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Public Interest, Winter 2000

by G.E. Zuriff

Dr. Laura was outraged. The widely syndicated talk radio guru devoted her March 22 [1999] radio show, with an estimated audience of 18 million listeners, as well as a May 12 news conference, to an attack on "garbage science" and those who would "sexualize our children, normalize pedophilia, and further destroy the family." The target of her anger was the venerable American Psychological Association (APA), with 80,000 members, the largest organization of its kind in the world.

Politicians were not far behind. At a May news conference, [U.S. House of Representatives Republican] Majority Whip Tom Delay, sponsor of the Child Abuse Prevention and Enforcement Act, denounced the organization, while Representative Dave Weldon attacked what he called a "prime example of what happens when we, as a society, subscribe to the theory" that there are no absolutes. His Republican colleague Matt Salmon proposed a resolution condemning the APA by implication, a resolution the APA feared would easily pass if brought to the House floor.

The trigger for all this fury was a technical article appearing in the prestigious Psychological Bulletin, published by the APA, with the rather forbidding title, "A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples," authored by three academics at major educational institutions: Bruce Rind (Temple University), Robert Bauserman (University of Michigan), and Philip Tromovitch (University of Pennsylvania). They reviewed and analyzed the data from 59 previous studies of college students who reported experiences of childhood sexual abuse. Surprisingly, the researchers found that childhood sexual abuse does not generally cause lasting psychological harm. Students who had experienced childhood sexual abuse were, on average, only slightly less well adjusted than other comparable students, and these differences generally disappeared when family environment was taken into account. In the case of males, there was no difference in psychological adjustment between the two groups if the sexual experience was not coerced.

At first blush, this might seem to be good news. Given the estimated 14 percent of college males and 27 percent of college females who have experienced childhood sexual abuse, one might welcome the finding that these youngsters were not impaired for life and can enjoy normal psychological adjustment. However, at the recommendation of the journal editors, the authors drew additional conclusions. Noting that the term "abuse" implies that harm is inflicted, the authors argued that classifying behavior as "abuse" merely because it is considered illegal or immoral, even in the absence of harm, is not scientifically valid. To so label it also conflates instances in which the sexual experience inflicts harm with those instances in which it does not, thereby complicating the task of determining what characteristics of the experience produce psychological harm. Moreover, they note, in many, and perhaps most, cases of sexual activity between an adult and a minor, there is no physical or emotional harm to the child.

Indeed, two-thirds of the males and more than one-fourth of the females retrospectively reported having neutral or positive reactions to the sexual experience at the time it occurred, while 42 percent of the males viewed the sexual experiences as positive when reflecting back on them. Accordingly, the authors suggest that the term "childhood sexual abuse" be restricted to situations in which the sexual activity is unwanted by the minor and is experienced negatively. In contrast, when the minor willingly engages in the sexual encounter and has positive reactions, the activity should be labeled simply "adult-child sex" or "adult-adolescent sex," value neutral terms.

It is not difficult to see how these ideas would antagonize not only Dr. Laura but the public at large. By lifting the pejorative designation "sexual abuse" from many instances of adult-child sex, and by reporting that this activity is often harmless and even viewed positively by the minor, the article seemed to condone such behavior. To be sure, the authors explicitly stated that the absence of harm does not imply the absence of wrongfulness, but that caveat was lost on critics like Dr. Laura and Tom Delay or those who celebrated the findings. For example, the North American Man-Boy Love Association, the major pedophilia advocacy group, hailed the report as "good news," bolstering their claims that consensual sex between men and boys is not harmful, may be beneficial, and should be legalized.

The APA's radical reversal

If the public's outcry was to be expected, the response of the APA to the attacks was surprising. Disowning the article in a letter to Delay, the association rejected the article's basic conclusions, stating that they were contrary to the public-policy positions of the APA. Furthermore, the association acknowledged that it had failed to evaluate the article before publication for its "potential for misinforming the public policy process." Consequently, in an unprecedented move, the association announced that it will seek independent expert evaluation of the article and will publish the results of this review. The association also promised Delay that it will institute procedures to assure that its journal editors will evaluate papers for their social-policy implications as well as their scientific merit.

