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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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When it was happening, Anne said she did not like what he was doing but was "definitely not traumatized." And she was not different from most of the victims who spoke to me. "I knew it was something I shouldn't talk about with my mother, but not really exactly totally sure why." After about eight months of intermittent abuse, Frank left town, and Anne said she "just didn't think much about it again." But then something changed.

Anne reconceptualized her abuse—she figured out the meaning of these previously ambiguous experiences. "I remember this like it was yesterday. . . . I was in eighth grade and my friend Jennie was over and she had seen her brother and his girlfriend making out and she was reenacting them rolling around on the ground and moaning and it was then [that] I remembered what happened; it reminded me of what happened. . . . I realized, totally all of a sudden, that what had happened to me was sexual—that I had basically been having sexual experiences with my babysitter when I was kid." It took Anne six years to cognitively reconceptualize what happened to her and understand that it was wrong.

Betrayal

When they discover that they have been abused, victims most frequently report feelings of betrayal. As Cheryl, a forty-three-year-old high school teacher on maternity leave with triplets, put it, "I realized that I trusted him, what he was doing, and I should not have. He knew he was doing something wrong, and he knew I didn't know. . . . It was all an elaborate game of sexual betrayal." As Neil, an AIDS activist working for a hospital in Boston, said, "I realized that it wasn't just what he did to me physically. At that moment [of discovery] I lost my father. He was no longer someone who loved and took care of me. I was just being used by him for his personal gratification."

For the victims who spoke to me, the degree of the betrayal was a function of two main variables. First, it depended on how close the victim felt to the perpetrator, on how much he or she trusted, cared about, or loved him. The second variable was the degree to which the victim believed he or she had been emotionally manipulated by the perpetrator or "taken in" by the situation. In those cases in which the abuse was traumatic when it happened (it involved force, violence, or pain), victims subsequently felt less betrayal. Since in these cases the children clearly understood the wrongness of the situation, any sense of betrayal arose immediately. And, because the children understood they were being victimized, the abuse was unlikely to happen again (or if it did, the child remained well aware of his or her victimization). Thus, victims did not have to undergo long periods in which they unknowingly fell prey to, as one subject told me, the perpetrator's "elaborate games of sexual betrayal." As Tom, a neurosurgeon, put it, "For two years, while it was happening I felt good about him. I believed him, all his lies and let him do whatever he wanted. It makes me sick to think about how much I trusted him, how much, for how long he took advantage of that." In other words, the degree of betrayal victims felt in the aftermath was an inverse function of how traumatic the abuse was when it happened: the less traumatic it was, the more betrayal victims reported.

As a consequence, many told me, this betrayal forced them to rethink the past. For many victims, a former sense of security is shattered; many report feeling a new sense of interpersonal insecurity and vulnerability. As Maria told me, "The day I understood what happened to me, I completely lost my own sense of security. The childhood I imagined I had—the safety that enveloped me—was shattered. The people who were supposed to be looking out for my well-being [and] taking care of me were not."