Child Abuse: The Universal Assault

Megan's tragedy is part of the universal tragedy of child sexual abuse, a phenomenon that is well documented by researchers and, as David Hechler (1988) writes, "part of the national consciousness" (9). During the 1970s and 1980s, the women's movement and the child advocacy movement were both active in bringing incidences of child sexual abuse to the attention of the general public. This increased public awareness drew the attention of the media; experts verified that child abuse was more common than was often recognized. Cases such as those in Jordan, Minnesota, and in the McMarton Preschool in California received media attention that, as Hechler puts it, rarely occurs "short of a summit conference, a political primary, or a Super Bowl" (7). 2 Today, no matter how much we might prefer to ignore it, we all find ourselves thinking about the causes and effects of child abuse.

To demonstrate what experts can tell us about the commonality and the effects of child abuse, I turn now to a review of research in the field. Formal research is often conducted through two methods: nonclinical studies and in-depth interviews conducted in clinical populations. 3  Since they reveal the prevalence of child abuse, I begin with the nonclinical studies.

The surveys cited in Table 1 present analyses of nonclinical populations. They demonstrate the alarmingly high percent of women who have been sexually abused.

Table 1. Survey Studies of Sexual Abuse Prevalence: Females
Number of Females in Study
Percent of Females Abused
Hamilton (1929)
Terman, et al. (1951)
Kinsey (1953)
Gagnon (1965)
Finkelhor (1979)
Finkelhor (1984)
Russell (1984)
Janus and Janus (1993)

The early studies, such as those of Hamilton (1929) and Terman (1951), lacked the more sophisticated definitions and methodology of later research, as Anna C. Salter (1988) points out in her review of the research. Notable, however, is that, while both Hamilton and Terman reported an extremely high incidence of sexually abused women, little attention was paid to this information at its time of publication. As Judith Lewis Herman (1981) observes, the fact that female children are regularly subjected to assaults by adult males is a disturbing fact that "has been repeatedly unearthed in the past hundred years, and just as repeatedly buried" (7). Herman believes that the suppression was due to the fact that many of these women were victims of incest, and that information was simply too frightening to the public consciousness. Still another reason may be that it was commonplace to treat women as capital to be exchanged among men until the advent of the women's movement in the 1970s. If capital was sometimes used in unexpected ways, then that was simply part of the tacit agenda of paternalism.

The Kinsey (1953) research, doubtless the most well-known of the early studies, reported widespread sexual abuse and then dismissed its own findings. An artifact of the 1950s, the Kinsey report became part of the popular consciousness, holding its place well into the 1970s as the sole source of information about the sexual habits of American middle class men and women. Masturbation, nocturnal sex dreams, pre-marital petting and coitus, marital and extra-marital coitus, homosexuality and animal contacts--all were given the empirical treatment of social science. The information on sexual abuse was presented in Part II of the study, entitled "Types of Sexual Activity Among Females," in a chapter entitled, "Pre-Adolescent Sexual Development," in a section entitled, "Pre-Adolescent Contact with Adult Males." The titles of the sections themselves suggest the approach that Kensey and his associates took toward the data they discovered on child sexual abuse.

"We find," Kinsey wrote, "that some 24 per cent (n=1075) of the females in the sample had been approached while they were pre-adolescent by adult males who appeared to be making sexual advances, or who had made sexual contacts with the child" (1953, 117). The researchers found that 80% of those children had been emotionally upset or frightened by their contact with adults. In its analysis of the data, however, the Kinsey group declared that the reported fright was "nearer the level that children will show when they see insects, spiders, or other objects against which they have been adversely conditioned" (121). A footnote follows (number 20) in which studies are cited from 1907 to 1953; each concludes that the effects of sexual contact between children and adults are negligible. Hence, the conclusion presented in the section "Significance of Adult Contacts": "Some 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 a contact, may disturb the child more seriously than the sexual contacts themselves. The current hysteria over sex offenders may very well have serious effects on the ability of many of these children to work out sexual adjustments some years later in their marriages" (121). In cases where there was physical injury, the researchers found "only one clear-cut instance of serious injury done to the child, and a very few instances of vaginal bleeding which, however, did not appear to do any appreciable damage" (122). With this kind of interpretation, there is little doubt why "the finding that grown men frequently permit themselves sexual liberties with children, while grown women do not, made virtually no impact upon the public consciousness, even though this finding was repeatedly confirmed by other investigators" (Herman 1981, 16).

Based on data gathered from women in the Kinsey group, a second study was conducted by John H. Gagnon in 1965. The data were similar. Gagnon, however, differed from Kinsey in his interpretation. As Herman (1981) notes, Gagnon concluded that coerced sexual contact over a long period of time brought a high incidence of damage to the victim (29).

