A Canadian Perspective on Child Sexual Abuse Accusations in the Gender War

Brian Hindmarch*

"My lige lady, generally," quod he, "wommen desiren have sovereynetee as wel over hir housbond as hir love."

The Canterbury Tales
The Wife of Bath's Tale
Chaucer, circa 1386

ABSTRACT: The feminist movement has altered the social structure of contemporary society, in many ways for the better.  However, the extreme positions many radical feminists take have resulted in unprecedented conflict between men and women.  This phenomenon must be understood when examining the present child sexual abuse hysteria.  This conflict between men and women is clearly seen in custody/access issues when false allegations of sexual abuse arise in these conflicts.  Complicating the situation is the influence of radical feminism in behavioral science.  The polarization of the sexes has produced biased research and theory which is then used to support social policy and practice, especially in the area of sexual abuse.

The "battle of the sexes," to resurrect a now-obsolete phrase, has been a heavily-utilized theme in literature through the centuries, as prevalent today as it was in the Middle Ages.  Sexual differentiation, or "sexism," is found even in man's oldest and most primitive religions.  The process of social evolution is a pervasive one.  Despite the fact that in some societies women and children are still regarded as chattels, within the last century contemporary Western society has seen almost overnight changes in the area of sexual equality.  The Suffragette movement, the early feminist works of authors such as Gertrude Stein, and the later writings of Germain Greer, Betty Freidan, and Gloria Steinem heralded the consciousness raising era of the feminist movement in the late 60s and early 70s.

The popular media both mirrors social change and influences it.  The changes engendered by this burgeoning movement have been captured and reflected by the media and, in turn, are altering the social structure of contemporary society.  Women now take on heroic roles in movies and television which were once the exclusive domain of men.  Movies such as the recently-popular Three Men and a Baby would have been conceptually inconceivable even twenty years ago.  These mirror changes in attitude which have subsequently affected our laws laws which many feminists still deplore for reflecting the traditional bias of the "male-dominated legal hierarchy."  Laws dealing with sexuality and violence towards women have changed, with traditional rape laws now addressing the issues of violence and assault, rather than sexual behavior per se.

Only the most porcine bastions of male chauvinism would refuse to acknowledge that sexual equality is not only here to stay, but that much of the change is long overdue.  However, a fundamental law of physics also applies to both psychology and sociology the pendulum of change always swings to its extreme before it returns to its equilibrium.  Hopefully, what we are now experiencing in the age-old battle of the sexes is the extreme and it will soon swing back to a more stable and central position.  Never in history have the sexes been in greater conflict.

On December 6, 1989, a deranged gunman named Marc Lepine walked into L'Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal and systematically murdered fourteen female engineering students before committing suicide.  A suicide note describing his hatred of "radical feminists" was found on his body.  This is the largest mass murder in Canadian history and it has focused unprecedented attention on violence towards women.

The tragedy, however, appears to have taken on a twisted significance to the more strident faction of radical feminists, who interpret it as a symbolic male backlash against the feminist movement rather than as the act of a lone, psychotic individual.  They have used it as a rallying cry for everything from more stringent gun control laws to tough but naive changes in legislation dealing with domestic violence.  This has prompted the leader of a provincial women's group to concede recently that the issue "might be overplayed," and that some women's groups might be using the anniversary of the massacre "to their advantage" (Gold, 1990).

On the eve of the anniversary, at the same time women across Canada and in the United States were holding candlelight vigils commemorating the event, a judge in eastern Canada handed down a three-year suspended sentence to a man convicted of strangling his wife in a domestic violence situation.  This incredibly ill-timed coincidence was akin to throwing gasoline on a fire and prompted more outrage on the part of women's groups across the country.  Such is the Zeitgeist of contemporary sociosexual symbiosis.

While violence towards women may be the headline, the subtext deals with far more pervasive issues involving relationships between the sexes, as those of us who are involved in custody/access issues are well aware.  The present hysteria over the issue of child sexual abuse is becoming increasingly recognized in the literature (Gardner, 1989, 1991; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988; Underwager & Wakefield, 1989).  False allegations, particularly those which arise in the context of child custody litigation, are now commonplace.  This epidemic can perhaps be more clearly understood when viewed in an overlapping legal and historical context.

