Sex, science, and social work.

Author:Howard, Matthew O.

In 2007, the National Academy of Scholars (NAS) published The Scandal of Social Work Education, a report contending that social work education had become politicized to the extent that "dogma, tendentiousness, and coerced intellectual conformity were becoming integral to the definition of the field" (NAS, 2007a, p. 4). Comparing contemporary social work education "against traditional academic ideals of open-inquiry, partisan disengagement, and intellectual pluralism," the report concluded, "the results are scandalous" (NAS, 2007b, p. 1). Is it true, as the NAS report suggested, that social work education is characteristically dogmatic and doctrinaire, occasionally compromising students' first amendment rights and subverting "the intellectual foundations on which the modern university is based--the honest, rigorous, and, to the extent possible, open-minded search for truth" (NAS, 2007b, p. 1)? Unfortunately, I believe it is.

Tenaciously held but critically unexamined beliefs also corrupt the scientific process in social work and allied fields. Researchers may act (consciously or unconsciously) in ways that reinforce their ideological biases. "True believers" ignore empirical findings at odds with their beliefs or artfully reinterpret even the most damning results in terms that support their favored positions. Prevailing paradigmatic accounts of social problems and proponents of those accounts frequently close off some avenues of inquiry altogether, particularly in cases in which new theories and data might undermine entrenched and politically useful perspectives.

Several key areas of research related to human sexuality provide useful examples of the stultifying effects of rigid ideological beliefs on scientific progress.


Susan Clancy ignited a firestorm of criticism with the publication of her book The Trauma Myth (2009), a research-based polemic repudiating the traumatogenic theory--the dominant theory in the CSA area for nearly 40 years. The traumatogenic theory purportedly explained the manner by which CSA produces adverse long-term consequences and was founded on three key assumptions: long-term effects of CSA are primarily a function of trauma experienced at the time of abuse; effects of such trauma on functioning later in life are direct in nature; and CSA varies in the extent to which it is traumatizing, with greater severity of trauma leading to more deleterious long-term outcomes (Clancy, 2009).

Clancy cited her own research and that of other investigators to argue that most victims of CSA were not subjected to violence or otherwise traumatized at the time of their victimization but, rather, typically experienced feelings of confusion. She also identified a far greater role for indirect than for direct effects of CSA on functional outcomes in adulthood. Once victims fully appreciated the nature of their CSA experiences (usually in adolescence or young adulthood), they frequently reported that they felt betrayed by the abuser, blamed themselves for the abuse, and felt ashamed of their involvement in the CSA event(s). Disclosures of CSA were often greeted with disbelief or minimization of the effects or nature of the reported abuse, or the victim was outright blamed for the abuse.

Clancy (2009) contended that although the traumatogenic theory has done much to heighten society's awareness of CSA, it has done little for victims--in part because it does not accurately characterize the nature of most victims' abuse experiences or the processes by which CSA produces adverse outcomes in adulthood:

First, and most obviously, sexual abuse, for most victims is...

To continue reading