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(1) Child Sexual Abuse

The scope of the problem of child sexual abuse within our society is an epidemic of such vast proportions that virtually all children are at risk of abuse. Children are abused by loved ones, friends, family friends, those in whom they place their trust, and those bound to care for them. They are abused by those they hardly know and even those they do not know. Children of all ages are at risk and vulnerable to sexual abuse, whether in their homes, their community, or even over the Internet. Society’s response to this tragedy has been to develop programs that identify, assess, and treat the victims, treat or punish the offenders, and teach young children how to deflect approaches.

 Our failure as a society, however, has resulted in programs, however well-meaning, that fail to identify most victims, substantiate most identified abuse, identify most offenders, treat or punish most identified offenders, and prevent the approaches of offenders. Why are our policies and programs failing? One premise of these papers is that they are failing because they are grounded not in the available knowledge base that explicates the scope of the problem of child sexual abuse, but in historical and sometimes mythical perceptions of this abuse. The child sexual abuse knowledge base for many years had a history of introducing theories and hypotheses that often viewed the victim and even the victim’s mother pejoratively. These theories then became a part of the accepted knowledge base on child sexual abuse even before they were rigorously analyzed and sometimes even though empirical findings disputed them.

These value-laden, stubborn, and tenacious theories were then used to frame assumptions underlying policies and programs. A second important premise of these papers is that our development of and need to maintain these myth-bound policies and programs must be understood within a socio-historical context. Only by understanding this socio-historical context can we also understand why these theories are stubborn and tenacious and why they continue to assume priority over our empirical knowledge base in driving policies and programs. Perhaps the single most influential person in the history of the professional literature on child sexual abuse is Sigmund Freud. Much has now been written about his effect on the developing knowledge base of child sexual abuse.

Although he was the first to forward a formal theory of child sexual abuse, he also renounced that theory shortly afterwards. Freud’s renunciation of his seduction theory profoundly and negatively influenced the study of child sexual abuse. The denial of the reality of child sexual abuse already entrenched in society was now given legitimacy by Freud’s renunciation. This culture of denial shaped not only the manner in which our professional understanding of child sexual abuse unfolded, but also how we responded to the problem.

Resulting primarily from Freud’s influence, child sexual abuse became a nonevent-a report of pure fantasy. In the few cases in which it was recognized to have occurred, it was rationalized as the daughter’s seduction of her recalcitrant father. As a result of this unfortunate practice, child sexual abuse became almost synonymous with father-daughter incest. Both were deemed extremely rare events.

In the early 1980s, however, two seminal random surveys on the prevalence of child sexual abuse and its characteristics shattered the illusion that child sexual abuse was rare. Indeed, Russell found that 38% of females in her sample were victims of contact sexual abuse by the time they were 18. Using a similar definition, Wyatt found that 44% of women in her sample were abused. When the weight of this evidence exceeded society’s ability to deny its reality, the child sexual abuse knowledge base burgeoned. Researchers were now challenged to explain the phenomenon of child sexual abuse. Resulting at least in part from Freud’s conceptualization of child sexual abuse as being synonymous with father-daughter incest, one of the next theories of child sexual abuse introduced was family systems theory.

In this theory, all members of the family were implicated for their roles in initiating and maintaining the abuse. An issue for debate is whether the introduction of the theory guided, or was guided by, the socio-historical conceptualization of child sexual abuse. Regardless, both psychoanalytic theory’s emphasis on the culpability of the daughter and family systems theory’s emphasis on the culpability of all family members had an important effect. Both allowed for the continued minimization of the role of society in the manifestation of this tragedy.

The knowledge base in the 1980s now revealed a curious paradox. On the one hand, rigorous random prevalence studies indicated that only approximately 30% of all abuse was intra-familial and that 7% to 8% was father-daughter incest. On the other hand, the developing knowledge base focused almost exclusively on intra-familial abuse, especially father-daughter incest. This bias was so extreme that papers indexed on father-daughter incest in a professional bibliographic database now number in the hundreds and those on intra-familial abuse exceed 2,000, as compared to less than 15 papers indexed on extra-familial abuse.

