The belief that sexual “seduction” of children is usually seriously harmful was popularized by Freud over 100 years ago, based on his observations of 18 hysterical patients (1). Freud’s observations were distorted by his very unscientific “pressure” method, and he proposed his theory at a time when medicine, psychology, and cross-cultural anthropology were primitive. By coincidence the seduction theory was wholly consistent with the ancient religious condemnation of any sexual experience outside monogamous marriage (2).
The seduction theory was eventually rejected by Freud himself and his followers as overly simplistic, but it was revived in the late 1960s by feminists who falsely claimed Freud changed his theory because he was under intense criticism for exposing child sex abuse. Feminists claimed Freud’s original simplistic theory was right: child sex abuse is responsible for most of women’s problems, so women today should cash in on the political and financial woe-is-me benefits of victimhood (3). The early feminists thought child sex abuse is exclusively men against little girls, and hence is a sinister male strategy to cultivate feminine subservience. They were conveniently unaware that in reality both women and men sexually abuse boys as well as girls.
In the 1970s some small, biased surveys of selected populations described severe sequelae of early sexual experience in some individuals, and – like Freud – claimed such weak and limited evidence may be generalized to the whole population. Freud’s old simplistic theory seemed to now be supported by sophisticated (social) science, won wide acceptance as politically correct dogma, and created a booming business for psychotherapists and other self-proclaimed rescuers of child sex abuse victims (real or imagined).
The convenience of that new orthodoxy for traditionalists became obvious in the 1980s when suspicions of widespread child sex abuse in daycare centers (already under criticism by conservatives who promoted stay-at-home mothering) spread and resulted in witch hunts culminating in the hysterical belief that devil worshipers were organizing and orchestrating sex abuse in daycare centers to defeat Christianity and take over the world.
Not surprisingly, a few perceptive critics in the 1990s questioned the sincerity of some individual claims of child sex abuse, as Freud himself had eventually done a century before, and even discovered that some therapists were persuading patients through suggestion to imagine they were sexually abused as children and then call those fantasies “memories.” Modern therapists merely copied Freud’s “pressure” technique a hundred years before, which resulted in patients saying whatever the therapist wanted in order to please the therapist. Eventual malpractice suits caused a sharp decline in profiteers specializing in so-called “recovered memories” of sex abuse as well as so-called “multiple personality disorder” (4).
In 1998 Bruce Rind and colleagues finally conducted a meta-analysis of 59 unbiased studies of college students that did not support the dogmatic belief that early sex abuse is usually seriously harmful (5). Previous studies were imprecise, qualitative analyses of biased samples – mostly females in treatment for mental problems – while Rind quantitatively analyzed males and females more representative of the general population. The work of Rind et al. indicated severe sequelae of child sex abuse were exaggerated and much less frequent in the general population.
There has never been any valid evidence of a causal link between early sexual experience and later mental problems, and it is reasonable to assume that there may be other variables such as family environment (before and after the sexual experience) that explain the positive, neutral, or negative outcome later in different cases. Rind found less negative effects when the child perceived he was willing, but critics oddly objected to considering the victim’s perception of willingness, since children are supposedly too young to understand consent. The critics thus confused the correlates of actual outcome of the experience with the moral quality of the event. Saying that a victim felt he had consented (and later reported he was less harmed) is not the same as saying children are always or ever competent to understand consent.
If the mass hysteria over child sex abuse had been based on genuine concern for children’s health and safety, then we would expect that Rind’s evidence would be welcomed as a relief. But Rind and his work had actually undermined the sacred premises of the child sex abuse rescue business, so he was viciously attacked by vested political and financial interests as if he had committed sacrilege.
The Alaska State Legislature was the first government body to confuse politics with science by criticizing the Rind study, and under political pressure the U.S. Congress eventually voted to censure the American Psychological Association (APA) for publishing that study. In House Concurrent Resolution 107 (H. Con. Res. 107), the Supreme Court was quoted as an expert on the subject of child sex abuse, which “is [always] pervasively and intensely harmful,” and specifically attacked any suggestion “that sexual relationships between adults and ‘willing’ children are less harmful than believed.”
In reality, previous biased surveys had merely noticed a history of child sex abuse in some mental patients, and simply assumed a causal link without any specific evidence of causation. Rind’s work supported the idea that there is good reason to believe physical abuse, neglect and other family problems better correlate with negative outcomes than does sex abuse.
The APA conducted an in-house review and concluded: “Well, with all due respect, it isn’t a bad study. It’s been peer-reviewed by the same principles as any kind of scientific publication. It’s been examined by statistical experts. It’s a good study.” But The APA eventually bowed to public relations pressure by conceding that some of the language in the Rind study was “inflammatory,” and promised that the APA would more carefully consider “the social policy implications” of future articles on controversial topics submitted for publication.
