In America, starting in the mid-1970s, mental health care professionals, politicians, law enforcement personnel, the media, and the lay public began paying considerable attention to child sexual abuse, which well often refer to in this talk as "CSA" for short. Eventually, this concern spread to other countries around the world, including Holland. Much of the attention paid to CSA has focused on its possible effects on psychological adjustment. The media, the popular press, and the professional literature have all generally portrayed CSA as a particularly traumatic experience, as a "special destroyer of adult mental health." For example, in the top journal in America for clinical psychology, the authors of a recent article asserted that "child sexual abuse is a traumatic event for which there may be few peers," by which they are essentially saying that virtually nothing could be worse for a young person than to have this experience. Some in the mental health field have even attempted to explain much or all of adult psychopathology as a consequence of CSA.
The common view that has emerged over the past two decades is that CSA has certain basic properties:
In this view, these properties hold whether were talking about patients in therapy (that is, clinical samples), or people not in therapy (that is, nonclinical samples). Our research over the past few years has focused on examining these assumed basic properties of CSA. The question that we have asked, and that we will attempt to answer in this presentation, is: For people who have experienced CSA, does the experience cause intense psychological harm on a widespread basis for both genders?
Before we describe our research, it is important to discuss terminology. The term child sexual abuse has been used in the psychological literature to describe virtually all sexual interactions between children or adolescents and significantly older persons, as well as between same-age children or adolescents when coercion is involved. The indiscriminate use of this term and related terms such as victim and perpetrator has been criticized by various researchers because of concerns about scientific validity. As one researcher noted, researchers have often failed to distinguish between "abuse" as harm done to a child or adolescent and "abuse" as a violation of social norms, which is a problem because it cannot be assumed that violations of social norms lead to harm. As another researcher observed, our society has tended to equate "wrongfulness" with harmfulness in sexual matters, but harmfulness cannot be inferred from wrongfulness. Still another researcher argued that the indiscriminate use of terms suggesting force, coercion, and harm reflects and maintains the belief that these interactions are always harmful, which interferes with objectively appraising them. In earlier research, we demonstrated experimentally that people who read scientific reports of nonnegative sexual interactions between adolescents and adults are biased by the use of negatively-loaded terms such as child sexual abuse.
Problems of scientific validity of the term child sexual abuse are perhaps most apparent when contrasting cases such as the repeated rape of a 5-year-old girl by her father, which undoubtedly produces serious harm, and the willing sexual involvement of a mature 15-year-old adolescent boy with an unrelated adult, which, although violating social norms, may have no implications for harm. By classifying these two very dissimilar events into the single category of child sexual abuse, a scientifically valid understanding of each is threatened.
With these caveats in mind regarding the shortcomings of the term child sexual abuse, we will nevertheless continue to use it in our talk because it is so pervasively used by the authors of the studies we examined. We will, however, return to a discussion of the validity of this term later in our presentation after we have presented our data and analyses. Having said that, based on typical current use of the term CSA, it will be defined as a sexual interaction involving either physical contact or no contact (for example, exhibitionism) between either a child or adolescent and someone substantially older, or between two peers who are children or adolescents when coercion is employed.