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Modern History of Child Sexual Abuse Awareness: Cycles of Discovery and Suppression

  • Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center & University of Cincinnati


In the last century and a half, public and professional awareness of sexual abuse has emerged and been suppressed repeatedly. The 20th-century suppression of the problem has been linked to Freudianism, sexual modernism, and gender politics. Recent awareness of sexual abuse differs from awareness in the past because of the significant amount of current research attesting to the prevalence of sexual abuse and its injurious impact on human development. However, in the contemporary mental health professions, the courts, and the media, there has emerged an influential backlash against the latest discovery of child sexual victimization that utilizes arguments employed during earlier periods of suppression. Knowledge of the earlier cycles of discovery and suppression can assist professionals in understanding and countering present attempts to deny or minimize the problem of child sexual abuse.
Chrld Ahusr & Nc$m. Vol. 17. pp. 7-24, 1993 0 145-Z 134/93 $6.00 + .OO
Printed in the U.S.A. All rights reserved. Copyright 0 1993 Pergamon Press Ltd.
Department of Psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine
UCLA School of Medicine, Harbor/UCLA Medical Center
Abstract-In the last century and a half, public and professional awareness of sexual abuse has emerged and been
suppressed repeatedly. The 20th-century suppression of the problem has been linked to Freudianism, sexual modern-
ism, and gender politics. Recent awareness of sexual abuse differs from awareness in the past because ofthe significant
amount of current research attesting to the prevalence of sexual abuse and its injurious impact on human develop-
ment. However, in the contemporary mental health professions, the courts, and the media, there has emerged an
influential backlash against the latest discovery ofchild sexual victimization that utilizes arguments employed during
earlier periods of suppression. Knowledge of the earlier cycles of discovery and suppression can assist professionals in
understanding and countering present attempts to deny or minimize the problem of child sexual abuse.
Key Words-Child sexual abuse history, Incest awareness.
THESE CHILDREN FEEL physically and morally helpless, their personalities are not sufficiently
consolidated in order to be able to protest, even if only in thought, for the overwhelming force and
authority of the adult silences them and can rob them of their senses.
(Sandor Ferenczi, 1955, first published, 1933)
Rigorous comparative studies about the effects of sexual abuse on children first appeared in
the mid 198Os, and this new era of inquiry is developing rapidly (Beitchman, Zucker, Hood,
DaCosta, & Akman, 199 1; Friedrich, 1990). Results of these studies corroborate much that
clinicians, adult survivors and feminists-in literature that goes back more than a century and
became abundant after 197 l-have written about the damaging and persistent effects of
childhood sexual assaults. In the light of current knowledge regarding the prevalence and
injurious impact of childhood sexual abuse, it is important to examine how earlier discoveries
of this abuse were suppressed. Such a review illuminates why current research is not being
integrated more rapidly into basic clinical literature and why abuse histories are not yet
routine in clinical intake and diagnostic formulations (Briere, 1989; Finkelhor, 1984; Sum-
mit, 1988).
Received for publication July 18, 199 1; final revision received November 2 1, 199 1; accepted November 22, I99 I.
Reprint requests should be addressed to Erna Olafson, Department of Psychiatry, Washington University School of
Medicine, 4940 Children’s Place, St. Louis, MO 63 1 10.
8 E. Olafson, D. Corwin, and R. Summit
It can be argued that the very forces that prevented awareness of this issue in the past still
obscure it today, for the sexual abuse of children has repeatedly surfaced into public and
professional awareness in the past century and a half, only to be resuppressed by the negative
reaction it elicits (Cot-win, 1988). The result has been a long history of cultural denial about
criminal sexual behavior against children (Summit, 1988). As a society, we behave somewhat
like those victims who protect themselves from their pain and terror by splitting off and
sealing over all memory of childhood sexual traumas (Goodwin, 1985; Summit, 1988). There
are some indications that this cultural dissociation is persisting in spite of substantial contem-
porary research on child sexual abuse.
Modern psychiatrists have amply studied the behavior of errant young girls and women coming
before the courts in all sorts of cases. Their psychic complexes are multifarious, distorted partly by
inherited defects, partly by diseased derangements or abnormal instincts, partly by bad social environ-
ments, partly be temporary physiological or emotional conditions. One form taken by these complexes
is that of contriving false charges of sexual offenses by men.
(John Henry Wigmore, 1904, pp. 736-737)
Rape is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party
accused, though never so innocent.”
(Lord Chief Justice Matthew Hale, 17th-century England, quoted by Hechler, 1988, p. 8)
How prevalent was the sexual misuse of children in the past? LaFontaine (1990) warns
against cross-cultural applications of prevalence rates, while acknowledging that British and
European research lags behind that in the most thoroughly documented country, the United
States. In any event, prevalence rates for past generations are beyond recovery. What survives
is largely anecdotal; studies by physicians and government investigators, exposes by re-
formers, and occasional accounts by victims such as Virginia Woolf (De Salvo, 1989; Olafson
& Corwin, 1990) by family members such as one colonial New England mother (Taves,
1989) and by perpetrators such as the anonymous Victorian author of the purportedly auto-
biographical My Secret Life (Anonymous, 1966, pp. 379-389; Hellerstein, Hume, & Offen,
198 1; Jeffreys, 1985; Pike, 1966; Rush, 1980).
Court records and popular folklore offer additional information. For example, in 18th-cen-
tury London, many believed that sexual congress with a child would cure venereal disease,
and 25% of capital rape prosecutions at the Old Bailey between 1730 and 1789 involved
victims younger than 10 (Simpson, 1988). Tardieu (1873, p. 115) reported a similar French
superstition a century later; in France, between 1858 and 1869, three quarters of those
charged with rape were accused of raping children (Crewdson, 1988, p. 36).
