As a psychotherapist who has treated dozens of victims of child sexual abuse, I understand how traumatic it is when an adult molests a child. The child usually feels invaded, exploited, confused, and frightened, and the psychological damage can be even greater if, during the abuse, the child is even the slightest bit aroused. When someone who is supposed to protect you instead hurts you, or hurts you in the guise of loving you, your very sense of reality can become compromised. Victims of sexual abuse often blame themselves for their own victimization, and even come to feel that love, itself, is dangerous. The psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold has described traumas like this as "soul murders."
And, yet, as a psychotherapist I find myself disturbed by what seems to me to be our society's fixation on pedophilia, not because such abuse doesn't deserve attention, but because the intensity of this attention dwarfs that paid to nearly every other type of damage done to children today, damage that is often much greater than that incurred by at least some children who have been molested. Nothing, however, stirs up more passionate outrage than sexual abuse. Witness the media coverage of the current scandals in the Catholic Church. When defrocked priest John Geoghan of Boston was sentenced to ten years hard labor for one incident of fondling a ten-year-old boy at a public swimming pool, the punishment was generally viewed as perfectly fitting the crime (Geoghan is alleged to have committed far more heinous acts with many other children, but at the time of sentencing, these had not been proven). Death itself is often considered the only appropriate punishment for child molesters, who are viewed as so despicable that they draw the violent contempt of even the most sociopathic criminals while in prison.
When it comes to the sexual abuse of children, something seems out of balance in our collective scales of crime and punishment. The California judge who heard the case of accused child molester Jerome Wilhoit told his courtroom during Wilhoit's arraignment that if someone had molested his own daughter, his attitude would be, "you touch her, you die." The trial was on the front page. The fact that Wilhoit was not only acquitted on all charges but later judged to be "factually innocent" didn't quite make it to page one. We all remember the infamous case from the 1980s involving the McMartin Pre-School, a case lasting six years, costing the State of California fifteen million dollars, and in which over 400 children were interviewed by so-called "experts." The defendants were acquitted on all counts. And who is not aware of the danger posed by satanic cults that kidnap and use children for dark sexual purposes? No one, except perhaps for the FBI who has yet to find hard evidence of the existence of even one of them.
I realize that for every instance of a false accusation based on false memory, there are dozens of cases of unreported abuse, and that the advent of child abuse reporting laws in the 1970s and 1980s were an important victory for child protection advocates and for feminists seeking to bring domestic violence of all kinds out of the patriarchal closet in which it had always been hidden. Nevertheless, I think that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Obviously, child molestors need to be apprehended and punished-and treated whenever possible-in order to protect their current and future victims. But our collective outrage at sexual abuse so dwarfs our recognition of other forms of childhood trauma that such outrage begins to look like more than a simple concern for the real victims of the pedophile.
For example, if you ask most psychotherapists to describe the most common and devastating traumas they see in the lives of the children they treat or in the childhoods of their adult patients, sexual molestation would not usually be at the top of their lists. In statistics released by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2002, over 60 percent of the officially reported cases of maltreatment of children involved neglect, while barely 10 percent involved sexual abuse. …