Title: Sociopolitical Biases in the Contemporary Scientific Literature on Adult Human Sexual Behavior with Children and Adolescents
Author(s): Paul Okami
Affiliation: Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles
Citation: Okami, P., “Sociopolitical Biases in the Contemporary Scientific Literature on Adult Human Sexual Behavior with Children and Adolescents,” in Feierman, J. (ed.), Pedophilia: Biosocial Dimensions, New York: Springer-Verlag, 1990, pp. 91-121.
This article examines the body of literature that treats adult-minor sexual interaction from the perspective of victimology.
The origins of this approach can be traced to the movement in the early 1970’s by feminists and other activists to expose society’s trivialization of rape and the process by which rape victims came to be blamed for their own victimization. Victim advocates then enlarged their focus to include other forms of male violence against females. Finally, activists applied their models of violent rape to sexual behavior involving adolescents and children, both female and male.
Some of the most influential early authors in this area placed an emphasis on men’s sexuality as essentially aggressive and predatory, writing that men are predisposed to violence, rape, and the sexual abuse of children. Current activist-researchers continue that theme. The author quotes one who writes that male sexuality is “inherently aggressive,” another who defines rape as “any time sexual intercourse occurs when it has not been initiated by the woman,” and a third who claims that “intercourse is punishment.”
This research views sex primarily as a power struggle between two people, in which the weaker participant is victimized by the stronger. Thus, according to the author, “warnings of all sorts highlighting the destructive potential of sex not only for children and adolescents, but also for adult females, pervade the literature.” He writes:
Sexual behavior is viewed overall as comprising a particularly 'treacherous' sphere of activity from which children in particular, but also adult females, need special protection. Male sexuality is condemned for its inherently ‘predatory’ and ‘exploitive’ nature. Heterosexual relations are characterized as adversarial virtually by definition and analyzed within political paradigms that emphasize the unequal distribution of social power along the lines of biological sex and age. (pp. 91-92)
…virtually all research in this field, including studies by the victimologists under discussion, documents the low incidence of violence or forceful coercion in cases of adult human sexual behavior with children and adolescents. From an empirical point of view, then it is incongruous to categorize such interactions as violent crimes, to study them as such, and to engage in discourse permeated by vocabulary and imagery appropriate to the study of violence. (p. 93)
Researchers often equate uncoerced adult-minor sexual interaction with imprisonment or slavery. However, this view discounts the subjective experience of those participants who find it to be an expression of affection and pleasure:
[Victimologists] assume the existence of a clear line of demarcation between erotic feelings and affectional feelings and without substantiation suggest that, in the case of adult/nonadult relationships, these feelings are mutually exclusive…
Assumptions such as these, and the consequent exclusive use of negatively loaded terminology such as “abuse,” “assault,” “attack,” “molestation,” “exploitation,” or “victimization” to refer generically to all adult human sexual behavior with children and adolescents, confound attempts to understand such interactions and may reflect…a serious conflict of interest between scientific inquiry on the one hand and enforcement of social norms or propagation of political ideology on the other. (pp. 99)
Moreover, victimilogists scrutinize even childhood sexual experiences among peers for signs of potential abuse. Sexual behavior among children once considered harmless is now redefined as pathological, and clinicians classify children as young as 4 years old as “offenders” for exhibitionism or other sexual behaviors with other children.
Activist-researchers urge parents to report and investigate sexual interaction between children, and without evidence warn that childhood sex play may be a breeding ground for pedophilia and future sex offenders. Thus, the author concludes that it is childhood sexual activity, rather than childhood sexual abuse, that is the ultimate concern of some victimologists.
The theme has been picked up by the media. For example, covering recent research, an American newspaper wrote, "For a long time most people wrote it off as just 'playing doctor.' Now we know better. Children as young as 4 and 5 are sexually abusing other children."
The author compares the assumptions of victimology with Victorian beliefs and values regarding sexuality. Both involve the belief that men are base, violent, and predatory while women bear the standards of morality. Both place an emphasis on sexuality as something dangerous and exploitive toward women and children. Both emphasize the protection of women, adolescents, and children from the bestial nature of men. Both equate moral violation with physical violence.
