Research: Family Environment

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Research has consistently shown that having experienced 'child sexual abuse' is associated with having a negative family background. Since a poor family background may exert an independently negative effect, this raises the issue that, when the effects of 'child sexual abuse' (CSA) are studied, some or most of problems correlated with CSA may actually have been caused by the associated family background features.

The best and most well-known study to analyze the influence of family environment on effect size was A meta-analytic examination of assumed properties of child sexual abuse (CSA) using college samples, published in 1998 by Bruce Rind, Philip Tromovitch and Robert Bauserman in the Psychological Bulletin. They found that the presence of 'child sexual abuse' accounted for only 0.81% of adjustment varience -- compared to the 8.41% accounted for by negative family variables. The original text of this study is available at Ipce, and a layman-friendly explanation of the paper is available here

Note that this alone cannot be interpreted to prove that adult-child sex is generally harmless. Rather, it means that the long-term harm attributed to the construct of CSA, which is often defined to include exhibitionism, sexual hugging, consensual sex with teenagers, etc., is greatly exaggerated by studies that fail to control for family environment.

Additionally, the significance of family environment as a confounding variable is less prominent when studies exclude subjects whose experience of 'CSA' was not unwanted. The studies cited by Dallam and the Leadership Council to contradict Rind all examined unwanted CSA only.

Evidence that family environment is more predictive of harm than CSA

The findings of Rind and his colleagues are not unique. Other studies which reached the same conclusion as Rind et al. on family environment include:

  • Nash, M.R., Hulsey, T.L., Sexton, M.C., et al. (1993). "Long-term sequelae of childhood sexual abuse: Perceived family environment, psychopathology, and dissociation," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61:1–8.
    "Our first hypothesis, that sexual abuse itself is associated with broad-spectrum, general psychological impairment, independent of the effects of perceived family environment, was not supported by the findings. Perceived family environment appears to be an important mediating variable in determining general level of adult psychological distress, so important that we found no significant residual effect for abuse per se on the extent of general psychological impairment. For some victims, sexual abuse may be a signal variable that the home environment is profoundly and broadly pathogenic. Subsequent adult impairment may be an effect not only of abuse but of the context in which it was embedded."
  • Fromuth, M.D. (1986). "The relationship of childhood sexual abuse with later psychological and sexual adjustment in a sample of college women," Child Abuse & Neglect, 10:5-15
    "To further explore the nature of the significant relationships found between the SCL-90 variables and sexual abuse, multiple correlations were performed predicting the SCL-90 variables from the presence of childhood sexual abuse and the Parental Support Scale. As can be seen by examining Table 1, the Parental Support Scale was a better predictor of the SCL-90 variables than was the history of childhood sexual abuse. Indeed, semipartial correlations revealed that, except for the Phobic Anxiety Scale (see Table 2), a history of sexual abuse did not significantly increase the prediction of the SCL-90 variables over and above that predicted by the Parental Support Scale alone. This suggests that for all but the Phobic Anxiety Scale, the significant relationships found between childhood sexual abuse and the SCL-90 variables were due to the confounding of the sexual abuse with the family background."
  • Higgins, D. J., & McCabe, M. P. (2003). "Maltreatment and Family Dysfunction in Childhood and the Subsequent Adjustment of Children and Adults," Journal of Family Violence, 18(2)
    "Although child maltreatment scores predicted psychopathology, childhood family variables were better predictors of adjustment. [..] Standard multiple regression analyses were used to assess the contribution of scores on the five maltreatment scales to the adjustment measures of TSC-40 Total score and Self-derogation (see Table IV). Scores on these five maltreatment scales significantly predicted adults' reports of trauma symptoms, F(5, 132) = 15,36, p < .001, with psychological maltreatment being the only statistically significant unique predictor (sr2 = .05). Maltreatment scores also significantly predicted self-depreciation, F(5, 132) = 7.14, p < .001, with neglect being the only statistically significant unique predictor (sr2 = .03). Standard multiple regression analyses were used to assess the contribution of gender and scores on family background variables (closeness and quality of childhood relationships, physical and verbal affection, parental divorce, family adaptability, family cohesion, parental sexual punitiveness, quality of interparental relationship, traditionality of mother, traditionality of father) to the adjustment measures of TSC-40 Total score and Self-derogation (see Table IV). The family background variables significantly predicted trauma symptomology F(10, 127) = 4.44, p < .001; and self-depreciation, F(10, 127) = 3:87; p < .001. Family adaptability and quality of childhood relationships were unique predictors of both trauma symptomatology (sr2 = .05 and .05 respectively) and self-depreciation (sr2 = .04 and .03 respectively)."
  • Friedrich, W., Beilke, R., and Urquiza, A. (1987). "Children from sexually abusive families: A behavioral comparison," Journal of Interpersonal Violence , 2, 391-402.
    "Friedrich et al. (1987) used mulitvariate analysis to explore the effects of abuse and family variables simultaneously on symptomatology. This study found that abuse severity was not a significant predictor of internalizing symptoms when controlling for family variables; instead, internalizing symptoms were predicted by family conflict, family cohesion, and time since disclosure. On the other hand, abuse severity and family variables both contributed significant variance in predicting externalizing symptoms and sexualized behaviors." (as cited by Spaccarelli and Fuchs, 1997, "Variability in Symptom Expression among Sexually Abused Girls: Developing Multivariate Models")
  • Harter, S., Alexander, P.C., and Neimeyer, R.A. (1988). "Long-term effects of incestuous child abuse in college women: Social adjustment, social cognition, and family characteristics," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56:5–8.
    "Additional analyses suggested that family characteristics and increased perceptions of social isolation were more predictive of social maladjustment than abuse per se."