The Effects of Child Sexual Abuse: Truth Versus Political Correctness
ABSTRACT: Research over many years establishes the negative effects of child sexual abuse are not as pervasive, severe, and long-lasting as generally assumed. But rather than being seen by victims’ advocates as good news, such research results are met with resistance, anger, and personal attacks. This controversy reached its height in 1999 when the media, conservative organizations, and the United States Congress condemned a 1998 meta-analysis in the Psychological Bulletin by Rind, Tromovitch, and Bauserman. The American Psychological Association’s response to the furor was to distance itself from the article and its authors. This episode demonstrates the difficulty of doing and reporting research where conclusions contradict strongly held beliefs.
Probably no crime outrages society as much as does child sexual abuse. Child molesters are hated and despised. Most people, even other criminals, hate and despise child molesters and feel they should be locked up for life. These beliefs are widespread, not supported by facts, and result in increasingly harsh penal sanctions (Quinn, Forsyth, & Mullen-Quinn, 2004).
Many professionals, as well as the public, believe victims of child sexual abuse suffer grievous harm. They claim sexual contact between an adult and a child causes depression, anxiety, eating disorders, relationship problems, personality disorders, dissociation, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They believe these sequelae are common, if not inevitable.
The universal hatred of child molesters, the moral outrage child sexual abuse engenders, and the belief victims are always damaged makes it extremely difficult for researchers to report conclusions that differ from these beliefs or even study adult-child sexual contact. Those who do are likely to be vilified. Bullough and Bullough (1996) observe “It is the ever-present danger of being accused of pedophilia which makes the research so dangerous and debilitating that few individuals are able to risk it” (p. 66).
When Alfred Kinsey published “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” he was called a pervert, a menace and a Communist (Carey, 2004). People criticized him for using data from acknowledged pedophiles and even accused him of being a pedophile himself (Bullough, 2000). His retrospective data tended to show many people who had experienced childhood sex with adults were not seriously harmed by it, another statement that got him in trouble (Bullough, 1998). John Bancroft (2004), a Senior Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute, notes there has been a long-running campaign to discredit and demonize Kinsey, using him as a scapegoat for many of society’s current problems.
In 1998 Vern Bullough, a highly-respected sexologist and distinguished professor emeritus at the State University at Buffalo, spoke at a world conference on pornography at the Center for Sex Research at California State University in Northridge. His presentation resulted in a storm of controversy and ultimately a state legislative investigation that charged the conference with encouraging pedophilia. A witness before the legislative committee accused Dr. Bullough of being a self-confessed pedophile. This had happened before to Dr. Bullough (Bullough & Bullough, 1996). Bullough (2000) believes such accusations arise from a deliberate policy to arouse public opinion against sex research. He postulates that childhood is pictured as one where terrible dangers lurk everywhere and guilty parents respond hysterically to the most frightful of all hot-button issues, child sexual abuse. He believes any research even suggesting child sexual abuse isn’t inevitably traumatic is too threatening to tolerate.
Theo Sandfort is a sex researcher in the Netherlands who has written extensively about man-boy relationships in the Netherlands (Sandfort, 1983, 1984). He was able, with the permission of the adult partners, to contact 25 boys. At that time, the climate in the Netherlands was very different than it was in the United States regarding adult-child sex. For example, in 7 out of 25 cases Sandfort studied, the boy’s parents were aware of the relationship and accepted it. Police generally didn’t prosecute when the boy was at least 12 years old. Sandfort’s research was harshly criticized and one seldom encounters it in the literature on the effects of child sexual abuse. Bauserman (1991) comments on the severe and unfair critiques of Sandfort’s research, and concludes the moral condemnation of such relationships means critics are unable to evaluate his research objectively: “It seems that the taboo against juvenile sexuality and particularly against adult-juvenile sex is still so strong that research which fails to support the prevailing ideology must be attacked and discredited, regardless of its actual validity”(p. 311).
The Rind et al. Affair
In 1998, Bruce Rind, Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Bauserman published a meta-analysis of the effects of child sexual abuse using college samples in the Psychological Bulletin. Contradicting the popular view that child sexual abuse inevitably causes severe and long-lasting psychological damage, the authors reported that the relationship between a self-reported history of child sexual abuse and psychopathology was quite weak. They concluded subjects who had been sexually abused were nearly as well-adjusted as those who were not. Their results were similar to earlier studies using community samples (Bauserman & Rind, 1997; Rind & Tromovitch, 1997). In the article, they reported even more provocative findings-that 11% of female and 37% of male respondents retrospectively indicated their short-term reactions to the sexual contact had been positive.
