Child Sexual Abuse: The Sources of
Anxiety Making and the Negative Effects
Arnold Veraa, PhD*
ABSTRACT: Christian moral belief about child sexuality and
feminist theory and practice are considered as the primary causes for
the anxiety about, and exaggeration of, child sexual abuse. The
negative effects of this anxiety making are discussed in relation to
research and literature, the negative influences this has had on
professional performance, and the subsequent deleterious consequences
upon institutions, families and children. It is proposed that the
manufactured moral alarm about child sexual abuse has done more harm
"Child sexual abuse" seems an elusive term and its
specifying characteristics may vary in relation to personal values and
moral preferences held. Most would agree that the term includes
some sexual activity by an adult with a minor
As a societal issue, the child sexual abuse
problem went virtually unrecognized until the mid seventies. Then
feminists in particular began querying sexual abuse accounts and
commenced publishing articles and books about the topic. Somewhat
later the satanic sexual abuse fiascos surfaced in the United States and
these were successfully transported to other western countries including
Australia and New Zealand.
Following conferences and workshops, feminists and
professionals soon spread the word. Eventually, the child sexual
abuse message was embraced by all manner of agencies, some university
schools, and relevant government departments. The popular press
assisted in making child sexual abuse the scourge of society, imminent
and almost inevitable, and with predicted severe short- and long-term
effects in all cases.
To date, criticism about the child sexual abuse
progression, and its undesirable side effects, has been sporadic and
uncoordinated. Such critical comment has also been easily ignored
or dismissed on the grounds that critics favor adult/child sexual
interactions or are "in denial".
This paper reviews the likely historical causes of
this exaggeration of child sexual abuse with emphasis on the
fundamentalist Christian and feminist contributions. The negative
consequences of this emphasis on child sexual abuse are discussed in
relation to the literature and research, its effects upon professional
performance, and the undesirable consequences this has had upon the
Christian Anxiety Making
The emphasis on child sexual abuse in our society
seems related to the Christian suppression of sexuality. This
repression became particularly evident during the sexual liberation of
the sixties. Comfort (1963) went as far as to say that this was
the major negative achievement of Christendom; no pornographer has ever
exploited sexuality so thoroughly, he added.
Much moral energy seemed indeed directed towards
resisting the seduction of the flesh with abstinence, virginity, or
celibacy being lauded. The enjoyments of sex appeared tolerated
but heavily regulated. Non-compliance was viewed as a sin.
This irrational obsession with sexuality resulted in deep seated
feelings of anxiety and guilt many people still experience today (Runkel,
1998; Haroian, 2000; Levine, 2002; Haught, 2004; Paul, 2005).
It appears that this discomfort about sexuality is
transferred to children by parents who perceive it their duty to
discourage and suppress their children’s sexuality. An idealized
notion develops where children are seen as pure, innocent and vulnerable
but above all as non-sexual (Finkelhor, 1983; Fortune, 1983; Straus,
1994; Paris, 1997; Krivacska, 1993). Children thus learn that sex
is indecent and immoral and is not to be talked about (hence,
perpetrators need not instill this notion, only take advantage of it).
Freud (1905; 1908) seemed the first to challenge
this idealized child sexual innocence. As his thesis essentially
implied that infants and children desired and experienced sexual
pleasure this, at the time and to this day, drew much criticism (see
Jones, 1964; Masson, 1984). The other important historical work
supporting the existence of child sexuality was that by Kinsey et al
(1948; 1953). This work also attracted great interest but equal
condemnation from a Christian society that felt its moral beliefs about
sexuality, and child sexuality, threatened.
Much research since then has strongly supported
the notion that children are sexual beings. It has been shown that
children, without prompting by adults, think sexually, may engage in a
wide range of sexual activities, and enjoy them despite sanctions
imposed by adults. (Langfelt, 1981; Martinson, 1981; Goldman and
Goldman, 1982; 1988; Haugaard and Tilly, 1988; Okami, 1992; Paris, 1997;
Sandfort, 2001; Bancroft, 2003; Denov, 2003).
It has also been long known that adult/child
sexual activities in other cultures, such as routine stimulation of
infant’s and children’s genitals and actively instructing them as to the
pleasure of sex, has produced positive rather than negative effects on
children. (Ford and Beach, 1951; Yates, 1978; Herlihy, 1993; Barr, 1996;
Paris, 1997). Also see Kincaid, (1998). The distaste of
child sexuality in our culture seems therefore induced and not
intrinsic; culturally or religiously relative, in other words.
Thus, the belief promoted by Christian
fundamentalists, and sympathizers, that children are inherently ultra
fragile sexual innocents derives little support.
What does receive support are the capacities
customarily attributed to perpetrators namely the inclinations to
deceive, mislead and manipulate yet immature human beings.
Paradoxically, it was the fundamentalist Christians themselves, and
their professional sympathizers, that were some of the most determined
abusers of "childhood sexual innocence".
For historical elucidation we refer to the satanic
sexual abuse cases which were to have a lasting effect upon the way
child sexual abuse was to be dealt with, and promoted, in subsequent
The McMartin Preschool fiasco (California, 1983),
is the most illustrative and infamous of these. This charade was
originally influenced, and later supported, by the authors of "Michelle
Remembers" (Smith and Pazder, 1980; Smith being a "victim" of satanic
abuse and Pazder a Catholic psychiatrist).
The event was strongly supported by local
practicing Catholics of the American Martyrs Church (Eberle and Eberle,
1986; 1993; Kennedy, 2004). Social workers from the Children’s
Institute International repeatedly interviewed the infants who recounted
most extraordinary happenings.
The infants revealed that their teachers had made
them participate in the mutilation and killing of animals and infants
and been made to drink their blood. They also confessed to having
been sexually abused in hot air balloons. As well, the infants
revealed that they had been made to travel through sewers and
underground tunnels to places where they were sexually molested. (Nathan
and Snedeker, 1995).
