© 2001 The American Journal of Family Therapy 29(2):83-94




Department of Child Psychiatry, College of Physicians and Surgeons,
Columbia University, New York, New York, USA

Differentiating between children’s true and false sexual-abuse accusations can be a formidable task. The problem is compounded by some evaluators who make the assumption that normal children do not have sexual fantasies. Such evaluators may take the position, "Normal children do not have such thoughts. Children who have such thoughts must have had such experiences, or where else would the thoughts have come from?" Strict adherence to this position has contributed to the incarceration of some individuals who indeed did not molest the accusing child. To deny that children have sexual fantasies is to deny reality. Such fantasies can emerge normally and spontaneously in the mind of nonabused children and examiners who do not consider this possibility run the risk of concluding that a child was abused when there is no good evidence for such. In this article the ubiquity of normal childhood sexual fantasies is discussed and then a clinical example is presented, which demonstrates compellingly that children can create sexual fantasies that cannot possibly have any basis in reality.

The problem of differentiating between true and false sex-abuse accusations is a formidable one. Yet, the outcome of the evaluation may make the difference between whether or not the person accused of the offense will go to jail. Unfortunately, there are some evaluators who take the position that a child who verbalizes a sexual encounter with another party must have been abused. A common argument given is: "She must have been abused or where else could such a thought come from? Normal, healthy children do not have such ideas." My answer to this is: "Normal, healthy, nonabused children do have sexual fantasies and to ignore that possible source as "the place where it comes from" is a terrible disservice to all concerned. I have seen cases where such a belief has played a role in the incarceration of innocent parties.

The notion that children do not become sexual until puberty is a myth, having no basis in the reality. I am not claiming that children are as sexually involved as people in the post-pubertal phase of life; but to believe that they have no sexual impulses at all requires massive denial of the obvious.

There are sonograms depicting infants touching their genitals in utero. I am not claiming that such fetuses are masturbating to orgasm. I am only claiming that the masturbatory act is so much a part of the human repertoire that its precursors can be observed at that very early phase of development. It is a common practice in many third-world countries for mothers to stimulate their children’s genitals as a form of pacification. There is no earliest age at which the human being does not have the capacity to experience an orgasm. I suspect that such capacity is present at birth. I am not recommending this practice (there is no good reason to oversexualize prematurely); I am only stating that the natural, biological capacity is there. Children who have been sexually abused and prematurely oversexualized may not return to their earlier levels. Such activity can easily be observed.

The next question is: "What are the fantasies that are associated with such observed sexual activities?" From everything we know of the human brain, it is not likely that well-organized imagery is present until the second year of life, and probably not until late into the third year of life. Prior to that time, less discrete imagery is probably the norm. This is one of the reasons why memory cannot generally be reliable if one goes back before the age of two or thereabout. (I have often said that three-year-olds do not sit around in a circle talking about the good old days when they were two.) Beyond the age of two, concrete imagery is probably present and certainly beyond the age of three. The breast-feeding newborn is, by many criteria, performing a sexual act, but is not likely to have any concrete imagery associated with this act. It is pure reflex. However, the three- and four-year old who is still breast feeding may very well consider it a sexual experience, the mother’s denials notwithstanding. In fact, if she is honest enough to admit it, the mother herself may get some sexual titillation from the breastfeeding exposure. (She certainly admits it when her lover is performing the same act.)

We are living in a time in which the teachings of Sigmund Freud are no longer in vogue. I am in agreement that many of his theories are best forgotten and/or ignored. However, it would be an error to assume that everything he had to say was pure hogwash and had absolutely no basis in reality. Discarding all Freudian contributions is like throwing out the baby with the bath water. Freud was ostracized for his emphasis on childhood sexuality. This was unfortunate because all he was doing was describing an undeniable truth. It is a common observation that little children, on occasion, will verbalize possessive, amorous, and even sexual fantasies about the opposite-sexed parent. Freud did not let that common observation pass. Rather than taking a somewhat nonchalant attitude regarding these impulses, he gave them a very fancy name derived from ancient languages and plays: "The Oedipus Complex" and "The Electra Complex." Giving them such labels has the implication that something unusual and special was being observed here. Unfortunately, Freud went even further and considered such sexual manifestations to be at the core of all neuroses and even some psychoses. And this fantasy (I have no hesitation using the word) served as the foundation for classical psychoanalytic treatment, one of the important purposes of which was to help people deal with allegedly unresolved Oedipus and Electra complexes.

