Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version

December 2007


Published in The Encyclopedia of Domestic Violence, Nicky Ali Jackson, editor. New York & London: Routledge, 2007. Pages 147–156. Copyright © 2007 Taylor & Francis Group LLC. Used by permission.


Child sexual abuse (CSA), a social problem of endemic proportions, has existed in all historical eras and societies (Conte 1994; Fergusson and Mullen 1999; Wekerle and Wolfe 1996; Wolfe 1999). Since antiquity, anecdotal records (e.g., legal, artistic, philosophical, and literary accounts) have documented activities that would today be classified as CSA (deMause 1974; Kahr 1991; Olafson, Corwin, and Summit 1993). For instance, a sizable portion of adults in ancient Greek and Roman cultures openly engaged in what is now considered pederasty or rape (deMause 1974; Kahr 1991). Although adult-child sexual encounters have occurred throughout history, perceptions of such practices have fluctuated, ranging from societal acceptance (adult-child sex viewed as healthy or justifiable) to rejection (adult-child sex believed to be inappropriate or abusive) (Barnett, Miller-Perrin, and Perrin 1997; Kahr 1991; Olafson et al. 1993). With this oscillation of cultural ideologies, establishing behaviors as sexually abusive has not been an additive or linear process. Rather, scholars have called attention to cycles of “recognition (or ‘discovery’) and suppression” that, until the 1970s, largely obscured public awareness of the magnitude of the problem (Conte 1994; Olafson et al. 1993). In the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries, for example, physicians (e.g., Tardieu), psychoanalysts (e.g., Freud), and researchers (e.g., Kinsey) had, to some extent, dis covered and documented sexual victimization in their patients. Representative of the general sentiment at the time, however, these findings were subsequently minimized, discounted, or justified, resulting in victim blame and a cycle of “suppression” (Bolen 2001; Conte 1994; Olafson et al. 1993). Sigmund Freud’s work perhaps best exemplifies the “recognition and suppression” cycle (Fergusson and Mullen 1999). Specifically, although Freud initially publicized the reality of CSA with his “seduction theory,” he later rescinded this account, indicating that most of the alleged instances were false and that children, via the Oedipal complex, exhibit a natural and erotic sexual desire toward their opposite-sex parent (Bolen 2001; Olafson et al. 1993; Tharinger 1990). In one explanation of Freud’s “suppression,” Bolen (2001) highlighted the Victorian social and political atmosphere which encased Freud and concluded that he “effectively colluded with a society that wished to deny the existence of child sexual abuse” (p. 20).