But most surprising of all, the APA's decision to side with the article's critics radically reverses the role it has played in the assault on the primacy of the traditional nuclear family over the past quarter century. Generally speaking, the traditional nuclear family consists of two adults, one male, one female, who signify their commitment to one another by marriage, and the offspring of their sexual union. Sexual relations are restricted to those between the two adults. In addition, the family is a hierarchy with the adults exerting more power and authority than the children, and the father exerting more than the mother. Finally, labor is divided along gender lines, with the females responsible for more of the domestic and child-care duties and the males more responsible for work outside the home, providing income and protection for the family.

The political and cultural Left has attacked and undermined the primacy of the traditional nuclear family on a number of grounds. Foremost among its criticism is that this family ideal, as the embodiment of patriarchy and male privilege, is sexist. Males wield the most power while subordinating and oppressing women. In the patriarchal family, gender roles are learned that keep women at home, preventing them from pursuing serious careers. In short, all the vices of patriarchy are planted and grown in the traditional nuclear family. The charge is also made that because men possess the most power, they are free to exploit, beat, and rape women and children. Domestic violence is the direct result of the traditional family's patriarchal structure. Finally, in the eyes of the Left, societal preference for the traditional nuclear family is objectionable because such a family violates the rights of others. For example, homosexual adults are legally forbidden from marriage and, in some states, from adopting children. Single mothers are also stigmatized, and because single-mother families are disproportionally headed by African Americans, the insistence on the traditional family as the societal ideal is racist in addition to being sexist and homophobic. In its assault on the importance of the traditional nuclear family, the Left has established an intellectual alliance with the mental-health profession. An excellent illustration of the profession's role is the fight for homosexual rights waged during the 1970s. One of the most important barriers to the social acceptance of homosexuals was the fact that homosexuality was considered a mental disorder by the mental-health profession. During the early 1970s, gay activists, through an intense campaign of lobbying, demonstrations, and disruptions, forced the profession to reconsider its stand. Subsequently, in 1974, homosexuality was dropped from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders, and the APA soon followed suit. In the profession's deliberations on this issue, one body of psychological evidence carried great weight. A number of studies had shown that homosexuality was not associated with any increased incidence of psychopathology. In fact, it was found that many homosexual adults were leading well-adjusted, fulfilling lives. In short, homosexuality had no harmful psychological effects. Of course, this line of reasoning leaves open the question of whether homosexuality, in and of itself, is a psychopathology. Nevertheless, the argument that homosexuality has no harmful effects played a major role in the decision to normalize homosexuality. Once homosexuality was no longer a mental disorder, the fight for equal rights and protections for homosexuals was strengthened. Homosexual adults had a legitimate claim to the right to marry and to adopt children--in short, to form families.

The therapeutic logic

The Left's successes in legitimizing homosexuality set the pattern for subsequent attacks on the traditional family over the next quarter century, and it is therefore worthwhile to examine the logic at play. First, a traditional societal structure (e.g., the heterosexual family) is found defective because it is sexist, homophobic, racist, or in some way oppressive to a group favored by the Left, and an alternative (e.g., the homosexual family) is proposed. This alternative is touted as not only more just and equitable but also as beneficial, or at least not harmful, to society. Enter the psychological professions. To show that the proposed change is not harmful, social scientists undertake research to examine its effects. Typically, this research consists of a comparison of the psychological adjustment of individuals living under the alternative social structure (e.g., homosexual subjects) with that of individuals living according to the conventional or traditional ideal (e.g., heterosexual subjects). When, as is most often the case, the research shows that there are no differences between the groups or, occasionally, that psychological adjustment is superior under the alternative, the traditional ideal is rejected.

Supporters of the traditional family find themselves on the defensive, forced to choose between two difficult options. On the one hand, they can continue to insist that, contrary to the scientific evidence, the alternative is harmful, in which case they can be dismissed as ignorant, antiscience know-nothings. On the other hand, they can assert that the alternative, although not harmful, is still wrong because it is "unnatural," "contrary to the Divine Plan," or "immoral." But then their defense is rejected as based on mere nostalgia, folklore, prejudice, or fear of change, all of which is, in turn, a mask for the patriarchal defense of white, male privilege. At issue here is whether there are moral standards beyond the utilitarian calculation of observable physical or psychological harm. Appeals to such standards are based on what might be termed moral intuitions--that is, irreducible intuitions about right and wrong, intuitions derived from fundamental aspects of the human psyche, human history, or, if the evolutionary psychologists are right, from the evolution of the human species. Whereas moral intuition is the foundation of society for the traditionalists, it is mere patriarchal prejudice for the Left.

