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, &
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
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
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
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
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
Following his promise to Congress, Ray Fowler asked the American Association
for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to evaluate the
scientific merit of the Rind et al. article. On October 4, 1999,
Irving Lerch, the Chair of the AAAS
Committee of Scientific Freedom and
Responsibility, wrote to Richard McCarty, the Executive Director for
Science at the APA, explaining why the AAAS turned down this request:
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
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 the
American Psychologist published in
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
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
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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1 For detailed accounts of this
controversy from different perspectives see Lilienfeld (2002),
and Kobor (2002), and Rind, Tromovitch, and Bauserman (1999, 2000).