A Criticism of Sex Abuse Research
By Arne Frederiksen
There is a growing trend to put pedophiles into therapy, in order to prevent them from committing sexual offences. The therapists have a hard time because it is impossible to change somebody's pedophile orientation, or any other sexual orientation for that matter. When interviewing a pedophile who has committed a sexual offence, the therapist often hears a story about a child who enjoyed the sexual affair and participated actively and with enthusiasm. Refusing to believe that this is possible, the therapist may conclude that the pedophile suffers from cognitive distortion. The basis for this claim is the assumption that the therapist's cognition is right and the patient's cognition is wrong. This is indeed a very presumptuous claim when the issue is an event of which the patient has first hand experience, while the therapist has only second hand knowledge thereof. To the great despair of the therapists, they found that at least a quarter of non-pedophiles endorsed the same cognitive distortions (1).
The diagnosis of cognitive distortion is seen more and more often in the clinical literature (1). Wondering how pedophiles can come up with such beliefs, some psychologists and sociologists have started to analyze the literature produced by pedophile organizations (2). Typically, though, they have ignored the scientific literature that pedophile organizations refer to for supporting their positions. In fact, the claim that some child/adult sexual contacts are benign or even beneficial, is supported by such a wealth of scientific studies that it cannot be discounted (3).
Many psychologists have wondered why some children don't complain when sexually 'abused'. Denying the obvious explanation, that some children actually like being 'abused', the psychologists have come to the conclusion that the perpetrators master some very tricky seductive techniques. In order to uncover these techniques, one group of researchers have analyzed what they believe is a unique piece of evidence: a perpetrator's seduction letter (4). This letter was found in the pocket of a boy who had been in contact with a pedophile man. In an article, the researchers analyze this letter as a skillful and cunning seduction letter. But this letter, which is published in the article, appears to be nothing but the ramblings of a deeply frustrated pederast. After reading the letter, I can assure the researchers that this letter is sure to scare the hell out of any boy. The entire logic of the research breaks down when it is revealed that the so-called perpetrator was completely unsuccessful. The evidence indicates that this 'perpetrator' probably has never successfully seduced any child in his entire lifetime. The researchers are so obsessed with sexual abuse that they even speculate that the perpetrator's wife may be a victim of sexual abuse, even though they have never met her and have absolutely no evidence to support this claim. It is stated in the article that: "the victim unconvincingly denied any sexual activity with the perpetrator." Given the apparent obsession with sexual abuse in the researchers, one may wonder what the boy could possibly have said that would have convinced them that he was not sexually abused! Writing an article about sexual abuse where there is none, is obviously not science, but it has nevertheless been published in a scientific journal called Child Abuse & Neglect - a preferred outlet for publication of sex abuse research.
The poor logic is found again and again in sex abuse research. One pioneering research project studied children abused in 'child sex rings' in order to document the psychological harm caused by such abuse (5). Typical of such research is the over-dramatizing language. The term 'child sex ring' was used whenever more than two persons were involved in illegal sexual activity, in order to give the impression of organized crime, and such sex rings were called 'potentially sadistic', without any evidence of sadism. 49 boys and 17 girls abused in 'sex rings' were interviewed in connection with counseling or therapy. Any psychological problems that these children came up with were included in the statistics as symptoms of sexual abuse. The list of symptoms was over-inclusive: Whether the children were 'over-religious' or 'not religious' it was blamed on the sex abuse. Even symptoms that were present prior to the abuse, were included in the statistics. The authors have previously warned that the dramatic events of disclosure and police investigation can be more harmful than the abuse itself (6). Nevertheless they include symptoms that have appeared only after disclosure as effects of the abuse. Despite being bombarded with leading questions, some of the children maintained that they enjoyed the 'abuse' and that they had not been harmed. These children were given the diagnosis 'identification with the exploiter', which was taken as a proof that they were severely psychologically disturbed. The circular argument is blatant here: If the children say that it was bad, then it is concluded that it was bad -- if they say that it was good, then it is concluded that it was even worse, because it is supposed to be bad, so the children must be severely disturbed when they say that it was good. Nothing the children could possibly have said would have changed the performed conclusion that sexual abuse is harmful.
This kind of research has started what is now known as the sex abuse industry: a conglomeration of psychologists, social workers, and child protection organizations that mutually reinforce each other in the belief that sexual abuse is pervasive and extremely harmful. Many psychologists
have made a successful career out of telling everybody how harmful sexual abuse is, and child protection organizations have found that this cause is more profitable collecting money for than other dangers to children. The popular mass media have been more than willing to convey the agenda of the sex abuse industry because it is titillating and emotionally touching, while the messages of more moderate scientists are dull and unexciting. The press thereby has helped recruit more members to the sex abuse industry -- people who might never have been interested in doing research or therapy, were it not for this highly emotionally touching issue.
