Antisexuality and Child Sexual Abuse1

Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield*

ABSTRACT: Our current sexual abuse system promotes an antisexual view of human sexuality. This is seen in the depiction of sex as bad in sexual abuse prevention programs, the readiness to define a sexual or affectionate interaction as abusive, the criminalization of childhood sexual behavior, and the genitalization of human sexuality. The consequences of this are likely to be negative for children, adults, and the society.

In October, 1988, a prosecutor made a closing argument in a criminal sexual abuse trial in Ohio that illustrates the antisexuality of the way we respond to allegations of child sexual abuse. A man had befriended a woman who was a single parent with a 10-year-old son. After several months of friendship, he asked the lad to spend Good Friday with him. They had a good time making Easter eggs and after dinner the lad asked if he could stay overnight with the man. The man called the mother who said it was fine. When they were ready for bed, the man kissed the boy on the cheek and patted him on the buttocks. The man slept downstairs on a couch and the lad used the bed upstairs. The next day the lad went home.

A week later the man was arrested for sexual abuse. In the trial the only discrepancy from the above account was that the lad said the man kissed him on the neck. In her closing argument the prosecutor said, "No man should ever be allowed to get away with anything that makes a child uncomfortable by claiming he was just being affectionate." She claimed that because the child felt uncomfortable when he was kissed this was an act of sexual abuse. The man was more powerful than the child who could not resist being kissed. The man was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.

The Wenatchee World (1991) reported that a 73-year-old man was "charged with indecent liberties for allegedly putting his hand down the blouse of a 93-year-old woman at an East Wenatchee retirement home in May. (The man) was charged and ordered to undergo a 15-day observation at Eastern State Hospital" (p.13).

The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the revocation of probation for a 16-year-old juvenile found guilty of shoplifting because, while on probation, he was said to have sexually abused a child. The juvenile had touched the breasts of his 14-year-old girlfriend in a consensual petting session (Thompson, 1992). The Arizona Supreme Court ruled it was a criminal act.

In Minnesota, a 15-year-old girl became pregnant and later married her 20-year-old boyfriend. The man worked nights as a truck loader to support his wife and daughter and the young couple, although struggling financially, were happy and self- supporting. Despite this, the man was criminally charged and convicted of child sexual abuse for the act that conceived his daughter (Duchschere, 1992).

In 1970, 86,324 persons in the United States were arrested for sexual offenses. In 1986, 168,579 persons were arrested for sexual offenses. This is almost doubling the number of persons arrested. From 1970 to 1979 the rate of increase for sexual offenses other than forcible rape and prostitution was +5%. From 1979 to 1988 the rate of increase for these offenses was +44.5% (U. S. Department of Justice, 1981, 1989). It appears that the single largest group in our prison population may well be those convicted of sexual offenses. At least it is second only to the broad category of convictions for drug offenses.

In a trial in December, 1986, in Anchorage, Alaska, we first testified about the antisexuality inherent in some aspects of the effort to deal with sexual abuse of children. We described the criminalization of behaviors that had formerly been viewed as foolish or deplorable but not as criminal acts. We also wrote about the antisexuality of the child sexual abuse system in our 1988 book, Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse (Hardcover)(Paperback) (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988).

Nothing that has occurred since then has caused us to change that view. We believe that the manner in which our society attempts to reduce sexual abuse of children represents the most virulent and violent antisexuality the world has known since the days of Tertullian in the second century. Tertullian was an early Christian theologian who maintained that the only proper way to be a Christian was to emasculate yourself. Fortunately, however, the church officially labeled Tertullian a heretic and his view never became dominant.

The view that there has been a movement towards antisexuality and overreaction to childhood sexuality is supported by a poll of mental health and legal professionals reported by Haugaard and Reppucci (Okami, 1992). The poll indicated that 20% of these professionals believed that frequent hugging of a 10-year-old child by parents required intervention, that between 44% and 67% believed intervention was required if parents kissed the child briefly on the lips (as when leaving for work), and that 75% believed intervention was required for parents who appeared nude in front of their 5-year-old child.