Based on its rejection of moral intuition, the Left has used the findings of psychological research to support its assault on the primacy of the traditional nuclear family. Over the past two decades, numerous studies have shown that women with careers outside the home are psychologically better adjusted than their home-bound peers, that the children of these women are also psychologically healthy, and that nonparental day-care arrangements are not detrimental to children's mental development. Because lack of harmfulness is equated with lack of wrongfulness, these findings have assuaged the conscience of the working mother. Similarly, psychological research has demonstrated that the effects of divorce on children are not as serious as was once thought, especially when children of divorce are compared to children living in conflict ridden marriages. Consequently, spouses in unfulfilling marriages, who at one time might have remained in the marriage for the "sake of the children," can now feel that divorce is the moral choice. In yet another example, psychologists have found that abortion does not generally produce grave psychological consequences for women, thereby undermining one of the arguments against abortion.

One of the best illustrations of the role of psychology in the critique of the nuclear family appears in the June issue of the American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the APA. In this article, the authors, Louise Silverma n and Carl Auerbach, challenge the belief that a father is essential for positive child development. Citing a variety of data, they conclude that not only is a father not essential but neither is a mother. According to these scholars, "Children need at least one responsible caretaking adult [of either gender] who has a positive emotional connection to them and with whom they have a consistent relationship." Although they concede that for practical reasons it is helpful to have a second adult caregiver, they argue that the two caregivers need not be of the opposite sex, married, or even biologically related to the child for him or her to develop good mental health. Predictably, the authors view the traditional value placed on a two-parent home as mere prejudice. In their words, "The emphasis on the essential importance of fathers and heterosexual marriage represents ... an attempt to reassert the cultural hegemony of traditional values, such as heterocentrism, Judeo-Christian marriage, and male power and privilege."

Why did the APA blink?

After 25 years of this sort of research, what is left standing of the traditional nuclear family? Gone are heterosexuality, the necessity for two parents, marriage, gendered division of labor, hierarchy of power, and biological relatedness. Remaining is a mere shadow of the former family--a stable, emotionally connected adult caregiver of either gender and a child, who do not have sex with one another. This brings us full circle to the original Rind, Bauserman, and Tromovitch article on pedophilia. In arguing that child-adult sexual relations are usually not harmful to the child, these scholars appeared to stand at the next frontier for deconstructing the family, the prohibition against sex within the family. Can a psychologically healthy and therefore societally sanctioned family consist of a child and a stable, emotionally supportive pedophile? The APA peered into this abyss and backed off. Why?

This question is actually two questions. First, why did the APA not stand behi nd the editorial integrity of the world-renowned Psychological Bulletin and simply say, as did Rind, Bauserman, and Tromovitch, that lack of harmfulness does not imply lack of wrongfulness, that although pedophilia may often be psychologically harmless, it is nevertheless wrong and should remain illegal and socially unacceptable? The answer to this first question is not difficult to discern. For the APA to admit that judgments of morality may be independent of psychological adjustment would be to admit that moral intuition does indeed play a critical role in social policy, that psychological studies do not fully determine what is good. To admit this, however, is to grant that although homosexuality, single-mother families, sex between adolescents, out-of-wedlock births, the rearing of children in daycare, abortion, and divorce do not cause psychological harm, they may nevertheless be wrong. In the end, the APA could not turn its back on a quarter century of social-policy positions.

Answering the second question is more difficult: Why didn't the APA declare that pedophilia, like abortion, homosexuality, and single-mother families, has now been shown to be psychologically harmless? Why did it not urge that society cease its oppression of a minority stigmatized merely because its sexual orientation happens to conflict with society's prejudices? At the political level, the answer to this question is simple. Winning the favor of the North American Man-Boy Love Association does not compensate for alienating most of the U.S. population as well as the Federal government, which regulates the practice of psychotherapy and professional associations, including the APA, controls Medicare and other insurance payments for psychological treatment, and funds psychological research and training. Opposing Congress on this issue was a losing proposition for the APA. Nevertheless, the APA's response was not dictated by political considerations alone, and a full analysis of the APA's position reveals basic internal ideological contradictions that more completely explain the APA's public response.