He writes that the Victorian idealization of children as sexless innocents is clearly apparent in victimologists' repeated, unsupported claims that children and adolescents are by definition incapable either of desiring or voluntarily cooperating in a sexual interaction with an adult. Thus, victimological research is "based on the subjective moral principle that any sexual interaction between an adult and a minor is a fundamental violation of the latter simply because of the sexual nature of the interaction." (p. 93)
The assumptions of victimologists have sometimes been questioned by sexologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and even some feminists themselves. Victimologists frequently dismiss these objections as based on “myth” even though they are based on facts that are well-established in the scientific literature.
Furthermore, the author writes,
Somewhat predictably, researchers and writers who favor descriptive, empirical, or phenomenological models who may wish to establish a relative degree of objectivity in this difficult field often are attacked by victimologists for “contributing to the disinhibition of child molesters,” “condoning adult-child sex,” “blaming the victims” of abuse, and even...engaging in child molestation. Through personal attacks, the victimological paradigm is aggressively promoted as the one and only theoretical structure that can explain the “truth” about incest and sexual abuse. (p. 92)
Although there is a substantial body of research that contradicts the findings and conclusions reported by victimologists, their writings have had a striking influence on social policy and public consciousness. As a result, popular writers, clinicians, and researchers typically use methods of argumentation and research that blur the distinction between social science and advocacy. They present the most shocking forms of sexual variation as representative. An analysis of this research shows it to be more demonology than sexology.
The author writes that victimological ideology results in researchers purposely biasing the methods of their studies toward their expected results, and rationalizing these biases by appeals to ideology.
For example, in the instructions to college students in a study of their childhood sexual experiences in general (not only sexual abuse), influential researcher David Finkelhor told them, "some of these [childhood sexual experiences] are very upsetting and painful and some are not," setting the stage for expected negative reports. One wonders how Finkelhor would react if another researcher told respondents, "Some of these experiences are very delightful and pleasurable and some are not."
Furthermore, Finkelhor's respondents who reported their experience as "neutral" actually had that response coded as "negative" if the there was an age discrepancy of more than five years. Finkelhor’s rationale for disregarding the subjects' own sense of reality was his moral belief that all sexual contacts between minors and those more than five years older (including older children) are abusive.1
The author’s own research asked participants to describe their responses to childhood and adolescent sexual interactions with adults. They described feelings ranging from fear, anger, and hatred, to ecstasy, tenderness, and love. Thus, it seems unreasonable for scientists to use methods intended to ignore or suppress data simply because they are not compatible with a political paradigm.
Particularly indefensible, writes the author, is the tendency of victimologists to misrepresent the positions of other researchers, or to engage in character assassination. Some victimologists incorrectly imply that other researchers claim that adult-minor sexual interaction is always positive or neutral, that they overlook harmful cases of adult-minor sexual interaction, and that they ignore the ethical issues raised by age discrepancy.
Some victimologists go so far as to accuse other researchers of belittling or even condoning adult-child sexual contact, contributing to the reduction of inhibitions against adult sexual interaction with children, or promoting child pornography and sexual abuse.
The author writes that victimologists use terms such as “abuse” and “victimization” in very different senses than they are normally understood. They are defined not on the basis of force, coercion, or physical or emotional brutality, but rather as any sexual experience between a person under age 18 (or 16) and a person five or more years older (a legal or moral criterion), regardless of how the interaction was experienced by the younger person.
Victimologists then alternate between this usage and common usage at will, reporting catastrophic results of violent or brutal abuse, leaving the reader with the impression that any sexual interaction involving an age difference leads to such results. These practices and their underlying analyses create serious problems in establishing usable definitions.
Victimologists do report that some respondents describe their childhood or adolescent sexual experiences with adults positively. Therefore, the author writes,
there is no empirical basis, at least, for automatically and categorically defining them as abuse and victimization…there is no rationale for doing so that does not originate in the realms of law, sexual politics, or sexual morality. While law, politics, and morality present important issues for social debate and activism, they should not pervade empirical research…While extensive and convincing evidence has been gathered indicating that unwanted sexual experiences (like many other kinds of unwanted childhood experiences) can result in serious short- and long-term consequences for the interactants, and while this evidence presents solid grounds for enacting effective legislation to protect children and adolescents from such experiences, the evidence presents no rationale whatever for studying adult/nonadult sex in a scientific context while utilizing definitions drawn from such legal, political, or moral constructs. (p. 106)
Victimological research responds to neutral or positive reports of adult-minor sexual interaction in two ways. One is to admit that political or moral criteria are being used to establish definitions of abuse, and to defend this choice as one that reduces bias.