Summit, the psychiatrist author of the well known
article "The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome" (1983), despite
all evidence to the contrary, continued to maintain that the underground
tunnels were real (1994a; 1994b).
Such revelations by children were extracted by
professionals intent on proving that satanic sexual abuse of children
existed. Highly questionable interviewing methods were employed to
cajole and persuade infants into answers social workers wanted to hear.
No less than 360 infants in the McMartin saga were
deemed to have been sexually abused by teachers of which 120 had been
confirmed by a doctor. No teacher was ever convicted. (Coleman,
1986; Green, 1986; Benedek and Schetky, 1987; Wakefield and Underwager,
1988; 1989; Coleman and Clancy, 1990; Nathan, 1990; 1991; Putnam, 1991;
Victor, 1991; 1993; Nathan and Snedeker, 1995; Gardner, 1996; Robinson,
Despite a serious lack of evidence of satanic
sexual ritual abuse (Lanning, 1989; 1991; Bottoms and Davis, 1997),
Christian evangelical fundamentalists and sympathizing professionals
managed to export this satanic sexual abuse culture to Europe and to
Australia and New Zealand. (See Jenkins, 1992; Gedney, 1995; La
Fontaine, 1998; Cohen, 2002. For references relevant to Australia
and New Zealand see Guilliatt, 1996; Hood, 2001; Hill, 1998; 2005).
A Christian ethic that expands so much effort in
attempting to keep its children sexually innocent is bound to react
defensively when genuine research reports that adult/child sexual
interactions are not necessarily traumatic events and do not
automatically result in short or long term psychopathology. In
fact, that the negative results reported by fundamentalist Christians
and sympathizers are often iatrogenic in nature.
An example of this is the response by the American
religious right to the work of Rind and Tromovitch (1997) and Rind et al
(1998). These were meta-analytic reviews of other researcher’s
studies demonstrating that adult/child sexual interactions do not
necessarily have ill effects despite of the perceived immorality.
A Christian moral outrage ensued culminating in a congressional
resolution condemning Rind et al and accusing them of trying to
normalise sexual interactions between children and adults, trivializing
the effects, and promoting pedophilia.
Many social scientists perceived this as a moral
attack on the integrity of social science (for example see Rind et al
2000a; 2000b; 2001; Oellerich, 2000; Levine, 2002; Bullough, 2005).
Of interest is that many researchers had come to
similar conclusions much earlier; for instance see Bender and Blau
(1937), Kinsey et al (1948; 1953), Weiss et al (1955), Luckianowicz
(1972), Maisch (1973), Meiselman (1978), Finkelhor (1979a), Constantine
(1981), Fromuth (1983), Brown and Finkelhor (1986), Kilpatrick, (1992).
The erroneous religious conception that perceived
immoral behavior inevitably results in harm led to the usage of the
term "moral panic" to denote the exaggeration of child sexual abuse by
Sociologists see such moral responses as emanating
from underlying sources of anxiety and stress which cause exaggerated
perceptions of a particular immorality being widespread and being a
menace to society in general (Goode, 1990; Eberle and Eberle, 1993;
Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994; Cohen, 1980; 2002; Ungar, 2001). When
a moral panic relates to children it will tend to strike a chord even
with people who are not particularly religious.
The suppression of sexuality by Christians
continues even though it is known that it causes sexual dysfunction
among adults and actually contributes to the commission of child sexual
Significant correlations have long been found to
exist with regards to Christian fundamentalism and child sexual abuse (Gebhard
et al, 1965; Justice and Justice, 1979; Frude, 1982). More
recently, Holderread Heggen (1993) reports that, after alcohol/drug
addiction, the second best predictor for child sexual abuse appears to
be that the parents belong to a conservative Christian religious group
with traditional role beliefs and rigid sexual attitudes. (A
variable that seems often ignored by other studies).
The present Christian preoccupation with child
sexual abuse appears a continuation of its negative obsession with
sexuality rather than a genuine concern about child protection per se.
It seems this sexual moral Christian ethic which has caused us to focus
on the sexuality in the abuse of children rather than on the more
frequently occurring neglect and physical and emotional abuses.
However, while on their own such moral panics as
satanic sexual abuse might have been largely ignored and attributed to
religious fanatics and misguided fringe professionals, momentum was
maintained and the topic broadened by a new unlikely ally – feminism.
Feminist Anxiety Making
Feminism became an unlikely ally with Christian
sexual morality in that it seemed not to have previously championed
Christian values such as those to do with marriage, the family, and
children. Rather, feminism had been critical of the churches by
promoting equality of men and women and denouncing the dominance of men,
if not their oppression of women.
The feminist concern about child sexual abuse
began in the mid seventies when there was some public hysteria about
missing children and somewhat later the satanic sexual abuse scare.
Feminists had already been fighting basic
inequalities between men and women, domestic violence and society’s
tendency to trivialize rape. They were thus particularly receptive
when reports filtered through that another vulnerable group, children,
were being sexually victimized and whose stories were also being
disbelieved and discredited.
Whatever criticism may be directed presently at
the way feminist thought influenced perceptions of child sexual abuse,
it must be acknowledged that feminist efforts contributed vitally in
having the social problem recognized. This after a long history of
culturally ingrained obfuscation, concealment and outright denial of
many men’s sexual molestation of girl children. Consequently, the
feminist values expressed resonated with many professionals and
particularly with women.
The early feminist analysis about child sexual
abuse was directly based on its knowledge of patriarchy and rape.
This by the early authors such as Brownmiller (1975), Herman and
Hirschman (1977), Rush (1980), and Herman (1981) and was continued in
later publications by Herman (1983), Bass and Thorton (1983), Russell
(1983; 1986), and Dworkin (1986). (Dworkin, 2002, is also of interest).
We found Rush (1980) proclaiming that the problems
children faced in families were essentially the same as those created by
rapists (chickens facing hungry foxes) and that the sexual abuse in
families embodied the typical coercive characteristics of rape and the
"desecration of children" (Herman, 1981; Bass and Thorton 1983).