The work of David Finkelhor in 1979 and 1984 marks the beginning of more sophisticated research methods and less biased interpretations of the data. Finkelhor's 1979 book, Sexually Victimized Children, reported that 19% of the women and 9% of the men in a sample of 796 college students had experienced childhood sexual abuse. Identifying the background factors most strongly associated with sexual victimization and the relationship between child sexual abuse and socioeconomic strata, Finkelhor devised the Sexual Abuse Risk Factor Checklist, an instrument comprised of the strongest independent predictors of sexual victimization. In 1984, Finkelhor summarized this information in Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory and Research and followed it with chapters on perpetrators and preconditions for sex abuse. He then introduced the findings of a survey of 521 parents living in the Boston area. He found that 15% of the women and 12% of the men had been sexually abused. As in his earlier works, Finkelhor puts his research into a broad social perspective and presents information, derived from his research, on the public's knowledge about sexual abuse, definitions of sexual abuse, what parents tell their children about sexual abuse, boys as victims, women as perpetrators, the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse, and the responses of professionals to the management and treatment of cases.

Sophisticated methodology is also evident in the work of Dianna Russell (1984). In her random sample survey of 930 women, she drew her definitions sharply, and her interview schedule was designed to tap memories of the respondents by training interviewers to ask a number of different questions in a wide variety of ways (181). She found that 38% (n=357) of the 930 women reported at least one experience of incestuous and/or extrafamilial sexual abuse before reaching the age of eighteen. Of these 930 women, 28% (n=258) reported at least one such experience before reaching the age of fourteen (183). In Sexual Exploitation (1984) Russell exhibits a carefully planned study which reveals not only data on child abuse that is congruent with other studies but also an analysis of data by age of the respondents; thus, her survey makes possible a comparison of the experiences of different women of different ages. Russell also found that incestuous abuse increased between 1916 to 1961, while extrafamilial child abuse neither increased nor decreased during this period (214).

The most recent broad-scale non-clinical study is The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior (1993). The researchers distributed 4,550 questionnaires and used 2,765 satisfactorily completed questionnaires of 1,347 men and 1,418 women. To supplement the questionnaires, 125 in-depth interviews were conducted. In scope, breadth, and design, The Janus Report surpasses all previous studies of American sexuality. In contrast to the Kinsey study forty years earlier, the researchers present their data on child molestation as "one of the major social problems in our society today. More than one out of every 10 men who responded admitted to being sexually molested as a child, and an astounding 23% of the women reported this early horror" (72). After summing up the growing national awareness of childhood sexual abuse, the researchers conclude that "Americans are increasingly becoming aware of the extent of child molestation as a serious and wide-spread national disease" (73). If we compare this language to that of the Kinsey study--"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 (Kinsey 1953, 21)"--we realize that childhood sexual abuse is presently interpreted, at least among experts, in a fashion that does not support the perpetrator and dismiss the child.

When we turn to a review of in-depth interviews conducted in clinical populations, we find a rich yield of information about the effects of child sexual abuse through the extended narratives of the patients.

As is the case with non-clinical studies, clinical studies have a long and complex history. Perhaps the best known and earliest work is that of Freud and his analysis of childhood sexual abuse in "The Aetology of Hysteria." In 1896 Freud presented his paper in a lecture before his colleagues at a meeting of the Psychiatrischer Verein. In an unpublished letter, he reported that "the donkeys gave it an icy reception." The chair of the session said Freud's paper sounded like "a scientific fairy tale" (Strachey 1962, 189).

What Freud said scandalized his audience: he had, he declared, found the cause of hysteria: childhood sexual trauma. Here is how he advanced his analysis: "I therefore put forward the thesis that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood but which can be reproduced through the work of psycho-analysis in spite of the intervening decades" (Freud 1897, 203). As he leaves his audience, he realizes that he will be met with "contradiction and disbelief." Yet he asks his audience not to regard his theory as "the fruit of idle speculation." His laborious individual examination of patients, he believes, is "irreplaceable for scientific and therapeutic purposes" (220).

That his conservative audience would be scandalized is no wonder; Freud had challenged the very assumptions of patriarchy that upheld his culture. What is surprizing, however, is that Freud's discovery, validated so very often by researchers over the next century, was abandoned by Freud himself; indeed, he may correctly be charged with suppressing the truth that he had found regarding the relationship between incest and trauma. First, as Florence Rush (1977) reveals, Freud altered the identity of the perpetrators. The molesters on which he reported were, in fact, his patients' fathers, a fact that Freud acknowledged many years later in his private correspondence. By 1897, Freud had completely rejected his theory. He wrote to Wilhelm Fliess, his confidant, that in every case the blame for the hysteria was "laid on perverse acts by the father." Because he could not himself come to terms with the fact that cases of incest were so common, Freud falsely concluded that "it was hardly credible that perverted acts against children were so general" (qtd. in Herman 1981, 10).

