Friday, January 22, 2010

Trauma Myth

I learned about a new book titled The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children--and its Aftermath by Susan Clancy. Here's product description from

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


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posted by Marcella Chester @ 1:35 PM   12 comments links to this post


At January 22, 2010 2:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you.
Thank you.

gidget commando

At January 22, 2010 5:08 PM, Blogger JENNIFER DREW said...

Susan Clancy's claim that 'it is not the abuse itself that causes trauma - but rather the narrative etc.' This is a perfect method for rapists to excuse their sexual violence committed against a child, because they will claim (which they commonly do) that the sexual violence - ergo their sexual interaction with the child, did not actually harm the child.

Rather it was other individuals who caused harm and trauma to the child because of how they interpreted what the male rapist did to the child.

How many times have I not heard and read justifications and excuses for men's sexual violence being committed against a girl child, because the girl child supposedly 'seduced him' or the girl child was apparently 'sexually mature' or the girl child was a 'Lolita.' Meaning of course the girl child is not a human being but was just 'sex' and so the male rapist could not possibly have committed sexual violence against the girl child.

No need to perceive that children do not have the power adults hold and particularly male adults. No need to recognise that when a male (because it is overwhelmingly males) commit sexual violence against a child, they are violating the child's trust. Children are still taught they must trust known adults and when the known (male) adult violates that trust by committing sexual violence, this in itself is traumatic. How the child deals with the trauma varies, yet Susan Clancy does not recognise this. Instead she only holds accountable those who re-interpret the child's account.

All too child survivors of male sexual violence are told 'it was notning' and it is this minimalisation which intensifies what the child has already experienced.

Minimalising the effects of sexual violence is widespread within our society and when a child is told 'nothing really happened to you,' this in itself causes further confusion to the child as they attempt to make sense of something which they cannot make sense of.

As a result, the child's distrust of the world increases and they are then traumatised a second time. First by the male rapist, then by those who minimalise or claim 'nothing happened.'

Feeding this bias is the widespread belief that men are never responsible for committing sexual violence against another human being who they know or are related to. This applies irrespective of whether or not the survivor is an adult woman or a girl child.

Instead it is always supposedly the female victim who is held responsible for supposedly causing the male to commit the sexual violence.

This does not mean male rapists do not commit sexual violence agains adult males or boys but how society views such sexual crimes differ because the victims are male not female. Commonly male victims are believed to suffer far worse than female victims because their 'masculinity' has been feminised.

This is what our patriarchal society promotes - that male violence against women and girls is never as traumatic as male sexual violence committed against men and boys.

At January 22, 2010 10:50 PM, Anonymous m Andrea said...

She's using the MRA excuse: it only feels bad because other people told the victim to feel bad.

I'm thinking a victim would be doubly traumatized when someone says, "aw but didn't it feel good? Didn't you really like it sweetums? Didn't you just love having your bodily autonomy violated???"

You know, anyone who excuses pedophilia has some serious mental issues... And then to write a book explaining her grand "theory" which of course no one has ever heard before! So the question becomes, why on earth would anybody bother to publish such blatent quackery, and to pass it off as some kind of potential new treatment?

At January 23, 2010 8:45 AM, Anonymous Melissa said...

"It's not the abuse that's traumatic , rather the narrative" How did this hack even get published? I second mAndrea , that sounds like typical MRA garbage.

At January 23, 2010 11:34 PM, Blogger Ethereal Highway said...

I reframed my trauma, too. Care to guess the outcome? The man I took up with turned out to be a pedophile and he hurt my child. He wasn't REALLY hurt, though. No. He turned to drugs and crime and is spending the next eight years in prison with PTSD because trauma isn't really traumatic. THIS MAKES ME WANT TO THROTTLE SOMEONE. This author can kiss my ass. It makes me sick that an educated woman who ought to know better will apologize for her daddy on the backs of children. Yes, I'll come out and say what looks to be obvious! She and this work are the embodiment of everything that declares war on children. I find it sickening that people prefer to spread the denial instead of wake the hell up. This woman and her sick and twisted attitude remind me of my mother. And I will NEVER speak to my mother again. I don't care if she is old, sick, or whatever. I don't give a flying damn. Yes. I'm angry. I'm very, very angry. And I wouldn't piss on this woman were she on fire. Any enemy of children is my enemy, too.