Children, it was argued, were by definition incapable of desiring sex or
having the capacity to voluntarily cooperate in sexual interactions with
adults. They could only be victims.
Yet, to equate child sexual abuse with the violent
act of rape and aggressive abuse of male power made little sense as much
earlier research clearly indicated that such adult/child sexual
activities were not typically characteristic of brute force, violence or
penetration of orifices.
Earlier theorizing as well seemed dismissed as was
Freud’s initial thesis (1905; 1908) about adult/child sexual
interactions within families being reasonably common and likely leading
to neuroses (that is, he believed his women patients). As Freud’s
theorizing about the Oedipus complex developed however he came to
believe that such experiences could be fantasies.
Along with authors such as Peters (1976) and
Masson (1984) it was this the feminists seized on with enthusiasm.
It was indeed true that psychoanalytically oriented therapists had
followed Freud’s later thesis to the letter and mindlessly dismissed
women’s memories of childhood sexual victimization. Feminists were
also right in condemning family therapy methods based on such theorizing
that, ostensibly, blamed the victim and the mother and in doing so
appeared to exonerate the father/perpetrator in the interest of family
However, while the notions of patriarchy, male
power and consent, which had been useful in explaining rape, evoked
powerful sentiments among many when applied to children, they turned out
to be unhelpful. To this day the rationalized and intellectualized
terms of "power" and "consent" are the "in" words to explain child
sexual abuse by lay persons and professionals alike. Yet both,
while emotionally appealing, seem not helpful constructs in themselves.
Misuse of power by adults over children may be
said to occur in many adult/child interactions notably in seemingly
accepted disciplinary procedures, in forcing children to attend a school
they do not want to, or in the indoctrination of a religion. Thus,
"power" seems not a unique analytical construct in the explanation of
child sexual abuse.
Feminists, in their zeal to fit comment about
child sexual abuse around conceptions of patriarchy, rape, and power,
have also neglected other abuses of children, particularly neglect.
Such abuses may be perpetrated by women (rather negating the
gender-based causality theory), including some sexual abuse (Finkelhor
et al, 1988; Sommer, 1997; deYoung, 1997; 1999; Denov, 2003). For
genital mutilation of infant females by women see Hicks, 1996; Greer,
1999; Baumeister and Twenge, 2002. Also see Sommers, 1994.
Directly transferred from conceptualizations about
rape to child sexual abuse also was the concept of "consent".
However, enlightened feminists became more acceptable of the more subtle
thesis on consent as presented by Finkelhor (1979b) which relied on
"informed consent". This suggested that children are not likely to
be aware of the biological and social meanings of sexuality and its
consequences. As well, that children are not in a position to
refuse because of their dependence on adults as authority figures.
For feminists, and sympathizing professionals,
this supported the belief that even if a child had seemed to consent it
could still be considered abuse and the child could therefore always be
considered a victim. It seemed a significant development in the
feminist explanation of child sexual abuse akin to the Christian
absolutism about childhood sexual innocence. The term ‘no excuses’ was
Indeed, the proposition was accepted with such
enthusiasm by feminists and sympathizers that they also applied the
"power" and "consent" paradigm to the sexual activities children engaged
in amongst themselves (despite Finkelhor’s caution that it should not be
interpreted in this way). They are now referred to as children’s
"problem sexual behaviors" (see the heading "Child Protection or
Promoting Morality" below).
Constantine’s contemporary work (1981; 1983) about
child consent was unwelcome and ignored by feminists. He saw
consent to exist as it was perceived by the child or adolescent – if the
minor perceived that he/she had the freedom to participate voluntarily,
and could have refused if wanted to, consent was said to have been in
place. That is, consent was not related to a given level of
knowledge or awareness of possible consequences.
Constantine found that "conventional moral
negatives" were a likely cause in undesirable outcomes in adult/child
sexual relations because of absorbed negative beliefs regarding
sexuality while positive outcomes were due to auspicious feelings and an
absence of guilt or shame about sexuality.
As with the discussion on power above, we might
again ask why the feminist emphasis on consent deserves such prominence
in child sexual abuse situations (as opposed to rape considerations).
Parents/adults, as a rule, do not ask children for permission when
requiring them to engage in most activities. They certainly do not
ask for their agreement when they physically and emotionally abuse or
neglect them yet feminists, and similarly thinking professionals, do not
discuss "consent" in relation to these abuses.
It is also apparent that the present feminist
position about child sexual abuse is still much influenced by the
feminist gurus of old and their strong anti-sexual messages. In
fact, these feminist views seem curiously in line with Christian
repressive sexual dogma in that they appear attracted to the sexual
component of child sexual abuse rather than to child protection concerns
This anti-sex persuasion is clearly evident in the
feminist-initiated and professionally supported prevention programs for
children designed to "empower" them. It is also evident in efforts
to brand children, as young as four, as "offenders" or "perpetrators"
when engaging in sexual activities amongst themselves (for instance, see
Johnson, 1988; 1989; 1998). The feminist notions of power and
consent were used as justifications for this invasion of the sexual
privacy of children and the practice continues today under the name of
"problem sexual behaviors".
For authors detailing the feminist anti-sexual
inclination in relation to child sexual abuse see Wakefield and
Underwager (1988); Okami (1990); Money (1991a; 1991b); Krivacska (1993);
Underwager and Wakefield (1993); Hood (2001); and Angelides, (2004).
For a more general perspective about how some feminists might
moralistically suppress sexuality among adolescent girls see Bay-Cheng
and Lewis (2006).
Like the fundamentalist Christians and their
professional sympathizers, feminists and their supporters also found
devious ways in inventing "victims" and "perpetrators" in efforts to
exaggerate the child sexual abuse phenomenon.
The book "Courage to Heal" (Bass and Davis, 1988;
also see Bass and Thorton, 1983), widely promoted and used by sexual
assault centres and sympathizing professionals, strongly advocated the
retrieval of "repressed memories" even when there was no current
awareness of past sexual abuse.
