The modern hysteria over child sex abuse is odd in that although feminists played a major role in raising awareness of sex crimes in the 1970s, there is clearly an anti-feminist element in the mass hysteria that terrorizes little girls against sex. This anti-feminist aspect could easily be blamed on the movement being co-opted by the religious right later (in the 1980s), but sadly there is evidence that a key assumption underlying the early activism against child sex abuse was clearly consistent with patriarchic ideals from the very beginning. Everybody makes mistakes, even feminists, but if we are mentally balanced and mature we learn from our mistakes and try to correct them. Hillary Clinton says she wants to expand rights and opportunities for women and girls, so does that include the right and opportunity for girls to grow up sexually functional? How can we do that unless we all confront and reverse the mass hysteria over child sex abuse?
The most thorough account of the movement against child sex abuse is Nancy Whittier’s detailed description of the rebirth of “child protection” after its original popularity in Victorian times (1). Along with the rediscovery of the sexual exploitation of children in the 1970s there were repeated if not constant references to women’s own feeling of guilt over their early victimization and hence the need to reassure survivors that early abuse was not their fault. But why is such propensity to feel guilty so prominent, if not because women never let go of the traditional ideal of the innocent (i.e. asexual) girl and woman? Worse, far from liberating women from patriarchy, Whittier notes the grassroots activist movement melded with the traditional state agenda to control citizens, with the result of increased law enforcement, expansion of the prison system, and now even post-sentence confinement or registration of sex offenders, and increased surveillance of suspects and anti-sex indoctrination of children – especially girls.
The pre-feminist, traditional view of professional psychologists and the broader society was that child sex abuse (CSA) is rare and not usually catastrophic. But feminist activists in the 1970s decided it was neither rare nor mild in effect. The simplicity and convenience of attributing all your complex problems to a single cause (and a single bad guy) were irresistible. That viewpoint was also attractive to some individual bigots who wanted to demonize men, since in the beginning amateur theorists thought CSA was exclusively men against girls and hence a sinister conspiracy of males to make females submissive. Even when feminists discovered that both women and men sexually abuse boys as well as girls, they believed the majority of cases were men against girls and hence good PR for the broader movement against patriarchy.
One of the many obstacles to logical reflection and rational political activism on CSA was that some “survivors” in the movement tended to have serious personal problems. Early self-help groups declared themselves experts on CSA and prescribed treatment, even though their numbers included some individuals who “seemed overwhelmed and out of control.” They were necessarily more focused on healing themselves than changing the world. Early theorists on CSA repeated the traditional assumption that good little girls are not interested in sex, so men abuse girls to “prepare” and “socialize” them for future submission to unwanted contact.
So there had to be some sinister explanation for so many girls not saying “No!” or “I don’t like this,” or at least “Let’s go to the amusement park instead.” While traditional psychologists claimed little girls naturally try out their seductive skills on older men, some feminists were unwilling to concede any ground on the supposed innocence of girlhood. Particularly thorny was that some women confided having experienced arousal and pleasure during their childhood victimization. How could something so wrong feel so right? Some women felt they needed to defend themselves from the “shameful” suspicion that they wanted to be touched and cooperated in the sexual contact for basic hedonistic motives. So they settled on the excuse: “that was your body, not you.”
Why did some women need to hide or deny that sexual experiences may be pleasurable under certain circumstances, even during childhood? At that time in America it was unthinkable for feminists just like everybody else: a little girl with a dirty mind? Certainly, victims wanted to avoid blame. But as Whittier points out, CSA was seen from an “often lesbian feminist perspective” and responses utilized a “lesbian feminist approach,” so at least some individuals may have had an additional need to justify their personal rejection of men. Some of those individual activists were so – shall we say – selective they couldn’t stand to be in the same room with a man. When self-help groups of former victims met and hugged each other, some individuals preferred that only females were present and hugging. Nobody denies that other political opportunists and profiteers brought their own priorities to the crusade against sexual desire and sexual pleasure in childhood.
Regardless of gender, the crusaders taught that each child’s body is her own, so she has a right not to be touched if she doesn’t want to. Ok, no problem with that. But it follows that each child also has a right to be touched if she wants to, otherwise what does your body being your own have to do with anything? Was it merely a coincidence that denying female sexual desire and pleasure in childhood was wholly consistent with the traditional patriarchic ideal of the asexual female? The traditional ideal of the “innocent” young girl uninterested in sex was hard to reject entirely. The result was surely the same: millions of little girls are being mentally castrated today no less than before they were rescued from the risk of early sex abuse. Mary E. Odem has documented that early laws against statutory rape were often exploited by parents in the courts to control rather than protect “wayward” daughters (2).
In 1970 the Australian Germaine Greer suggested the crux of the problem in the title of her bestseller “The Female Eunuch” (3), but in reality Greer’s book said very little about female sexual dysfunction and even blamed it on the absurd traditional explanation: women’s lack of desire or pleasure results from a failure to achieve true romance. Despite the title of her book and oddly consistent with patriarchy, Greer didn’t identify mental castration in childhood as the likely cause of female sexual dysfunction after puberty (discussed below).
