The uproar over sexual abuse research and its findings
When Bruce Rind, Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Bauserman published their paper in Psychological Bulletin in 1998, I read it with fascination. "These guys are going to catch it now," I said to myself. There are too many constituencies that have extensive political and professional vested interests in three assumptions that this paper called into question:
(1) Any sexual experience that any child has is, by definition, "abuse." Abuse no longer refers to unwanted, coercive sexual contact, threats, or intimidation; it has morphed into a term referring to just about any sexual experience a child might have, including "playing doctor," experimenting sexually, and masturbating.
(2) Any sexual experience that any child has is, therefore, inherently traumatic, with longlived emotional and psychological consequences
(3) Teenagers, whom we all know have no sexual feeling of any kind until they are 16 (at which time they magically become mature adults), are incapable of wishing to have sexual relations, so if they do have sexual relations before age 16, said relations must be oppressive, traumatic, and coerced.
So I sent a mental salute to the researchers for their careful analysis of these assumptions: for separating "child sexual abuse" from non-abusive sexual experiences, and being open-minded in their examination of the evidence about how traumatic such experiences are-and, when they are traumatic, why, and for whom.
Of course, such provocative information could not languish for long unnoticed in an academic journal. The article soon came to the attention of two powerful constituencies: religious fundamentalists and other conservatives who decided that the research endorses pedophilia and homosexuality; and an alliance of psychotherapists and psychiatrists who believe that all sexual experiences in childhood inevitably cause lifelong psychological harm. These groups learned about the research in December 1998, when the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) posted an attack on the paper on its web site.
NARTH endorses the long-discredited psychoanalytic notion that homosexuality is a mental disorder and that it is a result of seduction in childhood by an adult. Thus NARTH was exercised by the study's findings that most boys are not traumatized for life by experiences with older men (or women) and that these experiences do not "turn them" into homosexuals. NARTH's indictment of the article was picked up by right-wing magazines, organizations, and radio talk-show hosts, notably Laura Schlessinger. They in turn contacted allies in Congress, and soon the study was being used as evidence of the liberal agenda to put a pedophile in every home, promote homosexuality, and undermine "family values."
Congress, in turn, wasted no time in announcing to the nation that it disapproves of pedophilia and the sexual abuse of children. On July 12, 1999, the House voted unanimously to denounce the Rind et al. study, which the resolution's sponsor, Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), called "the emancipation proclamation of pedophiles." In a stunning display of scientific illiteracy and moral posturing, Congress misunderstood the message, so they condemned the messenger.
So let's consider the message. The authors of the article statistically analyzed 59 studies, involving more than 37,000 men and women, on the effects of childhood sexual abuse on college students. (A previous paper reviewed studies of more than 12,000 adults in the general population.) The researchers found no overall link between childhood sexual abuse and later emotional disorders or unusual psychological problems in adulthood. Of course, some experiences, such as rape by a father, are more devastating than others, such as seeing a flasher in an alley. But the children most harmed by sexual abuse are those from terrible family environments, where abuse is one of many awful things they have to endure.
Perhaps the researchers' most inflammatory fording, however, was that not all experiences of childadult sexual contact have equally emotional consequences nor can they be lumped together as "abuse:' Being molested at the age of 5 is not comparable to choosing to have sex at 15. Indeed, the researchers found that two-thirds of males who, as children or teenagers, had had sexual experiences with adults did not react negatively.
Shouldn't this be good news? Shouldn't we be glad to know which experiences are in fact traumatic for children, and which are not upsetting to them? Shouldn't we be pleased to get more evidence of the heartening resilience of children? And "more" evidence it is, for abundant research now shows that most people, over time, cope successfully with adversity-even war. Many not only survive, but find meaning and strength in the experience, discovering psychological resources they did not know they had.
But the fact that many people survive life's losses and cruelties is surely no endorsement of child abuse, rape, or war. A criminal act is still a criminal act, even if the victim eventually recovers. If I get over having been mugged, it's still illegal for someone to mug me, and if I recover from rape, my recovery should offer no mercy for rapists. If a child eventually recovers from molestation by an adult, pedophilia is still illegal and wrong. Moreover, the fact that many people recover on their own says nothing about the importance of promoting interventions that help those who cannot.