A mother observes her three-year-old daughter rubbing her genitals. The healthy parent says to the child: "That’s a personal matter that you do in private. That’s not the kind of a thing you do in front of other people. It’s like going to the bathroom. You do that in private, not in public." An unhealthy response involves punishing the child with admonitions such as, "I never want to see you do that again." An even more unhealthy response would involve slapping the child’s hands or implementing some other punishment. One of the unhealthy responses in recent years has been: "What are you doing? Where did you learn to do that?" or "Who taught you to do that?" An articulate and intelligent child might respond: "No one taught me to do that. I just learned it myself. I found out—all by myself—that when I rub that part of my body, it feels good." But it would not be reasonable to expect a three year old to be so articulate and forthright. This is especially so because the admonished child has been given the message that touching one’s genitals is reprehensible behavior—not the kind of thing that proper and respectable children do. Under such circumstances, it is reasonable for the child to shift blame onto someone else. This is more easily accomplished if the allegedly responsible party is someone whom the child recognizes the parent dislikes, for example, a hated former husband upon whom the mother wishes to wreak vengeance for leaving her. Under such circumstances, sober judgment evaporates. A man who has led a normal, healthy heterosexual life is suddenly considered to have been transformed into a compulsive pedophile—at the age of 38. There is a quick call to the child protection people. "Gangbusters" descends upon the family. Overzealous evaluators agree with the mother that a normal, healthy child would not be doing such despicable things, and she must have been taught by someone and the father, who has her alone on weekend visitations, is the most likely culprit.

Such overzealous evaluators also lose sight of the traditional blame-shifting behavior of all children. Most children, when "caught in the act" of perpetrating some unacceptable or reprehensible behavior, will try to exonerate themselves in any way possible. One of the first lines of defense is to deny completely personal responsibility, even though observed to be engaging in the act by the adult. Confrontation with incontrovertible evidence generally doesn’t convince the child of culpability. Another defense is to blame someone else, e.g., "He made me do it." or "She told me to do it." Most parents, under those circumstances, will say something along these lines: "If he told you to jump off the roof, would you do it?" or "If she told you to jump into a fire, you wouldn’t do it. So stop trying to blame someone else for what you did." All competent parents know about this mechanism and they generally do not buy into it. However, when the same mechanism is used with regard to sexual behavior, recognition of the blame-shifting principle evaporates and everything is done to exclude, wreak vengeance upon, and even destroy the alleged perpetrator. Unfortunately, there is a sea of overzealous child protection people, self-styled "validators," and other alleged experts who will be happy to confirm to the accusing mother that the child’s behavior must have been taught and that normal children do not have fantasies of sexual encounters with others, especially adults. Accordingly, when the child says, "Daddy taught me to do this." or, even worse, "My daddy does this to me," they conclude that there must have been a sexual encounter. In the ensuing inquiry, the child recognizes that the interrogator has accepted the explanation as completely valid and now wants corroborating details. A three-year-old child, having a rich fantasy life, is likely to provide them. In the course of such inquiry, the evaluator typically selectively inattends to highly improbable or even impossible elements in the scenario that are being spinned out.

The evaluator may decide that it is not even important to speak with the father because "he will only deny it anyway, like all the rest of those perverts." The police are called and the father’s life is changed forever. Even if he is not ultimately found to be not guilty, or the child protection people conclude that the abuse allegation was "unsubstantiated," his life will never be the same. By that time he will have been wiped out financially and is a psychological "basket case." The mother has had at her disposal one of the most powerful vengeance weapons ever devised. Since time immemorial abandoned wives have had fantasies of murdering their husbands or of his conveniently dying in other ways. However, they have had good enough sense to recognize that to bring this about themselves is not so easily accomplished and is not without personal repercussions. The sex-abuse accusation can accomplish these goals, and she can consider herself to have acted nobly and contributed to a most worthy cause, namely, removing from circulation a child molester, one of the lowest forms of perverts. One could argue that to have murdered the husband might have been more humane, because as a result of the sex-abuse accusation, his life has been turned into a living death. All this is possible, in part, by denying normal childhood sexuality fantasies.