The laws dealing with child custody litigation have undergone radical changes since the Industrial Revolution, from children being regarded as possessions of the head of the household, through the "tender years" doctrine in which mothers were virtually assured of retaining custody of any children of the marriage under the age of seven (and daughters of any age), to the present "best interests" doctrine most clearly articulated by Goldstein, Freud, and Solnit (1973), and which is now part of present child custody law.  Legislation now also encompasses the issue of enforced joint custody.  The latter concept has been the legislated norm in some areas of the United States since 1986, and is now the subject of increasing attention in Canada, having given rise to numerous lobby groups and private Member's bills in provincial legislatures.   This special interest faction, naturally, is overwhelmingly male, and, not surprisingly, is countered by an opposite polarity of women.

There is, unfortunately, a pervasive human tendency to embrace oversimplified, blanket solutions to contentious issues, regardless of their complexity and multifaceted nature.  The issue of child custody is no exception, and the stage has thus been set for another round in the battle of the sexes.  The issue of enforced joint custody is regarded as yet another aspect of the misogynistic oppression of the feminist movement by the male-dominated power structure (Crean, 1988).

Given the present social and political climate, it is no surprise that the weapon of choice in child custody battles is an allegation of sexual abuse.  The accusation usually arises from the custodial mother subsequent to access of the children by the non-custodial father.  This phenomenon has become so commonplace that it has its own acronym, the "SAID (Sexual Allegations in Divorce) Syndrome," coined by Blush and Ross (1987).  They describe the scenario in which the alleged perpetrator, without due process and often with the presumption of guilt until the often-impossible proof of innocence is produced, is not only deprived of access but may face criminal charges and be incarcerated.  The Court invariably prefers to take a conservative approach to minimize the placement of children in what may be an at risk situation, but until recently, without regard to the context in which such allegations arise (Green, 1986; Awad, 1987).  The potential human tragedy of such a scenario is enormous, and it occurs with disturbing frequency (Wakefield & Underwager, 1990).

In addition to the legal/historical context of the false allegation syndrome, it may also be viewed from another perspective, in which principles derived from social psychology and psychoanalytic theory come into play.  Richard Gardner has explained the phenomena in terms of the utilization of various defense mechanisms and in so doing, has made clear the psychopathological component of this behavior.  Most psychopathology is unique to the individual, with the exception of the folie deux, which, on a larger scale, becomes a shared delusion of many.  When it becomes as widespread as the child sex abuse delusion, it can be aptly described as mass hysteria (Gardner, 1991).  This phenomenon can also be understood in terms of what French sociologist Gustave LeBon described in 1903 as a process of "mental homogeneity," in which individual reason is submerged and replaced by collective mind-set and behavior (Hindmarch, 1990, Spiegel, 1990).

Precisely the same mechanisms are at work in closely related phenomena which have impacted upon society in recent years the rise of religious fundamentalism and the anti-pornography movement.  In both cases, many feel there is an anti-sex bias which is related to aspects of radical feminism.  Gardner (1991) observes that in false allegations which have involved "conspiracies," female "perpetrators" have been as vilified as males, leading him to conclude that some feminists view all sex as exploitation of women.  This view is also held by Okami (1987-88, 1990), who likens this philosophy to the Victorian values and beliefs about women and children.  Certainly this appears to have been true in the celebrated McMartin case in the United States and the Hamilton-Wentworth case in Canada.  These two areas contribute to and are fed by the current child sex abuse hysteria now sweeping our society.

Behavioral scientists, unfortunately, are not immune to the winds of social change.  Many have succumbed to the polemics of the gender war and are firmly entrenched in enemy camps.  Witness the proliferation of "feminist psychologists" and "feminist lawyers" subgroups which have sprung up in recent years within their respective associations.  The concept of female psychology is nothing new.  Psychoanalytic theory has always acknowledged differences in the male and female psyche.  Nor is there anything inherently wrong with groups who wish to focus on gender-specific issues.  However, the polarization of the sexes has produced research which is often incredibly biased in support of the views of those who have conducted it.  Learned tomes dealing with intervention and treatment are then based upon these research conclusions with no acknowledgement that they may not only be biased and skewed but false and misleading.

The simple-minded belief that "children never lie about sex abuse," in fact, is not based on research.  It is nothing more than a cherished belief held by validators, victimologists, and sex abuse therapists of various professional and quasi-professional persuasions who form the cottage industry which has sprung up in the midst of the current child sexual abuse hysteria.  This particular myth has been sufficiently debunked elsewhere (Gardner, 1982, 1989, 1991; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988; Underwager & Wakefield, 1989) that it need not be reiterated here.  However, its continued popularity further illustrates the eagerness with which individuals will embrace false beliefs consistent with their world view.

