Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Confounding Variables within "Referral Controls" for Children with Histories of Sexual Stimulation by Adults: Implications for Erroneous Attributions from "Childhood Sexual Abuse"

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Confounding Variables within "Referral Controls" for Children with Histories of Sexual Stimulation by Adults: Implications for Erroneous Attributions from "Childhood Sexual Abuse"

Article excerpt

Verbal and performance scores from a standardized intelligence battery for age-matched children from four groups (n = 67) were compared to discern if the depressed scores for verbal intelligence displayed by children with histories of verified sexual stimulation by adults were epiphenomenal. The children had been referred to a psychiatric facility because of early sexual stimulation by adults, from a children's mental health service because of family problems, or from a school board for conduct disorders. The fourth group was hospital controls for the first group. The children with nonculturally approved sexual activity with adults and those from the mental health service displayed verbal intelligence scores that were about one SD below the scores for children referred by the school board and for the control group. These results suggest that psychological variables may not reflect a causal relationship and hence group differences should not be attributed exclusively to the diagnosis of sexual abuse.

Keywords: sexual abuse, intelligence, confounding variables, post-hoc attribution, children.

The cause of statistically significant differences between diagnostic groups for various criterion measures or clusters of measures is often attributed to the etiologies that define the diagnosis. Such conclusions are not necessarily valid. An analogous problem emerged when the beneficial effects of transcendental meditation were attributed to the mantra (Persinger, Carrey, & Suess, 1980) although the actual stimulus source was the nonspecific repetition of any sound (Bensen, 1975). However, many clinicians still conclude implicitly that differences between diagnostic groups are due to their presumed etiology (Einbender & Friedrich, 1989; Green, 1983; Salzinger, Kaplan, Pelcovitz, Samit, & Krieger, 1984) rather than the differences existing a priori that increase the vulnerability to the diagnosis or the conditions that result in the diagnosis.

Post hoc attribution of cause from diagnostic labels is often based upon restricted evidence and consensually based criteria of causality. These principles have been employed to demonstrate the causal connection between tobacco usage and cancer (Vineis et al., 2004), and involve consideration of confounding variables that could explain the observed association, dose response relationships, biological plausibility, and consistency of findings. However, if the attribution is perfused with belief, particularly from moral panics, social constructions of deviant behavior (Victor, 1998), or implicit extensions of religious beliefs (Stevens, 1992), inferences and conclusions about these causal variables can be reliable but not valid.

The problem is very conspicuous within studies that attempt to establish the effects upon children of early sexual stimulation by adults within a context that is not compatible with Western 20th century mores. Although correlation does not prove causation, this important fact can be obscured when a belief spreads through society (Lynch, 1996). For example, according to Freyd et al. (2005) child sexual abuse is associated (correlated) with serious mental and physical health problems, substance abuse, victimization, and criminality in adulthood.

The specific mental health problems attributed to sexual abuse include posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicide. Even adult obesity and career failure in females have been attributed to a singular sexual trauma. Freyd et al. (2005, p. 501) have also stated that child sexual abuse has been "used as a weapon of war and genocide and is associated with abduction and human trafficking". Such beliefs have been spread abroad as facts within North American society by means of vituperative testimonials and acrimonious rhetoric (e.g., Bass & Davis, 1988).

Although the classification sexual abuse has been applied to children who have sustained sexual activity with adults and these behaviors towards children by adults should be considered inappropriate and not lawful for a variety of aesthetic and ethical reasons within Western culture, the label does not reveal any causal connection between the activity that is defined as abuse and the subsequent cognitive development of the child. …

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