Such dangerous encouragement and confabulation,
and creation of false memories, has caused widespread damage to so
called "victims" and "survivors" as well as to innocently convicted
"perpetrators" and their families. For detailed discussion of
these effects see Nathan (1990); Underwager and Wakefield (1993); Loftus
(1998; 1999); Cox and Gee (2005).
The dissemination of the feminist ideology about
child sexual abuse was much assisted by the wide distribution of
"indicators" (LaFontaine, 1998; deYoung, 1999). These were
originally adopted from the works of Sgroi (1982) and Cohen (1985), and
later from Gould (1986), Klein (1990) and Hudson (1990; 1991) in
relation to the satanic sexual abuse of children.
Such lists of indicators, however, became so broad
and meaningless as to just resemble general signs of distress in
children. Even sexual precociousness in children was routinely
identified as resulting from sexual abuse. (Of note is that much
the same "indicators" were used to detect masturbation in children only
Despite that, such indicator lists were spread by
feminists and professionals, without appropriate cautions or mention of
their limitations. This irresponsible use of "indicators"
continues today (even by state child protective services, as we shall
The feminist understanding of child sexual abuse
seems guided by ideology and personal convictions and, as we shall see,
by thoroughly misleading research. The feminist perspective, like
religion, appears also to have been significantly influenced by its
Combined, the Christian and feminist beliefs and
ideologies exerted a powerful influence on the way the issue of child
sexual abuse would be pursued. We now examine the negative
consequences particularly the ways in which the search for "victims" and
"perpetrators" was maintained.
The Negative Effects of Christian and Feminist Anxiety Making.
Literature and Research:
Professional literature and research efforts have
reflected the fundamentalist Christian and feminist beliefs and
ideologies. A profound desire to expose the phenomenon of child
sexual abuse became evident in the eighties and publications began to
outweigh articles and books about the other childhood abuses.
Child sexual abuse enquiry seemed to become
dominated not by sober objective analysis but by a desire to locate
morally inappropriate behaviour or that which did not comply with
Christian or feminist ideological norms. (Kilpatrick, 1987; 1992; Li,
1990; Okami, 1990; Okami and Goldberg, 1992; Bullough and Bullough,
1996; Jenkins, 1998; Pratt, 2005).
This led to much misleading research typifying a
distinct blurring between socio-political advocacy and social science.
Erroneous conclusions seemed often based on the
manipulation and broadening of definitions of child sexual abuse.
These appeared designed to inflate prevalence, exaggerate its negative
effects, and underscore its perceived seriousness (O’Hagan, 1989;
Jenkins, 1992; Cooper, 1993; Browne and Lynch, 1995; Haugaard, 2000).
We do not see such manipulation occurring in research to do with
physical or emotional abuse or neglect of children.
Positive or neutral responses to adult/child
sexual interactions in research seem often to have been deliberately
ignored or re-interpreted as negative. This to suit preconceived
notions of Christian sexual morality or feminist perceptions (Besherov,
1985a; 1985b; Schetky, 1986; Okami, 1990; 1991; 1992; Hindmarch, 1991).
Particular methodological issues that prevailed
refer to biased selection of samples, failure to employ control groups,
lack of differentiation between children and adolescents, and the
reluctance to consider cultural or confounding variables when reporting
on negative effects. (Wyatt and Peters, 1986; Finkelhor et al, 1988;
Friedrich, 1990; 1993; Haugaard, 2000; Haugaard and Emery, 1989; Higgens
and McCabe, 1994; Jumper, 1995; deYoung,1999; Goldman and Padayachi,
2000; Denov, 2003).
The selective acceptance of quite dubious
prevalence findings and the erroneous assumption that prevalence equates
with harm led to misleading judgments. As did unacceptable
generalizations of clinical studies that reported expected traumatic
effects but conveniently ignored iatrogenic consequences.
Such mistaken interpretations have led many
authors to the conclusion that we are experiencing an "epidemic" or
"disease" of child sexual abuse of serious "public health" proportions.
(For instance, see Herman, 1983; Freyd, 1996; 2003; Freyd et al, 2005;
Mercy, 1999; McMahon and Pruett, 1999; Purvis and Joyce, 2005; Cromer,
The research by feminists themselves has been
particularly methodologically deficient. For detailed critical
comment about research conducted by feminists see Christensen, (1990);
Nathan, (1990); Okami, (1990); Hindmarch, (1991); Sommer and Fekete,
(1995); and Sommer, (1997). For such biased research in Australia,
see the work of Eastwood and Patton (2002) and Taylor (2002; 2004) which
seems unreservedly supported by some feminist lawyers such as Scutt
Such distorted research findings have often been
used to ensure that the topic remains on the social and political agenda
and convince politicians and bureaucrats to create favorable policies
and increase funding (Dubowitz, 1994; Jenkins, 1992; 1998; Kenny, 1999;
deYoung, 1999; Partington, 2002).
This manipulation of research findings about child
sexual abuse occurred despite the category occupying no more than 10 to
15 percent of notifications to statutory child protective services.
(This is not a measure of prevalence, nor an estimation of which child
abuse is more or less ‘under-reported’. See the heading "Statutory
Child Protective Services" below).
As well, this emphasis on child sexual abuse
continued regardless of evidence that there was no increase in its
occurrence and that a decline of it was more evident (Mullen et al,
1988; Jenkins, 1992; Dunne et al, 2003). Moreover, research in the
United States has reported a drop of more than 30 percent in child
sexual abuse notifications (Finkelhor, 1990; Jones and Finkelhor, 2001;
Finkelhor and Jones, 2004).
