American Psychological Association


A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples

Authors' Statement May 12, 1999

In view of the press conference to be held on Wednesday, May 12, sponsored by the Family Research Council, we would like to provide you [the APA] the following information.

False claim that the study condones abuse

First, critics have attacked the study for its conclusions that child sexual abuse (CSA) in college student populations is less harmful than has been widely believed. These critics have implied that these conclusions condone sexual abuse. In fact, in our article, we clearly state that our review of the research literature does not condone CSA, and changes nothing with regard to moral or legal views of abuse. We wrote that "lack of harmfulness does not imply lack of wrongfulness," that moral and legal codes of society need not be (and often are not) based on findings of psychological harmfulness, and that "the findings of the current review do not imply that moral or legal definitions of or views on behavior, currently classified as CSA, should be abandoned or even altered" (p. 47).

Criticism of terminology

A central focus of some criticisms of this article has been the suggestion that terms such as "adult-adolescent" or "adult-child sex" should be used in some cases, instead of "child sexual abuse." This suggestion was directed to scientific research definitions only, not social or legal ones. The research concern is that although all such sexual contacts may meet legal and social definitions of abuse, the data suggested that such broad definitions may fail to account for how the content of the experience affects psychological outcomes, and that failures to draw distinctions among categories of CSA may compromise the ability to predict effects of these experiences. In other words, all abuse is not equally harmful and suggesting that it is trivializes the most serious abuse.

We state in the paper that defining CSA based on moral and legal criteria is appropriate for legal restrictions, but may be invalid in scientific inquiry. The term "adult-child sex" already occurs frequently in the child abuse literature, used interchangeably with "child sex abuse." Our paper suggests only that these terms be used more selectively in psychological research - not in media discussions or in legislative discussions.

Issue of "consent"

The Family Research Council media advisory states that the "study is based on the premise that a child can actually consent to sex with an adult." This is a gross misinterpretation. Our study was based on the premise that there was a need to review research on the effects of, and reactions to, CSA experiences in college populations. In an ethical and legal perspective, consent means informed consent - which implies a certain level of knowledge and life experience. We neither stated nor implied that children can give informed consent to such experiences. In the research we reviewed on the effects of CSA, "consent" has meant the victim's own perception of his or her level of participation - from being forced to willingness - because this is known to affect a victim's reaction to the experience. Given that our study is a review of dozens of other studies, many of which explicitly examined how victim's own perceptions of their level of participation affect outcomes, it was appropriate for us to examine this factor as well. How these perceptions relate to psychological outcomes is a valid and important research question. In short, in our paper and in the dozens of studies we reviewed which examined victims: "consent" simply means perceptions of willingness and is not claimed to imply anything about informed consent.

The value of our research review lies in its thorough and careful integration of research on the effects of childhood sexual abuse experiences in nonclinical populations, and its examination of how the context of the experience and background variables - such as physical abuse and emotional neglect - may contribute to the reactions and effects reported among students. The methods of the review, including the meta-analytic approach, are sound and appropriate. If there is disagreement with the findings and conclusions, the appropriate response is to conduct a review of the research with college samples that demonstrates where errors were made, or better yet, to conduct research with populations of college students that can either confirm or refute the conclusions.

Although we feel that the above comments address the attacks made by some critics, we would like to comment further on some of these issues. In response to the suggestion that reporting that CSA may be less damaging than previously thought condones abuse, consider what psychologist John Currie wrote in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (April 8): "To excoriate the APA for publishing the study is a bit like scolding the American Cancer Society for reporting that the long-term effects of a form of cancer are less catastrophic than had previously been thought." This analogy is not just hypothetical. In a study published earlier this year in the journal Pediatrics by R. Noll and colleagues (reported in The New York Times, Jan. 19, 1999, (D 12 by Jane Brody), a comparison between nearly all children with cancer in the Cincinnati area and normal controls found that the cancer patients were as well adjusted socially, emotionally, and psychologically as the controls. The authors commented that their study was an improvement over previous research because it examined children in an everyday setting rather than a clinical one. A response to this study analogous to the criticism of our own would be to claim that the authors and the AMA are promoting cancer because it's less harmful psychologically than previously thought.

In fact, if adverse childhood events are found to be less psychologically harmful than previously thought, or in some cases not measurably harmful at all, researchers have an ethical duty to report this. In the case of CSA, this finding has some positive implications: victims do not have to believe that they are "damaged goods" and will inevitably suffer personality disorders and other psychopathology, and clinicians may have solid grounds for providing reassurance and hope to those who have had such experiences. Ignoring such data may bring harm to those who have had such experiences by perpetuating feelings of being "damaged."

Bruce Rind, Temple University,

Philip Tromovitch, University of Pennsylvania,

Robert Bauserman.