The authors were careful to emphasize that lack of harm doesn’t mean the adult-child sexual contact is morally permissible: “If it is true that wrongfulness in sexual matters does not imply harmfulness … then it is also true that lack of harmfulness does not imply lack of wrongfulness … [T]he findings of the current review do not imply that moral or legal definitions of or view on behaviors currently classified as CSA should be abandoned or even altered” (p. 47).
There was no response to the article for several months. Then, what has been called the “political storm of the century for the field of psychology” (Garrison & Kobor, 2002) began.1 The article came to the attention of several conservative groups, including radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger, whose “Dr. Laura” radio show attracts millions of listeners. Dr. Laura criticized the article and its authors as well as the APA (American Psychological Association) for publishing it. She called it “junk science at its worst” and claimed the point of the article was to normalize pedophilia. She even implied that two of the authors traveled over the world to promote adult-child sex (Lilienfeld, 2002b, p. 178).
Schlessinger then urged Congress to take formal action against the APA. Raymond D. Fowler, Chief Executive Officer of the APA, initially defended the article and the peer review process (Garrison & Kobor, 2002). But Schlessinger, Congress, and others kept up the pressure. It became clear Congress was going to condemn not only the article but the APA. So On June 9, 1999 Dr. Fowler backtracked in a letter to House Majority Whip, Tom DeLay. He now wrote “Clearly, the article included opinions of the authors that are inconsistent with APA’s stated and deeply held positions on child welfare and protection issues.” He went on to explain that the APA was seeking an independent expert evaluation of the scientific quality of the article. This was the first time in the APA’s 107-year history that it had taken such an action (Lilienfeld, 2002b).
Fowler’s capitulation didn’t save the APA and Rind and his colleagues from condemnation by Congress. On July 12th, 1999, the United States House of Representatives voted 355 to 0, with 13 members abstaining, to condemn the article’s conclusions. Eighteen days later the United States Senate unanimously passed the resolution. It states, in part:
Whereas the Psychological Bulletin has recently published a severely flawed study … which suggests that sexual relationships between adults and children are less harmful than believed and might be positive for “willing” children … Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring) that Congress condemns and denounces all suggestions in the article “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples” [PDF File] that indicate that sexual relationships between adults and “willing” children are less harmful than believed … [and condemns] any suggestion that sexual relations between children and adults — regardless of the child’s frame of mind — are anything but abusive, destructive, exploitive, reprehensible, and punishable by law. (106 Congress, 1st Session, H. Con. Res. 107) …
This resolution ignores the fact Rind and his colleagues were not the first or only researchers to report not all victims of child sexual abuse suffer serious and lasting psychological damage. Other researchers also report many respondents showed few or no symptoms and found the relationship between adult-child sexual contact and later physical or psychological problems to be highly complex (e.g., Berliner & Conte, 1993; Beitchman, et al, 1991, 1992; Dolezal, & Carballo-Dieguez, 2002; Finkelhor, 1990; Friedrich, Whiteside, & Talley, 2004; Levitt & Pinnell, 1995; Parker & Parker, 1991; Pope & Hudson, 1992; Runtz, 2002; Stander, Olson, & Merrill, 2002).
Aftermath of the Rind Affair
We see no reason to second-guess the process of peer review used by the APA journal in its decision to publish the article in question … we saw no clear evidence of improper application of methodology or other questionable practices on the part of the article’s authors … we believe that disputes over methods in science are best resolved, not through the intervention of AAAS or any other “independent” organization, but rather through the process of intellectual discourse among scientists in a professional field.
The AAAS committee also expressed its concerns over the course of the debate:
The committee also wishes to express its grave concerns with the politicization of the debate over the article’s methods and findings … we found it deeply disconcerting that so many of the comments made by those in the political arena and in the media indicate a lack of understanding of the analysis presented by the authors or misrepresented the article’s findings.
Many psychologists were outraged over the APA’s behavior in this matter and expressed their anger and dismay in letters to Ray Fowler and in postings to professional list serves. Despite this, a second controversy arose in 2001 over the rejection of a previously accepted article by Scott Lilienfeld describing the imbroglio and the APA’s part in it (Lilienfeld, 2002a). Dr. Lilienfeld’s article was eventually published. This controversy, along with the original fiasco, is described in a special issue of theAmerican Psychologist published in March, 2002.
