentiment seems again exaggerated and misplaced. We might note that the same police enthusiasm is not employed in pursuing perpetrators of other child abuses.
Instead of an all-out effort to apprehend the commercial producers of child pornography, attention and much resources seem devoted to finding the “users” of this material.
Earlier discussion about widening definitions to inflate the prevalence of child sexual abuse may be recalled. In essence, much the same seems to be happening now: offensive sexual behavior towards children is being broadened to include people who have not actually touched children.
However, given the moral mandate police have been given by the community, they appear to feel entitled and at ease with using detection methods normally engaged in with more serious criminal offenders.
This may involve entrapping and encouraging people (“users”) to offend by police posing as children on the Internet. The rationale is that otherwise adults would gain easy access to children on the Internet and subsequently sexually abuse them. Given the effort expended, relatively few convictions seem obtained and this moral vigilance, short of satisfying the Christian and feminist lobby, may not justify the resources spend on it.
Police contribute to the child sexual abuse panic by seeking publicity, and trying to gain credit, for “Internet scams” exposed. For professionals, such as child protective workers, similar attention seeking and self congratulatory efforts would be condemned on ethical grounds.
It is, in any case, disingenuous and alarmist for police to claim that children are at serious risk by predators on the Internet, though a small proportion of vulnerable adolescents may be (Wolak et al, 2008). Such misguided efforts at prevention seem not to serve an already anxious community.
Effectively, these police methods take us back to the “danger stranger” scare campaigns of decades ago and conveniently diverts attention from where most child sexual abuse actually occurs, namely in the home.
Legal Practitioners, Judiciary:
Christian dogma about sexuality has for centuries dictated and maintained legislation about sexual morality in western societies and disproportionate penalties for transgressors have been the rule. The perception that sex is wholly different and worse (Levine, 1998) is deeply embedded in law.
This emphasis on sexuality, however, appears not to have engendered an operational sense of gender equity. Feminists in particular have highlighted the patriarchal nature of the legal system and its tendency to discriminate against females. The same kind of gender favoritism and lack of scrutiny may be found in established religions when males are under sexual suspicion (Bottoms et al , 1996; Naffine, 1996; Rosetti, 1996; Altobelli, 2003).
But the relentless emphasis by the Christian fundamentalists and feminists about child sexual abuse came to even significantly influence the most traditional and staunchest of all: the judiciary. With public hysteria mounting, justices responded to the claim that child sexual abuse victims were not heard by instituting changes in procedures to accommodate children giving evidence.
Justices began encouraging informality, the giving of evidence behind screens or on video by children, and the ready acceptance of “expert” evidence by professionals. That this evidence could be tainted by the iatrogenic factor, namely that effects could have been induced by these “experts” themselves, often remained unexplored.
Other accommodating justices began allowing evidence based on doubtful recovered memories without adequate corroborative evidence being presented . (Guilliatt, 1996; Paris, 1997; Jenkins, 1998; Freckelton, 2001; Stuckle, 2004; Cox and Gee, 2005; Pratt, 2005).
Critics point to the unfair biases these procedures have created towards the accused where a presumption of guilt by the state appears evident. It is argued that a person so accused has to prove his/her innocence rather than being treated as innocent until proven guilty.
In support of their stance critics refer to miscarriages of justice (wrong convictions and sentences being overturned on appeal) which they claim have led to an erosion of confidence in the judicial system. (Goodyear-Smith, 1994; LaFontaine, 1994; Guilliatt, 1996; Isaac, 1997; Paris, 1997; Vidmar, 1997; Levine, 1998; Freckelton, 2001; Hood, 2001; Rabinowitz, 1990; 2004; Cox and Gee, 2005; Pratt, 2005).
Many concerns have also been raised about the reliability of children as witnesses and the ease with which their evidence can be manipulated (Perry and Wrightsman, 1991; Goodman and Bottoms, 1993; Ceci and Buck, 1993; 1995; Myers et al, 1996).
Feminist-oriented literature, however, continues to contend that the legal system is still much dependent on gender discrimination and patriarchy. It is said that the changes in procedures have only achieved limited gains for child victims. The criminal justice system, it is argued, continues as the legally sanctioned context for the sexual abuse of children and the exculpation of perpetrators from full responsibility. (Kennedy, 1992; Eastwood and Patton, 2002; Taylor, 2002; 2004).