In addition, British Parliamentary inquiries and American union investigations revealed
numerous incidents of sexual crimes against child laborers in field and factory (Hellerstein,
Hume, & Offen, 198 1, pp. 363-364, 404; Pike, 1966). Domestic servants, who were often
children, were especially vulnerable to sexual assault and many became adolescent prostitutes
(Depauw, 1976; Gillis, 1979; Parent-Duchatelet, 1836; Sanger, 1858; Simpson, 1988; Stead,
1885; Yeo & Thomson, 197 1). In the American South, slave girls were subjected to rapes and
forced breeding (Chesnut, 1949; Fox-Genovese, 1988; Hellerstein, Hume, & Offen, 198 1, p.
196) and there were still Chinese slave girl prostitutes bought and sold in San Francisco in the
early 20th century (Hellerstein, Hume, & Offen, 198 1, p. 47).
Consistent with a world view that associated sexual probity with bourgeois respectability,
most Victorians who wrote about incest linked it to poverty, overcrowding, and the promiscu-
Child sexual abuse awareness 9
ous habits of the poor (Jeffreys, 1987; Villerme, 1840, 1850; Wohl, 1978). The many societies
for the prevention of cruelty to children, established in American urban centers after the first
SPCC was founded in New York in 1874, investigated child neglect and sexual and physical
abuse primarily among American immigrant poor and working class families (Pleck, 1987). A
comparable pattern persists in contemporary courts and agencies (Finkelhor, 1993; LaFon-
tame, 1990; Thomas, 199 1). A group of late 19th-century British and American feminists,
churchmen, and sex reformers cut through class biases about incest and argued that “these
shocking crimes” occur in all social classes (Jefheys, 1987, p. 277). In Great Britain, they were
influential in raising the age of consent from 10 to 13 in 1875 and to 16 in 1885, and in
criminalizing incest in 1908 (Simpson, 1988; Walkowitz, 1980). They campaigned with less
success to increase the severity of sentences for sexual assaults on female children; assaults on
boys and even petty theft entailed longer jail terms than did assaults on girls. Some of their
other goals, such as their crusade against marital rape, sound strikingly modern (Gordon,
1988; Jeffrey?,, 1985).
As for 19th-century medicine. a scientific literature so varied and abundant was bound to
include accounts of child sexual assauhs and their psychological consequences; one such case
study in 182 1 by Esquirol described a 1 &year-old girl’s breakdown and repeated suicide
attempts after an assault by her father (Gay, 1988, p. 95). However, the effects of sexual
trauma did not figure centrally in medical discourse about mental illness in this century,
afthough other forms of trauma did. Pinel, Briquet, Charcot, Janet, and Breuer studied the
role of traumatic events in the genesis of psychopathology; Charcot’s male hysterics had
survived train accidents, for example (Ellenberger, 1970; van der Kolk & van der Hart, 1989).
In general, however, the modernizing tendency to explain mental phenomena in material
terms, succinctly stated in Cabanis’s, “The brain secretes thought as the liver bile” (cited in
Ackerknecht, 1967, p. 3) tended to dominate 19th-century psychiatry as it searched for the
biological basis of mental illness (Goldstein, 1982; Showalter, 1990; Zilboorg, 194 1). The
medical consensus was captured by one British psychiatrist who wrote, “Insanity. . . occurs
chiefly in those whose mental constitution is originally defective” (Showalter, 1987, p. 108).
Partly because females were regarded as constitutionally weakened by their reproductive
systems, mental illness was “the female malady,” and more beds were provided for women
during the century’s asylum-building boom (Colombat de I’ldre, 1850; Showalter, 1987,
p. 56).
Psychiatry also described mental illness as autogenic, arising from heredity, bad habits or
the self-imposed conditions of urban living (Dijkstra, 1986; Kniebiehler, 1976a, 1976b; Sho-
Walter, 1987). Identifying the causes and cures of mental illness as isolated within the patient
rather than as embedded in a social context was consistent with medicine’s post-Newtonian
grounding in Classical Liberalism’s individualism (de Ruggiero, 1927).
Medical science connected insanity and sexuality but saw sexual misbehavior, not sexual
victimizations as the culprit. Physicians found dangers to health and sanity in abstinence,
excess, and coitus interruptus; they prescribed self-control and regular, heterosexual habits as
remedies (Bergeret, 1974; Debay, 1880; Showalter, 1987). Chief among psychosexual auto-
genesis was masturbation, the solitary vice. From around 1750 until well past Freud, concern
about the dangerous effects of child masturbation inspired draconian measures to control it
(Gay, 1984, pp. 294-3 18; Showalter, 1987). This enduring cultural obsession with masturba-
tion suggests that childhood sexuality was clearly recognized in psychiatric and medical
thought and popular culture for well over a century before Freud (Foucault, 1978; Hare,
1962; Laqueur, 1989; MacDonald, 1967; Neumann, 1975).
Masson has recently called attention to a significant French forensic medical tradition that
documented tens of thousands of cases of child sexual abuse and rape (Masson, 1984). Begin-
ning with Toulmouche’s 1856 article in the French public health journal, it continued
10 E. Olafson, D. Corwin, and R. Summit
through works by Tardieu, Bernard, and Lacassagne. These physicians argued that sexual acts
against children were very frequent, that assaulted children often showed no physical signs,
that children’s reports were largely truthful, that fathers and brothers were often the molesters
and that “higher education” did not inhibit men from committing such acts. Apart from F&e
in 1899, they did not describe the psychological consequences of child sexual abuse (Masson,
1984, p. 199). Freud owned F&s’s, Bernard’s, and Tardieu’s books.
Many of the issues of the current child abuse debates were thus already articulated in
European medical discourse before and during Freud’s early career, in the works cited above,
and in an opposing tradition which focused on children’s lies. Freud owned a book by Brourar-
de1 who argued that 60% to 80% of sexual abuse complaints were false accusations which had
their source in hysteria, attention-seeking, “genital hallucinations,” debauchery, or the “ex-
treme suggestibility” of children to panicky questions by their mothers (Masson, 1984, pp.
