Personal Health  
comments_image Comments

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.

Continued from previous page


No professionals explicitly discuss with victims or highlight the real dynamics of sexual abuse—that victims rarely resist it, often care about the perpetrators, and often receive "benefits" for participation, like praise, attention, and gifts. In fact, this kind of information may actually be suppressed. It appears to be an article of faith among professionals that you should not talk about aspects of sexual abuse that run counter to the trauma model at all. A wildly popular book written for professionals by Judith Herman warns professionals not to talk about the issue of consent as doing so will likely make the victims "feel revictimaized again."

Because of the trauma myth, I am aware of no public information campaigns that say, "Kids don't know enough to say no." There are no books telling victims, "You let it happen, and it's okay. It's normal. You were too good to know bad." I know of no newspaper stories in which the victim comes forth after years to press charges and explicitly says, "I would have done it earlier, but I just didn't understand I was abused until now." Today, as a function of the mental health field's relentless emphasis on trauma, force, and violence and the subsequent embargo on any real-world, practical information about the reality of sexual abuse, most victims' experiences slip under the radar—their stories are ignored, dismissed, overlooked, or denied by the very people who purport to be trying to help them.

What is the consequence? For victims, it is significant. They naturally compare what happened to them with the depictions of abuse in cultural scripts. As James, a nurse, told me, "What happened to me was different from other kids. I . . . well . . . it's hard to say out loud, but basically I let it happen." There is something wrong with me. As Denise, a bathing-suit model, noted, "I wasn't afraid. Sometimes I liked it. Obviously something's screwed up with me." I am alone. Claudia explained, "My abuse did not involve such force and violence. I basically let it happen . . . so it wasn't classical abuse."

Given the degree of betrayal, guilt, and isolation victims feel, it is not surprising that they also commonly report shame.


Shame is an awful emotion, one in which the self is viewed as incompetent and as an object of ridicule, contempt, and disgust. Individuals feeling shame often view themselves as damaged and unworthy. Unfortunately, most victims use the word "shame" to describe how their abuse makes them feel as adults. As one victim summed it up, "I think the heart of the damage is shame. It eats away at me. It has eroded my sense of self-esteem and my confidence, my ability to love and feel loved. The abuse stopped when I was twelve; the shame remained my whole life."

Further support for the perspective that what damages most victims has little to do with any trauma they experience during the abuse and a lot to do with the shame, guilt, and isolation they feel later on in life comes from the fact that in the handful of studies that have specifically tested it, therapeutic techniques involving cognitive retraining—identifying victims' irrational beliefs (for example, that the abuse was their fault) and then helping them to modify these beliefs (for example, by providing convincing information about why it was not their fault)—have shown solid promise in improving the lives of victims in the aftermath of sexual abuse.

Today, victims need to hear the truth. This requires us all to highlight publicly the true dynamics of sexual abuse—to expose the painful reality that most victims care for and trust the perpetrator (before, and sometimes during and after, they are abused), that they do not really understand the nature of what is being asked of them, that they feel they are receiving love and attention, that it does not hurt and sometimes feels good, and that, for all these reasons, participation is common.