The social construction of childhood sexual abuse: Toward new theory and research

Robert Chambliss, Jr. Berson (1989)

This dissertation examines the social construction of the theories of childhood sexual abuse. The perspectives of many clinicians and researchers on the occurrence of sexual abuse in childhood have shifted from ignorance and denial to recognition and theory development over the last two decades. This dissertation examines this dramatic shift in theory from several perspectives. It explores the cognitive economics involved in the clinical decision-making of individuals, the biases to which the predominant assessment paradigms are subject, the role of personal experience in establishing what can be known, and the social nature of clinical assessment. It then examines empirically sound studies of the effects of childhood sexual abuse from a constructionist perspective. Two highly plausible paradigms of the effects of childhood sexual abuse--the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders Model and the Four Traumagenic Dynamics Model--are critically examined and research that will test these models is suggested. This thesis has found that clinicians' social constructions of childhood sexual abuse have changed in four principal areas: in the beliefs about the credibility of reports of sexual abuse, in the discovery of the harm on interpersonal functioning, in perceiving people with such histories as having been victims of traumatic experiences and no longer as participants in pathological relationships, and in identifying sexual victimization as a broad social problem. Through a close examination on the effects of childhood sexual abuse, this thesis has found that the harmful effects initially displayed by victims may be no greater than that arising from other traumatic experiences in childhood. The data on the enduring effects of childhood sexual abuse are slightly more substantial. This thesis further suggests that those harmful effects may be on the interpersonal rather than the psychological aspects of victims' functioning, aspects that psychology is presently poorly equipped to assess.