However, as we have outlined earlier, Christian fundamentalists and feminists are known to have fabricated child sexual abuse situations which caused severe trauma to children and families as well as, of course, to innocently convicted people. The strong presumption of guilt these advocates assume whenever an accused person appears in court must therefore be treated with some caution.
The legal profession has been influenced by the fundamentalist Christian and feminist belief and ideology about child sexual abuse as much as any other. Whether it has over-accommodated in the pursuit of justice for the “victim” at the expense of justice for the “perpetrator” remains open for debate.
Professionals as Casualties:
The exaggeration of child sexual abuse led eventually to a professional culture so apprehensive that it sought means to protect itself against a tidal wave of unfounded suspicion and accusation.
This resulted from pervasive propaganda advocating that child sexual abuse was likely to happen to any child and was destined to occur with people in some authority. This on the slenderest of evidence and employing outrageous generalisations.
The relentless search for victims and perpetrators had again missed its target and managed to alienate the very people it could have relied on to help: the professionals. Now they became the casualties.
While all professionals working with children seem to have been affected, as well as volunteers engaged with children, the most vulnerable and maligned of all professions have been the teachers – at kindergarten, primary and secondary school levels. All teachers are now actively encouraged by their school hierarchy, and their unions, not to touch students, not to be alone with them, and to generally keep them at arms length.
Rather than this being about protection of children, such policies have been driven by teachers wanting to protect themselves from vexatious allegations by children. But these were, it must be recognized, a logical progression from the misleading Christian and feminist information they were fed in their “safety” or “protection” classes.
From these classes students quickly learned the value of sexuality as a bargaining tool, its use in gaining attention, and to settle all manner of personal grievances. (Yates and Musty, 1988; Beck, 1992; Ball, 1990; 1994; Goodyear-Smith, 1996a; 1996b; Wallace, 1995; Dean, 1999; de Young, 1999; Piper and Smith, 2003; Sachs and Mellor, 2003; Tulloch and Lupton, 2003; Appleton, 2005).
Teacher apprehension is heightened by the demeaning and inflexible “zero tolerance” policy of education departments. This has led to the dismissal of competent teachers on frivolous grounds.
Similarly, mandatory reporting laws, which some teachers just ignore or have led others to report situations which did not warrant it, have led to unnecessary trauma to children and families.
A persistent concern about the exaggeration of child sexual abuse has been the effect this has had on the recruitment of teachers, particularly on prospective male primary teachers. There seems to be a genuine concern that men avoid the profession, at least partly, because they fear that they may be unjustly accused of sexually interfering with children. (Jones, 2001; 2004; Slamet, 2004).
Professionals remain casualties of the Christian and feminist persuasion because they allowed themselves to be so easily influenced by moralistic and ideological hyperbole. The trust between professionals and children has been eroded and the distancing is likely to be perceived by children as a rejection of them. A decidedly negative outcome of the child sexual abuse exaggeration.
However, it might be noted that, not unexpectedly, others have capitalized on the child sexual abuse hysteria. Of interest, for example, is that these no-touch policies have created a commercial demand for infants and children to be touched, massaged, or hugged professionally. What once was considered desirable spontaneous and sensitive behavior on the part of teachers and other professionals has now become technical, artificial, and commercialized. (Jones, 2001; 2004).
Christian fundamentalists and feminists, and a variety of adhering professionals and quasi professionals, influenced the media so convincingly that reports about children being at risk of sexual abuse soon became commonplace. The result was that the community did not just become “aware” but highly anxious, if not paranoid, about the sexual calamities that could befall children.
However, the media also appears to have contributed significantly to the creation and maintenance of the child sexual abuse moral panic in its own right. Basic journalistic principles such as balance and objectivity, and fairness and skepticism, seem often to have been sacrificed.
Frequently obvious too was the media’s need to satisfy its own and the public’s voyeuristic and surreptitious interest in sexual matters to do with children.
There is little doubt that such consistent efforts have manipulated public anxiety and have orchestrated public opinion negatively. They have also promoted the vengeance frenzy as advocated by Christians and feminists and other promoters of the child sexual abuse panic (Victor, 1991; Edwards and Soetenhorst, 1994; Elvic, 1994; Gardner, 1996; Levy, 1999).
However, the media also came under attack when it attempted to avoid sensationalism, moralistic accusation, and negative terminology, typically found in pro-child sexual abuse writing, and sought to report on child/adolescent/adult sexual relations objectively.
