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(2) Child Sexual Abuse


Child sexual abuse is a social construction. It is surely a reality-a tragic reality-but the definition and scope of child sexual abuse, and its conceptualization, are socially constructed phenomena. As such, to understand child sexual abuse and society’s response to it, the socio-cultural context within which it is defined and conceptualized must also be understood. These texts are therefore not only concerned with what we know about child sexual abuse, but also with how we frame what we know about child sexual abuse. While the empirical knowledge base largely frames what we know about child sexual abuse, how we conceptualize and make inferences from this knowledge base are impacted critically by the theories that guide our thinking.

The current knowledge base of child sexual abuse is largely a theoretical. In the absence of formal theories of child sexual abuse, however, we continue to frame ideas about the scope and impact of child sexual abuse. Where do these ideas originate? For lack of a better reference, that is, formalized and empirically supported theories of child sexual abuse, ideas may originate from our primary reference point-individuals such as us. Major (1987), in a discussion of how men and women differentially view personal entitlement in issues of justice, states that expectations derive “from similarity biases in the acquisition of social comparison information.” In other words, individuals define their expectations based upon the expectations of people like themselves, suggesting that the personal construction of a theoretical orientation is biased towards the socio-cultural context of the individual.

With an a theoretical knowledge base, this personal construction of the reality of child sexual abuse is probably inevitable and has been an ongoing problem in the professional literature. In the absence of analyses of specific hypotheses concerning the origins of child sexual abuse, the conceptualization of its origins is left open to interpretation. Because interpretations are necessarily informed (a) by the persons’ referents (i.e., individuals most like themselves), and (b) the socio-cultural environment within which the individuals reside, these theories or hypotheses are often biased and, at best, reflect only a partial truth.

The purpose of these texts is to discuss how the socio-cultural context has informed the conceptualization of child sexual abuse. These texts briefly reviews the work on child sexual abuse done prior to Freud, Freud’s theory of child sexual abuse, its later renunciation, and the impact of Freud’s renunciation upon the suppression of the developing knowledge base in child sexual abuse. The 1960s and 1970s enjoyed resurgence in the awareness of child sexual abuse, with the late 1970s and early 1980s being a pivotal turning point in the knowledge base. The reasons for this resurgence in awareness, within a socio-cultural context, are discussed. Moving into the 1990s, the current backlash is also conceptualized within a socio-cultural context. The final section looks ahead, suggesting how the current and future socio-cultural context might affect the future professional response to child sexual abuse.


During the last 100 years, Freud has probably had a greater impact than any other person upon the professional knowledge base of child sexual abuse. While his influence fundamentally framed the profession's conceptualization of child sexual abuse prior to the 1960s, it continues to be felt even today. For this reason, the social context of the environment to which Freud was exposed is important to explore. Child sexual abuse simply was not acknowledged prior to the late 1800s. While it would be reassuring to believe that child sexual abuse did not exist, it of course did. It simply was not labeled as such. Indeed, child sexual abuse has been documented throughout history, with Biblical references to child sexual abuse, and more extensive records of abuse in the Roman and Greek civilizations. Even in colonial America, records suggest that child abuse, including child sexual abuse, was widespread. DeMause, in The History of Childhood (1974), a classic analysis of childhoods in previous historical eras, states: The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused.

This statement suggests that sexual abuse is certainly not a recent phenomenon-only its recognition. Until the mid-1800s, then, sexual abuse was generally recognized only by its victims (Summit, 1989). Even then, the extreme belief in the ownership of children quite possibly influenced the victim's perception of whether abuse had occurred. Professionals also largely ignored the possibility that abuse had occurred. When faced with psychological trauma in victims of sexual abuse, professionals were likely to treat the victims pejoratively and to label them hysterical. At the time, hysterical women were the target of contempt and indignation on the part of the physicians, the best of whom regarded the illness as a matter of simulation (manipulation) or "imagination." In the past, thinking it a particular disorder of the womb, they had treated it by extirpation of the clitoris ...for some believed [it] would cure the wandering womb by "putting it in its place." (Brandcraft & Stolorow, 1984, p. 94).

The first important work on child sexual abuse may be that of the Frenchman, Ampoise Tardieu (Cunningham, 1988). In 1862, as a forensic-medical expert, he documented 515 cases of sexual offenses, 420 of which were committed on children under the age of 15. During an 11-year period, he cited more than 11,000 cases of completed or attempted rape, 80% of which involved child victims (Masson, 1984). These cases, to be defined as assault, had to present with legal evidence of rape, including tearing of the hymen (Cunningham, 1988). Much of his work focused on how child sexual assault victims may not present with the requisite physical evidence. To a lesser extent, he acknowledged and wrote of the possible…. psychological effects of such sexual assaults and was the first professional to write of sexual abuse as a social problem.

Jean Martin Charcot, described by Masson (1984) as “France’s most illustrious neurologist, defender of hypnosis, and physician of hysteria,” was also influential in the views of child sexual abuse during this era. While Charcot did recognize that the sexual offenses occurred, he did not share the same compassionate view of the victims as Tardieu. Charcot’s principal emphasis appeared to be on influencing officials to view offenders as mentally ill instead of “vicious” (Cunningham, 1988, p. 347), and he not only suggested that offenders were often “honest family” men, but that up to 80% of accusations against them were false.

Another writer on child sexual abuse, Alfred Binet, suggested that all offenders had experienced a critical incident in childhood (Cunningham, 1988). Although he did not state that this critical incident was a history of child sexual abuse, he did make this connection in case studies. Binet also forwarded the idea that children were suggestible and that this suggestibility was related to situational and individual characteristics. His influence was especially felt in the courts, in which suggestibility came to be associated with pathology, thus offering a “rationale for disbelieving the testimony of children, especially those involved in sex crimes.”

Other French authors, including Fournier, Bourdin, and Brouardel, also documented cases of rape. Regrettably, the works of these authors were fraught with misconceptions (Masson, 1984). Fournier was a proponent of the offender, whom he often considered “an excellent and perfectly honorable man” (Fournier, as cited by Masson, 1984, p. 43), and believed that children’s assaults were “imaginary.” Brouardel also believed that children lied about the sexual assault and that the genesis of these false accusations was hysteria. Bourdin reinforced the view that not only was victims lying, but that they also took pleasure in their lies because of “evil instincts” and “evil passions.”




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