D R. Laura was outraged. The widely syndicated talk radio guru devoted her March 22 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, 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 …