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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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Betrayal affects not only victims' feelings of security and trust in others but also their self-worth. They feel that since they must not have been loved, perhaps they were not worth loving. As Charles, a history professor, explained to me, "You learn that who you are and what you might want or need just does not matter."

Considering the degree and extent of the betrayal victims felt, I expected anger at the perpetrator to be a common reaction. Yet only 5 percent spontaneously reported feeling angry at their abuser. Why would the victim of a crime punishable in almost any court system in the world not be angry at the perpetrator? According to victims, it is because they turned the anger inward. Most, to a shocking extent, blamed themselves.

Self-Blame

According to philosophers, psychiatrists, and intellectuals from Aristotle to William James, from Sigmund Freud to Donald Spence, when bad things happen to people—like discovering they were sexually abused by an adult they trusted—it is human nature to want to engage in a search for meaning, to understand why the event occurred and what its implications for one's life are.

As victims struggle to make sense of their experiences, they engage in an attribution process: they scan through all the possible explanations they can generate to come up with the one that they believe fits best. Traditionally defined, attributions are individual causal explanations for why events occur.

If a victim asks, why did someone I trusted abuse me? there are, of course, endless possible answers. For example, he was screwed up or drunk, or I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The famous attributional theorist, Martin Seligman, would refer to this category of answers as "external explanations for negative events." It assigns responsibility for the event to someone or something else. But almost all the victims I've spoken with, to some degree, endorse an "internal" explanation. They see the abuse as their fault—caused by their own characteristics or behavior.

I asked victims who was to blame for the abuse—them, the perpetrator, or both. Almost 80 percent felt both were at fault. While almost all could acknowledge that the perpetrator was responsible, they also thought they had done something wrong too.

Again, I have found that the degree of guilt victims feel in the aftermath of sexual abuse is strongly related to the degree of trauma experienced during the abuse when it happened. Specifically, the less traumatic (forceful, frightening, threatening) the abuse was while it occurred, the more guilt and self-blame the victims report later on. Those victims whose abuse involved force or violence usually report the least guilt. In such cases, the victims know it was not their fault. One of the victims I spoke with summarized this quite well: "I was bleeding. I screamed when it was happening. He ran away. I got rushed to the hospital. It was pretty clear to me that he had done something wrong, that it was definitely not my
fault." Victims who report no trauma at all during the abuse (for example, those who loved the perpetrator, enjoyed the attention, or occasionally welcomed the contact) feel extremely guilty.

Today, most adult victims' knowledge about sexual abuse, about what it is like when it happens and how children react at the time, is a function of what they hear, read, and see in the media—the culturally available, standard scripts about this crime. Because of the trauma myth, according to these scripts, sexual abuse usually involves fear, force, and threat. The experience is portrayed as terrible for the victims. They are frightened when it happens. They try to resist the abuse. Whatever happens clearly happens against their will. Books, films, and websites repeatedly assure victims that they had no control, that they were utterly helpless. Words like "rape," "assault," and "violation" are commonly used to conceptualize the experience.