In the prepubertal period, when the hormonal levels rise, sexual fantasies begin erupting into the human brain at an ever increasing rate. Once boyfriends and girlfriends appear on the scene, they become focused upon as the objects and targets of the fantasies. Prior to that time, fantasies for one’s parents are likely to occasionally erupt. It is not likely that an 11- or 12-year-old girl, for example is going to admit to anyone (including her mother, who may be her closest confidant) that she had such a fantasy. If she were to disclose it to a sane and healthy person (such as her mother or a competent therapist), she would be told: "That’s normal to have that once in a while. I had a few of those when I was your age and I can assure you that it is highly likely that you won’t have them any more when you start having boyfriends."

However, if the youngster is unfortunate enough to have disclosed these impulses to a person who believes that a child’s sexual fantasy must reflect fact—for example, to an hysterical mother or an overzealous therapist—then the child protection people may be brought in. There is then the risk that they will agree that the little girl’s father must have indeed sexually abused his daughter while sanctimoniously claiming, "Normal girls do not have sexual fantasies toward a father. If she describes such events, something must have happened to her sexually. Perhaps not everything she says is 100 percent true, but some of what she says must be true or where else would these ideas come from?" After a few interviews with child protection, therapists, and experts, the child herself comes to believe that her fantasy must reflect reality because this is what all these authorities have told her. Initially, she may have had some doubts about whether her thoughts did indeed reflect reality and might have been both guilty and confused about them. Her repeated interviews by a long parade of law enforcement officials, lawyers, and mental health professionals serve to entrench ever more deeply the notion that she was indeed abused by her father and his professions of innocence become disbelieved with the rationalizations by the "experts," e.g., "Of course, what do you expect him to say? Do you expect him to admit it?" or "He’s in denial."


Betsy, age five, a highly intelligent girl, was an only child. She was adopted at birth, a point that was central to the fantasy that will be described in detail below. A few weeks prior to my evaluation, Betsy had mentioned to her teacher that her father had asked her to wash his penis while the two of them were taking a shower together. She was immediately sent to the school guidance counselor who, reflexively, called in the child protection people. They called in their consultant, a woman who had a reputation for being a "highly qualified expert" in the field of child sexual abuse. She confirmed that the child had been sexually abused and did so purely on the basis of her interview with the child. She did not even see fit to get any input from the mother and father. Had she done so, she would have learned that there was no point in the child’s life that she had ever taken a shower with her father and that, on a few occasions, she did take a shower with her mother. On two such occasions, the mother had indeed asked her to soap down her back and she did the same thing with the child. Both the mother and the father were firm in their conviction that the penis-washing event described by the child was pure fantasy in a child who had a rich fantasy life. Furthermore, they would have learned that this child was long known to have a "rich imagination" and would spin off the most fantastic tales, which were often entertaining both to herself and her audience.

On the basis of my interview with the father, I found him to be straight heterosexual and there was nothing to suggest that at the age of 43, he had suddenly become a pedophile. I administered to him the segment of my sex-abuse evaluative battery that assesses for the presence of pedophilia (Gardner 1995) and found absolutely no evidence that he had any kind of pedophilic tendencies on any of the 26 items in the battery. Furthermore, I also administered my 66-item protocol for differentiating between true and false sex-abuse accusations in children and found absolutely no evidence that Betsy was sexually abused. In the course of my intensive evaluation, during a segment in which the mother was present, the following interchange took place (reproduced verbatim from the videotape):

Gardner: Did you ever have any trouble with your father at any time?

Betsy: What?

Gardner: Did you ever have any trouble with your father, any kind of trouble?

Betsy: No.

Gardner: Are you sure? No trouble with him?

Betsy: (Shakes head negatively.)

Gardner: Are you sure of that?

Betsy: (Continues to shake head negatively.)

Gardner: You ever have any trouble with him?