The March 2002 special issue of the American Psychologist includes an article by U. S. Representative Brian N. Baird from Washington, a Ph.D. psychologist. Rep. Baird was one of the 13 representatives who abstained from voting because he believed it wasn’t the proper rule of Congress to intrude in the scientific process. He received significant political fallout for this in the form of glossy mailers sent to his constituents accusing him of condoning child sexual abuse. He is critical of the American Psychological Association: “Inexplicably and incongruously, given that a fundamental principle of scientific freedom was under attack, the APA appears to have bent over backwards to appease those who assaulted the organization” (Baird, 2002, p. 190). It is also clear, when the APA capitulated to Dr. Laura and the United States Congress, it passed up an invaluable opportunity to educate the public about the nature of science and research (Lilienfeld, 2002b; Sher & Eisenberg, 2002; Tavris, 1999).
The criticism of the APA’s behavior in no way means open debate and criticism of the Rind et al. article should be discouraged as long as the disagreement is honest and is based on legitimate scientific grounds. Lilienfeld (2002b) notes that “science progresses most effectively when researchers’ claims are subjected to searching and incisive scrutiny” (p. 184). But it isn’t legitimate to imply the authors of the article have a pro-pedophile agenda.
One factor in the condemnation of Rind et al. article is that their findings directly contradicted the popular beliefs about effects of sexual abuse. One would think this would be heralded as great news for victims and their parents — a victim would no longer have to think of herself as damaged for life. But, in terms of social psychology and decision theory, what happened isn’t surprising. There is a long history of research demonstrating information which contradicts strongly held beliefs is ignored and demeaned, or results in attacks on the source of the information. This is true even in the face of information that clearly refutes the beliefs (e.g., Dawes, 1988; Festinger, 1997, Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956; Lilienfeld, 2002b). In addition, people are overconfident about their beliefs and convictions (Smith & Dumont, 1997). Along with this, people tend to equate the harmfulness of an act with its moral wrongfulness. Even though Rind et al. explicitly differentiated between these concepts, people think of child molesters as monsters who violate society’s moral, legal and ethical codes. How could such terrible behavior not also be damaging?
In situations such as this, the important role of the scientist is to correct errors in logical reasoning, contradict strongly held beliefs, and to question commonly accepted truths. (e.g., Baird, 2002; Lilienfeld, 2002b). But in order for this to happen, scientists’ rights to explore controversial research questions and draw potentially unpopular conclusions must be defended (e.g., Baird, 2002; Hatfield et al. 1999; Lilienfeld, 2002b). Sternberg (2002) observes:
In the case of an article that is high in quality but that defies the crowd and, especially, that defies public sensibilities, should it be published? Absolutely. Academic freedom requires it, and scientists’ integrity, as scientists, depends on it (p. 195)
Unfortunately, the reaction to the Rind et al. article makes it more difficult for researchers to tackle this topic and for journal editors to publish such articles.
Scientists must be sensitive to the implications of their work for the larger society and must counter its misuse (e.g., Garrison & Kobor, 2002; Lerch, 1999, Lilienfeld, 2002b). The North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) had cited the Rind et al. (1998) article on their web site with the implication that it supported their goals. This wasn’t helped by the suggestion in the article that the more neutral terms “adult-child sex” and “adult-adolescent sex” be used rather than “child sexual abuse” to describe willing encounters between adults and minors that the young person experienced as positive, a suggestion that arose out of the the peer review editorial process (Rind et al. 1999, 2000). But I believe Rind et al. (1998) were sensitive to the implications of their work. They wrote a careful and thoughtful article. I don’t see how anyone reading it could conclude they favor of normalizing adult-child sexual contact.
In a story in the New York Times, Benedict Carey (2004) gives several examples of research projects involving sexual behavior that were canceled or are at risk. The title of his article is “Long after Kinsey, only the brave study sex.” He concludes that American’s ambivalence regarding sexuality means sex researchers “operate in a kind of scientific underground, fearing suppression or public censure” (p. 1).
In fall, 2004, I flew from Denver to Minneapolis after working on a case. Shortly before the plane left, a man dressed in hunting clothing sat next to me. He was talkative and friendly and told me he had been elk hunting. He asked me what I did. I told him I was a forensic psychologist and had been consulting on a case involving child sexual abuse allegations.
“I know what I’d do,” he said,” “I’d take that guy outside and shoot him. None of them should be given a second chance.”
This is the typical reaction I get when I tell people I review child interviews in sexual abuse cases or evaluate sex offenders. It doesn’t matter whether the person is male or female, young or old, conservative or liberal. I have heard such sentiments from all manner of people. It may, by now, simply be impossible to do the type of research that will help solve important social problems dealing with sexual behavior.
If such research is somehow conducted, it will be difficult to report results if they contradict popularly held beliefs.
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* Institute for Psychological Therapies, 5263 130th Street East., Northfield, Minnesota 55057. Electronic mail address firstname.lastname@example.org. This material was first presented at theAmerican Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting, February 18, 2005, Washington, DC at the Symposium, “The Political Framing of Empirical Results in Psychology”