Rebecca M. Bolen, Diana E. H. Russell and Maria Scannapieco
The study of the magnitude of childhood sexual abuse in our society has engaged many scholars through the years (Finkelhor 1979; Kercher and McShane 1984; Kinsey et al. 1953). Yet, there is no agreement on how prevalent child sexual abuse is in North America, despite the fact that establishing a reliable prevalence estimate has far-reaching implications for etiology, practice, and social policy in, but certainly not limited to, child welfare, mental health, law enforcement, and the medical profession. With estimates of the prevalence of child sexual abuse ranging from 2 per cent (George and Winfield-Laird 1986) to 62 per cent (Wyatt 1985), a great deal of misunderstanding and controversy exists.
Because of this wide range of prevalence estimates, professionals as well as lay persons can selectively choose the information that suits their interests. Until a sounder estimate of the prevalence is established, statements like the following will continue. 'Research that defines almost half of women under twenty-five as victims of sexual molestation is only part of the radical feminist effort to impose new norms governing intimacy between the sexes' (Gilbert 1991:61). One of the 'radical feminist' research studies cited by Gilbert as promulgating advocacy numbers (Russell 1983) is still considered one of the most rigorously sound prevalence studies in the field. Others declare that the 'child abuse witch-hunt threatens family unity' and compare children who disclose molestation by family members, teachers, or foster parents as similar to Stalin's collectivization genocide in the early 1930s (Beichman 1994:22). Placing blame on Marxists, radical feminists, or radical egalitarians (Beichman 1994; Gilbert 1991) stifles the discussion and exploration of the horrific phenomenon of childhood sexual abuse.
The general lack of empirically sound estimates of the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse also brings into question other related phenomena such as recovered memory and dissociative identity disorder (DID). In a recent popular press article, Acocella questions the validity of MPD (DID) and the recent explosion of diagnosed cases among women, especially those with a history of childhood sexual abuse. She asserts that 'the MPD craze was probably