Dr. Laura – APA feud ends nonviolently

By Henry Saeman, Editor
July 1, 1999 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

How can a 150,000-member organization overcome the force and influence of one powerful personality when the name is “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger?

After trying to unsuccessfully allay a public relations nightmare lasting three months which threatened to shake the American Psychological Assn. at its core, the episode came to a tranquil–perhaps even a potentially productive–end. First, Congress was to vote on June 14 on a highly-inflammatory anti-APA congressional resolution. However as negotiations between Congress and APA proceeded, a second, less contentious resolution was being prepared. It was tentatively scheduled for a vote in July.

The initial, harsh resolution had been instigated by Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), the current House majority whip, and other congressional Republicans, and had been rumored to be voted in the U.S. House of Representatives on June 14. It would have condemned an article published by APA in Psychological Bulletin.

The internet had been infiltrated since March with acrimonious missives involving “Dr. Laura,” the radio talk show host who entertains an audience estimated 18 million with a peppy stream of solutions to tangled personal problems; and APA which carries considerable clout among its huge following of psychologists, but doesn’t stir much dust in public debate against a celebrity of Dr. Laura’s stature.

Although APA had vigorously denied from the outset that the article encouraged pedophilic behavior, Dr. Laura retained the upper hand by insisting that APA was essentially claiming sexual relations between children and adults may not be harmful. No matter how clearcut its emphasis that, from a scientific perspective, the study was appropriate, it wouldn’t fly in Peoria.

Attempting to mollify the embarrassment and forestall action by Congress, APA’s Raymond Fowler, Ph.D., the association’s chief, wrote to DeLay that APA failed to evaluate the article based on its potential for misinforming the public policy process.

With the June deadline in Congress nearing, APA began to work feverishly with the offices of several conservative House Republicans who insisted on a substitute resolution with less contentious content, acknowledging the long record of APA opposing child sexual abuse.

In separate meetings that followed, involving Fowler and Congressmen DeLay, Matt Sammon (R-AZ), David Weldon (R-FL) and Tom Coburn (R-OK), some of the disagreements and hostilities appeared to fade. Discussion began to focus on a possible townhall meeting in DeLay’s district with APA members participating, an interest by the conservative congresspeople in more research and research training funds on child abuse and related topics.

“We created some bridges, and tried to reach out constructively to these members of Congress,” said Ellen Garrison, Ph.D., a member of APA’s Public Policy staff.

The potentially improved relations, however, did not deter action on a watered-down congressional resolution, voted on June 28.

Not surprisingly during the height of the controversy, Steve Mirin, M.D., head of the American Psychiatric Assn. entered the spectacle, grasping at the opportunity to pummel its counterpart APA by distancing itself from “junk science,” a term imputed by Dr. Laura. The ApA leader added that “academic hair-splitting over applying either “adult-child sex or child sexual abuse obfuscates the moral issues involved.”

Without the APA-Dr. Laura combatants, the article would likely have been assured an uninterrupted spot on dusty library shelves were it not for their fractious positions. The article in Psychological Bulletin, was titled “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples.”

From the beginning, Fowler defended only the scientific merits of the article which Schlessinger blamed APA for publishing in the first place. In his letter to DeLay, Fowler pledged to create legal briefs to guard against misuse of the Psychological Bulletin in the courts. Fowler also included a resolution by the APA Board of Trustees in which APA “repudiates and disassociates itself from any organization or publication that advocates sexual interaction between children and adults.

The article had reviewed findings of 59 studies of college students who experienced some form of child sexual abuse as children or adolescents. The issues focused on adjustment by students who were abused and those who were not abused. According to the study, sexual relationships between adults and children are not as harmful as once believed, and not all childhood victims of sexual abuse necessarily suffer mental illness as a result.

The uproar which followed could be seen in U.S. media and from Berlin to Bangkok or wherever the Internet travels, Despite intrepid explanations by Fowler that APA condemns sexual abuse of children, while supporting the scientific merits of the research, the issue wouldn’t die. “

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