Clinical practice was much influenced by the
professional literature and also by the conferences led by
Conservative Christian views about child sexuality
and feminist perceptions of child sexual abuse were well represented
here (de Young, 1999). Such gatherings were quite powerful in
spreading the child sexual abuse message and in influencing the way
professionals, and quasi professionals, would deal with child sexual
abuse and further disseminate such understandings (Hicks, 1991;
For pertinent accounts concerning Australia and
New Zealand see Goodyear-Smith, 1994; 1996a; Guilliat, 1996; Hill, 1998;
Consequent practices often reflected ready
diagnoses of child sexual abuse without reference to confounding social
circumstances or cultural factors (Nash et al, 1993; Pope and Hudson,
1995; Polusny and Follette, 1995; Higgens and McCabe, 1994; 2000;
Professionals were found relying on an
astonishingly unrealistic array of "indicators" (Berliner and Conte,
1993; Legrand et al, 2006), and we saw them adhering to negatively
geared terminology. Assault and rape became accepted terms rather
than abuse or molestation which more accurately reflected child sexual
abuse (Okami, 1990; Levine, 1998).
We witnessed the ready labeling of children
without regard to the negative immediate and long term consequences (Gelles,
1982; Browne and Finkelhor, 1986; Bromfield et al, 1988; Briggs et al,
1994). And we saw professionals and quasi professionals blatantly
involved in the creation or distortion of "recovered memories" both with
children and with adults so unnecessarily causing distress and re-traumatization
(Herr, 1986; James, 1986; Doris, 1991; Goodyear-Smith, 1996a; Newgent et
A number of authors have detailed the negative
effects of such interventions (Coleman, 1986; Sibicky and Dovidio, 1986;
Benedek and Schetky, 1987; Wakefield and Underwager, 1988; Wexler, 1991;
Underwager and Wakefield, 1998; Camille, 1996).
That the effects alleged were often iatrogenic in
nature (that is, actually caused by intervening professionals or
feminist amateurs rather than being the result of events under
consideration), has been consistently and conveniently ignored as have
been the basic civil liberty rights of children and their families.
Many have identified such practices as abuse by
professionals, therapists, or semi-professionals (Wakefield and
Underwager, 1989; Richardson, 1990; Nathan, 1991; Nathan and Snedeker,
1995; Kilpatrick, 1992; Gardner, 1996; Loftus, 1993; 1998; 1999; Loftus
and Katcham, 1994; Kenny, 1999; Oellerich, 2001).
Child Protection or Promoting Morality:
Although child sexual abuse had now fallen under
the umbrella of child protection, strong fundamentalist Christian and
feminist influences continued to be evident. This particularly in
programs that aimed to educate children about how to protect themselves
against sexual advances by adults. But also in the programs that
sought to "treat" children, and their families, when displaying
"problematic sexual behaviours".
Programs engaging children to protect themselves
proliferated in the late eighties and nineties and were essentially
based on the feminist concept of "empowerment". They later gained
ready acceptance in many schools under "safety" or "health" curricula.
Some concerns were expressed about unqualified people with strong
fundamentalist Christian or feminist ideals being given unconditional
access to children on their own terms (Goodyear-Smith, 1994; 1996a;
1996b; King, 1997).
Now, there appears, in fact, to be little evidence
that such indoctrination actually enables children to protect themselves
better (Krivacska, 1992; Heiman et al, 1998; Woolley and Gabriels,
As could be expected given our earlier
considerations, the programs have been criticized for being basically
anti-sexual in nature and as likely to disempower rather than empower
children about their sexuality. This as well as inhibit their
abilities to interact positively with adults (Money, 1991a; 1991b;
Krivacska, 1990; 1991a; 1991b; 1991c; Underwager and Wakefield, 1993;
1994; Angelides, 2004).
This basic anti-sex Christian and feminist stance,
the notions of sin and atonement, also became evident in the labelling
of sexually precocious children.
That is, those who engaged in sexual activities
with other children, as young as four, were designated as exhibiting
"age inappropriate behavior", "children who molest" or whose
was criminalized by calling them "perpetrators" or "offenders" (For
example, see Cantwell, 1988; Johnson, 1988; 1989; 1998; Johnson and
Today, the term "problem sexual behaviors" seems
favored (Staiger, 2005; Staiger et al, 2005). But the underlying
professional desire to make children and adolescents conform to
conservative and uninformed notions of child sexuality appear the same
(Wakefield and Underwager, 1988; Underwager and Wakefield, 1993; Okami,
1990; Rind et al, 1998).
Once considered normative and harmless, more overt
child sexual behaviors are now being pathologized. One is
reminded of the Ford and Beach (1951) research of many cultures
illustrating that such child sexual activities are common. They
are not necessarily taught by adults, and have, like many other
activities engaged in by children amongst themselves, few demonstrated
ill effects. Until, that is, they are deemed to be harmful by
morally preoccupied professionals (Okami, 1992; Kilpatrick, 1992; Levine
The impression that professional activities may be
engaged in to promote Christian and feminist moralities, rather than
child protection values per se, are confirmed by Carstens (2001).
This author’s findings suggest that a diagnosis of aberrant child sexual
behavior is closely linked to professionals holding conservative
attitudes and their agency setting. This in turn seems to suggest
that these professionals may merely follow the Christian and feminist
need to identify "victims" and "perpetrators" in the defence of
The popular dramatic portrayal of child
"problematic sexual behaviors" may be queried in relation to whether
such efforts are based on a genuine interest in the protection and
sexual welfare of children. It could be argued that the motivating
source resides in promoting the moral conservative ideation of child
It rather seems that Gochros’ reminder in 1982
about children and adolescents being the most sexually oppressed by
professionals remains with us.
Statutory Child Protective Services:
The Christian and feminist influence has also
taken its toll on public services.
Concerning child protective services, they are
sometimes criticized for both causing and maintaining the current
hysteria about child sexual abuse; or, conversely, for not doing enough
about the problem. These services also readily attract attention
simply because of the sheer volume of difficult cases they have to
The broad negative perception of child protective
services concerning child sexual abuse seems largely derived from the
highly publicized earlier cases of sexual satanic and ritual abuse.
These cases indeed signified overzealous intervention and pronounced
unprofessionalism in the name of child protection.