44-46). Fournier revealed class bias by implying that a respectable father of a family would be
incapable of a sexual assault on a child (Masson, 1984, p. 43). Motet drew an explicit connec-
tion between child witnesses’ fantasy-based lies and the lies of hysterical women (Masson,
1986, p. 94). Gamier offered a case study of a “hysterical” young woman who accused her
“honorable” father of incest, noted that “the enormity of the accusation destroys its probabil-
ity,” and added that because this woman continued to charge her father with sexual assault,
she was sent to an insane asylum (Masson, 1984, p. 49).
German and Austrian physicians who argued that children, especially girls, made false
accusations of rape against adults included Casper, von Hofmann, and Bloch. Freud owned
and marked a copy of Bloch’s book in which Bloch referred to childhood fantasies about
sexuality and the lies of girls about adult sexual assaults (Masson, 1984, p. 128).
The Oedipus Complex, which was to become the irreducible foundation of psychoanalysis, was a
perfect reversal ofthe seduction theory. Now, children were traumatized not by actual sexual assault, but
by projections of their own wishful, masturbatory fantasies. (Summit, 1988, p. 48)
The story of Sigmund Freud’s 1896 seduction theory and his subsequent change of mind
has been told many times (Herman, 198 1; Masson, 1984; Peters, 1976; Pleck, 1987; Rush,
1980; Summit, 1988). Freud’s three 1896 papers on the subject constituted a revolutionary
departure from prior and current medical discourse about sexual abuse. Invoking the reso-
nant imagery of late imperial Europe, Freud now believed that he had penetrated the dark
Africa of the unconscious and found the neuropathological “source of the Nile” (Freud, 1989,
p. 103). Although Tardieu and others had shown the frequency of child sexual abuse, no one
had systematically described its pervasive psychological effects, which Freud listed in 1896 as
hysteria, obsessions, possibly chronic paranoia, and other “functional psychoses” (Freud,
1989, pp. 109-l 10; Masson, 1984, pp. 5-6). Freud also broke free from the long tradition of
pathogenic masturbation by asserting that masturbation was often, along with hysteria, a
consequence of sexual abuse (Masson, 1984, p. 92).
Freud’s seduction theory was original in other ways as well. He challenged Fournierists
about the hysterical lies of supposed victims by pointing out that adult survivors recall and
describe abuse only reluctantly and with genuine emotions such as shame (Masson, 1984, pp.
9 1, 103). He disagreed with his teacher Charcot by arguing that nervous heredity alone, in the
absence of “precocious sexual excitation,” would not produce psychoneuroses (Masson,
1984, p. 9 1).
Child sexual abuse awareness II
Freud also addressed sexual power, class, and gender issues. He asserted that incest was
more common than suspected, even in respectable families. He described the power imbal-
ance at the traumagenic core of child sexual abuse, writing that an adult, who has authority
and the right to punish, can satisfy his whims on a helpless child who “is at the mercy of this
arbitrary use of power” (Masson, 1984, p. 6). He explained the frequency of hysteria in
women as arising, not from constitutional weaknesses as others had taught, but from the fact
that girls were more often sexually assaulted than boys were. In letters to Fliess, but not in his
publications, he indicated that the most likely perpetrators were fathers (Masson, 1985, pp.
92, 2 12, 228).
Thirty years later, Freud wrote about his early position and his early patients in this way:
I believed these stories, and consequently supposed that I had discovered the roots of the subsequent
neurosis in these experiences of sexual seduction in childhood. .If the reader feels inclined to shake his
head at my credulity, I cannot altogether blame him (Strachey, 20, p. 34).
Although there is debate about his motives for doing so, surely it is now indisputable that
Freud did indeed change his mind after 1896 and came to ascribe his patients’ accounts of
“seduction” to early childhood autoerotic fantasies. In addition to his frequent use of the
word “fantasy” for these stories, throughout his career Freud referred to patient accounts of
childhood sexual assaults as “not true,” “fictitious,” “made up,” and “imaginary” (Masson,
1984, pp. 172, 182, 194; Strachey, 1953-1974, 14, p. 17; 16, p. 369; 20, p. 34). Gay has
pointed out that Freud continued to acknowledge that some child sexual abuse takes place
and that “what Freud repudiated was the seduction theory as a general explanation of how all
neuroses originate” (Gay, 1988, p. 95). However, after Freud gave up his “mistaken idea”
about childhood “seduction,” an “etiology [that] broke down under the weight of its own
improbability” (Strachey, 14, p. 17) he no longer made interpersonal trauma central to his
etiological explanations.
Meanwhile, in an 1889 paper, Freud’s contemporary, Janet, was the first to identify dissoci-
ation as the “crucial psychological process with which the organism reacts to overwhelming
experiences” (van der Kolk & van der Hart, 1989, p. 1530) and to analyze the unique charac-
teristics of traumatic memories. Nearly forgotten until Ellenberger resurrected him in 1970
and reminded us that it was not Freud alone who discovered the unconscious in the European
fin de siecle (end of century), Janet is enjoying a renaissance (Ellenberger, 1970; Putnam,
1989; van der Kolk & van der Hart, 1989). His work shows that current research in post-trau-
matic stress and dissociative disorders has a venerable intellectual lineage.
From Janet until well after the Second World War, interest in the effects of psychological
trauma and interpersonal violence were not central to psychiatry, although occasional studies
of shell shock, war neuroses, and the effects of the Holocaust appeared (van der Kolk & van
der Hart, 1989, p. 1530). Studies of children during World War II focused on the impact of
separation from the parents or the effects on children of maternal nervousness during bomb-
ings (Terr, 1990). But as Terr writes, “By the 1960s and 1970s child psychiatry had become far
too adept at working with the developing drives and childhood fantasies to value the ‘real’
(Ten-, 1990, p. 11). Thus when Terr set out to study the children of the Chowchilla kidnapping
in the summer of 1976, she could locate little theoretical framework into which to place her
research. She found that there had been a few studies about stressful experiences such as the
death of a parent or hospitalization, but summarized the situation in psychiatry as one in
which “childhood psychic trauma was assumed to be understood while simultaneously being
ignored” (Terr, 1990, p. 10).
