Critique of Statistical Studies of Childhood Sexual Abuse Repression

Harrison G. Pope Jr., James I. Hudson Can memories of childhood sexual abuse be repressed. Psychological Medicine, 1995, 25, 121-126

Their effort was to access studies involving recall of childhood abuse. After excluding anecdotal reports, they critique four studies - Herman & Schatzow, 1987; Briere & Conte, 1993; Loftus, Polonsky & Fullilove, 1994 and Williams, 1994.

Authors considered Ms. Williams investigation to have maintained the most strict design of four studies selected by process of elimination.

In evaluating the studies, Pope and Hudson asked the following questions regarding the applicability of the research studies ability to answer the question of repression of childhood memory of sexual abuse. In particular, they examined the studies to assess whether the investigators:

1. presented confirmatory evidence that abuse had actually occurred.

2. demonstrated that their subjects had actually developed amnesia for the abuse.

Noteworthy is the author's conclusion that none of the studies accessed confirmed both elements of the questions.

Concerning William's study author's concluded the following

1. The study involved documented cases of childhood abuse based on medical records and interviews at the time of the sexual abuse. Ms. William's had also identified one third of the sample population as having less than extreme sexual contact with perpetrator, i.e. fondling and touching.Therefore, Pope and Hudson concluded question 1 was answered by the William's study.

2. Author's disagree with William's conclusion that the 38% who did not recall indexed abuse incident (49 out of 129) represented actual amnesia rather than withholding of information. Ms. William's conclusion was based on the voluntary disclosure, by these same women, of other sexually embarrassing incidents not related to the indexed abuse. Pope & Hudson suggest that a clarification interview with that particular sample, should have been held to assess whether reference to the indexed abuse was simply omitted. They cite a study by Femina & colleagues (1990) as using this procedure in a study involving physical abuse in childhood. Initial results had also been 38% with no recall. In this case, clarification interview with a sample of 8 of the 18 resulted in all 8 stating that actually did remember the incident.

Pope and Hudson further state that the sample of 25 out of 49 non recallers were under the age of 6 (51%) at the time of the indexed abuse and could represent childhood amnesia. In answer to question 2, Pope and Hudson conclude that the William's study would be simply a combination of childhood amnesia, ordinary forgetting and failure to report indexed abuse on interview 17 years after the abuse.

Design of future studies involving recall and repression of childhood sexual abuse were suggested by authors Pope and Hudson. First sample should consist of a population whose medical records confirm past abuse (as in the William's study). Individuals selected from this population should only be those who were over age 6 at the time of the abuse and who also suffered what would be considered to be extreme abuse not easily forgettable. Once located the individuals should be interviewed with ethical and therapeutic precautions. Clarification interviews should be taken with those in the sample who claim no recall.

Following rigorous guidelines for research could result, according to Pope and Hudson, in a conclusion that repression actually exists. They state it would not, however, confirm evidence for frequency of repression.

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