Sound behavioral science and sociopolitical activism have never made good bedfellows.  A clear illustration of bad behavioral research is that of Diane Russell (1986), whose sampling techniques and methodology reflect an appalling and obvious bias, producing results and conclusions which fly in the face of the scientific method.  Paul Okami (1987-88, 1990) has compiled a most thorough critique of such research.

In a discussion of bias in the area of pornography research, Christensen (1990) summarizes the issue:

The system of checks (replicative tests by others) and balances (the efforts motivated by opposing prejudices) in science often works fairly well to uncover such things.  Even the tendencies to be influenced by societal indoctrination and pander to current ideologies can be thwarted, to an extent, by the possibility of intellectual dishonesty being uncovered by peers.  Unfortunately, the system is often short-circuited.  In spite of knowing the difficulties of interpreting any given results, the frequency with which the data themselves cannot be reproduced, and all the other pitfalls of scientific exploration, certain researchers insist on hurrying their conclusions to the public or the legal system.  But the latter do not possess all the critical skills needed to assess the claims.  Later on, when flaws are found, much damage has already been done.  Sometimes, of course, circumstances compel haste; when this occurs, the responsible scientist will issue strong warnings of caution.  That, however, is not what has been happening (p.371).

As previously indicated, much of the grist for the victimology mill is based not on research but on personal opinion.   David Finkelhor, for example, has written widely on the topic of child sexual abuse.  He discusses what he terms "the sexualization of emotional expression," stating that "When men relate to children, it is very hard for them to have the kind of intimate, close relationships that children require without some of this sexual baggage coming along.  That is, the closeness and intimacy that men have with children bring up these kinds of sexual feelings" (Finkelhor, 1987).  While psychoanalytic theory is not entirely at odds with this view, such comments are often uncritically accepted and resurface as reestablished dogma.  In discussing sexual abuse by parental caretakers, for example, Faller (1990) states:

The dynamics of sexual abuse by noncustodial fathers can be understood by examining the circumstances surrounding the marital dissolution.  First, a common result of divorce is the loss of structure in the life of the father.  His wife and children are no longer there; thus daily routines are often absent.  For example, regular meals, set bedtimes, and prescriptions regarding sleeping arrangements are missing.  No longer is there anyone there to monitor his behavior.  He has unsupervised access to his children on visits, and there may be no rules.  Therefore, there may be increased opportunity for sexual abuse.  Further, the absence of rules about household functioning may encourage the offender to violate other rules, for example, the incest taboo (p.69).

Single fathers, apparently, are by definition suffused with sexual baggage and children are at risk in their custody.  Little wonder then that false allegations of child sexual abuse continue to proliferate.  Naive and often dangerous assumptions and presumptions abound in the ever-growing literature of the gender war with endlessly quoted statistics of questionable validity being generated under the guise of behavioral science.  These statistics are quoted by the media, and thus enshrined as "facts" which are further promulgated by the child abuse industrialists.

Around the anniversary of the Montreal massacre, newspapers across the country ran articles in which it was reported that "50% of women are afraid to go out after dark in their neighborhoods," "One in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lives, most by people they know," "50% of young offenders charged with crimes against people were exposed to domestic violence as children."  Who gathers these "scientific facts"?  Who provides them to the news media?

Recently, such statistics were reported by the York Region Abuse Program in Toronto, Ontario (Harper, 1990) in the presentation of a treatment program supervised by "Case Managers," who were described as being comprised of "Children's Aid Society workers, physicians, social workers, child case workers, or any professional with appropriate training and experience who is connected with an agency that provides treatment services."  The list of references in the article consists of authors who subscribe to the children-never-lie-about-sexual-abuse persuasion, and not surprisingly, there is no mention of any process whereby the veracity of their clients' "victimization" is even questioned.  This agency is said to offer training to others who will then become sexual abuse therapists themselves, and since their article appeared in a publication produced by the Federal Government of Canada and distributed nationally, we can clearly see how the hysteria is transmitted on a large scale.

There is, however, a glimmer of enlightenment on the horizon, one which will hopefully continue to grow and illuminate the child sexual abuse aspect of the gender war for what it is a sexualized, politicized, and bastardized use of behavioral science.  In Edmonton, Alberta, a government-funded agency similar to the one in Toronto is now being investigated by Alberta Social Services, after being prompted to do so by a local Justice of the Court of Queen's Bench, who, in her Reasons for Judgment handed down in a recent divorce trial, described the evidence of therapists from the agency as "... scary and unprofessional.  Their therapy is almost a brainwashing procedure."  The agency's director stated, when interviewed by the press, that "only 3% of all claims are fabricated."  On local television, he later conceded that "20% to 25%" of allegations in divorce cases were false.  Again, statistics of questionable etiology are produced to justify a stance.  Another local psychologist and sex abuse specialist was reported to have been rebuked by a Provincial Court Judge hearing another matter for "testifying that in her opinion children do not offer false evidence about sex abuse.  The available literature clearly attests that they sometimes do ..." (Byfield & Von Hauff, 1990).  Hopefully, such publicity will assist in divesting these organizations and individuals of the righteousness with which they characteristically cloak themselves.

