by Paul Rainer, Der Spiegel, 2 Aug 1999, pp. 190-91
Three psychologists assert that the psychological consequences of sexual abuse have been greatly exaggerated. The U.S. Congress damns their research work. None of the three researchers would likely have dreamed that the U.S. Congress would ever bitterly debate about them. Actually it was only about their research work.
For almost a decade they had examined the scientific literature on their subject matter. They scrutinized carefully 59 studies in which the psychological condition of around 36,000 male and female students in U.S. colleges had been investigated. They presented the results of their meta-analysis in 32 closely spaced pages in the Psychological Bulletin.
This small professional bulletin is published by the American Psychological Association (APA) and appears in an edition of only 6,000 copies. The response was correspondingly limited: for months there was no feedback.
But there was dynamite hidden in the study, which exploded at the beginning of last month: without opposition (with 13 abstentions) the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution in which the authors of the article were sharply condemned. The Representatives demanded a revision: "competent investigations" should in the future use "the best possible methods" so that "the public and lawmakers" could base their conduct on accurate information. The indignation of the representatives was directed at a sensitive subject that could arouse the public as scarcely any other could--the sexual abuse of children and young people.
The authors of the study, the psychologists Bruce Rind of Temple University in Philadelphia and Robert Bauserman of the University of Michigan as well as the graduate student Philip Tromovitch of the University of Pennsylvania, sought to determine whether sexual child abuse actually did cause such severe and long lasting harm as was assumed to be the case by most people. The results found by the research trio: the data, that support this assertion scientifically, are deficient. The victims of sex abuse interviewed in the 59 studies were, to be sure, on average "a little less well-adjusted" than their fellow students. On the whole, however, long lasting negative consequences were scarcely detectable among the young men and only found in a minority of the young women.
Still more: in a detailed evaluation of all of the data, the deviations from the emotional well-being of the young people could not unequivocally be attributed to the sexual abuse.
To be sure, many of the authors of the examined studies had interpreted their results in this way--but only because they had scarcely noticed a decisive factor: the family circumstances. Precisely those youths who had suffered especially from the consequences of sexual abuse had often grown up in a family in which alcoholism or violence prevailed. Therefore, so say the three authors, a mixed situation existed in which it could scarcely be determined which disorder was to be attributed to the sexual abuse and which to other circumstances.
The perusal of the studies even showed that of those interviewed who had been "sexually abused," according to the definition used in the U.S.A., before their 18th year, "more than 37% of the male students and 11% of the female students regarded their sexual experiences as positive."
This arouses the suspicion that the concept of "abuse" has been used much too indiscriminately. Physicians and lawyers, politicians and social workers in the U.S.A. allow all forms of sexual assaults by adults to enter equally into their abuse statistics. They do not make a distinction based upon the age of the victim or the behavior of the perpetrator.
Nothing illuminates more clearly the absurd consequences of this practice than an example of the three U.S. researchers: they contrast the case "of a five year old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her father" with that of a fifteen year old male who "engages in sexual activity with an unrelated adult." The severe physical and psychological harm which threaten the girl are indisputable. But it is just as clear that the latter example "can only represent the breach of social norms without necessarily causing the teenager personal harm."
The authors expressly emphasize that they neither approve of the sexual abuse of children and young people nor does the indication of "no demonstrable resulting harm" absolve the perpetrator of guilt. But evidently few readers of the APA Bulletin got as far as this admission. They rather plucked individual statements out of the study in order to pick them apart maliciously or to extol them enthusiastically.
So the pedophile Man-Boy Love Association quoted the study at the end of last year on their web site as supposed proof that "consensual intergenerational experiences of young men could often be very positive and advantageous for those involved."
This mention on the Internet soon aroused a public outrage. When she learned of it in March of this year, Laura Schlessinger, America's best-known radio talk show hostess, took up the challenge. "I simply could not believe what I read there," "Dr. Laura" announced to the 20 million listeners of her three-hour talk show, which is broadcast daily by 485 radio stations in the U.S.A. and Canada.
True to her motto "pray, teach, nag," the 52 year old apostle of morality then excoriated the study as an attempt to "normalize" pedophilia, "to undermine the sacred values of the family" and "to overturn the justice system."
In the shrill outcries of the "Poster-Girl of the Christian fundamentalists" (Vanity Fair) a chorus of similar-minded people promptly joined in. Many psychotherapists also joined the cry of indignation. For they had taken great pains to establish positively the "repressed memory" of sexual abuse as the cause of epidemically occurring "multiple personality disorders."
The populist ground swell spilled over to the U.S. Congress. The "Christian Coalition" promptly clapped their approval: Politics has slapped down "the APA for the repulsive and socially irresponsible publishing of the study."