Betsy: No . . . pauses . . . There was one great thing I have to tell you.

First, we see here the open-ended questions that I was asking here. I did not focus on sex abuse, something that is frequently done by overzealous evaluators. It is to be noted here that the child persistently insisted that she never had any trouble with her father. Sexually abused children are not likely to answer with such persistent denial of any trouble at all. And, if they do deny trouble, they will do so hesitantly because of their fear that they will disclose material that might get them into trouble with the abuser.

Betsy then told me that there was "one great thing" that she had to tell me. As will be seen below, this was the opening comments by which she introduced her elaborations of a fantasy, a fantasy was not in any way suggested by my line of questioning—not only here but at any point throughout the course of the interview.

Gardner: What’s that?

Betsy: My mom picked me ‘cause my birth mother loved me so much. My birth mother picked my mom just to take me because my mom loved my birth mother, so my mom picked me from the birth mother because my mom loved the birth mother. So the birth mother said, "You could have my baby when it comes out of my tummy."

Mother: It’s just in the last two days this has come up. It has never been a topic of conversation. The last two days, Betsy wanted to know why I picked her and how it all happened, although we talked about her adoption before.

Betsy knew well that she was adopted and comments about her birth mother had already been made to her. It was also the case that her adoptive mother was indeed at the hospital at the time of the delivery. Included here is the concept of being "picked" from some fantasized array of babies. This is a common notion among adopted children, a notion that is sometimes promulgated by adoptive parents. We see here also the value of the mother being present in my interview with the child. Among the many benefits of such presence is her easy availability to address herself to the child’s comments, especially regarding reality vs. unreality (Gardner, 1992).

Betsy: ‘Cause the birth mother just loved me so much she just my mom just loved the birth mother. When they met they just checked in every room (turns to mother). Remember they said, every room said it’s a boy baby or a girl, right? And the baby was already out so they checked, because they washed the baby. So they know because they checked every baby, so they know, ‘cause they would know if it’s a girl or a boy, so they would know ‘cause a ‘gina or a penis (points to her own crotch area as she speaks).

Here, Betsy is bringing up sexual issues, completely on her own. However, the sexual issue has nothing to do with sexual excitation, but with gender identification. The implication here, also, is that over every baby there is a sign indicating whether it is a boy or a girl.

Gardner: So they checked it out?

Betsy: Yeah, and they put the signs up. And I didn’t even know that and it said girl (turns to mother). And then you just like made me Betsy.

Mother: This is totally—I never heard this story before. This is a totally new story.

Gardner: Is this a story that you have told her or is this a fantasy?

Mother: It’s a fantasy.

Gardner: It’s a fantasy about the adoption, you select a girl, and look at . . .

Again, we see the value of the mother for differentiating for me between what is fact for the child or what is fantasy. Obviously, it is highly unlikely that gender-identification signs were placed above each of the babies. However, far more unlikely is the child’s having any memory of all of events that took place on the day of her birth. And this is implied in her scenario. In fact, to say "far likely" is an understatement. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the belief that the human brain can recall vividly events that occurred on the day of birth. In fact, the best evidence is that organized memories are not to be found in the brain prior to approximately the age of two.

Betsy: Stuff, my birth mother loved me so much they put up signs for girl or boy and just to like . . .

Gardner: Okay, you said the boys have penises and what do the girls have?

Betsy: ‘Ginas.

Gardner: ‘Ginas? Okay, so did your mommy choose you?

Betsy: Uh huh.

Gardner: She chose a girl?

Betsy: Yeah, ‘cause she the birth mother, one of the, a special man I know, a special man washed me.

Mother: A special man washed you?

Betsy: Uh huh, and then he told the birth mother "It’s a girl," ‘cause when I was in the bath he knew ‘cause he took me out and he looked at me.

Gardner: This is when you were born?

Betsy: Uh huh.

Mother: The special man gave you a bath and he said to the birth mother . . .

Betsy: No, no he took me out, and he dried me and . . .

Mother: He saw your ‘gina . . .

Betsy: He saw, he saw my ‘gina and he just said to the birth mother, "It’s a girl." And the birth mother said, "Yeaaa" and she said, "Put up a sign and tell all the other special men to put up signs and check the baby and dry it off like you did this time . . ."

