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Susan Clancy argues that most young children who are sexually abused by adults do not experience trauma at the time. Yet these experiences do cause major mental health problems for the abused children when they reach puberty or their teenage years, as they come to better understand what sex is and what happened to them. They then feel guilt and feel very betrayed by the person who abused them. So the abuse is terribly damaging. Clancy emphasizes that the sexual abuse is tremendously damaging, even though it is rarely traumatic at the time it is happening.
Clancy rejects the model that the trauma of sexual abuse is the main cause of damage. She argues that most children are not physically hurt in sexual abuse, and indeed often cooperate with their abusers. They may enjoy the attention they get and the rewards such as toys that their abuser gives them. There is rarely physical violence or even threat of violence. Regarding the sexual activity, which is rarely penetrative, children may not like it or may have mixed feelings about it, but their primary reaction is confusion: they don't know what is happening and the abuser does not explain what they are doing or gives a confusing explanation.
If the child does not tell anyone, then they find themselves very isolated with a secret. But if they do tell their families, then very often the family does want to hear, and will not respond or else will blame the child. It is very rare for a family to react in a supportive way. It can even be that families that try to be supportive by sending their children to therapy may be doing more harm than good, because so much therapy is problematic. It is often problematic because clinicians are so wedded to the trauma model, that all sexual abuse must have been traumatic at the time, but this does not fit well with many people's actual experience and the treatment is not only unhelpful, but can be harmful.
If you read Amazon.com's reader comments, you will find very divided reviews, with some readers strongly praising the book and others roundly condemning it. This is not surprising, because the politics of childhood abuse and the associated debates over recovered memories are so bitter. Her critics attack the scientific credibility of her arguments and even argue that her position is soft on pedophiles.
The main empirical issue at issue is whether children who have sexual experiences with an adult always or nearly always find them frightening, painful, and in other ways traumatic at the time they are happening. Clancy's position is that most do not. Her opponents seem to be those who insist that sexual experience with an adult is necessarily traumatic at the time, and if it is not remembered as traumatic, this is because of repression or dissociation. It helps to understand the debate over the trauma model as an extension of the debate over repressed and recovered memories. The recovered memory movement argues that memories of traumatic abuse are often repressed and can be recovered through hypnosis or psychotherapy. Researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus and Richard McNally have argued that there is no such thing as recovered memory, and that people who have traumatic experiences tend to remember them vividly. In a slightly ironic twist, Clancy (who as a grad student worked with McNally at Harvard) argues that sometimes people will not remember their childhood sexual abuse precisely because it was not traumatic at the time.
It is difficult to assess the debate. Clancy outlines her research in this book, but she does not set it out fully. Rather she summarizes and gives some highlights. Some of her results have been published in scientific journals, and she was at Harvard, which gives her some scientific respectability. Yet non-experts are not in a strong position to judge the controversies about what the data show or the meta-level debates about what counts as evidence and what counts as good science. This book, which is aimed at a general audience, certainly does not provide the scientific evidence in itself to make its case completely. Furthermore, Clancy herself occasionally partakes in the heightened rhetoric, especially in interviews but also in this book, which brings more attention to the issues but kicks up so much dust it is harder to assess which side has the more plausible arguments. Given that her previous book was firmly in the recovered memory debate, being about memories of alien abductions, (Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens, Harvard UP, 2005), it is hard not to conclude that she enjoys controversy and press attention, even though she has said in interview that she is thin skinned and left Harvard to avoid the nasty debates over these issues. Whatever her own motives, it is clear that we still need more research on these issues and a more thorough survey of the whole area, addressing the evidence and what counts as evidence, before the issue will be close to scientific settlement.
Nevertheless, Clancy's claims are extremely plausible. Sexual abuse is normally done by someone the child trusts, and it is mostly unreported. A man having intercourse with a young girl (the average age of abuse is 10 years old, according to Clancy) will almost inevitably cause obvious physical damage that could easily be noticed. Similarly, using violence to achieve sexual contact will also be much more likely to be noticed. It just makes more sense to suppose that abusers will tend to use their authority and the children's trust in them in order to get the sexual contact they desire. They will not want to cause pain and they will want the child to be alone with them again, so they will use other methods rather than violence or force, and they will reward children for cooperating. Children who are otherwise starved for attention and affection may well feel special and even close to their abuser because they have been singled out. Clancy quotes one man remembering that when he thought his abuser had stopped with him and started with another boy, he felt jealous. Abusers will tend to prey on vulnerable children who do not have strong support in their families who are hoping to get affection from elsewhere. It is also entirely possible that children will respond sexually to their abusers if there is no violence. They may experience a combination of fear, bewilderment and pleasure. The confusion that Clancy reports may not only be about what their abuser is doing to them, especially if it is done in the dark, with no talking or with strange euphemisms, and with a shroud of silence over it afterward: it may also be confusion about how to react because the experience produces so many sharply diverging feelings and emotions.
Furthermore, Clancy's analysis seems to fit better into the complexities of childhood experience. She points out that children are constantly being told what to do, and to do things that they don't want to do. They have to receive injections from doctors and nurses, they have to eat food they hate, they have to engage in activities they hate (such as sports or playing musical instruments), and spend time with other children and adults they don't like. Sometimes they are physically punished for their actions by their parents or other family members. Suffering non-violent sexual abuse could easily be perceived at the time as just another thing they are made to do by an adult with power over them. One of the major differences regarding the sexual abuse is the fact that it is never talked about, never integrated into their experience, and never conceptualized in ways that make sense to them. Often young children have no understanding of sex or adult genitals, and even if they have some basic knowledge of human reproduction or have watched porn videos, they are still going to be too young to have a good understanding of what any of that has to do with their own experience. We might similarly compare debates over little girl pageants and the controversies about them. The girls may dress up in provocative clothes and even know how to pose and dance in ways that copy adult sexiness, but the girls themselves don't understand the sexuality involved. Indeed, they are given other ways to think about what they are doing, and of course, their activities are not at all shrouded in silence and denial. In sexual abuse, the child is left with a dark secret that he or she cannot tell. As they get older, they come to realize how they were being used for their abuser's pleasure and they see how they participated in that, and this leads to a terrible sense of betrayal and guilt, making trust in others very difficult.
So Clancy's account has a huge amount of plausibility given what we understand about children's experience and the ways that adults can take advantage of children. Clancy not only emphasizes how damaging sex abuse is for children, but she can be seen as expanding our understanding of what is wrong with sex abuse. On the trauma model, what is wrong is the trauma to the child: pain, fear and suffering. But on Clancy's account, there does not need to be pain, fear or suffering, and yet the sex abuse can still cause just as much emotional damage in the long run.
While it has flaws, The Trauma Myth is an important contribution to the debate over childhood sexual abuse. The most important work to be done in its wake is to better understand what is going on for the growing child as he or she lives with the secret of the abuse and then starts to see it as the start of his or her sexual life as they become more sexual beings in their teenage years. While there will surely be a variety of points of view in this area, we might hope that the pernicious "memory wars" and now possible "trauma wars" that characterize the debates in this area will soon fade away and will be replaced by more productive dialog.
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York