Under duress of the public relations nightmare, the APA asked the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to review the APA’s decision to publish. The AAAS officially declined the request, which was an indirect expression of support for the study’s scientific validity – and an obvious criticism of those who questioned the scientific quality of the study and the APA’s standard peer review process for publishing studies. However, the AAAS did say: “examining all the materials available to the Committee we saw no clear evidence of improper application of methodology or other questionable practices on the part of the article’s authors.”
The AAAS further stated: “The Committee also wishes to express its grave concerns with the politicization of the debate over the article’s methods and findings. In reviewing the set of background materials available to us, we found it deeply disconcerting that so many of the comments made by those in the political arena and in the media indicate a lack of understanding of the analysis presented by the authors or misrepresented the article’s findings. All citizens, especially those in a position of public trust, have a responsibility to be accurate about the evidence that informs their public statements. We see little indication of that from the most vocal on this matter, behavior that the Committee finds very distressing.”
Chairman of the AAAS committee, physicist Irving Lerch, said “[s]ome of the political statements were clearly self-serving. I think some politicians tried to inflame or cash in on public sentiment by purposely distorting what the authors said.”
Some critics stooped to calling the Rind study “junk science,” while in reality Rind’s work was a significant advance over previous research. Instead of focusing on Rind’s data or methodology, critics repeatedly focused on the political incorrectness of the findings as supposedly “trivializing” child sex abuse. Analogously, another study of child cancer patients found they were surprisingly well-adjusted. So why didn’t moralists and politicians attack that study as trivializing cancer? Revealingly, crusaders against sex play during childhood seem to be uninterested in the easily available statistics that show the vast majority of child deaths and serious injuries are due to physical abuse and neglect by parents, and have nothing to do with sex crimes by strangers (6).
Although Rind’s study caused no immediate reaction in the scientific community, it was attacked by a talk-show host at a fundamentalist radio station, and the resulting publicity worried profiteers in the sex abuse rescue business, so some self-interested criticism of the Rind meta-analysis finally appeared in a scientific journal two years later. Prominent among Rind’s critics were Freudian psychoanalysts who specialize in the “treatment” of homosexuality, a branch of the talk-therapy business in significant decline. An organization of such therapists publicly welcomed support from religious groups.
In later articles Rind easily answered his critics, pointing out their fallacies and contradictions, and eventually even quoting the worries of critics with vested interests that Rind was threatening the income of those who live off the myth that child sex abuse is usually seriously harmful. One critic admitted that he wanted “to protect good psychotherapists from attack and financial ruin as a result of suits that are costly both financially and emotionally.” One former patient of such therapy was awarded a $10 million settlement from his “therapist” and hospital. Rind suggested the APA and other scientific organizations should defend researchers and stand up to such political attacks in the future, rather than bowing to politically driven hysteria (7).
Throughout Western history religious authorities have attacked and sometimes executed scientific thinkers for contradicting orthodox beliefs. Although science has progressed and has more freedom today than ever before, scientific evidence that contradicts orthodoxy is still very unwelcome in the house of cards built on “ancient scripture.” People who have the courage to explore and welcome advances in our knowledge and understanding of the world must still fight against censorship and other attempts to silence the truth.
Attacks against child sexuality are often circular: they claim sex play in childhood is inevitably harmful, while ignoring that typically early education specifically preps children to view and react to sex negatively. When anyone proposes accurate, balanced and comprehensive sex education from the earliest age, critics say we shouldn’t do that because early sex play is inevitably harmful! As I have pointed out many times before, the mass hysteria over child sex abuse contributes to the traditional mental castration of millions of girls, instead of protecting children from possible injury.
One mistake Rind did apparently make and then did not confront is that he reportedly accepted an invitation to speak to the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), a group of self-professed pedophiles with an obviously self-serving political agenda, so it appeared that Rind was at least sympathetic to those who wish to defend pedophilia. If that report is true, then the invitation and Rind’s acceptance should have been addressed by Rind himself. But that mistake after-the-fact does not detract from the hard evidence on child sex abuse that Rind’s study contributed to modern science.
Everyone has some good and some bad in them. Nobody is all good or all bad. We should cultivate what is good in every person: the healthy paternal and maternal instinct to love children and protect children from true harm. And we must pity and resist the opportunists and profiteers who pretend to love and protect children while really only loving and protecting themselves.
- Freud, Sigmund. The Aetiology of Hysteria (1896).
- Fout, John C. (ed). Forbidden History:, The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe. (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992).
- Whittier, Nancy. The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Emotion, Social Movements, and the State. (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009).
- Ofshe, Richard and Watters, Ethan. Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria. (Univ. of California Press, 1994).
- 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); and 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).
- Adamo, Frank. Real Child Safety 2nd Ed. (Foundation for Research and Education on Child Safety, 2014).
- Rind, Bruce, et al. 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