by MALCOLM GLADWELL
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
put the war behind him. Why can’t we?
Several years ago,
three psychologists—Bruce Rind, Robert Bauserman, and Philip
Tromovitch—published an article on childhood sexual abuse in Psychological Bulletin, one of academic
psychology’s most prestigious journals. It was what psychologists call
a meta-analysis. The three researchers collected fifty-nine studies that had
been conducted over the years on the long-term psychological effects of
childhood sexual abuse (C.S.A.), and combined the data, in order to get the
most definitive and statistically powerful result possible.
What most studies of sexual abuse show is that if
you gauge the psychological health of young adults—typically college
students—using various measures of mental health (alcohol problems,
depression, anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, social
adjustment, sleeping problems, suicidal thoughts and behavior, and so on),
those with a history of childhood sexual abuse will have more problems across
the board than those who weren’t abused. That makes intuitive sense.
But Rind and his colleagues wanted to answer that question more specifically:
how much worse off were the sexually abused?
The fifty-nine studies were run through a series of sophisticated statistical
tests. Studies from different times and places were put on the same scale.
The results were surprising. The difference between the psychological health
of those who had been abused and those who hadn’t, they found, was
marginal. It was two-tenths of a standard deviation. “That’s like
the difference between someone with an I.Q. of 100 and someone with an I.Q.
of 97,” Rind says. “Ninety-seven is statistically different from
100. But it’s a trivial difference.”
Then Rind and his colleagues went one step further.
A significant percentage of people who were sexually abused as children grew
up in families with a host of other problems, like violence, neglect, and
verbal abuse. So, to the extent that the sexually abused were damaged, what
caused the damage—the sexual abuse, or the violence and neglect that so
often accompanied the abuse? The data suggested that it was the latter, and,
if you account for such factors, that two-tenths of a standard deviation
shrinks even more. “The real gap is probably smaller than 100 and
97,” Rind says. “It might be 98, or maybe it’s 99.”
The studies analyzed by Rind and his colleagues show that some victims of
sexual abuse don’t even regard themselves, in retrospect, as victims.
Among the male college students surveyed, for instance, Rind and his
colleagues found that “37 percent viewed their C.S.A. experiences as
positive at the time they occurred,” while forty-two per cent viewed
them as positive when reflecting back on them.
The Rind article was published in the summer of
1998, and almost immediately it was denounced by conservative groups and
lambasted in the media. Laura Schlessinger—a popular radio talk-show
host known as Dr. Laura—called it “junk science.” In Washington,
Representative Matt Salmon called it “the Emancipation Proclamation for
pedophiles,” while Representative Tom DeLay accused it of
“normalizing pedophilia.” They held a press conference at which
they demanded that the American Psychological Association censure the paper.
In July of 1999, a year after its publication, both the House and the Senate
overwhelmingly passed resolutions condemning the analysis. Few articles in
the history of academic psychology have created such a stir.
But why? It’s not as if the authors said that
C.S.A. was a good thing. They just suggested that it didn’t cause as
many problems as we’d thought—and the question of whether C.S.A.
is morally wrong doesn’t hinge on its long-term consequences. Nor did
the study say that sexual abuse was harmless. On average,
the researchers concluded, the long-term damage is small. But that average is
made up of cases where the damage is hard to find (like C.S.A. involving
adolescent boys) and cases where the damage is quite significant (like
father-daughter incest). Rind was trying to help psychologists focus on what
was truly harmful. And, when it came to the effects of things like physical
abuse and neglect, he and his colleagues sounded the alarm. “What
happens in physical abuse is that it doesn’t happen once,” Rind
says. “It happens time and time again. And, when it comes to neglect,
the research shows that is the most noxious factor of all—worse than
physical abuse. Why? Because it’s not practiced for one week.
It’s a persistent thing. It’s a permanent feature of the
parent-child relationship. These are the kinds of things that cause problems
All Rind and his colleagues were saying is that
sexual abuse is often something that people eventually can get over, and one
of the reasons that the Rind study was so unacceptable is that we no longer
think that traumatic experiences are things we can get over. We believe that
the child who is molested by an uncle or a priest, on two or three furtive
occasions, has to be permanently scarred by the experience—just as the
soldier who accidentally kills his best friend must do more than sit down on
the beach and decide that sometimes things just “happen.”
In a recent history of the Rind controversy, the
psychologist Scott Lilienfeld pointed out that when we find out that
something we thought was very dangerous actually isn’t that dangerous
after all we usually regard what we’ve learned as good news. To him,
the controversy was a paradox, and he is quite right. This attachment we have
to John Wade over Tom Rath is not merely a preference for one kind of war
narrative over another. It is a shift in perception so profound that the
United States Congress could be presented with evidence of the unexpected
strength and resilience of the human spirit and reject it without a single