Subject: Controversy Regarding APA Journal Article
From: Ray Fowler, Ph.D.
Date: 25 May 1999
You may be aware of an ongoing controversy regarding an APA journal article on child sexual abuse. Unfortunately, misinformation is being spread about this article by certain groups and some elements of the media. We don't question the right of those groups to express their own views vigorously, but in doing so they are distorting both the nature of the article and the policies of the American Psychological Association. Let me give you some background.
Last July, APA published an article, "A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples," by Rind, Tromovitch, & Bauserman, in Psychological Bulletin. The authors of the article reviewed the findings of 59 studies of college students who had, as children or adolescents, experienced some form of child sexual abuse. The authors subjected these studies to meta-analysis in an effort to determine the common factors across studies. The first overall finding was that those students who had been the victims of child sexual abuse were somewhat LESS well adjusted than those students who had not suffered such abuse. The next level of finding was that there was a great deal of individual variability in the reports of the abused students about how the experience had affected them -- their self-reports of their reactions ranged from highly negative to somewhat positive. That anyone reported childhood sexual abuse as "positive" may seem surprising and may be an artifact of both the criteria used to define child sexual abuse and of gender differences. Male adolescents were more likely to report neutral or positive reactions than females or younger children, whose reactions were reported as much more negative and whose long-term adjustment was more negatively impacted. Many factors seemed to determine the long-term effects of the abuse, including the sex of the child, the nature of the abuse (violent or non-violent), and the family environment. For example, the damage was greater and more long lasting among females, when violence was used and when the family was, in other ways, dysfunctional. The authors concluded that the effects of child sexual abuse vary with the individual, that some child sexual abuse victims perceived it, at the time and in retrospect, as a positive rather than negative experience, and that there was no support for the general belief that child sexual abuse always has long term negative effects on all victims. The article does not address the question of whether or not some of the students had received any form of psychotherapy, which may have ameliorated the long-term impact of childhood abuse experiences. Many of these findings, while answering important empirical questions, provided an opportunity for the article to be misrepresented as condoning sexual contact between adults and children, or at least failing to condemn it.
Several months after the article was published, the Web site of NAMBLA (the North American Man-Boy Love Association) publicized the study as "Good News," misrepresenting it as support for their position in favor of sexual relations between men and boys. Subsequently, it was denounced by "Dr. Laura," a talk show host who spent hours attacking APA for publishing what she called "severely flawed" "junk science."
This, in turn, attracted the attention of some members of Congress who participated in a press conference on the issue and subsequently submitted a resolution in the House of Representatives condemning the study and, by implication, APA. That resolution (attached) is currently referred to House Committee, but no action has been taken. The conclusions of the study have been strongly objected to by critics, even though the findings are consistent with, and, in fact, based on, the 59 previous studies.
The report that some college students, who as children or adolescents had experienced sexual interactions with adults, reported it as positive has especially aroused anger and outrage. Many critics have demanded that APA repudiate the study. Because the article has attracted so much attention, we have carefully reviewed the process by which it was approved for publication and the soundness of the methodology and analysis. This study passed the journal's rigorous peer review process and has, since the controversy, been reviewed again by an expert in statistical analysis who affirmed that it meets current standards and that the methodology, which is widely used by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop guidelines, is sound.
We also believe it asked a valid and important research question -- are there varying degrees of harm from child sexual abuse? Can the child's age, resiliency, and family environment lessen the ill effects of such abuse? There is no support in the article for a change in social policy or current law vis--vis pedophilia. In fact, the authors state that questions of harmfulness are separate from the question of the wrongfulness of the act.
These conclusions have been distorted and misreported by various groups and media figures who are now claiming that APA is saying that child sexual abuse is not harmful to children, or that young children are capable of "consenting" to sex with adults. Of course, APA's position is just the opposite; child sexual abuse is harmful to children. Pedophilia is WRONG, should never be considered acceptable behavior, and is properly punishable by law.
In response to the controversy, the Board of Directors approved a resolution on child sexual abuse reaffirming APA's long-standing policies on the topic (see below). In essence, we believe that, through this issue, science has been misrepresented to further the cause of politics and sensationalist publicity. That is ultimately a disservice to science, to society and to children. We are working hard to try and correct the record with those politicians and members of the media who care about the facts. You will find below a copy of the Board of Directors' resolution on child sexual abuse, which will be brought before Council in August for ratification. A statement that further outlines APA's position is also posted on APA's Web site if you want to direct colleagues who have questions to it. The citation to the article is below: the full text of the article can be located in the member services section of the APA Web site.
Rind, B., Tromovitch, P., & Bauserman, R. (1998). A meta-analytic examination of assumed properties of child sexual abuse using college samples. Psychological Bulletin 124, 22-53.