Washington's Other Sex Scandal


On July 12, in an action that seems to have been without precedent, the House voted, 355-0, to condemn a scientific article. Granted, this was not an article about magnetic induction in supercooled fluids. It was about sexual abuse of children. Congress "condemns and denounces all suggestions in the article . . . that indicate that sexual relationships between adults and 'willing' children are less harmful than believed and might be positive for 'willing' children." Most people who noticed this news probably found it either puzzling or faintly amusing. I want to suggest that it was, in fact, faintly sinister.

The July 1998 issue of Psychological Bulletin, a scholarly journal published by the American Psychological Association, carried a dense, 31-page article titled "A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples." The authors are Bruce Rind of Temple University, Philip Tromovitch of the University of Pennsylvania, and Robert Bauserman of the University of Michigan.

The article is not original empirical research. Rather, it analyzes 36 peer-reviewed studies and 23 graduate dissertations that examined how sexual encounters in childhood and adolescence had affected college students. The findings are startling.

First, the students who had experienced child sexual abuse (called "CSA") were on average only slightly less well-adjusted than others in terms of objective psychiatric and medical symptoms. Individuals can and do suffer severely, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

Second, most women (72 percent) recalled their childhood sexual episodes negatively, but most men recalled them positively (37 percent) or neutrally (29 percent).

Third, only a minority of men and women reported lasting negative effects, although temporary negative effects were reported by a majority of women.

Such findings, the authors state, "are inconsistent with the assumption of pervasive and lasting harm." As a result, the authors suggest that psychological researchers should abandon the current custom of referring to all adult sexual encounters with minors, regardless of the circumstances and results, as "child sexual abuse." Researchers could perform finer-grained analyses if they used "abuse" to designate injurious or unwilling encounters. Other encounters could be called "adult-child sex" or "adult-adolescent sex."

The authors said they were talking about scientific definitions–not law or morality. "The findings of the current review," they said, "do not imply that moral or legal definitions of or views on the behaviors currently classified as CSA should be abandoned or even altered."

As Carol Tavris, a social psychologist, wrote last month in the Los Angeles Times, you could reasonably interpret these results as very good news: Most people bounce back after sexual abuse. Instead, in December a group that promotes "reparative therapy" for homosexuals denounced the report as attempting to normalize pedophilia. In March, Laura Schlessinger, a syndicated radio personality monikered "Dr. Laura," took up the cause and turned it into a national crusade. "They are, in effect, suggesting a repetition of the steps by which homosexuality was normalized," she said. "Deviance became redefined as diversity." The study, she said, was "bogus science, more like propaganda."

Legitimate criticism of the study fell into two categories. One concerned the authors' alleged bias. Were they "agenda driven," aiming to destigmatize pedophilia? In 1989, when he was 23 and just out of college, Bauserman published a cross-cultural comparison of attitudes toward man-boy sexual relations in a Dutch journal called Paidika, which had taken pro-pedophilia stands. This raises red flags. It does not disqualify the authors, but it does invite particularly rigorous scrutiny of their work.

The second kind of legitimate criticism concerned methodology. The most prominent assertion was that the article relies heavily on 43-year-old data that lumped contact sex together with exhibitionism–so, of course, aftereffects seemed slight. The authors replied that exhibitionism is a recognized form of abuse that can indeed be traumatic, and they said that including this form of abuse in such studies is standard practice. Moreover, they noted that their main findings, which evaluated lingering symptoms, did not use the disputed data at all, and that omitting those data altogether did not significantly change the other results.

I don't know who is right, and neither do you, and neither does the U.S. Congress. A lot of science is flawed, and most scientists have biases. The answer is for other scientists with different biases to do more science. Conscientious criticism, however fierce, helps drive that process forward. But the process counts on critics to make some effort to be truthful.

Starting in May, a stream of conservative activists and Republican House members, including Majority Whip Tom DeLay, lined up to issue denunciations. "I am appalled and outraged that an influential American psychological association would publish a study that advocates normalizing pedophilia," DeLay said. Advocates normalizing pedophilia? Where?

Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, R-Pa., said in a press release: "The authors write that pedophilia is fine . . . as long as it is enjoyed" (ellipsis in original). His office could provide me with no quotations from the study that support his remarkable reading. Wade F. Horn, writing in The Washington Times, said, "Apparently, these authors believe, it's perfectly fine for an adult to sodomize a 10-year-old so long as the child doesn't develop psychological problems because of it."

Eileen King, the head of a group called One Voice/American Coalition for Abuse Awareness, said in a press release: "It would have us believe that giving pedophiles free access to our children is 'enlightened.' " The quotation marks around "enlightened," as if the study had used the word, was a nice touch. A columnist named Kathleen Parker quoted the study itself as saying, "Sex between adults and willing minors should be described in more positive terms." That inflammatory quotation is spurious. When I asked for her source, Parker told me she had misplaced a quotation mark and was chagrined. Whoops.

In June, Schlessinger declared on national television: "Two out of the three authors have written and traveled all over the world in the pedophilia circles to promote the notion of adult-child sex." This is a serious accusation. I interviewed two of the authors, Rind and Bauserman, and both said it is false. They said the statement's closest intersection with reality is that, on one occasion, Bauserman and Tromovitch presented their findings to a group of social workers and clinicians in the Netherlands. When I asked for substantiation, a spokeswoman for Schlessinger wrote to me that the authors "are obviously 'in touch' with" Dutch pedophilia advocates.

All the while, the people churning out this stomach-turning stuff were condemning the study's authors for distorting truth to promote an agenda. They were also charging that the American Psychological Association had been "irresponsible."

When a few members of Congress condemn a scientific report, they are expressing opinions. When the U.S. House of Representatives, with its vast power, condemns a scientific report, it is making an implicit threat. After holding its ground for a few weeks after the storm broke, in June the APA embarked on a campaign to placate Congress–as well it might.

Raymond D. Fowler, the APA's chief executive, told me he doubts the contretemps will have any large chilling effect on research or publication. "I think that any attempts to interfere with the normal scientific process wouldn't go very far," he said. Maybe. On the other hand, an activist coalition of Kulturkampf conservatives has just learned that by smearing research on a particularly sensitive subject it can score a 355-0 victory over the forces of darkness. Hmm. Would you be surprised if this happened again? And again?

"I really believe in my heart that if that study had gone unchallenged, it would have done harm to children," says Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., the chief sponsor of the congressional condemnation. "I think it was shoddy science. I don't want to put a gag order on science, but let's make sure it's science."

Who, precisely, is the "us" in "let's"? One might have expected a conservative to appreciate that "unchallenged by Congress" does not equal "unchallenged." If winding up at the business end of a 355-0 congressional resolution persuades researchers to avoid asking questions or publishing answers that provoke Tom DeLay, the result will be to stifle the advance of knowledge about sexual abuse. That will hurt children.