The PR value of violence against women was exploited by Women Against Rape, which identified sex with assault, making no distinction between sex play and violent assault. A father who touches his daughter’s genital area is merely greasing the wheels of patriarchy. WAR declared that no adult should touch a child in an uncomfortable “or” sexual way. Huh? In other words, being touched in a sexual way is unacceptable no matter how comfortable that touch may feel.
Conveniently, the early feminist activists didn’t define sexual “abuse” specifically, let alone define it carefully, so sex abuse was construed so broadly that eventually any and all sexual contact in childhood was demonized, or at least any contact between individuals ≥5 years apart in age, a magic number similar to the sacred contemporary dictum that every female becomes competent to consent on midnight of her 18th birthday. The belief in magic numbers was wholly consistent with the original Victorian crusade to raise the age of consent in Britain from 12 to 16. For a comprehensive review of the 19th Century “purity” and “social hygiene” movements see R. Danielle Egan and Gail Hawkes (4).
There was clearly method in the madness. Rather than specifically acknowledging insensitivity and exploitation as the true crimes against children regardless of the age or gender of those involved, inconveniently widespread even in non-sexual interactions between different age groups, feminists promoted the traditional idea that sexual desire and sexual pleasure are evil in themselves, especially – by coincidence – when fathers and daughters or any other men and girls are involved.
When the movement against CSA was embraced by mainstream society in the 1980s, the original focus on incest and gender changed. Instead of reporting rampant incest within families the mass media focused on more palpable “stranger danger.” At one point the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect stopped reporting pesky data on the relationship of abuser to victim. The politically correct mass media advised “parents” on how to protect “children” from “ adult abusers,” instead of feminists advising women how to protect girls from men.
Was it hysteria? Eventually some people suspected that satanic cults were secretly organizing widespread CSA in order to destroy the civilized Christian world. The threat of Satanism became popular and was even given credence by an article published in Ms. Magazine, so a counter-movement began to defend the falsely accused (collateral damage). Greedy therapists tried to expand the market for treatment (never proven safe or effective by medical standards) by encouraging confused patients to “recover” forgotten memories of childhood abuse, but scientific research promoted by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation soon demonstrated the unreliability of memory and the suggestibility of children, resulting in retractions of accusations and even successful lawsuits against overeager therapists. But few questioned the traditional denial of children’s sexual desire and sexual pleasure.
Recently one activist against CSA, Sharon Lamb, had the courage to question the traditional myth that girls are naturally asexual – especially in childhood (5). She interviewed over 100 girls and women in over 20 states who described their early sexual experiences, mostly in neutral or positive terms. Typically the circumstances were far from ideal, since kids rarely have the benefit of accurate, balanced and comprehensive sex education from the earliest age, let alone models of healthy, sexually functional adults to imitate and be monitored by. But they clearly experienced desire and arousal, and somehow survived to report it.
What about all those pedophiles? Hysteria is a failure to carefully evaluate or even see the many aspects of something and instead focus on only one aspect: usually the worst aspect, what Lenore Skenazy calls worst-first thinking (6). One of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject states that true pedophiles are probably rare, and dangerous pedophiles are probably even rarer (7). Most adults who victimize children (sexually or otherwise) are more accurately classified as psychopaths.
Even without actual sexual contact, a child may feel attracted to a particular adult such as a teacher. Some children are fatherless (or motherless) and suffer greatly because of it. One of my students recently suffered the tragedy of a parent who committed suicide. Every class has at least one student with serious problems at home. Some individuals naturally feel a need to replace a missing parent. It’s shortsighted to say a child should only love her own parents, or that adults should only love their own children. What about a parent who has lost her child, or an adult who has no children, or a grandparent whose own children are grown? Tough luck?
We may commonly observe non-parental care of offspring even across species. Adults of some species of animals sometimes show affectionate care of the young of a completely different species. Humans show affectionate care for the young of other species and nobody marvels at that. Isn’t it clearly hysterical to question and suspect human adults who exhibit affectionate care for someone else’s children? The current paranoia over supposedly widespread “pedophilia” probably hurts innocent children as much as innocent adults.
More concrete evidence of hysteria was the reception of the Rind Study (8), a meta-analysis of 59 unbiased studies that did not support the dogma that CSA is usually seriously harmful. Previous studies of CSA suffered from selection bias by focusing on women who were already in psychotherapy, but Rind et al. avoided such bias by analyzing studies of a group more representative of the general population: college students. Since by the 1990s the belief that CSA is usually seriously harmful had become a dogma, Rind et al. also avoided publication bias by including unpublished doctoral dissertations in their meta-analysis. Rind’s findings and conclusions were not really radical, and should have been welcomed as a relief. But they provoked a firestorm of popular criticism that led to an extraordinary Congressional Vote of Censure of the publisher (the American Psychological Association). More rationally, another study found that child cancer patients are remarkably well-adjusted, but nobody claimed that study should be censured as insensitive to child cancer victims.