Gardner: You remember all this?

Betsy: Yeah, ‘cause I saw him do that stuff when I was a baby.

We see here confirmation that Betsy has a significant problem differentiating between fact and fantasy. She is stating here that she actually saw a man in the delivery room who was looking at her genitals in order to ascertain whether she was a boy or a girl.

Gardner (incredulously): You saw him do that?

Betsy: I saw him check, and he looked down and he was holding me like this (Anna bends her head to look at her crotch area) and I saw him check down . . .

Gardner: You saw him check your vagina?

Betsy: Uh huh. And then I just bended my head slowly (turns to mother) you weren’t here. And I just bended my head and I looked so cute he liked it and then I smiled and he smiled. . . .

Gardner (to mother): Say that again.

Here we have a fantasy of a man cuddling Betsy while looking at her genitals. In response, she is being "cute" and then Betsy states, "I smiled and he smiled." There is a fantasy here of Betsy and the man actually flirting with each other, and this allegedly occurred soon after Betsy’s birth. Because I was not one hundred percent sure that I was hearing the patient correctly, I asked the mother to repeat what she had just said: "Say that again."

One might argue that this fantasy was somehow the derivative of bona fide experiences in which there was flirtation, seductivity, and glancing at Betsy’s genitals. One could also argue that these flirtatious interchanges were part of the seductive process between the abuser and Betsy. The alternative explanation is that Betsy’s molestation fantasy by her father is just that, a fantasy, and that we are seeing here yet another fantasy of a sexual encounter. Considering the incorporation of impossible elements, namely, recalling things that allegedly occurred on the day of birth, the latter explanation is far more likely than the former.

Mother: She said, "I smiled and he smiled. I had a little smile on." (Turns to daughter) Why were you smiling?

Betsy: ‘Cause I wanted him to know, ‘cause I was just doing this to my ‘gina. (Betsy now moves her hand under the table to demonstrate a motion that she made in the delivery room for the man to see.)

At this point Betsy was rubbing her crotch area.

Betsy: And he just looked down and I looked down and I smiled and I picked my head up and looked at his head, and he picked his head up and I smiled and he just smiled too, like this (Betsy demonstrates his smile).

Again, more flirtatious interchanges between this fantasized man and Betsy.

Mother: Why did he smile?

Betsy: ‘Cause he was happy ‘cause I was like,

Gardner: (Motions to mother not to interrupt the child.)

At this point, I considered the mother’s question, "Why did he smile?" (here posed the second time) to be a contaminant in that the mother was pulling Betsy down a particular track. Because I wanted Betsy just to "flow," I motioned to the mother not to speak.

Betsy: ‘Cause he liked my little smile so he smiled too ‘cause he was happy I was a girl, ‘cause he liked a girl. So he just like told the birth mother so the birth mother said, "Tell all the other special men to get some signs." And he just writ [sic] signs, he was holding me. . .

Gardner: Wait a minute (to mother), tell all the special men, what? Tell me what she said.

Mother: Tell all the special men to make a sign, is that what you mean?

Gardner: Make a sign to say what?

Betsy: To say, he made a sign, and I was looking. And the birth mother was holding me right next to the table, and he was sitting down.

Gardner: The birth mother was ....

Mother: The birth mother was holding you next to the table . . .

Betsy: She was laying down

Mother: She was laying down.

Here we see further elaboration of this fantasy, namely, it is now the birth mother, while lying down, who is holding Betsy next to a table.

Betsy: You want to know . . . she got a special kind of bed, like you want to bend your knees up? She bended her knees up and the bed just bended up, and she looked up like that. And then she said, "Look." And I just looked. And he said, "Girl or boy, girl or boy" and then he just gave it to the ones and he washed all the other babies and he checked and then he just gave the ones, what whether it was a girl or a boy.

Gardner: Okay, anything else you want to tell me about that? That’s a memory, you remember these things?

Betsy (nods her head affirmatively): Mmm hmmm.

Gardner: Are you sure you remember these things?