Such rational media reports were soon relegated by child sexual abuse advocates as minimizing abusiveness, making child/adolescent/adult sexual relations appear consensual, and favoring perpetrators over vulnerable child victims – the traditional technique of seeking to silence critics and accuse them of denying child sexual abuse. (For instance, see the writings of Franklin and Horwarth, 1996; Goddard, 1996; Veldhuis and Freyd, 1999; Goddard and Saunders, 2000; Collings, 2002; Collings and Bodill, 2003).
(In professional parlance such criticism became known as the “backlash”. For example, in addition to the above, see Summit, 1994a; Gedney, 1995).
A number of print journalists and social commentators have indeed reported critically and insightfully about the exaggeration of child sexual abuse including the current Internet scare. (For example, see Arndt, 1993; 2002; Gawenda and Gurvich, 1995; Appleton, 2005; Berg, 2007; Castles, 2007; Duffy, 2007; Chen, 2008).
However, while once the media seemed content with being advocates for the Christian and feminist cause, and eager to promote the views of child sexual abuse advocates, today a more rationally reflective and professionally responsible approach appears evident particularly in the printing press. Reporting objectively and analytically about exaggerated claims to do with prevalence and negative effects of child sexual abuse remains a challenge.
Negative Effects on the Community:
It was inevitable that the community itself, particularly parents and children, would become the most significant casualty of the child sexual abuse exaggeration.
We might, first, acknowledge that the child sexual abuse scare was much assisted by other societal changes. Due to political, religious, and social changes, communities experienced anxiety as dependable systems became more unstable and impermanent. Particularly the valued institution of the family had become vulnerable. Many authors described this as the “age of anxiety” (Lasch, 2000; Ungar, 2001; Garland, 2001; 2002; Tulloch and Lupton, 2003; Furedi, 2001; 2004; Pratt, 2005).
Amongst this erosion of certainty and security, children were soon perceived as the most endangered, vulnerable, and likely subjects to come to harm. Thus, to a community that was already on edge, the fundamentalist Christian and feminist message that children were at immediate moral danger of being sexually abused was sown in fertile ground. But, as we have outlined, this advantage was exploited.
The practical negative effects of the child sexual abuse emphasis became obvious in present day family interactions. We now find parents frustrated and humiliated by their children telling them that, for example, “you can’t touch me there” in routine bathing or dressing procedures. We find parents genuinely afraid of expressing physical affection, “hugging for too long”, in case their infant or child tells at school and that this may be misinterpreted.
As well, we find parents unnecessarily anxious about the possibility that their children may be sexually abused by relatives, by caregivers, by teachers, or just by anyone while playing outdoors or while walking to school. We notice that parents are unduly suspicious of people inadvertently taking photos of their children or are in any other way trying to interact with them, however innocently, and in the safe presence of others.
This parental and community discomfort has not gone unnoticed by other adults. Many now tend to exercise caution in the presence of children and withhold affection which may influence even the most routine of physical pleasantries usually exchanged with children. Many adults, like teachers, now tend to play it safe and prefer not to be alone with a child, let alone touch one in circumstances that could too easily be misconstrued. (Thomas, 1993; Freely, 1995; Burgess, 1997).
In attempts to “protect” children from “predators”, advocates seem also to have managed to convolute and suppress child sexuality as well as inhibit enjoyable physical activities between adults and children. In the course of this moral and ideological process, children’s sexual privacy has been excessively invaded by these modern moralists.
The creation of anxiety about child sexuality, and unfounded allegations by Christians, feminists and professional sympathizers, that it is in great moral danger, has generated a culture of fear and an overprotection of children never seen before. This has harmed the sexual development of children, not enhanced it.
Christian belief about child sexuality and feminist ideations have more in common than is generally thought. Together they have negatively influenced the perception of child sexual abuse.
With the active collaboration of professionals and lay persons, undue alarm was created about the sexual morality of children being in great danger. This led to the exaggeration of child sexual abuse at the expense of other more frequently occurring, and also under-reported, other abuses of children.
It seemed to be the sexual moral nature of the abuse that attracted these protagonists, rather than a genuine concern about child protection. This surreptitious moral concern spilled over into other areas of child sexuality (such as “problematic sexual behaviors” and “child sexualization”).
As outlined, the moral and ideological thrust of the child sexual abuse exaggeration has come at considerable cost, particularly to families and children. It is only balanced and rational research, and sober and objective professional analysis, that may turn the tide in the decades to come.
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* Arnold Veraa is a former social worker and psychologist in child protective services, Melbourne.