With respect to sexual trauma, there was at least one significant exception to this trend. In
1932 Ferenczi wrote that “trauma, especially the sexual trauma, as the pathogenic factor
12 E. Olafson, D. Corwin, and R. Summit
cannot be valued highly enough. Even children of very respectable, sincerely puritanical
families, fall victim to real violence or rape much more often than one had dared to suppose”
(Ferenczi, 1955, p. 16 1). Ferenczi added that the child’s first impulse would be hatred, disgust,
and forceful resistance. ‘No, no. I do not want it, it is much too violent for me, it hurts, leave
me alone, this or something similar would be the immediate reaction if it had not been
paralysed by enormous anxiety’ (F erenczi, 1955, p. 162). However, the overwhelming
power and authority of the adult leads the child to surrender automatically and eventually “to
identify totally with the aggressor,” even introjecting the aggressor’s guilt (Ferenczi, 1955,
p. 162).
Ferenczi also argued that the possible consequences of these sexual traumas included
personality fragmentation and adult perversions. He added that the memories of such
traumas were isolated from conscious recollection but could be retrieved in dreamlike states
(Ferenczi, 1955).
Ferenczi presented and published this paper over the objections of Freud and his col-
leagues. Freud wrote him that he had hoped that he would come to see “the technical in-
correctness” of his results but added, “I no longer believe that you will correct yourself, the
way I corrected myself a generation ago” (Masson, 1984, p. 172). In a letter to Eitingon, Freud
wrote “[Ferenczi] then takes what he hears as revelations, but what one really gets are the
fantasies of patients about their childhood, and not the [real] story. My first great etiological
error also arose in this very way” (Masson, 1984, p. 182).
After Ferenczi’s death in 1933, Jones, who had translated “Confusion of Tongues” for
English publication, obtained Freud’s approval to suppress it. As Jones wrote Freud, Fer-
enczi’s paper was merely a “tissue of delusions, which can only discredit psychoanalysis” and
added that not all their readers would be aware of Ferenczi’s “mental condition” (Masson,
1984, p. 152). Jones had the proofs destroyed, and an English translation of this paper did not
appear until 1949 (Jones, 1957, III, pp. 166- 178; Masson, 1984, pp. 173- 187; Roazen, 1984,
pp. 355-37 1).
With respect to Jones’s central role in suppressing Ferenczi’s paper about the sexual abuse
of children, it should be noted that on three prior occasions Jones’s patients had accused him
of sexual irregularities. In London, he once was imprisoned but not charged for behaving
“indecently” toward two young girls, and he resigned his position after another such accusa-
tion by a female patient of 10. In Toronto, Jones paid a blackmailing former patient $500 to
prevent her from naming him publicly as a seducer (Roazen, 1984; Rush, 1980). Whatever
the validity of those allegations, Jones had significant personal involvement with children’s
assertions of sexual victimization.
Every profession, because of the monopoly of competence which it has or claims, ‘considers itself the
proper body to set the terms in which some aspect of society, life, or nature is to be thought of.’ Sharing in
this general function of reality construction gives every professional a minimum of social authority. In
this sense, ‘all professionals are priests; they interpret mysteries which affect the lives ofthose who do not
understand.’ (Larson, 1977, p. 23 1)
The fin de siecle (end of century) setting into which Freud ventured and then withdrew the
seduction theory was, like our own fin de siecle, creative, troubled, and complex, not least
with respect to gender and sexuality (Showalter, 1990). It is often forgotten that the emergent
secular professions, including psychiatry and sexology, established themselves in a European
Child sexual abuse awareness 13
and American urban context that was torn by “venomous controversies” (Gay, 1984, p. 17 1)
about “the woman question,” the family, and sexuality (Bell & Offen, 1983). Literate people
(and most in the modernizing Atlantic world were now literate) were exposed on the one hand
to feminist tracts and feminist fictional utopias in which men transcended their “brutish-
ness,” made pledges of sexual abstinence, and performed housework and childcare, and on
the other hand to fictional, artistic, and anthropological portrayals of masculinity as a comba-
tive and sexually assaultive primitivism (Bell & Offen, 1983; Dijkstra, 1986; Mangan &
Walvin, 1987; Showalter, 1990). A large recent scholarly literature has documented this 19th-
century gender crisis, including what one scholar has called “men’s defensiveness” (Gay,
1984, p. 169) in the face of demands by temperance advocates and feminists that men modify
their behavior and that women assume expanded roles (Gay, 1984; Jeffreys, 1987; Maugue,
1987; Mort, 1987; Showalter, 1990).
Many secular professionals also crusaded consciously against what they saw as the forces of
backwardness, such as Catholicism, the old elites, and traditionalism, including the ancient
female cultures, so that this professionalizing discourse often treated the viewpoints of women
as backward and su~rstitious {Goldstein, 1982). Thus, Rieger criticized Freud’s 1896 seduc-
tion paper because he took seriously the “paranoid drivel” of his patients and so created “a
deplorable old wives’ psychiatry.” Charcot observed and photographed, but as a rule did not
listen to his female patients, even, for example, to one 13-year-old girl hospitalized with
hysteria after being raped by her mother’s lover, who repeatedly tried to tell the doctors about
her nightmares of fire, blood, and rape, before escaping from the asylum (Masson, 1984, p.