Betsy (nods head affirmatively again): Mmmm hmmmm. And like (turns to mother), my mom wasn’t here, until, she got, and then when, my mom came. And then she just looked at every sign and then she came to the last sign, and it said "Girl" and she walked in and saw me while I was hiding under the covers.

Here we see the common fantasy of adopted children that they are selected from a row of children. However, Betsy now recalls herself hiding under the covers at this point.

Gardner (turns to mother): Now she said?

Mother: "She said my mom came and she checked all the signs, and she saw the girl and she went in." And then she said, "I was hiding under the covers."

Gardner: And you remember your mom coming there when you were born?

Again, a preposterous element in the fantasy, namely, that she recalls her mother coming to the hospital to see her at the time of her birth.

Betsy: Mmmm hmmm. ‘Cause the birth mother was looking at me (turns to mother) and you didn’t even see the birth mother ‘cause she was in there too, hiding.

Mother: She was hiding too? I didn’t see the birth mother, ‘cause she was hiding too.

Betsy: And then I peeked out and you said, "Do you have a birth mother?" I just shrinked my head and I just pulled the covers back over . . .

Hiding under the covers here is probably an age-appropriate prank, so common among children.

Mother: I said, "Do you have a birth mother?" and you put the covers back over your head.

Betsy: Uh huh, you didn’t even see the birth mother because she was like under the bed because she had a big, big bed.

Here, the birth mother is now hiding under the bed—another preposterous element in this absurd fantasy. But fantasies need not follow any rules of logic, and they certainly do not have to concern themselves with things like reality.

Mother: I didn’t see the birth mother ‘cause she was under the bed. She had a big, big bed.

Betsy: A giant bed, like as big as this room . . .

Mother: As big as this room.

Betsy: ‘Cause that room was bigger than her bed, so that’s why she had a big bed so she whenever somebody comes, the mom, so she can just trick the mom . . .

Here, the use of the word "trick," lends confirmation to my earlier statement that the main significance of Betsy’s hiding under the covers is that it is a childhood prank.

Mother: So whenever the mom comes, the birth mother can trick the mom.

Betsy: Yeah, yeah, then she just said to me . . .

Gardner: Whenever the mom comes?

Mother: Whenever the mom comes, the birth mother can trick the mom (turns to child) by hiding?

Betsy: Yeah, yeah, in her big bed.

Mother: In her big bed.

Betsy: I just shrinked under the bed . . .

Mother: You shrinked under the bed.

Betsy: Under the covers.

Mother: Under the covers.

Betsy: And then I just, crawled . . .

Gardner: Okay, we’re going to stop.

At this point, I decided to interrupt the fantasy and move on with the evaluation. I had learned enough to conclude that Betsy has a significant problem differentiating fact from fantasy, in that most children her age would recognize that a thought about the day of their birth is not the same as a true memory of this event. They might play a game in which they were making believe that they were being born, but they would know that they were merely pretending. Betsy does not make this differentiation. We are being provided here with confirmation of my belief that Betsy’s sex-abuse allegation is, what she called, "A true lie," namely, a fantasy that for Betsy is the truth, because of the fusion of the two in her mind. Perhaps she is thinking that a fantasy has a reality of its own. We see here some link between masturbatory behavior and some fantasized man who is looking at Betsy’s genitals. We have good confirmation here that children of Betsy’s age will spontaneously fantasize sexual encounters.


This vignette provides compelling proof of the normalcy of childhood sexual fantasies. It proves also that a fantasy may just be a fantasy and does not necessarily have to have a basis in fact. It requires significant stretching of one’s imagination and a complete ignorance of human cognition to conclude that this child is relating actual events. To believe this story, one must believe that this child had recollections of some "nice man" flirting with her within minutes of her birth. And one must believe that she has actual memories of a wide variety of other details of events surrounding her birth. It provides compelling evidence for the normalcy of children’s sexual fantasies and compelling proof that such fantasies do not necessarily reflect reality.


Gardner, R.A. (1992). The psychotherapeutic techniques of Richard A. Gardner, second edition. Cresskill, New Jersey: Creative Therapeutics.

________ (1995), Protocols for the sex-abuse evaluation. Cresskill, New Jersey: Creative Therapeutics, Inc.