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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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Once exposed to the truth about how victims feel and behave during sexual abuse, victims need to hear, loudly and clearly, why they were not at fault. We cannot accomplish this with platitudes or blanket statements like "You were not to blame" or "It was done against your will." They consented not because they were forced to but because they did not understand enough not to. And victims need to know that this is normal. Although they made an error of judgment—ideally they should have said no; they should have resisted—we must reassure victims that given their age and level of cognitive and physical development, this error of judgment was understandable.

In short, in order to help victims feel less stigmatized in the aftermath of sexual abuse, we must all communicate that they were helpless victims—not, as the trauma model portrays them, literally helpless but metaphorically helpless, victims of their own level of development.

This information needs to be highlighted in the form of prevention campaigns, books, websites, and other culturally accessible outlets. Until that happens, victims will continue to feel alone, guilty, and ashamed.

Professionals may fear that raising attention to children's participation in abuse will elicit in others a tendency to condemn victims, but I think we better get past this. Victims are already condemning themselves. Here is the tragic paradox. If the victim's cognitive interpretation of the event guides the process of psychological adaptation after sexual abuse, then the trauma theory is not only wrong but actually backwards. The less traumatic sexual abuse was when it happened, the more betrayal, guilt, isolation, and shame victims will feel and the more psychological distress and dysfunction they may experience in the aftermath. And because it is backwards, the trauma model is not just failing to help victims; it is actually causing some of the harm it was supposed explain by simultaneously exacerbating the victim's damaging beliefs ("It was my fault," "I am alone," "There is something wrong with me") and suppressing the information that would neutralize them.

Susan Clancy is the author of The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children and Its Aftermath