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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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Jen was a sixty-five-year-old, divorced, retired administrative assistant. A tall, big-boned redhead with long purple fingernails, she was up front about lots of things. She did not like the coffee I gave her, my office was too cold, and she did not like the color of my hair. We were at the part of the interview when I asked her to rate how traumatic her abuse had been when it occurred. She did not like the questions I asked.

"Nothing personal," she said, "but these questions are kind of dumb. If you are trying to do what you say you're trying to do, and figure out why the abuse screwed me up so badly, why are you asking so many questions about what it was like when it happened? What you need to be focusing on was what it was like later on."

I asked what she meant. "What I mean is that what it was like when it happened and what it is like now are two separate things entirely."

At that point in my career, I did not have a lot of experience interviewing sexual abuse victims. I had, however, a lot of experience interviewing victims of other kinds of horrible experiences (motor vehicle accidents, combat, natural disasters, abductions), and I had asked these subjects to rate how traumatic the events were at the time. No one in these studies had ever said this to me before. And as far as I knew at the time, scholars were not talking how perceptions of the traumatic nature of an abuse experience change over time—how an event not initially perceived as horrible could become so. They certainly talked about how symptoms of trauma (depression, anxiety) might not manifest themselves until long after the abuse, but they were not talking about how perceptions of the abuse itself can change.

I knew I had to consider Jen's words seriously. From that point on, I asked my question in two parts: What was the experience like when it happened? And what is the experience like for you today, looking back on it.

By the end of the study, the data was clear. Although sexual abuse was not a particularly awful experience for many victims when it happened, looking back on it, from their perspective as adults, it was awful—ratings of shock, horror, disgust, and even fear were all high. Obviously, perceptions of abuse when it occurs and when victims look back on it years later are entirely different. In addition, sexual abuse is very different from other kinds of terrible life experiences. For example, getting into a car accident is traumatic both at the time it happens and later when it is recalled. Sexual abuse, however, becomes traumatic later on. Why? What happens in the aftermath of sexual abuse?

According to victims, they did not experience the abuse as awful when it happened because most simply did not understand clearly the meaning or significance of the sexual behaviors they were engaging in. That being said, at some point later on in life, they do. Over time, the "cloak of innocence lifted," as one victim described it. Victims reconceptualized the formerly "confusing and weird experiences" and understood them for what they were—sexual in nature and clearly wrong. Only at this point—when the sexual abuse is fully apprehended—does it begin to damage victims.

Reconceptualization

When Anne, a twenty-eight-year-old mother of two, was eight years old, her mother started working outside the home. Between 3 P.M. when Anne got home from school and 6 P.M. when her mom came home from work, a neighbor and friend of her mother's named Frank would babysit. Frank sexually abused Anne. Sometimes, when Anne was sitting in his lap, he would "put his fingers inside my panties and feel me up . . . and while this was going on he would thrust himself up against my butt and he would be breathing heavy."