As Kinsey (1953) would do in the following century, Freud rejected his own findings. Instead of supporting the narrative of the victims, Freud instead passed on a prejudice that holds today: children lie about sexual abuse. As Herman (1981) concludes, "This belief is by now so deeply ingrained in the culture that children who dare to report sexual assaults are more than likely to have their complaints dismissed as fantasy" (11).  The debate over Freud's position on his own findings deserves attention.

In a chapter on recovered memory in Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, James R. Kincaid examines Freudís views of childhood sexual trauma and concludes differently than I have in this essay. Kincaid concludes that Freud did not revise his views because of what he had found but, rather, because of a deeper view of the problem of molestation. Kincaid writes,

In other words, Freud posited a repression that can keep erecting screen memories until the cows come home, camouflaging the terrible Oedipal story we must hide from. Moving behind the seduction theory, Freud hypothesized a more changed scene of mutual seduction and longing, involving not simply a threatening adult but a child filled with sexual desire and needs probably as a voracious and dangerous as any adultís. Put another way, what Freud put in place of universal childhood seduction was the theory of the unconscious and the dark Greek tragedies that hover inside it, never fully realized and never giving us an easy, uncontaminated part to play. (247)
In Kincaidís reading of Freud, "The memory and the mind that produces it are part of a fallen world: infinitely complicated, corrupted, and never completely within our grasp" (248).

It is this sense of ambiguity that informs Kincaidís study of child molestation. Finding that Western culture has "enthusiastically sexualized" the child while denying that it is doing so. As a result, children are seen erotically. These erotic feelings, Kincaid argues, are not necessarily a problem. "Becoming part of that problem, "he argues, " is the solution. Denial does nobody any good and drives the desire into the lying, scapegoating babble, where it thrives and does terrible harm. Erotic feelings are not rape" (288).

Ultimately, Kincaid calls for new stories, narratives told to reveal that childrenís sexuality does exist and that it should be handled with wit and dignity: "In the meantime, we should keep hugging kids, playing horsy, bathing them, and taking pictures of them naked on rugs (not bear rugs), just as we did before the had the wits scared out of us. If you find yourself getting too existed, going too far, wanting to incite or not to stopóthe stop. If you are hard-pressed, then indulge in voyeurism, which is child abuse only by elastic standards and seems to many children at least as funny as it is invasive" (288).

It may be imagined that this call for stories is similar to my own advocacy for narrative in the present essay. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kincaid elects to examine complexity and find simplicity; I have chosen to examine simplicity to find complexity. Where he finds hysteria, I find substance; where he finds allegation, I find truth. For Kincaid, "the cry that child molesting is worse than murder has been heard so often it has become a tired slogan, self-evident and vapid" (16); for me, child molesting is, indeed, a murder of the spirit.

With my position on ambiguity established, let me now return to my account of clinical studies of the effect of child abuse.  As we saw in the case of nonclinical studies, progress was not made in the clinical study of child sexual abuse until the women's movement (a matter of the spirit) gained force in the 1970s. As Ellen Bass and Laura Davis (1994) write, "Women courageously spoke out about rape and battering, wrote books analyzing the ways in which our society conditioned such violence, and worked to establish battered women's shelters and rape crisis centers. Simultaneously, a few pioneering clinicians, both men and women, were beginning to study child sexual abuse and set up models for treatment. It was from this visionary thinking--and grassroots activism--that the current movement to end child sexual abuse was built" (482).

Herman's 1981 landmark study of forty women who had incestuous relationships with their fathers gave us our first glimpse into the patriarchal family culture that created the context for occurrences of incest. Her interview protocols yielded information about fathers who asserted their will by habitual violence but were seen in the community as sympathetic, admirable men; about mothers who were full-time houseworkers, victims of repeatedly enforced pregnancies who were subsequently imprisoned by their lack of working skills and experience; about those mothers who fell to depression, alcoholism, and psychosis; about desperate daughters who tried to escape, were caught, and were committed to hospitals as stubborn children; and about grown women who felt that they would have to defend themselves against their fathers as long as their fathers lived.

Following Herman's study, a series of handbook-oriented works appeared. Among the first was Kathleen Coulborn Faller's Child Sexual Abuse: An Interdisciplinary Manual for Diagnosis, Case Management, and Treatment (1988). Faller's handbook drew extensively on information gathered from 200 patients seen between 1978 and 1984. Divided into sections dealing with the characteristics of child sexual abuse, understanding child sexual abuse, evaluation of sexual abuse, and intervention in such abuse, Faller's study was the most comprehensive research of its kind at its 1988 date of publication.