The passing of Resolution 107 was made all the easier for the representatives when even the APA fearfully retreated.
In a letter to the speaker of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives the APA director Raymond Fowler, who earlier had for months defended the "Rind study" as "good scientific work," now conceded meekly that the article was "inciting" and "not consistent with the basic position of the APA regarding the protection of children." Beyond that, Fowler promised to have the study, which was already published and had not been contested by its reviewers, "examined" again-a heretofore unique procedure in the 107 year history of the U.S. Psychological Society. Fowler: "We realize that we must not only consider the scientific value of articles but also their effect on public opinion."
As many on this list will recall, critics of RBT seized on the (supposed) flaw that many instances of non-contact sexual activity (such as exhibitionism) were included in the analysis, thus diluting the harmful effects of contact forms of CSA. As I and others have already shown, this is false foremost because the Landis (1956) study that RBT critics highlight was actually not used to calculate most effect sizes anyway; in fact, removing the Landis data would have led to even lower estimates of harm. But I also did a very cursory examination of the difference in effect sizes between contact-only sex and mixed forms of CSA (contact and non-contact). I found that the median effect sizes for both groups was not dramatically different--.13 and .10 respectively.
But the rough-hand nature of this calculation bothered me--I wanted to do better; construct not a median but a mean effect size, make it weighted (based on sample size), and look at male/female "victim" differences. It took me several hours, but it was worth it, because I found some interesting things.
First of all, as I have indicated, studies could be broken down into two groups; those which considered ONLY contact sex as CSA, and those which considered all forms of adult- minor sexual interaction (including exposure) as CSA. Another way the data could be broken data is by gender. But, many of the studies were female-only ("victim"), and several of those which did include male subjects did not report male and female data separately, which made it impossible to calculate separate male and female effect sizes. But there was one tbing--perhaps esoteric to most here--but very interesting to me: NO contact-only CSA study reported male and female differences separately. This is surprising, because it would seem to indicate that those researchers who did understand that contact sex might have different effects from non-contact sex did NOT understand that sex with boys may have different effects from sex with girls. This is also frustrating because it severely limits what we can know about the effect of contact sex between (primarily) men and boys. The weighted mean effect sizes for male and female combined turned out to be:
.082 for mixed forms of CSA, contact and non-contact, and,
.102 for contact-only CSA.
This is approximately the same percentage difference I found with my rough median calculation. But it is lower in absolute terms, apparently because stud ies with larger sample sizes tend to find lower effect sizes, which is in itself noteworthy. Male-female differences were even more interesting. For FEMALES ONLY the following mean effect sizes were found:
.106 for mixed forms of CSA, contact and non-contact, and,
.103 for contact-only CSA.
So for females, presence of contact does not seem to make any difference. But look at the numbers for MALES ONLY:
.068 for mixed forms of CSA, contact and non-contact, and,
.089 for contact-only CSA.
This difference is statistically significant, and is also puzzling. It appears to mean that for boys, there is more harm with contact sex than with non-contact sex. But, several caveats need to be covered. First of all, as RBT found, all male effect sizes are lower than all female effect sizes; boys are less harmed than girls regardless of other criteria. Second, because the male effect sizes are less than .10, they constitute mere trends rather than true correlations. And third, remember RBT's findings that physical abuse, emotional abuse, and physical neglect are also far more predictive of harm than CSA. It may be that boys who engage in contact sex with adults (mainly men) are somehow more likely to have experienced these other forms of abuse and neglect than those boys who engage in non-contact sexual activity.
I also made some calculations for effect sizes of UNWANTED SEX ONLY. Only a few studies counted only unwanted sexual activity as CSA, so the conclusions that can be drawn from them are somewhat limited, but I did find a smaller difference between all studies and unwanted-only studies than I had expected:
.109 for unwanted sex only
.124 for mixed wanted and not
This is very strange and very counter-intuitive. It appears to indicate that unwanted sex is overall slightly less harmful than all mixed unwanted and wanted sex. But, a difference of .015 is probably not statistically significant anyhow. (Saying so with certainty is beyond my ability.) This may simply be spurious. Or, it may be that those studies that mixed together wanted and unwanted sex somehow had unwanted sex that was dramatically greater in force and degree of "unwantedness." This seems intuitively possible, given that those researchers who don't think to look for differences between wanted and unwanted CSA may be precisely those researchers who will have samples more biased in the direction of harm because that's what they're hoping and expecting to find.
The FEMALE-ONLY results were similarly counter-intuitive, perhaps for the same reasons:
.102 for unwanted sex only
.137 for mixed wanted and not
The MALE-ONLY numbers, though, were more in line with what we would expect:
.128 for unwanted only
.106 for mixed wanted and not.