Psychotherapists of all people should welcome further evidence of human resilience. But the religious conservatives who hated the message of the Rind et al. study quickly found support from a group of clinicians who still maintain that childhood sexual abuse causes everything from eating disorders to depression to "multiple personality disorder"; and if depressed adults cannot remember having been sexually abused in childhood, that's all the more evidence that they "repressed" the memory. These ideas have been as discredited by research as the belief that homosexuality is a mental illness or a chosen "lifestyle," but their promulgators cannot let them go. These clinicians want to kill the Rind study because they fear that it will be used to support malpractice claims against their fellow therapists.
Indeed, a group of them, whose members read like a "Who's Who" in the multiple personality disorder and recovered-memories business, made this fear explicit in a memo to the CEO of the American Psychological Association: "In addition to the fact that we, as a group, wish to protect the integrity of psychotherapy, we also want to protect good psychotherapists from attack and from financial ruin as a result of suits that are costly both financially and emotionally." To a casual observer, this concern is a non sequitur; what in the world does a meta-analysis on the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse have to do with the practice of psychotherapy? Good therapy is still helpful for children and adults suffering from traumatic experiences. But bad therapy, such as that based on unvalidated assumptions that sexual experiences in childhood are invariably traumatizing and commonly "repressed," might indeed be in jeopardy from the meta-analysis. Isn't that important news, especially for "good psychotherapists"?
Both the religious right and the clinicians claimed that their major worry about the Rind et al. article is that it will be used to protect pedophiles in court. This concern too seems highly misplaced. Is a defense attorney really going to say, "Yes, your honor, my client did molest that little girl, but look at this study showing that she'll probably be just fine by the time she's in college"? All scientific research, on any subject, can be used wisely or stupidly. For clinicians and conservatives to use the "exoneration of pedophiles" argument to try to suppress this article's important findings, and to smear the article's authors by impugning their scholarship and motives, is particularly reprehensible. They should know better. The Bible can be used wisely or stupidly, too.
We have not seen the end of political firestorms caused by research such as that by Rind et al., but at least we can learn from this sad story to prepare for the next one-and there will surely be a next one. There always is disconfirming evidence whenever ideological and financial interests meet. And what should the lesson be?
The American Psychological Association (the journal's publisher), under constant attack by the Christian Coalition, Republican congressmen, panicked citizens, radio talk-show hosts, and angry clinicians, tried to find a middle road that would placate the critics. The APA announced that future articles on sensitive subjects would be more carefully considered for their "public policy implications" and that the article would be re-reviewed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). It assured Congress that "the sexual abuse of children is a criminal act that is reprehensible in any context."
These gestures were understandable given the ferocity of the attacks. But the APA missed its chance to educate the public and Congress about the scientific method, the purpose of peer review, and the absolute necessity of protecting the right of its scientists to publish unpopular findings. Researchers cannot function if they have to censor themselves according to potential public outcry or are silenced by social pressure, harassment, or political posturing from those who misunderstand or disapprove of their results. The AAAS, realizing this, declined to review the Rind article, and gently rapped the APA's knuckles for even asking them to do so. The article was properly peer reviewed, the AAAS said, and disputes of this kind 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:'
On emotionally sensitive topics such as sex, children, and trauma, we need all the clear-headed information we can get. We need to understand what makes most people resilient, and how to help those who are not. We need to understand a whole lot more about sexuality, including children's sexuality. Congress and clinicians may feel a spasm of righteousness by condemning scientific findings they dislike. But their actions will do no more to reduce the actual abuse of children than posting the Ten Commandments in schools will improve children's morality.
Carol Tavris is a social psychologist who writes frequently on behavioral research. She is author of The Mismeasure of Woman. A version of this article appeared originally in the Los Angeles Times, July 19, 1999.
Copyright Transaction Inc. May/Jun 2000
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