At January 24, 2010 9:28 PM, Blogger Cold North Wind said...

I read Clancy's book -promoting blurb, and, as usual, my body responded by succumbing to a flu.
As a mother who reported to all and anyone who would listen about the sodomy and other sexual aggressions perpetrated on my babies and young children; only to lose custody of tiny girls to the child and animal rapist- -this Clancy person is criminal.Just- criminal. Of course the fathers' rights groups will seize it for their own. She echoes all the human rights' abuses proposed by NAMBLA and similar groups- pro pedohilia gangs and repeated by one of their heroes- Richard Gardner.
Thank you for writing, thank you for your blog and thank you to a network of mothers who work for human rights-in any way they can-. It is they who send me much information and keep me sane in the face of the criminal insanity which bombards us. My children now ? No contact- for years. One has the usual suicide attempts/ideation-depression- dissociative "mind swings" -given to arson-you name it. Another- don't know- but sounds like Stockholm Syndrome- a third- at the least- very mixed up. (a son)
Of course I paid child support to the rapist of my children- until the youngest was 25. I have nothing material to leave them- lost everything -like- houses,land etc. This is what this Clancy espouses ? The woman is mad -just- insane. Criminally insane.

At January 25, 2010 11:19 AM, Anonymous m Andrea said...

That pattern of turning abuse on it's head and embracing abuse as "empowerment" is quite common. And when you think about it, that particular justification is the only one which makes any type of "sense".

Consider: a thing blatently exists, the thing is blatently harmful, and the people doing the blatently harmful thing are people we care about. Our only options are to correctly label the practitioners as nasty pieces of filth for doing the blatently harmful thing, or, insist that the thing isn't really "that bad". And if it's not "that bad" then of course the victim should be blamed for making a mountain out of a molehill.

For most people, the explanation they choose has nothing to do with justice; the explanation they choose ultimately depends on who they value more: men or non-men. Feminists keep asking folks to think with their brain, to choose both men and non-men and justice all at the same time, but most folks would rather use their lizard brain to cope with such an emotionally charged issue and so revert back to a lifetime of male supremacy brainwashing.

Perhaps it's just my imagination, but I'm noticing a greater number of women making even more excuses for sexist norms. And the reason for that is entirely predictable; justifications always increase when the abused class finally realizes there is no escape, no improvement forthcoming. They identify with their abuser even more -- because the only other option is to lose their minds contemplating the fact that the one whom they love doesn't love them in return. But what they fail to realize is that both options involve the same form of insanity.

At January 25, 2010 11:24 AM, Anonymous m Andrea said...

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.

Sorry for serial posting, but that's also self-selective bias. People who seek out therapy are more likely to experience a greater degree of trauma. You don't go to the doctor for a band-aid, or if you've already convinced yourself that the gaping wound only requires a band-aid.

At January 29, 2010 10:14 AM, Anonymous The myth is that child abuse is not traumatic said...

The myth is that child abuse is not traumatic. Clancy's work minimizes the effects of child abuse, falsely states that some children enjoy the abuse, and blames the helpers of victims for somehow encouraging the child abuse victims to "interpret" the experience as traumatic. Reference on child abuse trauma

She states that recovered memory does not exist. Recovered memory has been proven to be a strong phenomenon with strong corroboration rates.

At January 29, 2010 10:34 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...


I read someone's review of this book and the cited cases of a child enjoying abuse seemed to be limited to very young children who were not penetrated and didn't have any understanding of what the adult or older child was doing.

To actually fit the description of enjoying being sexually abused requires a sexual understanding that these very small children didn't have. As long as an abuser didn't cause them physical pain they wouldn't know the difference between appropriate touch at bath time and inappropriate touch.

If this was the point Clancy was trying to make then the overall packaging of her message failed.

At February 02, 2010 9:12 PM, Anonymous Child abuse is traumatic said...

Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma - Editorial, Charles L. Whitfield
published in Whitfield CL: Adverse childhood experience and trauma. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4):361-364, May, 1998 "If the trauma is accepted as real and the victims’ or survivor's experience is validated and its expression supported, as happened in the Oklahoma City bombing incident, its short-term effects, also know as acute traumatic stress (American Psychiatric Association 1994), can be expressed, processed, ameliorated, or "metabolized" in a healthy way so that eventually few or no lasting detrimental effects remain (Herman 1992). However, if the reality of the traumatic experience is denied or invalidated by the victim-or by close or important others, such as family, friends, or helping professionals-then the person may not be able to heal completely from the adverse effects of the trauma. If the trauma continues, with still no validation and support in expressing its associated pain, it may develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which Rowan & Foy (1993) and others believe is a core disorder among unrecovered survivors of trauma."

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study:
(Summary by Charles L. Whitfield MD)
Felitti VJ, Anda RF, Nordenberg D et al: The relationship of adult health status to childhood abuse & household dysfunction. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14(4):245-258, May 1998
This important study was conducted on a large number of people (9,508 respondents of 13,494 [70.5%]). These were adults who were recently medically evaluated and then completed a 68 question survey about 7 categories of childhood trauma (adverse childhood experiences[ACEs]). The authors found that a large percentage of this general medical population reported the following traumatic experiences from their childhood....
Two Other Studies Show Similar Results
McCauley J, Kern DE, Kolodner K et al: Clinical characteristics of women with a history of childhood abuse: unhealed wounds. JAMA 277 (17): 1362-1368, 1997
Here, 424 of 1,931 women surveyed (22%) reported physical or sexual abuse during childhood or adolescence. When compared to the 88% who did not so report, those with abuse histories had more: physical symptoms (p<.001) and higher scores for : depression, anxiety (fear), somatization (physical symptoms and problems) and low self-esteem (p<.001), and more likely to: abuse drugs+/or alcohol, have attempted suicide, have a psychiatric hospital admission, have difficulty in relationships and less likely to be married. Half of those abused as children reported being abused as adults.
Walker E, Koss M, Bernstein D et al: Long-term medical outcomes of women with childhood sexual, physical or emotional victimization. Preliminary data, 1997....
Child abuse was associated with : 1) worse self-rating of health, 2) increased: * illness, * doctor office visits, * functional disability, * sexual and OB/GYN problems, *somatization, * dangerous risk taking (e.g. drinking and driving, alcohol abuse, smoking, not using seat belts, unprotected sex, promiscuity, overweight), and * current medical symptoms.

At May 13, 2010 12:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was not coached to remember my abuse by a doctor, who wanted me to see myself as a victim, despite what Clancy seems to be getting at with her book. I remembered this on my own, and despite what any doctor tells me, I believe myself with my own sense of conviction.

There is a lot of stuff I want to say but, I do not want to get into.

I have had a hard enough time trying to prove my experience of trauma as real in the first place.

Even the stuff that had less impact immediately seemed to sneak up and bite me, hard, when bad stuff happened. It compounded everything.

Of course I minimised it. Of course I became a "problem teen." I made up stories. I was called bad out of convenience.

I think this book does a disservice to victims who feel forced to minimise their experience for the sake of survival. I felt tremendous emotional pain after one experience, but convinced myself I could never go forth with pressing charges.

Even when I tried to press charges and was completely ignored, I was quickly labelled as the problem child in the family, and threatened with a psych hospital.

When I eventually self admitted to a psych hospital in my early twenties- all my experiences of abuse were minimised and dictated to me. Just saying alkie floosy was much easier to hang a label on, than taking the time for me to sort it out.

And oddly enough I was asked if I had "false memories" induced by a therapist.

In seeing my experiences, and interpreting the truth for myself, something was seen as "wrong" and diseased, despite the obvious.

I can understand if you didn't feel traumatised at the time of an incident, but I think the ideas behind are they same old, same old, denial of abuse.

When it is trauma it doesn't just go away. It changes with time, and often no doctor has to dig it up for you for you to realise the extent of it. Other life events can bring it up much faster.

When I got help finally I had already developed a framework of understanding my experiences. I just wanted another qualified human to tell my story to.


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