Finkelhor and others claim that to study the issue from an empirical rather than ethical viewpoint is a morally unacceptable form of bias. Based on ethical issues of informed consent and unequal power, these researchers dismiss reports by minors of inconsequential or positive sexual experiences with adults as morally incorrect and invalid interpretations of their own experiences.
The second way victimologists respond to non-negative reports of sexual activity with adults is to attribute them to distortions of memory resulting from “denial” or “repression” of what must have been negative and harmful experiences. While such repression may certainly happen, it is scientifically invalid to assume this occurs in all reports of positive experiences based on an ideology that declares such experiences impossible.
Confusing moral or legal definitions with scientific ones results in frequent contradictory assertions from victimologists. For example, one researcher makes the important argument that harm from sexual interaction with adults is greatly underestimated by research that does not take into account the minor’s negative feelings about the experience. The same researcher, however, argues in favor of ignoring the minor’s feelings if they are positive or neutral, defining the sexual experience as abusive if there is an age difference of at least five years.
Another problematic result of using legal, moral, or political definitions is the increased broadening of definitions so that they obscure important distinctions. One researcher’s definition of child sexual abuse is so broad as to include the making of suggestive remarks by one teenager to another. Research based on broad definitions mixes such behavior with the rape of young children, and results in shockingly high estimates of the rate of child sexual abuse.
All researchers, including victimologists, have noted the harm to children that can result from social and institutional responses to sexual abuse; that is, iatrogenic harm. Parental overreaction or lack of support, insensitive police interrogations or judicial proceedings, and social alienation can cause harm equal to or exceeding that caused by the abuse itself. As Schultz wrote:
We seem to arbitrarily create 'norms' for minors and then justify departures from them as traumatic. Such fabrication is professionally unethical and possibly damaging to minors involved in sexual behaviors with others. What inappropriate trauma ideology does is pit the professional (true believer) against the child or the parents who may feel differently. The risk is that a type of self fulfilling prophecy emerges that manages to produce the problem it claims to abhor, but which it, in fact, must have in order to sustain the ideology it is based upon.
According to the author, if a minor who had a sexual relationship with an adult does not arrive at the therapist's office feeling he was harmed, he will surely leave feeling so, because the system requires it. Patients either have positive or neutral experiences "redefined" by the therapist as negative, or they simply don't share these experiences at all, as in the case of one patient who wrote: "My therapist is so opinionated against child molesters that she wouldn't be able to understand if I told her I enjoyed it. I'm sure she'd kill me." (p. 110)
Policies based on inaccurate or biased information also cause iatrogenic harm to society as a whole. Many parents and caregivers are reluctant to provide the attention and affection that children and adolescents need, lest they be accused of sexual abuse.
There has also been an alarming disappearance at the judicial level of concern with the physical abuse of children, in part because the term “child abuse” has come to signify only sexual abuse. Professionals who report various forms of suspected abuse to the legal system are motivated to highlight sexual abuse while downplaying physical abuse.
In a study conducted by the author in 1988, college students rated sexual abuse as the most serious of crimes; more serious than murder or emotional or physical abuse. Physical abuse was ranked especially low. Victimological research encourages this impression, in spite of research showing that physical and emotional abuse and neglect (although virtually ignored today) are in fact more prevalent and more predictive of severe psychological harm than sexual abuse is.
The author concludes by commenting on the similarities between works of political propaganda and those of some victimological researchers:
[These similarities] suggest that children are being used by some of these writers largely as symbols for rhetorical battles in the theater of sexual politics…victimologists are able to advance with impunity, “under the cover” of considerations of child sexual abuse, fundamentally reactionary and sex-negative propositions—propositions that might meet with sharp critical response were they to be applied to adult sexuality…Much of the new research, then, however well meaning, shares the basic flaw of most polemical work: Moral and empirical truths are ignored, suppressed, or distorted in the interests of furthering the cause…Both the suppression of childhood and adolescent sexuality and the transmission to children of fearful and negative messages about sex that is indirectly encouraged in the new research may well constitute a form of sexual abuse affecting a great many more children than are victimized in the traditional sense. (p. 112-113)
1Finkelhor published his studies in two books and a journal article: Sexually victimized children, New York: Free Press, 1979; Child sexual abuse: New theory and research, New York: Free Press, 1984; “Sex between siblings: Sex, play, incest, and aggression,” in L. Constantine and F. Martinson (eds.), Children and sex, Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1981.