Childhood Sexual Abuse Causes Serious Harm to its Victims
March 23, 1999
Originally found at http://www.apa.org/releases/childsexabuse.html [link no longer active]
The American Psychological Association (APA), through its members, sponsored initiatives and publishing, has a long record in the area of the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect including sexual abuse. In the legislative arena, for example, APA has played an active role in advocating for programs expanding child abuse prevention, treatment and research. And, through its Coordinating Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, APA has been a leader in helping the mental health profession document and treat the ill effects of childhood abuse.
In 1990, the APA Council of Representatives passed a resolution calling for a national strategy to prevent and treat child abuse and neglect and called such action a matter of the highest urgency. APAs position is, therefore, very clear: The sexual abuse of children is wrong and harmful to its victims.
As a publisher of psychological research, APA publishes thousands of research reports every year. But, publication of the findings of a research project within an APA journal is in no way an endorsement of a finding by the Association.
The article which is the basis for this controversy, A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples, is one of hundreds of studies which appear in the psychological literature on the effects of childhood sexual abuse. Unfortunately, the findings of this meta-analysis (a meta-analysis studies the data of multiple previous research projects on the subject) are being misreported by some in the media. The actual findings are that for this segment of the population (college students) being the victim of childhood sexual abuse was found to be less damaging to them than generally believed. However, one overall statement of the results was that students who were the victims of child sexual abuse were, on average, slightly less well-adjusted than students who were not victimized as children. One important follow-up question raised by the study is what happens to these students as they enter adulthood and start families of their own. Do they further experience detrimental effects of their childhood experiences later in life?
Those who are reporting that the study says that childhood sexual contact with adults is not harmful to children are misreporting the findings. The facts are that the majority of the psychological literature reveals that childhood sexual abuse has serious negative effects on its victims. The question raised by the study is an important one Does sexual abuse cause varying degrees of harm to children? In other words, can the childs age, resiliency, and/or family environment ever mitigate the ill effects of the abuse? If such mitigating factors can be shown through this and further research child abuse prevention and treatment programs could put that knowledge to work helping both children and families. Such knowledge would, however, in no way excuse any form of abuse. All abuse is wrong, but all abuse may not be equally harmful.
No responsible mental health organization, including the American Psychological Association, endorses pedophilia or denies its negative effects on children. Any statement that suggests otherwise is a serious distortion of the truth. The American Psychiatric Association writes: "An adult who engages in sexual activity with a child is performing a criminal and immoral act which never can be considered normal or socially acceptable behavior.
This statement is fully consistent with the policies of the American Psychological Association and with the views of mental health professionals throughout the nation.
For copies of the APA Policy Statement on the Psychological Issues Related to Child Abuse and Neglect, the Report of the APA Coordinating Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect or for citations from the psychological literature on childhood sexual abuse contact:
Public Communications Office
American Psychological Association
June 9, 1999
The Honorable Tom DeLay
Office of the Majority Whip
H?107 U.S. Capitol
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Representative DeLay:
I want to begin by commending you for your strong personal and professional commitment to the serious problem of child abuse. We especially value your sponsorship of the Child Abuse Prevention and Enforcement Act (CAPE). The American Psychological Association strongly supports this bill and will continue to work for its enactment.
We believe, as we know you do, that the sexual abuse of children is a criminal act that is reprehensible in any context. The Association, through its national programs as well as the work of its members, devotes considerable time and resources to protecting children from being victimized by such abuse. The Association is proud of its record in the area and will continue to devote substantial resources to the prevention and treatment of all childhood abuse, including sexual abuse.
The Association has always condemned the sexual abuse of children. This position is absolutely fundamental to our organization and is demonstrated by our strong record of advocacy on behalf of abused children and our work to educate the public, health professionals, and others about the prevention and treatment of such abuse. We do not support the "normalization" or decriminalization of any form of sexual relations between adults and children. Such behavior must remain criminal and punishable to the full extent of the law.
The Association has been publishing scientific articles of the highest quality for over 100 years. We take very seriously the responsibility of maintaining a rigorous and independent peer review process for our 37 scientific journals. However, the peer review process was never designed to consider the public policy implications of research conclusions, a point illuminated by the current controversy surrounding the article, "A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples," by Bruce Rind, Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Bauserman.
We acknowledge our social responsibility as a scientific organization to take into account not only the scientific merit of articles but also their implications for public policy. Some of the language in the article, when examined from a public policy perspective, is inflammatory. Clearly, the article included opinions of the authors that are inconsistent with APA's stated and deeply held positions on child welfare and protection issues. It is the position of the Association that sexual activity between children and adults should never be considered or labeled as harmless or acceptable. Furthermore, it is the position of the Association that children cannot consent to sexual activity with adults. These inconsistencies between the conclusions the authors suggest and positions of the Association should have caused us to evaluate the article based on its potential for misinforming the public policy process. This is something we failed to do, but will do in the future .
Additionally, concerns have been raised that the aforementioned article and the inferences drawn from it could be viewed as support for pedophilia and used by pedophiles as a legal defense. There is no defense for pedophilia; it is always wrong. To ensure that APA's position is known to the courts, public policy officials and parents, we are undertaking the following actions:
- Our Board of Directors has approved a resolution that clearly reaffirms our long-held positions condemning the sexual abuse of children. This official statement represents the views of our organization, which is comprised of 159,000 members and affiliates. (A copy of the resolution is enclosed.) This resolution reflects the Association's long-standing commitment to addressing the problem of child abuse, a commitment demonstrated by the enclosed brief summary of recent Association activities.
- Our General Counsel is preparing amicus brief materials that could be adapted for use in any court of law to challenge any efforts to use the data in this or any other study to justify, condone, or "normalize" sexual interactions of any sort between children and adults. These materials would also serve to refute any claims that the American Psychological Association in any way condones sexual relations between children and adults or any form of abuse of children.
- We will seek independent expert evaluation of the scientific quality of the article and will make those results known. This is unprecedented in the Association's history of scholarly publishing, but, in view of the criticism of this study by various groups and individuals, we believe that such a review is appropriate.
- We are strengthening procedures within the Association to assure that journal editors will fully consider the social policy implications of articles on controversial topics. We will also increase efforts to encourage scientific comments, rebuttals or refutations from researchers and practitioners with expertise in child sexual abuse in an upcoming issue of one of our premier journals.
- As part of the Association's long-time initiative to prevent child abuse, we have published numerous materials on treatment and prevention targeted at both the professional and the public audiences (see enclosed brochure). To build upon these earlier publications, we are in the process of creating a public information brochure that will give parents and other caregivers practical, actionable information on how to protect their children from sexual abuse. We hope to enlist religious organizations, child protection and advocacy groups, education and mental health associations, youth service organizations, and our state psychological associations to lend their support to this project and to assist us in the distribution of the brochure. Our goal is to distribute this brochure to parents across the United States during the Fall of this year.
In addition to the specific actions outlined above, the American Psychological Association will continue to support the prevention of child sexual abuse and the treatment of its victims. Thousands of our members work in child abuse prevention programs, and thousands more provide therapy and family support to the victims of this reprehensible behavior.
The American Psychological Association will continue to work with the many members of Congress and those in the advocacy community who have called for an end to child sexual abuse in our society and full punishment for all sex offenders. We pledge our intention to be active participants in this effort.
If you have questions or concerns about APA's position on child sexual abuse or our work in the area of prevention and treatment, please feel free to contact me at (202) 336-6080.
Raymond D. Fowler, Ph.D.