The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case
A City Possessed:
Unlike some of the petitioners, we cannot comment on the guilt or innocence of Peter Ellis, but if the research of the first three chapters of Lynley Hood's book A City Possessed is anything to go by, one should be cautious about her analysis.
In the book, Lynley Hood describes herself as objective. She promises to write as fairly, accurately and sensitively as she can.
She claims she steered a steady course through the Christchurch Civic Creche controversy, illuminating the context along the way, providing a balanced picture of apparently conflicting, but presumably equally valid, points of view.
She declares she especially does not want to oversimplify the world around us. Yet she tends to demonise authors she does not respect as lesbian radical feminists or zealots, while glorifying those she does respect as heterosexual or doctors.
The first three chapters of her book are the theoretical foundation for her later statements. These chapters are devoted to explaining the issues around child abuse.
Lynley Hood writes: "At the core of these arguments are questions that must be addressed: just how widespread is child sexual abuse, and just how serious are the consequences? (Or, to put it another way: what exactly does the research say, and what exactly does it mean?)"
We agree these questions are crucial.
She asks: "Is the true prevalence of child sexual abuse higher than one in four, lower than one in 1000 or somewhere between? Clearly the only answer is: we don't know."
But we do know more. In 1994, Professor David Finkelhor
published a review of prevalence studies with large samples in 19 countries,
He found the variability was between 7 per cent and 36 per cent for women and 3 per cent and 29 per cent for men.
In the 1990s, two
Professor David Fergusson's research on 1019 girls aged 18 in Christchurch found 17.3 per cent disclosed unwanted sexual experiences before age 16, with 12.6 per cent reporting genital stimulation and 5.6 per cent vaginal, oral or anal intercourse.
Fergusson and his colleagues describe their data as a lower-level estimate, explaining that the estimates may be influenced by under-reporting and that, at age 18, a number of those exposed to abuse may not have been emotionally ready to disclose it.
Despite this, one in 20 young women talked about attempted or completed vaginal, oral or anal intercourse.
Lynley Hood reveals her biases early in her book by selectively emphasising isolated studies. She praises a 1981 American national study of incidence and severity of child abuse and neglect, which found the prevalence of sexual abuse among American children to be 0.2 per cent (1 in 500).
Why 1981? After all, she was writing last year. Why did she not visit the US Government Department of Health and Human Services website and find the 1996 study, which showed substantial and significant increases in the incidence of child abuse and neglect since the last national incidence study was conducted.
Data from these incidence studies (commonly the number of reported cases in a set period) are not directly comparable to prevalence surveys (the proportion of the population recalling abuse over their lifetime). They each offer different lenses on the extent of child sexual abuse.
Lynley Hood chooses not to clarify the distinction, highlighting whichever produces the lower number. She talks about false estimates from the 1970s and says that during the 1980s estimates of the extent and severity of child sexual abuse were further inflated as a result. This is just bad history.
Lynley Hood states that it is not known whether most women who were molested as children experience difficulties in adult life. She asks whether sexual abuse is just one of many adverse childhood experiences that may or may not cause lasting harm.
Analyses of the effects of child sexual abuse indicate that although some survivors show no ill effects through the measures used, many experience serious problems throughout life. Problems occur particularly when the abuser is a family member, when there are multiple incidents of abuse and when the abuse involves attempted or actual intercourse.
Child sexual abuse has been linked to suicide, depression, psychiatric admissions, drug abuse and eating disorders. Abuse survivors are ill and have surgery more often.
The unknown details of cause and effect do not detract from repeated evidence of an association.
Take depression as an example. Major depression has been strongly associated with child sexual abuse in many scientific studies.
Not everyone who is sexually abused will suffer depression. Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer. Lynley Hood's logic would conclude there is little or no link between smoking and cancer. This is just bad analysis.
She is of course entitled to her personal opinion, but she cannot justifiably claim her conclusions to be robust.
She seems intent on minimising the extent and consequences of child sexual abuse. Her caricatures of the work of Diana Russell, Roland Summit and Miriam Saphira are unhelpful to those seeking a fair and reasoned understanding of such abuse.
Diana Russell's study of the prevalence of sexual abuse of
girls was based on a random sample of 930 adult women in
Diana Russell's definition of sexual abuse within the family was any kind of exploitative sexual contact that occurred between relatives before the victim turned 18. Experiences involving sexual contact with a relative that were wanted and with a peer [age difference of less than five years] were regarded as non-exploitative.
Her results: 28 per cent reported at least one experience of sexual abuse within the family before the age of 18; 12 per cent reported the same before age 14.
Combining sexual abuse from within and outside the family, 38 per cent reported abuse before 18 and 28 per cent before 14.
Of all incidents of abuse within the family, 23 per cent were classified very serious. In one instance, Diana Russell classified unwanted but non-forceful kissing by a cousin as sexual abuse.
Lynley Hood's often-subtle bias becomes starkly transparent when she writes: "Russell's definition included everyday aspects of family life like unwanted hugs and kisses." Her misuse of one isolated case seems inconsistent with her stated goal of objectivity.
Lynley Hood is sceptical about the bad old days when victims were disbelieved and says this is a self-serving myth. Her source? New Zealand Truth reports over 65 years show children's complaints of sexual molestation were taken seriously.
She does not acknowledge that for well over 100 years no mental health system was willing to recognise the reality and seriousness of child sexual abuse.
Roland Summit was head physician for the community
consultation service and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the
Lynley Hood states that he described this paper as highly impressionistic. In fact he described it as a paper based on clinical experience derived from the collective experience of dozens of sexual abuse treatment centres in dealing with thousands of reports or complaints of adult victimisation of young children.
Continuing her unhelpful game of heroes and villains, she introduces Dr Alfred Kinsey, as a husband and father of irreproachable personal conservatism. Dr Kinsey's biographers, James Jones and Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, do not agree.
According to Mr Jones, an admiring biographer, Dr Kinsey allegedly used paedophiles to bring children to orgasm and then record the number they could achieve.
Much attention is given to discrediting the work of arch-villain Dr Saphira. She is criticised for working with paedophiles. The statistics from the 1970s Woman's Weekly survey are ridiculed.
Yet that survey's key messages that one in four girls will be molested before turning 18, that the man will usually know the child and that one in five child molesters will be the father, stepfather or foster father, are not as far from academic research findings as Lynley Hood chooses to believe.
The one-in-four figure is higher than Professor Fergusson's and lower than the Otago study. It includes one-off incidents at the lower end of the spectrum of abuse.
Both studies found men known to the children perpetrate most child sexual abuse. In Professor Fergusson's study, 23.5 per cent of the perpetrators were family members. In the Otago study, 38.3 per cent were family members and 16 per cent of abusers were relatives living with the child.
In 18.5 per cent of children's allegations reported to Child, Youth and Family in 1999, the alleged abuser was a father or stepfather.
Lynley Hood's supposedly balanced book has been used by others to steer public attention to one case, from which we are encouraged to draw all sorts of spurious generalisations.
New Zealanders concerned with a fair and reasonable approach to child abuse need to maintain a broader focus.
The standard of scholarship of the first three chapters of Lynley Hood's book is poor.
We recommend that those who rushed to sign the Peter Ellis petition on the basis of the book think again. If she can get it so wrong in her summary of the literature, how confident can we be that her analysis of the Ellis case is fair and just?