... won’t cave in
The adamantine defense of a condemned study
This article appeared in Koinos magazine 32 – 2001/4. See http://w3.to/koinos .
The field of research into what is called ‘child sexual abuse’ has been rocked by renewed rigorous objective inquiry into, and razor-sharp analyses of, the current and recent historical state of affairs. The American researchers Bruce Rind, Robert Bauserman and Philip Tromovitch published a meta-analysis of research into child sexual abuse in Psychological Bulletin, vol. 124, no. 1, 1998 – that is, a statistical analysis which makes it possible to combine data from independent studies – showing, among other things, that there are a considerable number of children and adolescents, especially boys, who do not suffer demonstrable psychological harm as a result of sexual experiences with older persons, and that willingness and (lack of) force are essential factors influencing outcomes. The meta-analysis was based entirely on research done previously, but findings that do not fit the abuse dogma have been, and are still being, obfuscated in the victimological literature. Victimologists tend to overstate and focus solely on harm, and to confuse a cultural connection between adult-minor sex and psychological impairment with a universal causal relation.
The meta-analysis set in motion the anti-scientific machinery of the influential American conservative right, which caused it to be officially condemned by the equally anti-scientific U.S. Congress. The ease with which this condemnation was accomplished, despite assurances from the scientific community – including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest science organization in America – that the research was scientifically sound, demonstrates the unfairness of the game.
Amid random smears and in the face of calls for them to be fired, Rind et al. did not follow the line of the American Psychological Association (APA) – their publisher and initial defender – and shrink back into self-flagellation and promises to ‘consider the social policy implications’ of future controversial scientific findings before going public with them. Neither did they mimic their opponents by slinging mud in an understandable emotional reflex. Instead, they kept their cool and restricted themselves to what they had done before: the precise, calm and even-handed dissection of the outrage they were faced with.
A decade ago, Bauserman discussed a number of critiques of a study by the Dutch psychologist Theo Sandfort (for this discussion, see the Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 20, no. 1/2, 1990). Sandfort had interviewed 25 Dutch boys aged 10 to 16 on their sexual relationships with men, and concluded that virtually all the boys experienced their relationships as contributory to their sense of well-being and perceived no misuse of power by their adult partners. The critiques of the study came from prominent sex abuse researchers and sexologists including David Finkelhor and the illustrious Masters and Johnson.
After a careful exposure of the weakness and disingenuousness of the arguments these critics used to dismiss Sandfort’s study, Bauserman concluded: ‘The methodological criticisms of Sandfort’s work are variously distorted, irrelevant, or just plain false; the speculative criticisms are either irrelevant or else biased by their complete failure to consider contrary findings in the literature; and the moral criticisms show a dogmatic adherence to the belief that all adult-juvenile sexual relations are by definition abusive, exploitive, and harmful.’ Bauserman’s dissecting job was a foretaste of the comprehensive response by him and his colleagues to the onslaught of criticism following the 1998 meta-analysis.
A comparatively brief discussion of the controversy was published in the July/August 2001 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, the established magazine for skeptics. Ample consideration has been given in skeptical circles to the international outbursts of hysteria in the eighties and early nineties about the intertwined issues of ritual sexual abuse and recovered memories of sexual abuse (recovered memory advocates, by the way, were instrumental in bringing about the Congressional condemnation of the meta-analysis). However, as Rind et al. write in their article for the skeptical-minded, ‘few people were willing to critically examine the core assumptions that led to these hysterical epidemics: that [having sex as a child with an older person] is distinctively horrible (more horrible than any other traumatic experience or than family pathology [i.e., disturbed family relations]), inevitably leaving scars that last throughout life (at least, without therapy).’
Rind et al. published their most exhaustive rebuttal of the attacks on their meta-analysis in the Spring 2000 issue of Sexuality & Culture. The attacks were often blithe repetitions of common errors in ‘child sexual abuse’ research that had been addressed in the meta-analysis (for instance, generalization from clinical samples and careless causal interpretations). Other attacks that are dealt with include the claim that college students, on whom the meta-analysis focused, would be too young for the effects of child sexual abuse to surface (an assumption lacking empirical support) or would not be generalizable as a group (unlike the outcomes of clinical samples, the outcomes of college samples are rather consistent with those of national probability samples).
The article pays special attention to two oft-repeated reproaches.
