By David Bakan

Journal of Clinical Child Psychology Volume 11, No.3, Fall 1973

This article is a digest of David Bakan's book, Slaughter of the Innocents (1971). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Dr. Bakan is Professor of Psychology at York University in Ontario, Canada and was formerly on the faculties of the University of Chicago, Ohio State and Harvard. He has written on a wide range of topics including psychoanalysis, religion, philosophy and research methodology as well as child abuse.

It has now become an open secret that people torture and kill their own children or children in their charge. But prior to recent publicity there was a virtual blackout, reaching far back into history, on the topic. Statements here and there in the literature indicate to a knowing eye conditions of child abuse. The problem did not start just a few years ago when a group of physicians found the courage to make public notice of it. The very delay of public recognition of the phenomenon is to be wondered at as one wonders about the phenomenon itself.
"...The buttocks are the locus for the induction of pain in a child. We are familiar with the argument that it is a "safe" locus for spanking. However, the anal region is also the major erotic zone at precisely the time at which the child is likely to be beaten there. Thus, it is aptly chosen to achieve the result of deranged sexuality in adulthood..."
The past silence and its recent removal may in itself unlock some of the mystery. I hypothesize here that the essential functions of child abuse are in the area of adaptations to population-resource balance. The abused child may die. If he lives he tends to make reduced claims on the available resources. If he grows up he becomes an adult less likely to reproduce. If he reproduces, he is likely to abuse children in turn. If this hypothesis be true, then, as child abuse served its harsh function in history, it had to stay hidden under the cloak of silence. The community, in its way, assented to the phenomenon simply because it could not afford to do otherwise.

Why can the veil of silence be lifted now? The answer lies in the fantastic increase in the level and role of technology in our lives in modern times. Technology has made three contributions. First, and most concretely, the technology of the X-ray plate provided objective evidence of child abuse. Second, technology has provided great advances in resource provision. Third, technology has provided promises of acceptable and humane population control.

If one cannot comfortably pretend that the abuse of children does not take place, one is tempted to pretend that it is rare or limited to persons with mental disturbance. Unfortunately it is not rare. And, unless one wishes to take the very fact of abusive behavior as evidence of mental disturbance, the mental disturbance hypothesis is not supported by fact.

The task is to try to understand child abuse. It is not to condone it. Child abuse thrives in the shadows of privacy and secrecy. It lives by inattention. Those who have protected themselves from being witness to it have protected the practice and have thus been a party to it.

I venture my main hypothesis, that child abuse is an evolutionary mechanism associated with population-resource balance, with some misgivings. It may not be valid. But that is the lesser of my misgivings. Beyond that, I fear the suggestion that such a hypothesis may provoke - that the abuse of children should be regarded as "natural" and therefore not subject to deliberate modification. My belief is rather that the contrary suggestion should emerge: by man's comprehension of what is natural he is in a position to make modifications in accordance with his values.


Perhaps one of the most significant consequences of child abuse with respect to population is that it leads to the derangement of his adult sexuality in a direction away from full procreativity. At the very least, and in the fulfillment of commonly held ideals, the judicious use of punishment in the rearing of children makes them moral in the sense of inhibiting sexual expression. Thus, even the mildest forms of punishment are in this sense population-controlling.

But this effect has profound roots in the human condition. Two facts need to be considered together. First trauma deranges the development of sexuality. Second, virtually every derangement of normal sexuality reduces the likelihood that children will be created. No form of sexual activity outside of heterosexual coitus leads to reproduction. Practices such as masturbation, homosexuality, and sexual contacts with animals are certainly "contraceptive," as are voyeurism, exhibitionism, sadism, masochism, and oral and anal sexual activity. Prostitution functions as a brake on population as any form of polyandry does. Even the channeling of libido to assaultive sexual relations on female children is population-controlling in that the likelihood of a prepubertal girl's becoming pregnant is small, the likelihood of survival of the child if she does become pregnant is small, and the creation of a life-long aversion to sexuality in the victim reduces the likelihood of later pregnancy. If we take the relative frequencies of sexually deviant behavior found by Alfred C. Kinsey as even reasonably representative, it seems that he was studying some of the main ways of restricting population in the contemporary world. The frightening possibility is that Kinsey's observations may also bespeak equally widespread child abuse practices which created such large relative frequencies of sexual deviation.

