APA Struggles With Sex Study

The American Psychological Association (APA) is looking for help from the scientific community to quell a political controversy over a study published in one of its most prominent journals that has been depicted as condoning sex between children and adults.

Last July, psychologist Bruce Rind, a part-time faculty member at Philadelphia's Temple University, with two colleagues and college students published a meta-analysis of studies in the APA's Psychological Bulletin that concluded that childhood sexual abuse (including exhibitionism and consensual relationships with adults) is not always damaging to the child. The study, unnoticed for months by most people outside the North American Man/Boy Love Association, became a national cause among conservative groups after an irate father complained to radio talk psychologist Laura Schlessinger. The furor peaked this week when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution "rejecting the notion that sex between adults and children is positive."

The APA has been strenuously attempting to dissociate itself from the Rind paper. In May it issued a formal "resolution opposing child abuse," followed by a request for an "independent expert evaluation" of the article to the Program on Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, which publishes ScienceNOW). It has also pledged to remind its journal editors to "fully consider the social policy implications of articles on controversial topics." Richard McCarty, head of APA's science directorate, says this is not an attempt at censorship but simply means the APA wants a "heads up" if something controversial is about to be published.

While some psychologists think the APA has made the best of a bad situation, others say it is over-reacting to political pressure. Psychologist Edward Katkin of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, calls APA's response to congressional complaints "groveling and cowardly."

The AAAS expects to make a decision next week on whether to accept the APA assignment. If it does, says program director Mark Frankel, "it will be a substantial and very complex undertaking."