In 1988 Ellen Bass and Laura Davis also published their first edition of The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Aimed at a more general audience than Faller's study, this guide treated comprehensively the spectrum of child sexual abuse. Presently in its third edition, The Courage to Heal (1994) provides new information documenting the backlash against survivors of sexual abuse and their supporters. Sections on "Personal Strategies for Dealing with the Backlash," as well as a backlash victim's narrative, "Rachael's Story," are included in the new material of the third edition. There is also a brief history of the study of child sexual abuse. In 1991, Laura Davis published Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love was Sexually Abused as a Child. Davis writes for the general reader. Part I of the book deals with definitions of abuse, crisis, sex, and family issues. Part II of the book, in similar fashion to The Courage to Heal, presents narratives of the partners of victims. 4

Three recent clinical studies deserve attention. The first, Wayne Kritsberg's The Invisible Wound: A New Approach to Healing Childhood Sexual Trauma (1993), relies heavily on accounts of victims. Most striking and innovative is his proposal that victims begin a healing journal. Kritstberg provides explicit details of topics for the journal and ways of maintaining it. His reliance on narrative will be explored later in this essay. A second study, Women Who Hurt Themselves: A Book of Hope and Understanding (Miller 1994), deals with self-mutilation. The author focuses on Trauma Reenactment Syndrome (TRS), "the central characteristic of which is a pattern of intentionally inflicting harm on one's own body" (9). Significantly, the author finds that many women who suffer from TRS were sexually abused as children. A third study, Steven Levenkronís Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation, is an examination of self-injury resulting from physical abuse, sexual molestation, and incest rape.

Ultimately, clinical studies provide us with much-needed, in-depth information about the effects of childhood sexual abuse. Although the emphasis might vary from study to study and from handbook to handbook, the same characteristics of victims reappear with frightening regularity: depression; poor self-esteem; an inability to recognize, distinguish, and control emotions; Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), an extreme form of dissociation resulting in the victim adopting several distinct personalities; self-mutilation; eating disorders; tendencies toward revictimization; failure to achieve intimacy and trust; a desire to escape one's body during sex (sexual dysphoria); feelings of fright in the presence of children; an obsessive desire for control; tendencies toward substance abuse; and recurring suicidal feelings. Browne and Finkelhor (1986) summarize the impact of sexual abuse by asserting that accumulated evidence "conveys a clear suggestion that sexual abuse is a serious mental health problem, consistently associated with very disturbing subsequent problems in a significant portion of its victims" (163). 5

Because of the horrifying frequency and destructive impact of childhood sexual abuse, the two types of studies discussed above suggest that the act of child abuse is nothing less than an act of soul murder. In that the search for an accurate definition of childhood sexual abuse is part of the meaning of Megan's death--the thing itself that we are after--the term deserves our attention. 6

Leonard Shengold (1989) defines soul murder as "neither a diagnosis nor a condition. It is a dramatic term for circumstances that eventuate in crime--the deliberate attempt to eradicate or compromise the separate identity of another person" (2). Children, Shengold tells us, are the usual victims of soul murder because their complete physical and emotional dependence on adults renders possible the tyranny of child abuse. Since adults constitute the total environment for children, sexual abusers are able to absorb, and thus destroy, the life of the child.

As Shengold convincingly argues, soul-murder involves massive defenses on the part of the victim, an intensity of compulsion to be punished, and a guilt-ridden fantasy life based on memory (293). These are the characteristics identified again and again in the literature of child abuse reviewed above. The confusion in perception that results from sexual abuse is captured, as Shengold recognizes, in George Orwell's term doublethink. Brainwashing by the molester destroys rational thought, Shengold holds; thus, the hold of the torturer is maintained. Referring to Lionel Trilling's (1950) concept that we live by metaphor and our minds are a poetry-making organ, Shengold stresses the point that we must have a meaningful narrative in our lives from which we construct our identities. "What goes on within and without our minds may be ultimately unknowable; yet sanity and survival depend on comparatively accurate registration of the outer and inner worlds" (32). When this registration is destroyed by sexual abuse--when adult patients ask "did it really happen?"--they express the essence of soul murder: the metaphor, and thus the narrative, is destroyed. The adult, once trapped as a child in a closed system, can no longer synthesize experience through perspective; brainwashing has stopped that forever. Nothing is left but self-doubt. Tragically, for many victims of child abuse, to know what really happened means that they must re-live the events that brought on their psychic death. "It is a price that many victims of soul murder cannot afford to pay, or do not choose to risk paying" (300).

To summarize: thus far I have demonstrated that child abuse is part of the national consciousness. I have noted many of the best-known studies in the field. And, with Leonard Shengold, I have interpreted child abuse as nothing less than an act of soul murder.

So it is that we have found part of the thing that we are after: Megan Kanka's life closed twice. First her soul, then her body, were taken from her. How many souls are similarly lost now, deprived even of a truthful narrative of their assault? And how many will continue to be lost because our culture prefers to believe that childhood sexual abuse is an abnormality?
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