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The Trauma Myth: Understanding the True Dynamics of Sexual Abuse

The dynamics of child sexual abuse are far more complex than we would like to admit.
 
 
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From the book The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children and Its Aftermath by Susan A. Clancy. Copyright © 2009 by Susan A. Clancy. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at

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As a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-1990s, I participated in research studies carried out by the psychology department that began in October 1996 and continued until August 2005 to interview adults who had experience sexual abuse as children and learn what effects the abuse had had on their lives. Although I was sure I knew what I would discover—that the abuse would be remembered as a horrible experience that overwhelmed the people I interviewed with fear when it happened and had always been viewed as a traumatizing occurrence—what I heard in the hundreds of interviews I conducted was quite different. In nearly all the cases, the adults I questioned had not experienced the abuse as traumatic when it occurred and only came to regard it as so years later. And in many of the cases, they had never been questioned about their evolving sense of the abuse and the ongoing impact that it had on their lives, but only about what the traumatic experience had been like at the time. These findings led me to question the progress professionals in the sexual abuse field have made when it comes to understanding and treating child sexual abuse.

Certainly we have advanced to the point that the right things are being said (sexual abuse is common and harmful; it is never the child's fault). Funding in the trauma field has been secured, research conducted, studies and books published, treatment centers established, and public awareness raised through sex-education programs and campaigns in the media. But is any of it translating into actual progress for victims? Do they feel that they're being helped, that they're understood and their needs are being served effectively?

The trauma model's main purpose—one of the primary reasons why mental health professionals welcomed it with such enthusiasm in the 1980s—was to provide an explanation for how and why sexual abuse wreaks such psychological and social havoc in victims. Armed with a better understanding of the impact of abuse, mental health professionals hoped to be better able to help victims cope with and recover from these damaging crimes.

The problem is that today, after more than twenty-five years, predictions based on the trauma model have not proved accurate. Characteristics of the sexual abuse experience related to trauma (like how frightening it was, whether penetration or force was involved, and how many times it happened) do not do a good job of forecasting the level of long-term psychological harm experienced. There appears to be no direct, linear relationship between the severity of the abuse and the psychosocial difficulties victims experience in adulthood. Worst of all, we have developed no clearly effective treatments for sexual abuse victims. They continue to suffer from psychological and social problems in the aftermath of their abuse, and mental health professionals still have not reached a consensus as to exactly why or what precisely to do to help them recover.

This state of affairs is far from surprising. How can trauma be the cause of harm if most victims say that the abuse was not traumatic when it happened? A growing number of scholars in the sexual abuse field are coming to agree that understanding how and why sexual abuse damages victims probably has little to do with the actual abuse and a lot to do with what happens in its aftermath. For example, as David Finkelhor concluded in his recent book Childhood Victimization, continuing research efforts that seek to track the consequences of early events through developmental, cognitive, and behavioral pathways may prove more fruitful than continuing the restrictive focus on the severity and nature of event-specific trauma. I believe that the victims themselves have always known this.