For examples, see Wexler (1991), deYoung (1999)
and Levine (2002) for the United States and Canada. For the United
Kingdom see O’Hagan (1989), Victor (1991), LaFontain (1994; 1998).
For Australia and New Zealand see Goodyear-Smith (1994), Hood (2001),
Scott (1995a; 1995b), Scott and Swain (2002) and Hill (2005).
However, today, a distinction might be made
between the practice of child protective workers on the ground and the
bureaucrats who tend to guide the public’s perception of child sexual
Child protective workers, and their immediate
supervisors, tend to have a good practical appreciation of the sexual
risks to a child with an ability to assess this in the wider context of
the family and the community.
Their superiors, however, the ones that make the
decisions in the high profile cases, seem more guided by theoretical and
political considerations. This with a keen eye to control damage,
avoid criticism, and sidestep concerns from Christian and feminist lobby
groups. Ideals become prominent and the immediate protection of
children may receive secondary consideration.
This distinction may be illustrated by an example
of a statutory child protective service – here the child protective
services arm of the Department of Human Services, Victoria (Australia).
Of all the notifications this department received regarding child abuse
in 2004/2005 only 10% concerned child sexual abuse (it is not known how
many of these were re-notifications).
Of these only 14% were substantiated by child
protective workers in the field. Further, the substantiation rate
for child sexual abuse in 2003/2004 is lower than that for physical and
emotional abuse and neglect, thus contradicting the perception that
child protective workers go out of their way to diagnose child sexual
abuse. Such figures, in fact, are more likely a reflection of the
child sexual abuse panic and the public’s tendency to submit fallacious
A quite different picture from the practical
experiences of child protective workers emerges when one peruses this
departments’ corporate response. Despite the low comparative
notifications of child sexual abuse, departmental publications about
this topic far outweigh those having to do with physical and emotional
abuse and neglect which make up approximately 90% of all notifications
and about which most child protective work in this department revolves.
As well, outdated perceptions and references about
child sexual abuse are quoted in these departmental publications.
Nonsensical "indicators" (headaches, abdominal pains, personality
changes, difficulty with peers) are repeated time after time in
documents that are supposed to enlighten its own protective workers,
other professionals, parents, and students. (See "Department Human
Services" in References).
This unrealistic emphasis on child sexual abuse by
bureaucrats is clearly out of tune with the reality of child protective
problems, as is its willingness in funding agencies claiming to tackle
child sexual abuse. This has frequently been called "the neglect
of the neglect" (Dubowitz, 1994; Jenkins, 1992; 1998; Scott and Swain,
2002; Smith and Fong, 2004).
It is an example of how bureaucrats of the state
may perpetuate the Christian and feminist alarm about child sexual abuse
under the guise of child protection (For elucidation see Wexler,1991;
Howitt, 1992; Freckelton, 2001; Pratt, 2005).
While the more independent professionally thinking
child protective worker in the field may not have been unduly influenced
by the fundamentalist Christian and feminist mantra of moral justice and
want for retribution, the simplistic nature of this contention appears
to have appealed more to police with their emphasis on apprehending
miscreants and bringing them to justice.
Influenced by the fundamentalist Christians,
feminists, and professional protagonists, police began "discovering"
child sexual abuse cases in unprecedented numbers.
As a consequence of police overzealousness and
preconceived assumptions of guilt, hundreds of people in western
countries were charged with child sexual offenses. The most
obvious of these have been the charges laid in relation to satanic and
ritual sexual abuse cases, only quite few of which ever resulted in
convictions. (Lanning, 1989; 1991; Hicks, 1991; LaFontaine, 1994;
Guilliatt, 1996; Wood and Garven, 2000; Freckleton, 2001; Stuckle, 2004;
An example of corporate zeal in the police force
may be found in the United Kingdom practice of "trawling" (practiced to
a lesser degree in other countries) (Webster, 1998; Pratt, 2005).
This so called proactive police approach involves "fishing" for other
"victims" of an accused who may have been involved in previous decades.
Subsequently, this police practice was deemed unnecessarily invasive and
over-enthusiastic by a Home Affairs Select Committee (2002).
Fuelled by the moral panic, and pretensions about
child protection and prevention, the police interest in child sexual
abuse remains strong and has now also turned to child pornography on the
Police appear eager to be seen as "doing
something" about the community’s unease about child pornography on the
Internet. But, as in its earlier overreaction in dealing with
child sexual abuse, its response to present community moral sentiment
seems again exaggerated and misplaced. We might note that the same
police enthusiasm is not employed in pursuing perpetrators of other
Instead of an all-out effort to apprehend the
commercial producers of child pornography, attention and much resources
seem devoted to finding the "users" of this material.
Earlier discussion about widening definitions to
inflate the prevalence of child sexual abuse may be recalled. In
essence, much the same seems to be happening now: offensive sexual
behavior towards children is being broadened to include people who have
not actually touched children.
However, given the moral mandate police have been
given by the community, they appear to feel entitled and at ease with
using detection methods normally engaged in with more serious criminal
This may involve entrapping and encouraging people
("users") to offend by police posing as children on the
The rationale is that otherwise adults would gain easy access to
children on the Internet and subsequently sexually abuse them.
Given the effort expended, relatively few convictions seem obtained and
this moral vigilance, short of satisfying the Christian and feminist
lobby, may not justify the resources spend on it.
Police contribute to the child sexual abuse panic
by seeking publicity, and trying to gain credit, for "Internet scams"
exposed. For professionals, such as child protective workers,
similar attention seeking and self congratulatory efforts would be
condemned on ethical grounds.
It is, in any case, disingenuous and alarmist for
police to claim that children are at serious risk by predators on the
Internet, though a small proportion of vulnerable adolescents may be (Wolak
et al, 2008). Such misguided efforts at prevention seem not to
serve an already anxious community.
Effectively, these police methods take us back to
the "danger stranger" scare campaigns of decades ago and conveniently
diverts attention from where most child sexual abuse actually occurs,
namely in the home.