The ultimate measure of hysteria is that so many people invest their time, effort and expense in preventing, investigating, or treating CSA while ignoring the causes of the vast majority of child deaths and serious injuries that have nothing to do with sex (9). By the 1980s state governments were targeting child sex abuse more than any other form of child abuse or neglect, and more funding was given to investigators of invisible kiddy porn and child sex abuse law enforcement than to prevention of the most deadly dangers facing children in everyday life. Perceptive observers are confronted almost daily with the spectacle of extremely cautious, supposedly protective adults keeping a sharp lookout for flashers while themselves exposing children to potentially fatal behavior: driving while sleep-deprived (just as deadly as drunk driving), allowing children to ride in vehicles without restraint, swimming in pools without supervision, etc.
There is still a strong incentive for feminists NOT to admit that sex play in childhood is normal (both statistically normative and healthy) rather than necessarily harmful. That admission would not only mean feminists have been wrong about denying and demonizing children’s sexual desire and sexual pleasure for over 30 years. Worse, the belief in a male conspiracy to shame girls and women was clearly paranoid. Was it a conscious conspiracy with fathers instructing their sons: “You have to molest girls so they’ll know their place,” or a compelling, unconscious instinct: it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it?
There is also good reason to believe that the traditional taboo against sexual contact outside marriage (in this case in childhood) contributes to some girls becoming sexually dysfunctional (10). The evidence for widespread female sexual dysfunction is abundant. In addition to at least two separate surveys in which the majority of women reported some form of sexual dysfunction, Deborah Tolman’s study (11) makes sexual problems among young girls painfully clear, although Tolman prefers the euphemism that some girls today have “silent bodies.”
Rather than stating the obvious, that little girls are not at fault for insensitive and exploitative treatment by adults, we should say that young girls who rebel against sex taboos must be praised for their courage in participating in their own liberation from the traditional taboo against expressing female sexual desire and pleasure even outside patriarchic marriage – especially in childhood when the growing brain needs stimulation to develop healthy clitoral function.
To be perfectly clear: I’m not saying that children should be sexually abused, and I’m not saying that women really want to be raped. I’m not defending pedophiles or sex offenders, and I’m not trying to legitimize or normalize any kind of abuse whatsoever. It’s wrong for anybody to use coercion or threats or otherwise manipulate children to cooperate in sex, just as it’s wrong for the government to control citizens by “persuading” us to obey and support laws and policies that only serve special interest groups. We need to separate “sex” from the true crimes of coercion, deception, insensitivity and exploitation.
Many women today are unnecessarily defensive about female sexual dysfunction. I say “unnecessarily” because sexual dysfunction is not a woman’s fault. Such defensiveness is not going to solve the problem of dysfunction, nor prevent it from occurring again and again in future generations of growing girls. As illustrated beautifully in the classic story of Peter Pan and Wendy Darling, the boy says he doesn’t want to grow up and claims he doesn’t have feelings, but he is actually afraid to grow up and is afraid of his own feelings. Peter obviously does have feelings but he doesn’t understand his own feelings, and ignorance breeds fear.
Hillary Clinton advocates increasing the years of schooling that girls and women complete in order to earn higher incomes, but income inequality is not the reason why the majority of women in America today are sexually dysfunctional. Feminists recognize internalized oppression, but anti-sex indoctrination goes farther than that in making girls feel that their natural desires are unacceptable and justification for thinking they are bad or sick and should probably hate their body. Instead of terrorizing children against politically incorrect sexual desire and sexual pleasure, what is needed is more comprehensive early education to help children accurately identify what they feel, rather than what adults claim kids are supposed to feel or not supposed to feel, to help kids not feel afraid or guilty.
- Whittier, Nancy. The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Emotion, Social Movements, and the State. Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Odem, Mary E. Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States 1885-1920. University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
- Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. Harper Perennial, 2008 (1970).
- Egan, Danielle R. and Hawkes, Gail. Theorizing the Sexual Child in Modernity. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
- Lamb, Sharon. The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do – Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt. The Free Press, 2001.
- Skenazy, Lenore. Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children. Jossey-Bass, 2009.
- Seto, Michael J. Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children: Theory, Assessment, and Intervention. American Psychological Association, 2007.
- Rind, Bruce, et al. A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples (Psychological Bulletin 1998, Vol. 124, No. 1, 22-53). See also Rind et al. The Validity and Appropriateness of Methods, Analyses, and Conclusions in Rind et al. (1998): A Rebuttal of Victimological Critique From Ondersma et al. (2001) and Dallam et al. (2001) (Psychological Bulletin 2001. Vol. 127. No. 6. 734-758). See also: Science versus orthodoxy: Anatomy of the congressional condemnation of a scientific article and reflections on remedies for future ideological attacks. Applied & Preventive Psychology 9:211-225 (2000). Cambridge University Press. https://www.ipce.info/library_2/rbt/science_frame.htm
- Adamo, Frank. Real Child Safety (2nd ed.) Foundation for Research and Education on Child Safety, 2014.
- Adamo, Frank. Clitoral Erection and Healthy Sexual Function. https://sexhysteria.wordpress.com/2015/12/01/clitoral-erection-and-healthy-sexual-function/
- Tolman, Deborah L. Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk About Sexuality. Harvard University Press, 2002.