Few would argue that the experience of sexual abuse is deeply traumatic for a child. But in this explosive new book, psychologist Susan Clancy reports on years of research and contends that it is not the abuse itself that causes trauma—but rather the narrative that is later imposed on the abuse experience. Clancy demonstrates that the most common feeling victims report is not fear or panic, but confusion. Because children don’t understand sexual encounters in the same ways that adults do, they normally accommodate their perpetrators— something they feel intensely ashamed about as adults. The professional assumptions about the nature of childhood trauma can harm victims by reinforcing these feelings. Survivors are thus victimized not only by their abusers but also by the industry dedicated to helping them. Path-breaking and controversial, The Trauma Myth empowers survivors to tell their own stories, and radically reshapes our understanding of abuse and its aftermath.The problem with this theory is that it confuses a lack of immediate response from the victim with a lack of immediate harm which is a form of trauma. When trauma is defined only as stereotypical upset that leads many people to believe there was no trauma.
This is the real trauma myth.
If a parent orders a child to mix and apply cancer-causing chemicals in violation of the warning label the impact of that immediate harm may take years to show up. Children who didn't throw a tantrum but who were confused about why a parent is making them do this task of course don't understand what the adult is doing in the way another adult would. Children are likely to be oblivious or uncertain of this trauma which has been inflicted upon them until someone learns about this and makes a stink.
Some of those who sexually abuse children may enjoy terrorizing children but others enjoy misusing the trust of a child. If complying resulted in the transformation of a parent's persistent verbal abuse into caring words the child craves, the abuser will have trained the child to have a positive association with the harm. This is additional harm, not a reduction of harm.
If the upset a child feels when an adult who is harming them is exposed is positioned as the child being victimized that can contribute to bystanders deciding not to intercede because the child doesn't seem to have stereotypical trauma and isn't obviously afraid of the abuser.
What the research Clancy examines should teach those who want to help children is that we all need to understand that responses meant to help victims and survivors of sexual abuse need to be sensitive to this contrast between harm and upset.
The way people who are trying to help directly impact a child's life can have that child preferring the harm they don't understand to a frightening unknown. A child who has been harmed by those who supposedly care the most about their well-being may have difficulty believing that others won't be as bad or worse. This does not mean that the sexual abuse they experienced was not in itself harmful.
If the immediate harm was being exposed to cancer-causing chemicals, most people get that the child isn't communicating that they were fully willing and fully knowing participants if they cling to the parent who harmed them. Unfortunately, many people will assume that victims of sexual abuse were fully willing participants if they are more afraid of the unknown than they are of sexual abuse and cling to a sexual abuser.
The issues about primary and secondary trauma are important, but these issues are much broader than the industry designed to accommodate child sexual abuse survivors. Our society as a whole has serious problems in viewing any sexual abuse or rape victim who accommodates a sexual abuser as a real victim. Too many people confuse accommodation with freely given consent. Too many people have trouble viewing those who didn't accommodate sex criminals as being real victims.
A reminder of this came in a post on Gender Across Borders:
A friend of mine is serving on jury duty right now. The jury on which she sits recently heard a rape case in which an undocumented woman was raped by the wealthy man whose home she was cleaning. (Lest this sound too Hollywood, I assure you none of this is fabricated or exaggerated in the interest of proving my point.) After hearing the tearful testimony of the witness and listening to the testimony of the doctor who examined her, the jury deliberated. The first comment came from a young man who, at first glance, seemed like a normal, responsible, caring human being. “I think the sex was voluntary. She is so well endowed… it’s only natural.”I wish this man's view were a 1 in a million fluke, but it isn't. Many times when girls too young to consent are raped and their rapists are charged with statutory rape, the defense will be that she looked sexually mature. When stories of these cases go online it is common to find comments which echo this rape denial.
This type of attitude impacts the harm done to those who have been victims of childhood sexual abuse. Shaming, blaming and denying victims clearly isn't limited to the industry designed to help survivors. Those who hold toxic views about sexual abuse may be among those who decide to work in that industry, but this doesn't seem to be who Clancy is disagreeing with.
If the actual full range of trauma was primarily caused by the industry designed to help survivors of childhood sexual abuse then those survivors with otherwise matching abuse who never saw anyone in this industry about their sexual abuse would as a group have significantly less harm. Their physical and mental health would be significantly better on average. They would be less likely to self-medicate and would be less likely to get PTSD or to be suicidal. They would be at no higher risk from subsequent abusers than those who were never sexually abused.
I have seen no evidence of this difference.
Some of those who have been sexually abused but who never went to therapy may find the theories in this book attractive since it gives an explanation for why they have less trauma than other survivors who did go to therapy. But this book doesn't seem to address how the identity of the abuser(s), the circumstances of the abuse and other factors beyond stereotypical immediate trauma can contribute to additional harm.
H/T: Feministing Community