Public Release: 

Stanford researcher rebukes study that claims little ill-effect of childhood sexual abuse

Stanford University Medical Center

STANFORD, Calif. - Citing questionable research methods and misleading reporting of data, Stanford researchers and other national experts have debunked a controversial 1998 study that said sexual abuse may not cause long-term harm to children. According to Stanford researchers and colleagues from the Leadership Council on Mental Health, the authors of the 1998 study misled the public by presenting data that disguised the full ramifications of child sexual abuse. A scientific critique of the study is published in the November issue of Psychological Bulletin.

"It's basically sloppy science," said David Spiegel, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and senior author of the critique. "They made a lot of mistakes."

The mistakes, Spiegel said, appear to have skewed the results to support the authors' own hypothesis. Of even greater concern, Spiegel said, is the fact that because the paper has become a tool to overturn sexual abuse cases in the courts, the paper's conclusions have had the potential of causing damage beyond the realm of the science.

The study by Bruce Rind, PhD, Phillip Tromovitch, PhD, and Robert Bauserman, PhD (from Temple University, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively) first appeared in the July 1998 issue of Psychological Bulletin. The authors concluded that especially in the case of boys, the effects of child sexual abuse had been overstated and in some instances, the incident had been either a neutral or even positive experience.

When Spiegel and others re-examined the data, they found the initial analysis plagued by a number of problems, including biased samples, the inclusion of very mild sexual encounters in public settings as examples of child sexual abuse, misreporting of original data, and a failure to correct for the many sources of statistical anomalies. Together, Spiegel said, these problems served to minimize the association between child sexual abuse and subsequent psychological difficulties. And yet despite all the errors, Spiegel noted, the 1998 meta-analysis still reveals a link between a history of sexual abuse and an increased vulnerability to a wide range of mental health and social problems in adult life. This clear link, according to Spiegel, was downplayed by Rind, Tromovitch and Bauserman in their conclusions.

Spiegel said he was most disturbed, however, by the study's conclusion that some children may have consented to sexual interactions, and therefore did not suffer psychological trauma from the experience. The authors advocated for a change in the terminology used to describe various forms of sexual interactions. They suggested, for instance, that what was described as "willing" encounters between a child and an adult should be termed "adult-child sex," rather than sexual abuse.

"Not only is such a conclusion from the data scientifically unjustifiable, but it is morally quite disturbing," Spiegel said. "Children cannot sign contracts or consent to medical procedures, so how could they 'consent' to sexual involvement with an adult?"

"I think sometimes people are too willing to accept research that shows that long-held clinical beliefs are wrong," Spiegel said. "Clearly it's important to examine these beliefs, but in this case, the research was so poor, it does not merit over-turning solid clinical and research evidence that child sexual abuse often does lasting harm."

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Spiegel's colleagues are from the Leadership Council on Mental Health, a non-profit scientific organization dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of children and other at-risk populations.

Stanford University Medical Center integrates research, medical education and patient care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. For more information, please visit the Web site of the medical center's Office of News and Public Affairs at http://mednews.stanford.edu

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