Children's Sexuality

Antisexuality is also evident in the need to deny and ignore the sexuality of children. The oft-repeated but unfounded dogmas that children cannot talk about anything they have not experienced and that age-inappropriate sexual behavior means the child must have been sexually abused are counter to the research concerning children's sexuality. What children normally do sexually is more involved than most people believe (Best, 1983; Friedrich, Grambsch, Broughton, Kuiper, & Beike, 1991; Gundersen, Melas & Skar, 1981; Langfeldt, 1981; Martinson, 1981; Okami, 1992; Rutter, 1971). Haugaard and Tilly (1988) found that approximately 28% of male and female under-graduates reported having engaged in sexual play with another child when they were children.

In one trial a pediatrician testified that a 4-year-old boy had been abused because he got an erection when she was inspecting his penis. In another case, a Canadian judge ruled it was nonempirical that 4-year-old girls could have fantasies about sexuality, so therefore the child's account was accurate.

When mental health professionals who deny the reality of children's sexuality testify, any sexual behavior by children may be labeled age-inappropriate and therefore indicative of abuse. Children who French kiss, or even kiss sloppily; children who masturbate; children who like being tickled; children who use sexual language, laugh about feces or urine, or joke with other children about genitalia; and children who engage in sex play with peers may be labeled as abused because such behaviors are said to be outside of normal expectations. For example, a prosecutor in Wisconsin claimed that two children who had been found in bed under the covers, giggling, were abused because only abused children could act that way.

The Criminalization of Childhood Sexual Behavior

Young children are also labeled sexual abusers. A 9-year-old California boy was charged with rape, sodomy, unlawful sexual intercourse, and child molestation of a 7- and an 8-year-old girl, allegedly occurring at a birthday party (Lachnit, 1991). A 9- year-old boy was convicted of rape of a 7-year-old boy in Bellingham, Washington (Logg, 1990). The charge, which the older boy denied, was that he attacked the younger boy in the school restroom handicapped stall. The police detective said, "We see many cases of offenders that are 3, 4, 7, 8 years old, offending against younger children, usually" (p. A1). A 10-year-old San Francisco boy was charged with rape and sodomy of four younger playmates in 1989 (Thompson, 1989).

Okami (1992) notes that the criminalization of childhood sexual behavior has resulted in a new category of criminal deviant - a "child perpetrator" or very young "sexual offender." Johnson (1988 & 1989) exemplifies this view in her description of a child perpetrators treatment program at Children's Institute International (the organization that interviewed the children in the McMartin Preschool case). Johnson applies the label of "child perpetrator" to children as young as 4 and, in some cases, when the "perpetrator" is younger than the "victim." Others with this view include Cantwell (1988), who gives examples of a 6-year-old and a 7-year-old child perpetrator, and Hartman and Burgess (1988), who label a 4-year-old boy an offender and abuser when a 3-year-old girl's play is interpreted to suggest the boy was sexually aggressive towards her at the day care center.

Haugaard (1990) notes that there is no justification for labeling mutually enjoyable sex play as sexually abusive and for labeling one or both of the children as an abuser. But this is happening. Young children may be sentenced to therapy programs or to various forms of detention. In Phoenix children as young as 7 were sentenced to a treatment program for young offenders using a penile plethysmograph and avoidance conditioning (Young, 1992).

Negative Views of Adult Sexuality

The antisexuality of the child sexual abuse system is also evident in a critical view of adult sexuality. Prosecutors and mental health professionals portray an adult who is accused of child sexual abuse as some sort of perverse monster. Questions are often asked about the sexual behavior of the accused adult. Former wives, girlfriends, neighbors, relatives are quizzed about their knowledge of the accused person's sexual behavior. A departure from the pattern of straight missionary position once a week with the wife or steady girlfriend may be used as evidence to show how deviant the accused is.