The sex abuse industry has produced thousands of articles and books since the early 1980's. The very amount of research projects is in itself an indication that something has gone completely frenzy. There may be scientific reasons for repeating research that has already been done. These
These purposes require that results are comparable, i.e., that they use standardized definitions and standardized psychological measures of harm. However, the many researchers have never found a commonly agreed definition for any of the concepts: child, sexual, or abuse -- let alone child sexual abuse. In fact, this is a moral rather than a scientific construct. Few of the research projects are using standardized measures of harm, they fail to make the comparisons with previously published articles that the abovementioned purposes would imply, and there is little or no focus on improving methodology. Therefore, there is every reason to suspect that many of the research projects are inspired by emotional, moral, political, or religious motives, rather than by a scientific need.
While some improvement in methodology can be observed, most research projects are still seriously flawed (7). The most common flaws are:
The common belief that child sexual abuse is everywhere and extremely harmful, has led to many grotesque efforts to uncover the hidden abuse, and many false accusations. In 1983 in California, a psychotic mother noticed that her three-year old son's anal area was reddened and she became obsessed with the thought that he had been sodomized by a teacher at the McMartin preschool. The boy denied this, but after repeated questioning, the boy said that the teacher took his temperature. Convinced that the 'thermometer' was indeed a penis, the mother called the police. The police sent letters to two hundred families whose children currently or previously attended the preschool. All children initially denied being abused, but after repeated questioning by parents, therapists and police under a considerable pressure to disclose sexual abuse, many of the children told stories that became more and more grotesque. They told about animals being tortured and slaughtered and children being kidnapped, abused and mutilated in graveyards, hot air balloons, helicopters, and dungeons under the preschool. As the accusations spread during 1984, seven men and women were imprisoned, including an old wheelchair-bound grandma, and seven preschools were closed. Police and parents were digging for several years without finding any dungeons. No children had ever been missing, there were no adult witnesses, and no physical evidence of anything unusual. Rather than disbelieving these increasingly bizarre stories, the psychologists came up with the idea that the children had been abused by a satanic cult. It took seven years and many expensive trials before all charges were finally dismissed for lack of evidence (9).
This story is far from unique. Similar events have popped up all over the modern World, from Norway to New Zealand (9, 10, 11). In 1987 in the little Dutch town of Oude Pekela, a little boy had got bruises on his anus by playing in a forest. The local physicians, Mr. and Mrs. Jonker, who were very interested in incest, suspected that the boy had been sexually abused. They sent out letters to all parents telling them to ask their children if they had been sexually abused. This had the same effect as in California. After repeated questioning and a considerable pressure to disclose abuse, 75 children produced bizarre stories about being abducted by a group of men dressed up as clowns, being drugged, kept under water, smeared with faeces, and many other bizarre forms of abuse. However, no children had been missing at any time, no adult had seen any clowns or anything else unusual, there was no physical evidence and no suspects (11). The police have stopped the investigation, but the Jonkers are still convinced that the children have been abused by Satanists, and have written several articles about it (12). Despite the lack of evidence, their reports about the symptoms of ritual abuse have been accepted by the scientific journal Child Abuse & Neglect (13). No comparison was made with non-abused children. According to their articles, only 87% of the parents were certain that their children had been abused, and in only 48% of the cases had the police felt that the children were certainly involved. How can such loosely founded articles be accepted by a scientific journal?
It has been suggested that the myth of satanic sex abuse is in fact a projection of repressed pedophile feelings. Sexual attraction between children and adults is a universal phenomenon, and the myth of the satanic sex cult is a way of denying the pedophile feelings that exist in those who believe in the myth (14).
In this raving wave of hysteria over sexual abuse, overzealous therapists keep finding new methods to uncover the hidden abuse, which they believe is pervasive. Whenever a diagnostic method is found to be defective, they invent a new one with the inevitable result that innocent people are accused. Thousands of innocent people have gone to jail on false charges of sexual abuse. In Cleveland in England, more than a hundred children were forcefully removed from their parents before it was revealed that the incest charges were based on a defective diagnostic technique. In the meantime, several families had been divorced, and two of the falsely accused fathers had committed suicide (15).
While the writings of the sex abuse industry is very voluminous and conspicuous, there is a growing body of literature with a different opinion (7, 16). Three psychologists have researched the sex abuse research and made a synthesis of the results (17). Rejecting those investigations that used highly unrepresentative samples (e.g., psychiatric patients) they found that the results were far less alarming than what is commonly believed. Their conclusions were:
The most harmful events are the ones associated with violence or where the child has no escape (i.e., incest). Voluntary sexual contacts do not cause harm. It is worth noting, that these conclusions are based on investigations that were made with the intention of finding harm. If these investigations are biased, it would be in the direction of exaggerating the harm.
While the articles that exaggerate the dangers of sexual abuse are often published in journals that seem to be quite uncritical, the abovementioned research articles that finds harm to be smaller than previously believed have been published in the most prestigious journals with very strict reviewing standards (17). While the sex abuse industry produces an excessive number of books and articles, they can hardly be said to represent a majority opinion among scientists. Mainstream sexological handbooks and encyclopedias present a far more relaxed view on child/adult sex (18), as does many books in other disciplines such as history, anthropology, and human biology (19).