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Science and moral politics


November 7, 2004 | home



The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit put the war behind him. Why can’t we?

Issue of 2004-11-08
Posted 2004-11-01


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 in adulthood.”

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 dissenting vote.







Eugene Matusov, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Education

School of Education

University of Delaware

Newark, DE 19716, USA


Office: 1-302-831-1266

Fax: 1-302-831-4110