Adult sexual behaviors such as fellatio, mutual masturbation, cunnilingus, anal intercourse or unusual positions, massage, use of massage oils, lubricants, dildoes, sexual aids, pornography (including Playboy and lingerie ads), ménage a trois or a quattro, adultery, and unusual fantasies are used to portray an accused person as sexually deviant and thus a child molester. Any interest in fantasies of bondage or fantasies of rape or fantasies of orgies or multiple partners is used to present the accused as a sexual sadist. Even homosexual experiences may be used to prove the person accused is a child sexual molester. The prosecutor, Glen Goldberg, in the Kelly Michaels trial in New Jersey, spent two days on evidence that Ms. Michaels had a single homosexual experience during her freshman year in college. Together with the fact that she was a drama major this was presented as evidence that she was an abuser.

Factors Behind the Antisexual Attitudes

Okami (1992) notes that the increasing concern with negative aspects of human sexuality is reflected in the Psychological Abstracts. In 1969 there were no index categories for sexual abuse, sex offenses, sexual harassment, rape, incest, sexual sadism or pedophilia — these were all included under the category of sexual deviations which listed 65 journal articles. However, by 1989, these categories were added and 400 articles were listed, a 20-fold increase. In terms of the category, child abuse, not only has there been a 34-fold increase in the number of articles listed between 1969 and 1989, but in 1989 between 75% and 85% were concerned with sexual rather than physical abuse of children. Okami comments that this supports the observation that the term child abuse has come to mean child sexual abuse.

Mosher (1991) describes the concept of the moralistic intolerance of the left and the analysis of "claims makers" who create new problems and then make their career out of manufacturing the answers. He traces the development of the view of children presented in the history of American child-saving: "The rebellious child became the deprived child who became the sick child who has now become the victimized child" (p. 15). This aspect of antisexuality is accepted without criticism by the professional societies and accorded respectability in the professional community (Money, 1991b).

Money (1991a) sees the antisexuality of the child sexual abuse system as a reaction to the sexual revolution of the 60s and a response to the fear generated by AIDS. Okami (1992) also believes there is a "covert moral crusade" against the "sex positive" changes occurring in this era. In addition, he adds the component of historical social political feminism to the explanation for this phenomenon (Okami, 1990).

Victor (1993, and this issue) also sees a moral crusade as underlying the belief in a satanic cult conspiracy. He believes the satanic cult scare arises from deep-seated frustrations and anxieties by people about modern society. He views the moral crusaders as basically rational and decent people who are attempting to deal with confusing and ambiguous problems of everyday life. The moral crusade arises out of the need to identify scapegoat deviants to blame.

Money (1991a) discusses the antisexuality evident in the prevention programs and the sexual terror induced by good touch/bad touch presentations (1991b). The sexual abuse prevention programs which have proliferated throughout the country are based on empowerment theory. The orientation of empowerment theory is political ideology which has at its core antisexuality (Krivacska, 1991b). This antisexuality may be seen in the language of sexual abuse that has its own peculiar, idiosyncratic usage of terms such as "hurt," "touch," "feel funny," "body parts," "yucky," and "uncomfortable." The system does not use direct language about sexuality but instead uses circumlocutions such as "parts covered by a bathing suit." This communicates to children that sex is viewed negatively and cannot be talked about freely and openly. When a young child is questioned repeatedly about deviant sexuality, that child has been taught a negative view of sexuality. This focus on parts of our body and genitals teaches a genitalized and partial view of sex that will hinder the development of concepts of intimacy and sexuality (Krivacska, 1990; Nelson, 1978). (For a more detailed analysis of the antisexuality in the child sexual abuse prevention programs, see Krivacska 1991a, 1991b, 1991c, and this issue).

Another possible factor in the need for the repetition of the horror of child sexual abuse is the concept of reaction formation. This concept describes the titillation and reinforcement of a covert prurient interest by the apparent aversion but nevertheless continued pre-occupation with the overtly despised behaviors.

Power and Antisexuality

The concept of power appears to be at the root of the antisexuality of the sexual abuse system. Sexual abuse is defined as ". . . any form of coerced sexual interaction between an individual and a person in a position of power over that individual" (Dolan, 1991, p.1). Logg (1991) reports that therapists distinguish between children's exploratory sexual play and sexual abuse by children primarily on the dimension of power. It is the disparity in power that is believed to be the cause of the harm that is done to children by sexual abuse (Bass & Davis, 1988). It is because older and bigger people are more powerful than smaller and younger people that sexual contact is always harmful.