135; Showalter, 1987, pp. 152-154). In England, as well, “psychiatrists believed that their
therapeutic authority depended on domination over the patient’s language” (Showalter,
1987, p. 154). It has been argued that the emergent social and medical sciences, as they won
their monopoly of competence to define categories such as class, race, gender, and normal
sexuality, unwittingly incorporated self-serving prejudices into their explanatory models and
convinced themselves and the public that these were objective scientific findings. Some argue
that the misogyny and the masculine valorization of the late Victorian gender battles thus
survived into the 20th century, disguised as science. This secularization spread rapidly, for in
an Atlantic world where migration from country to city was the normative experience, mod-
ernity in thought and habit generally had great appeal; few wanted to be quaint or backward
“old wives” (Chesler, 1972; Dijkstra, 1986; Ehrenreich & English, 1978; Gillis, 1983; Gilman,
1985; Hellerstein, Hume, & Offen, 198 1; Jeffreys, 1985; Lloyd, 1984; MacCormack & Strath-
em, 1980; McKenzie, 1985; Snitow, Stansell, & Thompson, 1983).
Among those discredited by this expanding professionalism were the late Victorian church-
men, feminists, and sex reformers who had criticized male sexual behavior and exposed the
extent of child sexual abuse. These nonprofessional and uncredentialed women (and some
“feminized” men) had presumed to act as subjects who see and describe, rather than function-
ing as part of the objective field “gazed” upon and defined by the professional experts (Fou-
cault, 1977; Sartre, 1943; Showalter, 1990). In the powerful reaction they inspired, they were
redefined (and effectively silenced) as man-hating, frigid, and possibly lesbian “‘prudes” who
threatened to “desex” society (Jeffreys, 1985; Rush, 1980; Summit, 1988).
This backlash entailed other redefinitions in the area of sexuality. Child molesters, who had
been identified by social purity crusaders such as Butler and Hopkins as merely enacting
culturally sanctioned male sexual privilege at the expense of children, were now redefined as
radically different from other men, pathological, and properly the province of the treating
professionals (Freedman, 1987; Frisbie, 1965; Frisbie & Dondis, 1965; Gordon, 1988; Jef-
freys, 1985; Prager, 1982). Hundreds of American newspaper and magazine stories from the
late 1930s through the 195Os, coupled with law enforcement warnings such as those by FBI
director Hoover, who called for a war on the “sex fiend. . .[who] has become a sinister threat to
14 E. Olafson, D. Co&n, and R. Summit
American childhood and womanhood” (Freedman, 1987, p. 94) contributed to a national
panic about “sex crimes,” especially pedophilic crimes, and the passage of legislation in 26
states and the District of Columbia mandating special treatment in mental institutions for
“sexual psychopaths” (Freedman, 1987; Prager, 1982). Freedman writes that these sex crime
panics occasioned police roundups of “perverts,” who were generally minor offenders and
male homosexuals rather than the homicidal child rapists portrayed in press accounts. In
American social work and popular culture between 19 10 and 1940, the dominant stereotype
of the “stranger” perpetrator, a rootless drifter or a “sexually degenerated old man,” com-
pleted the reconstitution of the pedophile, thereby concealing the continued predominance of
sexual assault within the family (Gordon, 1988, p. 223).
Victims were relabeled in American social work and psychiatry as sex delinquents or as
“participating victims” (Gordon, 1988; Schlossman & Wallach, 1978; Weiss, Rogers, Dar-
win, & Dutton, 1955). Incest itself was defined to include parental “seductiveness,” a behav-
ior to which mothers were especially prone (Gordon, 1988). In sum, these 20th-century
redefinitions blurred the issues by degendering perpetrators, locating most sexual abuse out-
side the respectable family, criminalizing its young victims, and pathologizing child abuse
crusaders by labelling them as sexually abnormal.
The most ambitious redefinitions involved sexuality itself and were linked to sexual mod-
ernism (Robinson, 1976). Baldly stated, the argument ran that male sexual violence is normal
and that its victims secretly invite and enjoy it. Jeffreys has argued that in response to feminist
demands that men give up the double standard and subscribe to a single standard of sexual
behavior respectful of female needs and preferences, sexual modernists countered with a
single standard of behavior that catered to male desires and needs (Jeffreys, 1985). Dijkstra
has recently described the emergence of a neo-Romantic celebration of male violence and
sexuality and of female maschoism, including the “myth of therapeutic rape,” in late 19th-
century European and American popular culture and art (Dijkstra, 1986, pp. 109-l 18).
Sexologists quickly legitimized these stereotypes, as in Talmey’s belief that sexual bondage
could be normal (Dijkstra, p. 116) and Ellis’s influential assertions that normal women desire
to be ravished and hurt, and normal men delight in inflicting pain on them (Ellis, 1905, II; for
the persistence of such ideas, see Deutsch, 1945).
Dijkstra, Fussell, and others have also shown that eroticized children, both boys and girls,
figured often in fin de siecle poetry and art; Freud’s discovery of infant sexuality codified a
cultural trend (Dijkstra, 1986; Foucault, 1978; Fussell, 1975). After Freud, sexual modernists,
who tended to argue for the benignity of liberated sexual expression and the toxicity of its
repression, increasingly defined childhood sexuality, masturbation, and fantasy as normal
(Comfort, 1963; Kennet, 1964; Robinson, 1976; Weeks, 1981). Some experts, following the
lead of Freud’s disciple Abraham ( 1927) began to suggest that perhaps sex between adults and
children was relatively harmless and even sought by children. Thus, psychoanalysts Bender
and Blau wrote in 1937 that “frequently we considered the possibility that the child might
have been the actual seducer rather than the one innocently seduced” (Bender & Blau, 1937,
p. 5 14). Although Bender and Blau criticized the submissive and negligent mothers who failed
to protect their young, they remarked that the children’s sexual experiences with adults ap-
peared to entail minimal negative effects and observed that the abused children had “unusu-
ally attractive and charming personalities” (Bender & Blau, 1937, p. 5 11).
