The dictionary defines research as "Original investigation, undertaken to gain knowledge and understanding."
Why it's important
Research on sexual abuse has mushroomed since the 1980s, and a large volume now exists on child sexual abuse, adult survivors, and sex offenders against children. You can find sexual abuse research across several disciplines, because it's at once a crime, a social problem, a mental and physical health issue, and a welfare issue.
The quantity of research around can feel daunting, yet research is important because:
- CSA is secretive and hidden
- National policies, professional/public attitudes, and funding to support survivors are influenced by it
- Good-quality research can establish facts, bring new insights and combat prejudice
When reading research:
Research can also be controversial. Pressure groups may use or write a particular study to "prove" their own views.
Consider outdated biases
Some past research would now be widely challenged. Prejudiced assumptions about child and adult survivors led to “victim-blaming” studies, suggesting seductive children and towards working class victims where “Incest" was considered a cultural "way of life".
... Or too challenging to accept?
Over the decades, some research findings have proved too unpalatable to society or to a profession. Understandably, few people wish to believe adults can inflict abuses on children. Freud linked adult mental health disorders to childhood sexual abuse trauma but renounced his findings a year later following fierce professional criticism. Thus sexual abuse has appeared and disappeared from public and professional view, forgotten, then remembered across generations.
Different definitions produce different results:
Studies have produced varied findings. The best-known examples are that childhood sexual abuse once considered "a case in a million” is common right across societies. Studies have varied in questions asked, definitions of sexual abuse, and interview methods.
The modern re-discovery of childhood sexual abuse
Research increased when child sexual abuse again became a topic for public debate in the 1970s/1980s. Acknowledgment of physical violence against children and research on "battered child syndrome" opened the way to considering other child abuse.
The modern feminist movement started in the 1970s and enabled women to speak out and campaign against "private" violence like rape, domestic violence and sexual abuse. Child-centred social philosophies, emphasis on listening to children, open discussion of sex, committed professionals and user campaign movements, all played a role in bringing abuse to public attention. Once professionals were able to listen open-mindedly to survivors' accounts of abuse, more information came to light.
- Abuse of boys as well as girls
- Abuse by women as well as men
- By middle and upper class perpetrators
- Sadistic multi-perpetrator abuse by organised groups
- Abuse by respected authority figures such as clergy, lawyers or teachers
...some research findings have proved too unpalatable to society
New understandings of trauma
Mental health and neurobiological research are tackling the long-term post-traumatic effects of childhood abuse on brain, body, memory and the central nervous system. Research on dissociation after trauma, connections with post-traumatic stress and traumatic memory in other situations (e.g. concentration camp experiences) are being explored.
By the early 1990s, the growing numbers of adults identifying as survivors, led in turn to some accused parents and adults founding "false memory" societies in the USA and Western Europe. Their contention that memories of abuse were false, encouraged by dubious therapeutic practices produced papers by their own supporters, and growth in research on trauma and memory, stimulated by this fierce controversy.
Why are some research topics more popular, and easier to get published?
Popular topics include: psychological effects, trauma and memory, prevalence, professional interventions, sex offender risk assessments, treatments and typologies.
Less popular topics include: abuse of males, physical effects of abuse, primary prevention, voluntary sector-led therapies, abuse in wealthier families, and studies of the views and experiences of survivors themselves, have been much less extensive. In some areas, this situation is changing.
Do adult survivors share these priorities?
Survivors are usually less concerned with the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse than in gaining help for the survivors who already exist.
Respectful dialogue between survivors, key professional and academic groups (some of whom will be survivors themselves) will raise the priority of research topics which adult survivors themselves see as important. This website is one means of achieving this.