Legal Practitioners, Judiciary:
Christian dogma about sexuality has for centuries
dictated and maintained legislation about sexual morality in western
societies and disproportionate penalties for transgressors have been the
rule. The perception that sex is wholly different and worse
(Levine, 1998) is deeply embedded in law.
This emphasis on sexuality, however, appears not
to have engendered an operational sense of gender equity.
Feminists in particular have highlighted the patriarchal nature of the
legal system and its tendency to discriminate against females. The
same kind of gender favoritism and lack of scrutiny may be found in
established religions when males are under sexual suspicion (Bottoms et
al , 1996; Naffine, 1996; Rosetti, 1996; Altobelli, 2003).
But the relentless emphasis by the Christian
fundamentalists and feminists about child sexual abuse came to even
significantly influence the most traditional and staunchest of all: the
judiciary. With public hysteria mounting, justices responded to
the claim that child sexual abuse victims were not heard by instituting
changes in procedures to accommodate children giving evidence.
Justices began encouraging informality, the giving
of evidence behind screens or on video by children, and the ready
acceptance of "expert" evidence by professionals. That this
evidence could be tainted by the iatrogenic factor, namely that effects
could have been induced by these "experts" themselves, often remained
Other accommodating justices began allowing
evidence based on doubtful recovered memories without adequate
corroborative evidence being presented . (Guilliatt, 1996; Paris, 1997;
Jenkins, 1998; Freckelton, 2001; Stuckle, 2004; Cox and Gee, 2005;
Critics point to the unfair biases these
procedures have created towards the accused where a presumption of guilt
by the state appears evident. It is argued that a person so
accused has to prove his/her innocence rather than being treated as
innocent until proven guilty.
In support of their stance critics refer to
miscarriages of justice (wrong convictions and sentences being
overturned on appeal) which they claim have led to an erosion of
confidence in the judicial system. (Goodyear-Smith, 1994; LaFontaine,
1994; Guilliatt, 1996; Isaac, 1997; Paris, 1997; Vidmar, 1997; Levine,
1998; Freckelton, 2001; Hood, 2001; Rabinowitz, 1990; 2004; Cox and Gee,
2005; Pratt, 2005).
Many concerns have also been raised about the
reliability of children as witnesses and the ease with which their
evidence can be manipulated (Perry and Wrightsman, 1991; Goodman and
Bottoms, 1993; Ceci and Buck, 1993; 1995; Myers et al, 1996).
Feminist-oriented literature, however, continues
to contend that the legal system is still much dependent on gender
discrimination and patriarchy. It is said that the changes in
procedures have only achieved limited gains for child victims. The
criminal justice system, it is argued, continues as the legally
sanctioned context for the sexual abuse of children and the exculpation
of perpetrators from full responsibility. (Kennedy, 1992; Eastwood and
Patton, 2002; Taylor, 2002; 2004).
However, as we have outlined earlier, Christian
fundamentalists and feminists are known to have fabricated child sexual
abuse situations which caused severe trauma to children and families as
well as, of course, to innocently convicted people. The strong
presumption of guilt these advocates assume whenever an accused person
appears in court must therefore be treated with some caution.
The legal profession has been influenced by the
fundamentalist Christian and feminist belief and ideology about child
sexual abuse as much as any other. Whether it has
over-accommodated in the pursuit of justice for the "victim" at the
expense of justice for the "perpetrator" remains open for debate.
Professionals as Casualties:
The exaggeration of child sexual abuse led
eventually to a professional culture so apprehensive that it sought
means to protect itself against a tidal wave of unfounded suspicion and
This resulted from pervasive propaganda advocating
that child sexual abuse was likely to happen to any child and was
destined to occur with people in some authority. This on the
slenderest of evidence and employing outrageous generalisations.
The relentless search for victims and perpetrators
had again missed its target and managed to alienate the very people it
could have relied on to help: the professionals. Now they became
While all professionals working with children seem
to have been affected, as well as volunteers engaged with children, the
most vulnerable and maligned of all professions have been the teachers –
at kindergarten, primary and secondary school levels. All teachers
are now actively encouraged by their school hierarchy, and their unions,
not to touch students, not to be alone with them, and to generally keep
them at arms length.
Rather than this being about protection of
children, such policies have been driven by teachers wanting to protect
themselves from vexatious allegations by children. But these were,
it must be recognized, a logical progression from the misleading
Christian and feminist information they were fed in their "safety" or
From these classes students quickly learned the
value of sexuality as a bargaining tool, its use in gaining attention,
and to settle all manner of personal grievances. (Yates and Musty, 1988;
Beck, 1992; Ball, 1990; 1994; Goodyear-Smith, 1996a; 1996b; Wallace,
1995; Dean, 1999; de Young, 1999; Piper and Smith, 2003; Sachs and
Mellor, 2003; Tulloch and Lupton, 2003; Appleton, 2005).
Teacher apprehension is heightened by the
demeaning and inflexible "zero tolerance" policy of education
departments. This has led to the dismissal of competent teachers
on frivolous grounds.
Similarly, mandatory reporting laws, which some
teachers just ignore or have led others to report situations which did
not warrant it, have led to unnecessary trauma to children and families.
A persistent concern about the exaggeration of
child sexual abuse has been the effect this has had on the recruitment
of teachers, particularly on prospective male primary teachers.
There seems to be a genuine concern that men avoid the profession, at
least partly, because they fear that they may be unjustly accused of
sexually interfering with children. (Jones, 2001; 2004; Slamet, 2004).
Professionals remain casualties of the Christian
and feminist persuasion because they allowed themselves to be so easily
influenced by moralistic and ideological hyperbole. The trust
between professionals and children has been eroded and the distancing is
likely to be perceived by children as a rejection of them. A
decidedly negative outcome of the child sexual abuse exaggeration.
However, it might be noted that, not unexpectedly,
others have capitalized on the child sexual abuse hysteria. Of
interest, for example, is that these no-touch policies have created a
commercial demand for infants and children to be touched, massaged, or
hugged professionally. What once was considered desirable
spontaneous and sensitive behavior on the part of teachers and other
professionals has now become technical, artificial, and commercialized.