Rene Guyon, another Depression era sexual modernist, used cross-cultural and historical
material to establish the prevalence and normality of child-adult sexual contacts ( 194 1). An
influential 1955 state-sponsored study of child abuse victims, most of whom were female, at
San Francisco’s Langley Porter Clinic described the majority of the victims as “seductive,”
“flirtatious,” and sexually precocious and found that “in almost five-sixths of the cases” the
child victim was “a participating member in the sexual act” (Weiss et al., 1955). As late as
Child sexual abuse awareness 15
1975, Henderson wrote in a standard psychiatry textbook that incestuous daughters often
initiate the relationship, collude in it, and that “the girls do not act as though they were
injured” (Henderson, 1975, p. 1536).
Kinsey summarized this benign view of adult/child sexual contacts in 1953. One quarter of
his female respondents, some 1,075 women, reported that they had been approached sexually
during childhood by a man who was at least five years older, and 80% of these victims reported
having been frightened by the experience. Kinsey dismissed such fears as inappropriate:
It is difficult to understand why a child, except for its cultural conditioning, should be disturbed at
having its genitalia touched, or disturbed at seeing the genitalia of other persons, or disturbed at even
more specific sexual contacts. . . . Some of the more experienced students of juvenile problems have
come to believe that the emotional reactions of the parents, police officers, and other adults who discover
that the child has had such contact, may disturb the child more seriously than the sexual contacts
themselves. . . . (Kinsey, 1953, p. 121)
Thus, Kinsey minimized his remarkable statistics, the largest body of data about child
sexual abuse that had ever been collected (Herman, 198 1). However, if the Kinsey team
expressed little sympathy for the child victims of abuse, they did show concern for alleged
offenders, whom girls or “older unmarried women” caused to be imprisoned for accidental
exposure of the genitalia while intoxicated, for nude swimming, or for the bestowal of “grand-
fatherly affection” (1953, pp. 20-21).
Kinsey’s data on extra-marital and pre-marital sex created a sensation when they first
appeared, while the data on incest and sexual abuse were almost completely ignored (Crewd-
son, 1988). A major study of incest by Weinberg in 1955 estimated that incest victims num-
bered only one in a million in the English-speaking world, an assertion repeated in a standard
child psychiatry text as late as 1975 (Henderson, 1975, p. 1532; Weinberg, 1955). Meanwhile,
some sexual modernists, among them members of the Kinsey team, continued to rationalize
adult-child sex by noting that “sexual activity between adult and immature animals is com-
mon and appears to be biologically normal” (quoted in Rush, 1980, pp. 184- 185). In 1978,
Yates noted “an enormous erotic potential in infants.” Although she warned against exploit-
ing this potential, Yates wrote, “Non-coercive father-daughter incest can in fact produce
competent and notably erotic young women. Childhood is the best time to learn” (Yates,
1978, p. 121).
However, a number of other surveys and studies conducted in the middle 20th century
confirmed the Kinsey findings that survivors recalled sexual contacts with adults as fiighten-
ing, shocking, and emotionally upsetting, and also that these contacts had reportedly led to
sexual difficulties, depression, and other serious long-term effects (De Francis, 1969; Landis,
1956; Lustig, Dresser, Spellman, & Murray, 1966; Meiselman, 1978; Sloane & Karpinski,
1942). A number of these researchers focused on maternal neglect and collusion. In 1954,
Kaufman, Peck and Tagiuri wrote, “These girls had long felt abandoned by the mother as a
protective adult. This was their main anxiety,” and then explained the incest as the child’s
search for an adequate parent (pp. 266-279). Lustig, Dresser, Spellman, and Murray argued
that in incestuous families, the mothers, motivated by a mixture of hostility and unconscious
homosexual longings toward their daughters, often facilitated incest between these girls and
their passive fathers (1966). In the mother-based etiologies of the mid-century mental
sciences, if a child became disturbed after wartime bombings or paternal rape, it was generally
the mother-nervous, neglectful, hysterical, or collusive-who was found to be ultimately
responsible (Caplan & Hall-McCorquodale, 1985; Gomez-Schwartz, Horowitz, & Cardarelli,
1990; Salter, 1988).
16 E. Olafson, D. Corwin, and R. Summit
‘Don’t be impertinent,’ said the King, ‘and don’t look at me like that.’
‘A cat may look at a King,’ said Alice.”
Lewis Carroll, A/ice in Wonderland (cited in Gamment & Marshment, 1990, p. 1)
The current period has been marked by unprecedented and sustained professional and
media attention to child sexual abuse, the establishment of national and international societ-
ies and journals devoted to abuse and related issues such as post-traumatic stress and dissocia-
tive disorders, many-fold increases in the reporting of child sexual abuse (Sedlak, 1990), and
widespread media attention to custody cases such as Morgan-Foretich, preschool cases such
as McMartin, and confirmed ritual abuse cases such as Country Walk. The 1980s also saw the
publication of retrospective surveys indicating that close to 40 million United States adults
(Finkelhor, Hotaling, Lewis, & Smith, 1990) and one in three Canadian women (Badgley et
al., 1984) recall having been sexually abused as children, the appearance of dozens of compara-
tive research articles documenting the immediate and long-term consequences of such abuse,
and finally, the emergence of a powerful backlash (Briere, 1989; Crewdson, 1988; Friedrich,
1990; Hechler, 1988).
Corntemporary American awareness of child abuse in general can be dated to pediatrician
Henry Kempe’s watershed 1962 article, “The Battered Child Syndrome” (Kempe, Silverman,
Steele, Droegmueller, & Silver). Kempe and others founded the International Society for
Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect in 1977 and initiated this scientific
journal. Child abuse reporting laws were passed in every state between 1963 and 1967 (Pleck,
1987, p. 173), and Congress passed Senator Walter Mondale’s Child Abuse and Treatment
Act in 1973, with revised versions since that date.