The reaction of the judiciary in these situations is heartening to those of us who have spent years dealing with the tragic aftermath of false allegations of sexual abuse.  It is also saddening to see the results of what must, in some respects, be regarded as the nadir of behavioral science when both research and practice have become so polluted with gender-based doctrine and prejudice.  Hopefully, the end is in sight.  The only tragedy worse than the victimization of innocent people by false allegations of child sexual abuse is the very real possibility that the plight of genuine victims will not be discovered or properly investigated, having become discounted as yet another cry wolf.  This is a prospect which neither side in this war wants to happen.  But it most certainly will unless professionals of both sexes cease being pawns of their respective sexual establishments and regain the professional objectivity and scientific rigor now so conspicuous by its absence in the current hysteria about sexual abuse.


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Byfield, L., & Von Hauff, D. (1990, December 17). Sex abuse hysteria chokes the system. Alberta Report, pp. 8 & 12.

Blush, G. J. & Ross, K. L. (1987). Sexual allegations in divorce: The SAID syndrome. Conciliation Courts Review, 25(1).

Christensen, F. M. (1990). Cultural and ideological bias in pornography research. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 20, 351-375.

Crean, S. (1988). In the Name of the Fathers (Out of Print). Toronto, Ontario: Amanita Enterprises.

Faller, L. C. (1990). Sexual abuse by parental caretakers: A comparison of abusers who are biological fathers in intact families, stepfathers, and noncustodial fathers. In A. L. Horton, B. L. Barry, & L. M. Roundy (Eds.) The Incest Perpetrator: A Family Member No One Wants to Treat (Paperback) (pp. 65-73). Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

Finkelhor, D. (1987). New myths about child sexual abuse. Address presented (in French) at the Symposium of Child Sexual Abuse sponsored by R.I.F.A.S. in Ottawa, Ontario, May 24-25, 1987. National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, Health and Welfare, Canada, V1O/0089.

Gardner, R. A. (1982). Family Evaluation in Child Custody Litigation (Out of Print). Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.

Gardner, R. A. (1989). Family Evaluation in Child Custody Mediation, Arbitration, and Litigation (Hardcover). Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.

Gardner, R. A. (1991). Sexual Abuse Hysteria: Salem Witch Trials Revisited (Hardcover). Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.

Gold, M. (1990, December 6). Massacre spurs work for change. Edmonton Journal.

Goldstein, J., Freud, A., & Solnit, A. J. (1973). Beyond the Best Interests of the Child (Paperback). New York: Free Press.

Green, A. H. (1986). True and false allegations of sexual abuse in child custody disputes. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 25(4), 449-456.

Harper, K. (1990). Child sexual abuse: A coordinated interagency response. Canada's Mental Health, Ottawa, Ontario: Health and Welfare, Canada, September, pp. 7-9.

Hindmarch, B. (1990). Allegations of child sex abuse in the context of custody/access disputes. Alberta Psychology, 19(1), 18-19.

Okami, P. (1990). Sociopolitical biases in the contemporary scientific literature on adult human sexual behavior with children and adolescents. In M. E. Perry (Ed.), Handbook of Sexology, Vol.7: Childhood and Adolescent Sexology (Hardcover). Elsevier Science Publishers, Biomedical Division.

Okami, P. (1987-88). Child sexual abuse: A critical evaluation of new perspectives. Unpublished Manuscript, City University of New York.

Russell, D. (1986). The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women (Paperback). New York: Basic Books.

Spiegel, L. D. (1990). The phenomenon of child abuse hysteria as a social syndrome: The case for a new kind of expert testimony. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 2(1), 17-26.

Underwager, R., & Wakefield, H. (1989). The Real World of Child Interrogations (Hardcover). Springfield, IL: C.C. Thomas.

Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1988). Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse (Hardcover)(Paperback). Springfield, IL: C. C. Thomas.

Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1990). Personality characteristics of parents making false accusations of sexual abuse in custody disputes. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 2(3), 121-136.

* Brian Hindmarch is a psychologist at Brian Hindmarch and Associates, 108 16A 82nd Avenue, Suite 204, Edmonton, Alberta T6E 2B3, Canada.  [Back]

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