(Jones, 2001; 2004).
Christian fundamentalists and feminists, and a
variety of adhering professionals and quasi professionals, influenced
the media so convincingly that reports about children being at risk of
sexual abuse soon became commonplace. The result was that the
community did not just become "aware" but highly anxious, if not
paranoid, about the sexual calamities that could befall children.
However, the media also appears to have
contributed significantly to the creation and maintenance of the child
sexual abuse moral panic in its own right. Basic journalistic
principles such as balance and objectivity, and fairness and skepticism,
seem often to have been sacrificed.
Frequently obvious too was the media’s need to
satisfy its own and the public’s voyeuristic and surreptitious interest
in sexual matters to do with children.
There is little doubt that such consistent efforts
have manipulated public anxiety and have orchestrated public opinion
negatively. They have also promoted the vengeance frenzy as
advocated by Christians and feminists and other promoters of the child
sexual abuse panic (Victor, 1991; Edwards and Soetenhorst, 1994; Elvic,
1994; Gardner, 1996; Levy, 1999).
However, the media also came under attack when it
attempted to avoid sensationalism, moralistic accusation, and negative
terminology, typically found in pro-child sexual abuse writing, and
sought to report on child/adolescent/adult sexual relations objectively.
Such rational media reports were soon relegated by
child sexual abuse advocates as minimizing abusiveness, making
child/adolescent/adult sexual relations appear consensual, and favoring
perpetrators over vulnerable child victims – the traditional technique
of seeking to silence critics and accuse them of denying child sexual
abuse. (For instance, see the writings of Franklin and Horwarth,
1996; Goddard, 1996; Veldhuis and Freyd, 1999; Goddard and Saunders,
2000; Collings, 2002; Collings and Bodill, 2003).
(In professional parlance such criticism became
known as the "backlash". For example, in addition to the above,
see Summit, 1994a; Gedney, 1995).
A number of print journalists and social
commentators have indeed reported critically and insightfully about the
exaggeration of child sexual abuse including the current Internet scare.
(For example, see Arndt, 1993; 2002; Gawenda and Gurvich, 1995;
Appleton, 2005; Berg, 2007; Castles, 2007; Duffy, 2007; Chen, 2008).
However, while once the media seemed content with
being advocates for the Christian and feminist cause, and eager to
promote the views of child sexual abuse advocates, today a more
rationally reflective and professionally responsible approach appears
evident particularly in the printing press. Reporting objectively
and analytically about exaggerated claims to do with prevalence and
negative effects of child sexual abuse remains a challenge.
Negative Effects on the Community:
It was inevitable that the community itself,
particularly parents and children, would become the most significant
casualty of the child sexual abuse exaggeration.
We might, first, acknowledge that the child sexual
abuse scare was much assisted by other societal changes. Due to
political, religious, and social changes, communities experienced
anxiety as dependable systems became more unstable and impermanent.
Particularly the valued institution of the family had become vulnerable.
Many authors described this as the "age of anxiety" (Lasch, 2000; Ungar,
2001; Garland, 2001; 2002; Tulloch and Lupton, 2003; Furedi, 2001; 2004;
Amongst this erosion of certainty and security,
children were soon perceived as the most endangered, vulnerable, and
likely subjects to come to harm. Thus, to a community that was
already on edge, the fundamentalist Christian and feminist message that
children were at immediate moral danger of being sexually abused was
sown in fertile ground. But, as we have outlined, this advantage
The practical negative effects of the child sexual
abuse emphasis became obvious in present day family interactions.
We now find parents frustrated and humiliated by their children telling
them that, for example, "you can’t touch me there" in routine bathing or
dressing procedures. We find parents genuinely afraid of
expressing physical affection, "hugging for too long", in case their
infant or child tells at school and that this may be misinterpreted.
As well, we find parents unnecessarily anxious
about the possibility that their children may be sexually abused by
relatives, by caregivers, by teachers, or just by anyone while playing
outdoors or while walking to school. We notice that parents are
unduly suspicious of people inadvertently taking photos of their
children or are in any other way trying to interact with them, however
innocently, and in the safe presence of others.
This parental and community discomfort has not
gone unnoticed by other adults. Many now tend to exercise caution
in the presence of children and withhold affection which may influence
even the most routine of physical pleasantries usually exchanged with
children. Many adults, like teachers, now tend to play it safe and
prefer not to be alone with a child, let alone touch one in
circumstances that could too easily be misconstrued. (Thomas, 1993;
Freely, 1995; Burgess, 1997).
In attempts to "protect" children from
"predators", advocates seem also to have managed to convolute and
suppress child sexuality as well as inhibit enjoyable physical
activities between adults and children. In the course of this
moral and ideological process, children’s sexual privacy has been
excessively invaded by these modern moralists.
The creation of anxiety about child sexuality, and
unfounded allegations by Christians, feminists and professional
sympathizers, that it is in great moral danger, has generated a culture
of fear and an overprotection of children never seen before. This
has harmed the sexual development of children, not enhanced it.
Christian belief about child sexuality and
feminist ideations have more in common than is generally thought.
Together they have negatively influenced the perception of child sexual
With the active collaboration of professionals and
lay persons, undue alarm was created about the sexual morality of
children being in great danger. This led to the exaggeration of
child sexual abuse at the expense of other more frequently occurring,
and also under-reported, other abuses of children.
It seemed to be the sexual moral nature of the
abuse that attracted these protagonists, rather than a genuine concern
about child protection. This surreptitious moral concern spilled
over into other areas of child sexuality (such as "problematic sexual
behaviors" and "child sexualization").
As outlined, the moral and ideological thrust of
the child sexual abuse exaggeration has come at considerable cost,
particularly to families and children. It is only balanced and
rational research, and sober and objective professional analysis, that
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Veraa is a former social worker and psychologist in child
protective services, Melbourne.