Because such aggressive power is so terrible, when the individual understands how it harmed the victim, the best and most desired response is anger and rage (Dolan, 1991; Bass & Davis, 1988). In the records of therapy sessions with 405 young children we found in almost every case some effort to teach the child to be angry at the perpetrator (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988). This has included weekly sessions practicing assassinating father with toy pistols, throwing a father doll in a cardboard box labeled jail, role playing hitting and kicking the perpetrator, and sending angry and accusing letters to the alleged perpetrator.

Even if the behavior is gentle, tender fondling by an older and bigger person within a context of a caring and loving interaction and is experienced by a younger and smaller person as a rewarding and pleasant genital stimulation, it is defined as abusive, traumatic, and a stressor experience that may lead to dissociation, numbing, hopelessness, and all the possible negative effects of sexual abuse. Even if an event of sexual contact is a single non-intrusive and non-violent occurrence, if it is between a child and an adult, it is defined as abusive, destructive, and likely to generate long- term damage. There is an assumed dichotomy between the powerless child who is asexual and innocent and the powerful adult who is sexual, experienced in lust, and therefore reprehensible.

The frequent use of the circumlocution of "hurt" when adults question children about possible sexual abuse demonstrates the assumption that the power imbalance is harmful. When an adult asks a child if Daddy "hurt" her and both the adult and the child understand that what is being asked is a question about sexual contact the message is that sex and violence are inseparable. In and of itself "hurt" does not imply sexual contact. When it is understood that sexual contact is included, the power imbalance has been broadened to be the cause of the "hurt." Herman (1981) puts it this way: "Any sexual relationship between the two (an adult and a child or an adolescent) must necessarily take on some of the coercive characteristics of rape" (p. 27).

Connecting power and human sexuality runs the risk of sexualizing aggression and making all sexual activity aggression. As we become more aware of and convinced of power imbalances in sexual interactions it becomes easier to perceive a sexual encounter as coercive-maybe subtly coercive, but nevertheless characterized by an imbalance of power. Thus sex becomes violence and sexual encounters become rapes. Inasmuch as men are regarded as physically stronger than women, men are the aggressors and all men are basically rapists (Brownmiller, 1975). We are perilously close to that state of affairs right now (Okami, 1990).

However, one of the few empirical tests of the relationship between power and intimacy did not support an inherent connection of sex and power. Howard, Blumstein, and Schwartz (1986) gathered data on how partners in long-term intimate relationships dealt with efforts to influence each other and pursue individual needs and goals. They had two strong influence behavior patterns-bullying and autocracy. They report that neither sex role orientation nor sex had any effects on the perceived use of strong influence tactics. Heterosexual women who were not employed used autocratic tactics and bullying even though they were in a position of structural weakness in being unemployed. The authors conclude that their study documents the separability of sex and power.

In human life all forms of human contact involve inequitable power relationships. Since there is no way to completely remove the imbalance of power in a relationship, the only hope to reduce the impact of uneven power reality is a voluntary relinquishment of the advantages of power and a concomitant endorsement of the value and desirability of love. Punishment of the misuse of power is simply the exercise of superior power.

The Genitalization of Human Sexuality

The genitalization of human sexuality in the child sexual abuse system is evident in the circumlocutions for genitals: "private parts," "parts covered by your bathing suit," "parts that nobody else should touch," "parts that make you feel uncomfortable when they are touched." The body is viewed as a fortress that must be defended against all incursions from the outside. Anybody who tries to penetrate the body's boundaries is dangerous. Here, too, the connection with aggression and violence becomes evident in the names elicited from children for genitals. The words used for penis tend to be tool names and poking, penetrating words are used for intercourse. Younger children tend to use more direct expressions while older children use somewhat more indirect expressions (Sutton-Smith & Abrams, 1978).