The first was that Rind et al. recommended the use of neutral terminology in the scientific community in some cases – e.g., ‘adult-child sex’ or ‘adult-adolescent sex’ in the case of willing encounters with positive reactions on the part of the younger participant. This recommendation was seen as ‘inflammatory’, ‘academic hair-splitting’, ‘a repetition of the steps by which homosexuality was normalized’ and ‘overhauling and euphemizing the language of sexual abuse’. Rind et al. explain that peer reviewers requested them to include the recommendation, arguing that ‘child sexual abuse’ may be a correct socio-legal term but appears over-inclusive in a scientific sense – that is, insofar as it is supposed to predict psychological harm. Rind et al. write: ‘We carefully outlined the problems caused in the past by the mixing of morality and science in other areas of sexuality, such as the seventeenth-century transformation of masturbation from sin to sickness and medical representation of it as "self-abuse," hindering scientific understanding of this behavior and creating iatrogenic victims [i.e., victims of physician-induced harm] in the process.’
The second reproach was that Rind et al. used the construct of consent. Critics asserted that ‘children cannot consent to sex’ – ‘children’ basically meaning anyone under some arbitrary legal age of sexual consent. Rind et al. distinguish between ‘simple consent’ (compliance or approval especially of what is done or proposed by another) and ‘informed consent’ (capable, deliberate, and voluntary agreement to or concurrence in some act or purpose implying physical and mental power and free action). They found simple consent, or willingness, to be a factor influencing outcomes for both children and adolescents. The absence or presence of willingness helps predict whether a youthful sexual experience is viewed negatively, neutrally or positively by the young person. Therefore, willingness is a valid scientific construct. Rind et al. call critics’ resort to the demand of fully informed consent a ‘red herring’. However, they note that the American Psychological Association itself wrote: ‘Psychological theory and research about cognitive, social and moral development strongly supports the conclusion that most adolescents are competent to make informed decisions about important life situations.’ The APA stated this in a situation where age-discrepant sex was not the direct issue (abortion was). When the Rind et al. meta-analysis caused them trouble, the APA was quick to aver that sexual activity between adults and ‘children’ should never be seen as consensual, and to announce an amicus curiae brief specifying that the meta-analysis is invalid for legal use. Such a brief is filed with a court by an organization or entity that supports one party in the litigation, but is not a party to the litigation itself. Thus, courts are pressured not to weigh controversial yet factual information.
Rind et al.’s most extensive overview of the controversy, including ‘reflections on remedies for future ideological attacks’, was published in Applied & Preventive Psychology 9, 2000. Articles by others defending the meta-analysis or criticizing irresponsible political intervention in science appeared in the mainstream media as well as in professional journals. Thomas Oellerich, a professor of social work, stressed the implications of the meta-analysis for the therapeutic field: a sexual experience with an older person in childhood ‘is not a psychiatric disorder or a syndrome’. He stated that perpetuating ‘the myth that because a sexual activity violates a moral and/or a legal code it is thereby necessarily or even usually psychologically harmful’ is ‘unethical and has possible iatrogenic effects’.
Pointing out historical parallels, the political scientist Harris Mirkin argued that the notion of harm is the secular metamorphosis of sin, and that the meta-analysis was condemned because of ‘the fear that empirical claims will undermine the moral norm.’
The psychologist Scott Lilienfeld submitted an article for an APA journal in which he analyzed the collision between social science and politics, using the condemnation of the meta-analysis as a prominent example. His article was originally accepted, but was rejected by veto in May 2001 by an APA official who was criticized in it. Lilienfeld immediately made this public, and a storm of criticism elicited the promise that the article would be published after all. Several psychologists are considering leaving the APA and joining the American Psychological Society, which is held to be more devoted to science.
Rind’s latest study, which he carried out alone using data from research conducted by the psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams, is of special interest to Koinos readers since it focuses on gay and bisexual adolescent boys’ sexual experiences with men. This study was published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 30, no. 4, 2001. In a nonclinical, mostly college sample of gay and bisexual men, 26 of the 129 men were identified as having had ‘age-discrepant sexual relations’ (ADSRs) with adult males during their adolescence (12 to 17 years of age). According to the study, men with such experiences ‘were as well adjusted as controls in terms of self-esteem and having achieved a positive sexual identity. Reactions to the ADSRs were predominantly positive, and most ADSRs were willingly engaged in. Younger adolescents were just as willing and reacted at least as positively as older adolescents. Data on sexual identity development indicated that ADSRs played no role in creating same-sex sexual interests, contrary to the "seduction" hypothesis.’ A careful look at this study and at reactions to it seems a good idea for a future issue of Koinos.
Related articles in Koinos:
Koinos 17 (1998/1), G. G.: ‘Bauserman and Rind: Boys’ Sexual Experiences’
Koinos 20 (1998/4), G. G.: ‘Radical Reconsideration of the Concept of Child Sexual Abuse’
Koinos 21 (1999/1), Bob Ferguson: ‘Youthful Sexual Experience and Well-being’
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