Further, not a single known study exists on the most prevalent type of child sexual abuse-that by acquaintances-nor is there a single known study on non offending fathers, when 92% to 93% of all victims are not abused by their fathers. Yet, there is a plethora of literature, historically pejorative, on non offending mothers. Not surprisingly, some child sexual abuse professionals continue to believe that father-daughter incest is the most prevalent type of abuse.

Not only did biases that prioritized intra-familial abuse and especially father-daughter incest persist in the developing knowledge base, but they also became codified in policies, programs, and statutes. Methods for identifying, assessing, and treating victims concentrated almost exclusively on intra-familial abuse; whereas victims of extra-familial abuse were largely forgotten-a policy that ensured that most victims of child sexual abuse remained unidentified. Another important impact of these biases was that mothers were assumed to be partially at fault for child sexual abuse. Thus, in the early 1980s (and even now) mothers were often charged as co offenders in the abuse, even when they did not commit the abuse. Further, non offending mothers were given the grave responsibility of protecting the victim from future abuse. The alternative was to lose their children to the system.

Importantly, sexual abuse was the only major crime for which mothers-instead of law enforcement officials-had to assume this responsibility for protection of the victim. Further, policies and statutes ensured that, while victims could be removed from their homes, offenders could not. This is perhaps the strangest and most burdensome of all the policies designed to “protect” children.

Another example of how the socio-historical context allowed myth-bound policies to prevail involves child sexual abuse prevention programs. Partially as a result of the insistence by feminists that children be empowered and partially because of our inability to identify potential offenders, early prevention programs targeted only the potential victim. Introduced in the 1980s, these programs were (and continue to be) designed to help children deflect approaches of offenders. While the effort is admirable, it is difficult to understand how they can be construed as prevention programs (i.e., programs that lower sexual abuse prevalence). For them to be prevention programs, children must not only have the power to deflect the approaches of potential offenders, but these deflections must also be of such magnitude that the prevalence of child sexual abuse is concomitantly lower. Both are somewhat unrealistic assumptions. Even today, when it seems obvious that prevention programs targeting potential victims instead of offenders are palliative at best, these remain the primary organized prevention programs.

Thus, policies and programs that developed in the early 1980s have simply gained momentum. We are today what we were 20 years ago-just more so. Seldom have conceptual shifts taken place, even as the developing empirical knowledge base has refuted many of the assumptions upon which these early policies and programs were based. Hence, policies, programs, and statutes on child sexual abuse remain myth-bound and myth-driven. As a result, they are sometimes unreasonable, unsuccessful, unsupported, and unconscionable. This brief analysis demonstrates that the development of child sexual abuse policies and programs is best conceptualized as a shotgun approach.

Our policies and programs are messy, inconsistent, and splotchy and have immense cracks through which many of our children fall. Yet, the analogy of cracks in these policies and programs gives too much credence to them, for it suggests continuity and coherence.

Instead, a more appropriate analogy is of a partially completed jigsaw puzzle. In this puzzle, few of the exterior pieces are placed, and interior patterns are sparse. Those that are taking shape are so distorted as to be almost unrecognizable. The large number of pieces missing from the puzzle represents the vast numbers of victims unrecognized by our current system. These are our policies. What is surprising, however, is that the empirical knowledge base is such that if another puzzle represented it, the picture would be much better constructed.

Certainly, there would still be significant gaps, but the puzzle would have coherence and continuity. It would have shape and meaning, and emergent patterns would be recognizable even with missing pieces. Here lies our quandary. We have two puzzles-one representing the empirical knowledge base and one representing assumptions of child sexual abuse policies and programs-that should look identical. Instead, they bear little resemblance. Thus, while the extant knowledge base rather clearly defines the scope of the problem of child sexual abuse, the assumptions under girding policies, programs, and statutes have little resemblance to that empirical knowledge base. As such, it is not surprising that these policies and programs often fail miserably. Only when the pictures do match-when policies and programs become empirically driven-will we be able to adequately intervene in the tragic problem of child sexual abuse.

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