The consequences of genitalizing human sexuality are often overlooked. It is a return to Greek dualism and the idea of the body as bad, evil, wicked, and a prison for the soul. This dualism is linked to the oft-reviled perception of sex as evil and wicked. When the body is alienated from the self and viewed as a thing, an object, the consequence is the objectification both of sex and the sexual actions, as well as any sexual partners. Tertullian, in a reference to female genitalia, called women the "gate to hell." Augustine saw every act of sex as an act of lust because of what he understood as concupiscence, the genitals were no longer under voluntary control.

It is the genitalization of sex that leads to the various forms of performance anxiety. In turn, almost all sexual dysfunctions can be traced to performance anxiety. The genitalization of human sexuality obscures the reality that whole persons are the entities that love. The genitalization of human sexuality by the child sexual abuse system is likely to result in an increase in sexual dysfunction in the years to come.


A consequence of the antisexual attitudes in the child abuse system is that men are driven back to seeing themselves as tough, hard, cold, unemotional, and aggressive. After 20 years of trying to persuade men that they can be soft and gentle, that they can have feelings and cry, and that they can be tender and intimate, now when they believe it and affectionately touch children, they may go to prison.

All over this country men have told us they are afraid of children. They see an attractive, cute child in the supermarket and they don't go down that aisle. They don't make reinforcing comments to children in elevators. They worry about kissing and hugging their children or changing their diapers and wiping their bottoms. They cannot go into hot tubs or showers with their children for fear of being misunderstood. Teachers who were taught that children need to be touched and hugged risk being accused of sexual abuse, losing their jobs and careers, and even going to prison.

Children who have been taught to see themselves as distinct from their bodies and to abhor any sexual pleasure as "hurt" cannot experience the wholeness and unity of their own selfhood nor that created by the union of persons who abjure power and embrace mutuality. The mingling of violence and sex is dangerous as is shown by Kincaid (1992):

Take the following two scenes enacted in a shopping mall, say, or on the street or in the park: in the first an adult is striking a screaming child repeatedly on the buttocks; in the second an adult is sitting with a child on a bench and they are hugging. Which scene is more common? Which makes us uneasy? Which do we judge to be normal? Which is more likely to run afoul of the law? A society, I believe, which honors hitting and suspects hugging is immoral; one which sees hitting as health and hugging as illness is mad; one which is aroused by hitting alone is psychotic and should be locked up (p. 362).

When anger is advanced as a positive healing force (Bass & Davis, 1988) and aggression becomes more palatable than tenderness and affection and men go to prison for kissing boys, something is amiss.


Bass, E. & Davis, L. (1988). The Courage to Heal (Paperback)(Audio Cassette). New York: Harper & Row.

Best, R. (1983). Fun and games in the primary grades. In We've All Got Scars: What Boys and Girls Learn in Elementary School (Hardcover)(Paperback) (pp.109-125). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against Our Will (Paperback). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Cantwell, H. B. (1988). Child sexual abuse: Very young perpetrators. Child Abuse & Neglect, 12(4), 579-584.

Dolan, Y. M. (1991). Resolving Sexual Abuse (Hardcover). New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Duchschere, K. (1992, December 18). Their love was illegal. Star Tribune, pp. 1A, 9A.

Friedrich, W. N., Grambsch, P., Broughton, D., Kuiper, J., & Beike, R. L. (1991). Normative sexual behavior in children. Pediatrics, 88(3), 456-464.

Gundersen, B. H., Melas, P. S., & Skar, J. E. (1981). Sexual behavior of preschool children: Teachers' observations. In L. L. Constantine & F. M. Martinson (Eds.), Children and Sex: New Findings, New Perspectives (Currently Out Of Print) (pp. 45-61). Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Hartman, C. R. & Burgess, A. W. (1988). Information processing of trauma: Case application of a model. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 3(4), 443-457.

Haugaard, J. (1990). Letter to the Editor. Child Abuse & Neglect, 14, 294-295.

Haugaard, J. J. & Tilly, C. (1988). Characteristics predicting children's responses to sexual encounters with other children. Child Abuse & Neglect, 12, 209-218.

Herman, J. (1981). Father-Daughter Incest (Paperback). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Howard, J. A., Blumstein, P., & Schwartz, P. (1986). Sex, power, and influence tactics in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(1), 102- 109.