Modern prevalence statistics began to be gathered in late 1970s with Finkelhor’s 1979
survey of New England college students indicating that 19% of women and 9% of men re-
ported childhood sexual abuse; Russell’s survey (begun in 1979) of a randomly chosen sample
of San Francisco women showing a startling 38% child sexual abuse figure (Russell, 1983);
Wyatt’s comparative statistics on Afro-American and white American women ( 1985); and the
largest study to date, the 1985 Los Angeles Times national survey, with its 27% childhood
sexual abuse rate for women and 16% rate for men (Crewdson, 1988; Finkelhor et al., 1990; for
other surveys, see Finkelhor, 1986). Briere’s and Zaidi’s recent study of female psychiatric
emergency room patients found a childhood sexual abuse rate of 70% (1989). Over half of
psychiatric inpatients and nearly that number of mental health outpatients may be abuse
survivors (Bryer, Nelson, Miller, & Krol, 1987; Summit, 1988).
Also significant has been the nationwide self-help model, Parents United, founded by
Giaretto in 197 1 and based on the principles of family systems theory and humanistic psychol-
ogy. Giaretto described incest as a symptom of a dysfunctional family and a poor marriage
and wrote that in such families, “mother, father, and daughter were the unconscious victims
of a dysfunctional system” ( 1982, p. 38). His integrated treatment program uses individual,
marital, and group therapies so that the perpetrator, and often also the nonoffending parent,
will take responsibility for the incest, so that all family members will improve self-esteem and
communication skills, and so that the family can eventually be reunited (Giaretto, 1982; for a
critical review of Giaretto’s and other family systems approaches to incest, see Salter, 1988).
Recent surveys and studies indicate that men outnumber women among child molesters by
very large percentages, especially when victims are girls. (Adams, 1990; Bolton, Morris, &
MacEachron, 1989; Finkelhor, 1986; La Fontaine, 1990; Russell, 1986). However, concep-
tualizing the sexual abuse of children in gender-neutral terms, as family systems theorists and
others have done, may have facilitated its inclusion in child protective legislation (Gordon,
Child sexual abuse awareness 17
1988, pp. 209, 354; Kempe, 1980). As Finkelhor has written, “Sexual abuse is a problem
which incriminates a particular sex-men-a rather uncomfortable fact for many men to
deal with” (1984, p. 12).
Indeed, it can be argued that the intensity of the current debate is fueled by the defense of
gender and professional privilege and hierarchy. Female or child “surveillance” of adult male
behavior can be interpreted as a tabooed reversal of the epistemic gaze (Foucault, 1977;
Jordanova, 1989; Schor, 1987; Showalter, 1987, 1990; for the philosophical background of
the idea of the objectifying gaze and its impact on the consciousness, freedom, and power of
those who are observed, see Sartre, 1943, pp. 252-302). In addition, lay intrusions into a
professional monopoly to define reality within its field can appear to challenge that profes-
sion’s hegemony and vested interests (Larson, 1977). And beginning with Rush’s speech
about the sexual abuse of children to the New York Radical Feminist Conference on April 17,
197 1, the feminists, who were crucial to the revival of interest in sexual abuse, made issues of
gender and professionalism central to their analyses (Armstrong, 1978; Brownmuller, 1975;
Butler, 1978; Gordon, 1988; Herman, 198 1; Rush, 1980; Russell, 1986). Although feminists
were certainly not alone in identifying men as the primary perpetrators of sexual violence,
they explicitly linked the long silence about this violence to institutionalized patriarchy. As
Herman wrote in 198 1 about incest, for example:
Without a feminist analysis, one is at a loss to explain why the reality of incest was for so long
suppressed by supposedly responsible professional investigators, why public discussion of the subject
awaited the women’s liberation movement, or why the recent apologists for incest have been popular
men’s magazines. (Herman, 1981, p. 3)
One psychiatrist’s response to the feminist critique has been to warn of “fanatic feminists”
who condemn “every manifestation” of sex and whose “lifelong vendetta” is to “humiliate,
destroy, and incarcerate one man after the other” (Gardner, 199 1, pp. 87, 12 l-122).
The role of the mental health professions in current sexual abuse awareness has been
shifting and complex. Social workers and rape trauma specialists were foremost among the
pioneers of sexual abuse studies in the 1970s and early 1980s (Berliner & Stevens, 1982;
Burgess, Groth, Holmstrom, & Sgroi, 1978; Conte, 1982; Conte & Berliner, 198 1). Finkelhor
wrote in 1984 that in the United States, the problem has been promoted more often by
psychologists and social workers than by physicians, and that the lesser role of the powerful
medical lobby on this issue has slowed the public policy response (p. 11). At the same time, a
number of psychiatrists, nurses, and other medical professionals were influential in reviving
professional interest in sexual abuse. In 1976, Peters wrote that sexual attacks upon children
occur frequently and that psychiatrists and other followers of Freud have too often discounted
them by ascribing them to childhood fantasy (Peters, 1976). In 1978, Summit wrote that
incest had been underestimated as a significant determinant of emotional disturbance (Sum-
mit & Kryso, 1978), and his 1983 article about children’s accommodation to sexual abuse has
become singularly influential (Summit, 1983). Herman’ s publications on incest first appeared
in 1977 (Herman & Hirschman, 1977), followed by her book in 198 1; Burgess, Groth, Holm-
Strom, and Sgroi published Sexual Assault of Children and Adolescents in 1978; Shengold’s
“Soul Murder,” in which he urged therapists to attend carefully to patient accounts of cruelty
and incest, appeared in 1979 (Shengold, 1979, p. 554); and Goodwin’s publications about
incest appeared in 1979 and thereafter (Goodwin, 1982; Goodwin, Simms, & Bergman,
1985 saw the first attempt to develop a psychosocial diagnostic category for sexually abused
children at the National Summit Conference on Diagnosing Child Sexual Abuse, called for
18 E. Olafson, D. Corwin, and R. Summit
that purpose by Corwin and others. Although participants did not agree upon such a diagnos-
tic category to propose for inclusion in the third revised edition of the American Psychiatric
Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, their interdisciplinary “summit” led to the
founding of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) and the
California Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (CAPSAC) in 1986 (Corwin, 1988).