One of the most important conclusions to be extracted from the researches of Freud, Krafft-Ebing, and others who have studied sexual deviants is that traumatic experiences in childhood are closely linked with sexual deviations in adulthood. Freud conceived of the paradigmatic form of offense that a person may engage in as sexual and the paradigmatic form of punishment as castration, which suggests drastic removal of procreative capability. Freud also recognized that the fantasy of "a child is being beaten" has as its meaning quite specifically that beating of the body or any part is experienced unconsciously as beating of the genitalia. Ferenczi observes that frigidity and impotence are characteristic of unwelcome children. And Harlow observes that monkeys with restricted mothering grow up with a markedly reduced tendency to engage in copulation.

That the aim of child abuse, in a biological sense, is to reduce the likelihood that the child will procreate when he becomes an adult is also suggested by the observation that "children have always been the victims of mutilation practices, the most common site for mutilation being the sex organs," often with the parent feeling that he is engaging in legitimate punishment for sexual manifestations in the child.

The buttocks are the locus for the induction of pain in a child. We are familiar with the argument that it is a "safe" locus for spanking. However, the anal region is also the major erotic zone at precisely the time at which the child is likely to be beaten there. Thus, it is aptly chosen to achieve the result of deranged sexuality in adulthood, especially if there is any validity in the psychoanalytic observation that the child, albeit unconsciously, interprets punishment generally as punishment for sexual impulse and expression.

To take a more general view, maturation includes the maturation of sexuality. Mature sexuality is a condition in which lust has developed to include love, love for a mature person of the opposite sex has developed to include love for children and love for children has developed to include conscientious care for them. Progress in maturation is retarded by traumatic experiences. Trauma leads to the arrest of psychosexual development at lower stages of development and sometimes even leads to regression to still less mature levels.

If the individual is fortunate enough to grow into adulthood in accordance with his potentialities, his adulthood is characterized by what psychoanalysts call genitalization and what Erikson calls "generactivity." As Zilboorg puts it in discussing the maturation into parenthood, "We know from psychoanalytical experience that man reaches the adult genital level of development is covered with many roughnesses." According to Erikson, " primarily the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation...The ability to lose oneself in the meeting of bodies and minds leads to a gradual expansion of ego interests and to a libidinal investment in that which is being generated. Generativity thus is an essential stage on the psychosexual as well as on the psychosocial schedule. ...Some...parents suffer, it seems, from the retardation of the ability to develop this stage.: These parents, according to Erikson, are "in the lack of some faith, some "belief in the species,' which would make a child appear to be a welcome trust of the community."


How do we then move toward the cultural rectification of the situation? I believe that if the following two articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, declared by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1949, could become universal in man's consciousness, law, and customs, then substantial progress could be made in coping with the problem of child abuse:

[Article 5.] No one shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

[Article 25.] (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 5 should, in light of the evidence of child abuse, be interpreted to include children. There is, unfortunately, widespread acceptance of the belief that it is proper to win obedience and social compliance through the use of force and violence; and somehow, by chains of reasoning, emotional associations, and tradition, it is felt that in the microcosm of child-rearing it is equally proper to use force and violence to obtain obedience and social compliance. One can only speculate on the relationship between child-rearing practices and international and civil war. Yet, perhaps an important step that may yet be taken in the remainder of this century is the honoring of Article 5 for children as well as for adults.

Article 25 (2) implicitly recognizes that the welfare of society is contingent on the quality of human beings that the society raises to adulthood. If, as has been made so abundantly clear, the child is truly the father of the man and if those who have been the recipients of love and care are likely, in turn, to render love and care to others, then the whole society becomes the beneficiary when children are loved and cared for. A society which cares for its children and thus also teaches those children to care for their children in turn thrives indefinitely. A society which neglects or abuses its children exists precariously. Indeed, if, as some economists have cogently argued, the quality of human beings is becoming increasingly important for the well-being of the total society, the rearing of quality human beings may be society's most important task.

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Also see David Bakan's The Sins of the Fathers, David Bakan, From Slaughter of the Innocents: A Study of the Battered Child Phenomenon (1971). Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 115-117. (1971). Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 115-117.
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