Johnson, T. C. (1988). Child perpetrators-Children who molest other children: Preliminary findings. Child Abuse & Neglect, 12(2), 219-229.

Johnson, T. C. (1989). Female child perpetrators: Children who molest other children. Child Abuse & Neglect, 13(4), 571-585.

Kincaid, J. R. (1992). Child Loving (Paperback). New York: Routledge.

Krivacska, J. J. (1990). Designing Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Programs (Out of Print). Springfield, IL: C. C. Thomas.

Krivacska, J. J. (1991a). Child sexual abuse prevention programs: The need for childhood sexuality education. SIECUS Report, 19(6).

Krivacska, J. J. (1991b, June 9). Child sexual abuse prevention programs: The prevention of childhood sexuality? Presented at the Seventh Midcontinent Annual Conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex.

Krivacska, J. J. (1991c). Sexual abuse prevention programs: Can they cause false allegations? Issues In Child Abuse Accusations, 3(1), 1-6.

Langfeldt, T. (1981). Sexual development in children. In M. Cook & K. Howells (Eds.), Adult Sexual Interest in Children (Currently Out Of Print) (pp. 99-120). New York: Academic Press.

Lachnit, C. (1991, October 26) Children who molest children: A growing trend. The The Orange County Register, p. B1 and B5.

Logg, C. (1990). Trend of younger sexual offenders on increase. Bellingham Herald, July 11, 1990. p. A1 and A2.

Martinson, F. M. (1981). Eroticism in infancy and childhood. In L. L. Constantine and F. M. Martinson (Eds.), Children and Sex: New Findings, New Perspectives (Currently Out Of Print) (pp. 23-35). Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Money, J. (1991a, June). Epidemic antisexuality: From onanism to satanism. Paper presented at the 10th World Congress of Sexology, Amsterdam.

Money, J. (1991b, February/March). Sexology and/or Sexosophy, the split between sexual researchers and reformers in history and practice. SIECUS Report, 1-4.

Mosher, D. L. (1991). Ideological presuppositions: Rhetoric in sexual science, sexual politics, and sexual morality. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 4(4), 7-29.

Nelson, J. B. (1978). Embodiment (Paperback). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House.

Okami, P. (1990). Sociopolitical biases in the contemporary scientific literature on adult human sexual behavior with children and adolescents. In J. Feierman (Ed.), Pedophilia (Currently Out Of Stock) (pp. 91-121). New York: Springer Verlag.

Okami, P. (1992). Child perpetrators of sexual abuse: The emergence of a problematic deviant category. Journal of Sex Research, 29(1), 109-130.

Rutter, M. (1971). Normal psychosexual development. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 11, 259-283.

Sutton-Smith, B., & Abrams, D. M. (1978). Psychosexual material in the stories told by children: The Fucker. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 7(6), 521543.

Thompson, J. E. (1992). Your child sex offender client is going to be sentenced: Ready or not? Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 4(1), 21-23.

Thompson, T. L. (1989, September 15). Boy, 10, faces rape charges in South Bay. San Francisco Chronicle, p. A4.

U. S. Department of Justice (1981). Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics-1981. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, D. C.

U. S. Department of Justice (1989). Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics-1989. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, D. C.

Victor, J. S. (1993). Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Hardcover)(Paperback). Chicago: Open Court.

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

Wenatchee World (1991, June 12) Indecency alleged. Wenatchee, Washington, p. 13.

Young, A. (1992, June 14). Sex-case treatment is called child abuse. The The Arizona Republic, p. 1.

* Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager are psychologists at the Institute for Psychological Therapies, 5263 130th Street East, Northfield, MN 55057-4880[Back]

1 This is a revised version of a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, San Diego, California, November 15, 1992.  [Back]

(If you came here from the Library, click here to return.)


[Back to Volume 5, Number 2]  [Other Articles by these Authors]

Copyright © 1989-2014 by the Institute for Psychological Therapies.
This website last revised on April 15, 2014.
Found a non-working link?  Please notify the Webmaster.