Other professional societies founded in the 1980s with particular relevance to sexual abuse
include the Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and its Journal of Traumatic Stress and the
International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality Disorders and its journal, Dis-
Since the mid 1980s there have been more that 30 comparative studies about the physical
and psychological correlates of child sexual abuse, symptoms which range from low self-es-
teem, sleep disturbances, anxiety, and depression to delinquency, sexual dysfunction, and the
abuse of others (Beitchman et al., 199 1; Friedrich, 1990; Kendall-Tackett, Williams, & Fin-
kelhor, 199 1). Current research results may alter existent diagnostic formulations regarding
addictions, anxiety, depression, dissociation, and the histrionic and borderline personality
disorders (Briere, 1989; Goodwin, Simms, & Bergman, 1979; Herman &van der Kolk, 1987;
Miller, Downs, Gondoli, & Keil, 1987; Putnam, 1993).
The intensive media coverage of sex abuse has been mixed, sometimes inaccurate, and
reportedly influenced by advocacy groups such as VOCAL, Victims of Child Abuse Laws
(Franklin, 1990; Hechler, 1988). At the same time, programs such as Bradshaw’s public
television series on the family have brought recent research findings about family violence,
the addictions, and child sexual abuse to wide audiences. Stories about sexual violence and
incest appear frequently in national and local press, radio, and television; media support for
sexual abuse prevention programs in the schools has also been substantial. Survivor groups,
sometimes patterned after 12-step programs, have been established in many locales. In con-
trast to the great muckraking campaigns of earlier periods such as the Progressive Era, how-
ever, this media and popular attention to child sexual abuse (as well as to child poverty,
neglect, malnutrition, and illiteracy) has not been translated into the dollars and cents of the
American public policy agenda. To give just two examples, child protective service budgets
have not kept pace with the enormous recent increases in abuse reports, and major federal
mental health research funds are not generally awarded to abuse-focused research (for an
account of a similar situation in Great Britain see Doran & Young, 1987).
Indeed, the 1980s saw the emergence of a formidable backlash in courts, clinics, and the
media. Some minimize the issue by reminding us that the sexual fondling of children is
“probably an ancient tradition” (so, of course, is slavery), and that a periodically puritan
America is currently in a state of “overreaction to child abuse” (Gardner, 199 1, pp. 115- 116;
Guthmann, 1989, p. 21). Critics argue that child sexual abuse is over-reported (Besherov,
1985a; Besherov 1985b; Besherov, 1990; Schetky, 1986; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988),
especially in custody disputes where fabrication is said to be common (Gardner, 1987). Fin-
kelhor (1990) critiques the claims of Besherov, arguing that existing data does not support
such arguments for less intervention. It is also argued that over-zealous investigators can lead
suggestible children to make false accusations (Benedek & Schetky, 1987; Coleman, 1986;
Green, 1986; Wakefield & Underwager, 1987) and that the “child-savers” are wrong in argu-
ing that “children never lie” (Eberle & Eberle, 1986). Although recent research indicates that
fabrication is infrequent in custody disputes (Faller, 1991; Thoennes & Tjaden, 1990) and
that children are not exceptionally suggestible (Doris, 1991; Goodman & Clarke-Stewart,
199 1; Saywitz, Goodman, & Myers, 1990), “backlash” positions continue to influence public
policy and perceptions (Cramer, 199 1; Gelman, 1989; Hechler, 1988; Rabinowitz, 1990).
Child sexual abuse awareness
As the intensity of the current debate testifies, sexuality and sexual regulation impinge
centrally on powerful social interests and privileges (Summit, 1988). If we were really to take
into account the role sexual coercion and violence play in shaping human culture and per-
sonal identity, fundamental structures of thought could well be shaken and changed. Such
great shifts in world view unsettle even those whose privileges and self-images are not directly
threatened by them (Kuhn, 1970). Indeed, information about the prevalence and impact of
sexual abuse may constitute unwelcome news on all shades of the political spectrum. Political
conservatives, who are traditionally defenders of the family, can hardly be expected to ap-
plaud an apparent challenge to paternal authority (Besherov, 1985a). Liberals caution about
the possible undermining of the civil liberties of adults and the dangers of state intrusion into
the private sphere (Donzelot, 1979; Eberle & Eberle, 1986). The spectacle of child witnesses
betraying their adult protectors also evokes images of witchcraft trials or Hitler Youth in-
formers (Gardner, 199 1; Wexler, 1985). Proponents of sexual modernism, with their progres-
sive and optimistic outlook regarding individual liberation and sexual self expression, could
well find the new research findings about the coercive, compulsive, and cruel aspects of
human sexuality especially difficult to accept (Comfort, 1963; Kennet, 1964; Robinson,
1976). To many in the helping professions, the news about sexual abuse seems to darken one’s
very vision of human nature and human possibility. The full realization that child sexual
victimization is as common and as noxious as current research suggests would necessitate
costly efforts to protect children from sexual assault.
It remains to be seen whether the current backlash will succeed in resuppressing awareness
of sexual abuse, again concealing “vast aggregates of pain and rage” (Summit, 1988, p. 4 l),
and returning us to the “shared negative hallucination” that has obscured our vision in the
past (Goodwin, 1985, p. 14). If this occurs, it will not happen because child sexual abuse is
peripheral to major social interests, but because it is so central that as a society we choose to
reject our knowledge of it rather than make the changes in our thinking, our institutions, and
our daily lives that sustained awareness of child sexual victimization demands (Sum-
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