Misleading explanations

Consider the reasons the APA itself gave to justify its reaction. First, the APA declared that child-adult sex "should never be considered harmless." This claim, of course, begs the question, since the article the APA attacked provided evidence to the contrary. The APA sounds here not unlike those who say that contrary to the research evidence, homosexuality should never be considered harmless. Second, the APA argued that children cannot consent to sexual activity with adults. This response is particularly disingenuous coming from an organization that filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court opposing Minnesota's law requiring notification of parents when a minor decides to have an abortion. In that brief, the APA argued, "By age 14 most adolescents have developed adult-like intellectual and social capacities including specific abilities ... for understanding treatment alternatives, considering risks and benefits, and giving legally competent consent, ... and there are some 11- to 13-year-olds who possess adult-like capabilities." If the APA believes that youngsters can give informed consent for a surgical procedure why can't those same youngsters consent to sex with an adult, especially since this may consist of nothing more than the exposure of genitals? At a more fundamental level, the APA's contention that children cannot consent to sexual activity with an adult raises a deeper question. Why is consent necessary? After all, we bathe children, change their diapers, hug and kiss them, wash their genitals, perform surgery on them, all without their consent. Furthermore, there are cultures in which man-boy homosexual relationships are institutionalized and others in which woman-girl sex is accepted. But one need not wander so far. When adolescents in our society experiment with sex among themselves, the APA does not object on the grounds that teens are incapable of giving consent. To insist that sex with an adult, although harmless, is special and requires consent is to appeal to the kind of moral intuition or principle that the APA has rejected time after time.

Speaking for the APA, Rhea Faberman, its Director of Communications, offered yet another reason for the organization's position. "Pedophilia is a mental disorder," she stressed. Unfortunately, Faberman has not kept up with the reformers' recent successes. Along with homosexuality, pedophilia per se has been dropped from the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, the official listing of mental disorders. For a pedophile to be diagnosed with a mental disorder, it is necessary that the sexual urges or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. Consequently, a pedophile does not meet the criteria for a mental disorder if he has managed to stay clear of law enforcement agencies, has maintained a job and social contacts, and is not distressed by his pedophilia.

Ideological contradictions

Clearly, the reasons the APA offers for its position cannot constitute the full story. Both their position and the reasons given for it are reversals of the APA's long standing ideology. Perhaps another reason lurks beneath the surface. As was suggested above, the core of the Left's dissatisfaction with the traditional nuclear family is that it is patriarchal: The father wields power over the wife and children, endangering their physical, sexual, and emotional well-being. Any evidence challenging this thesis threatens the very essence of the Left's critique of the traditional family and is strongly resisted. For example, feminists have fiercely contested two decades of research by the Family Violence Research Program at the University of New Hampshire showing that women have as high an incidence of domestic violence as men. Similarly, evidence of high levels of domestic violence between gay or lesbian partners has been ignored. If the traditional family is no more unsafe than the alternatives, then the attack on the traditional family loses some of its force.

Similarly, the Rind, Bauserman, and Tromovitch study could be seen as yet another blow to the image of the traditional family as a danger zone. If father-child sex is not as harmful as had been thought, the traditional family is not as dangerous as thought. Perhaps this was a conclusion the APA could not endorse and may have contributed to its decision to call for a temporary truce in the culture wars; however, this truce is merely a tactical one, imposed on the APA by powerful political forces and by deep contradictions within its own ideology. Because the APA has yet to recognize the legitimacy of moral intuition in formulating social policy, the cultural battles will continue on other fronts.

Morality's place

The controversy surrounding the study reveals not only the ideologically driven process by which the organized mental-health profession formulates social policy but also the nature of contemporary public discourse about our fundamental values. For the most part, the Left's utilitarian ethics has framed the dialogue. Debates center on what is best medically, economically, psychologically--how to reduce crime, teenage births, drug use, welfare dependence; how to enhance education, career training, health, emotional adjustment, and productivity. In this framework, it is easy to equate morality with psychological and economic development and to leave questions of public policy to the social scientists. That would be a mistake. What the uproar over the Rind, Bauserman, and Tromovitch article has demonstrated, and what the APA has yet to acknowledge, is that society must abide by its moral intuitions, however vague they may be. Indeed, even the utilitarian calculus is not possible without moral intuition, for it is moral intuition that informs us what goods and evils belong in the calculus and what weights to assign to each. Even the concept of "psychological adjustment" is itself deriv ed from moral notions of what constitutes the good life. Certainly, in a pluralistic society, it may be easier to agree on the psychological effects of a social change than on whether it is moral. And to be sure, one person's moral intuition is often another's bigotry. But for that reason alone, these moral intuitions must be included in our civic discourse, so that we can recognize them, debate them, and look to them for guidance.

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