VOLUME 30 , NUMBER 7 July/August 1999
APA defends stance against the sexual abuse of children
Concern over APA journal article prompts Congress to question the association's position.
By Sara Martin
APA has strongly reaffirmed its long-standing condemna-tion of child sexual abuse in response to a political controversy sparked by an article in the July 1998 issue of Psychological Bulletin.
The article, "A meta-analytic examination of assumed properties of child sexual abuse using college samples," by Bruce Rind, PhD, graduate student Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Bauserman, PhD, examined 59 studies of college students and concluded that the harm done to the victims of sexual abuse was less then generally believed.
The study also suggested that some victims, especially the males, seemed not to have suffered especially intense psychological harm through the years, and in some cases even reported the experiences as neutral or positive.
The authors of the study also argued that the term "child sexual abuse" uncritically lumped all victims together--whereas, they said, the level of potential damage differed greatly in the case of a very young girl raped by her father and a "mature" teen-ager sexually involved with an adult. Citing a need for research clarity, the authors suggested these specific cases should be labeled with "value neutral" terms such as "adult-adolescent sex" or "adult-child sex."
The article's findings point to the conclusion that there is hope for victims of child sexual abuse, says Gary VandenBos, PhD, APA executive director for publications and communications.
"Society will not always be effective at preventing it," he says. "Victims and their families need to know that when the unthinkable happens, the victim is not destroyed forever. Psychotherapy can help. Time will help."
In March, critics of the article, including House Majority Whip, Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and several Republican members of Congress, along with national family-oriented organizations and radio host Laura Schlessinger, argued that the article sanctioned pedophilia, and that APA, by allowing it to be published, was doing the same.
In May, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) proposed a House resolution condemning the article and, by association, APA for publishing it. The proposal quickly gained co-sponsorship and it appeared that if the resolution was brought before the House it would pass.
In response to the House resolution, Raymond D. Fowler, PhD, APA's chief executive officer, wrote to DeLay to clarify APA's position on child sexual abuse and to outline APA's intentions regarding the article and the controversy it created.
"We take very seriously the responsibility of maintaining a rigorous and independent peer-review process for our 37 scientific journals," Fowler said in his letter to DeLay.
Fowler told DeLay he had asked for an independent expert evaluation of the scientific quality of the article--a step he called "unprecedented in the association's history of scholarly publishing."
He promised to make the results of that study known. The review is expected to be final sometime this fall.
"Clearly, the article included opinions of the authors that are inconsistent with APA's stated and deeply held positions on child welfare and protection issues," he wrote. "It is the position of the association that sexual activity between children and adults should never be considered or labeled as harmless or acceptable...children cannot consent to sexual activity with adults."
One criticism of the article was that those charged with child sexual abuse might use in their defense the fact that APA, by inference, supported the findings. Fowler, however, told DeLay "there is no defense for child sexual abuse. It is always wrong."
Speaking out against abuse
To ensure that APA's position is known to courts, public policy officials and parents, Fowler said the association has instituted a five-point plan. In addition to sending the article out for independent evaluation, the plan includes:
Along with the plan, Fowler told DeLay, "We do not support the 'normalization' or decriminalization of any form of sexual relations between adults and children. Such behavior must remain criminal and punishable to the full extent of the law."
In a press release issued shortly after reading Fowler's letter, Delay said "I cannot express fully my deep appreciation and pride for the APA's bold actions today.... I congratulate the American Psychological Association for publicly clarifying its opposition to any adult-child sexual relations, denying pedophiles from citing APA studies in a legal defense and re-evaluating the social, legal and political impact of its editorial board's decisions when publishing scientific studies."
Fowler has met with several key members of Congress to discuss APA's position and efforts opposing child abuse, along with the proposed congressional resolution.
In light of APA's vigorous stance against any kind of abuse of children--particularly sexual abuse of children, "It would be unfortunate," said Fowler, "if a single article was weighted more than the 20-year record of the work we've done in this area."
Fowler also noted that while APA publishes thousands of research articles every year, that does not make them APA policy.
"APA's policies are set by the Council of Representatives and are based on many more factors than a single article," he explained. "The nature of research and science is that much of what is published is later refined or even disproven by other research. The critical thing is not the controversial nature of the statements, but whether they hold up to further research."
Because APA publishes more than 3,000 articles each year, identifying those that are of interest to the public or that have public policy implications is difficult. Journal editors are asked to be aware of those variables and to alert APA's Public Affairs Office to articles in press that should be the subject of a press release or other information for the public.
"A responsible scientific and professional organization has an obligation to be sensitive to the policy implications as well as the scientific integrity of its publications," said Fowler. "There is no reason APA cannot do both and be fully respectful of academic freedom and editorial independence."Y