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Archive for the ‘Clancy, Susan’ Category

I may be walking into the lion’s den with this one, but here goes!

For a start – dreadful title.  The book should never have gone into print with this title and it is hard to escape the notion that it was contrived to create sensation.  From reviews elsewhere, it is evident that some people have reacted so strongly to the title that they have gone into hissy-fit mode without actually having read the book.

Susan Clancy is a researcher at Harvard University.  She studied a sample of over two hundred men and women who had been sexually abused as children and who responded to ads she had placed in the Boston Globe (and other newspapers) in the Boston area.

Briefly, what she found was that the majority of her subjects did not experience their sexual abuse as traumatic at the time it happened.  They were children, they did not understand sexual matters, they were puzzled, confused, sometimes pleased about the attention they received, but not traumatized at the time.  The trauma, with all its attendant psychological problems came later, when they realised and understood what had been done to them and all its implications.  Then came the sense of betrayal, of violation, shame, guilt, disgust, anger – all the things we associate with sexual abuse victims.

I must say that this came as no surprise to me – subject to the caveats in my notes below.  I have worked in a special prison unit for sexual offenders against children and I know only too well how most offenders “groom” their victims over time, to make their advances seem normal and innocuous, snaring children into sexual contact that can sometime be continued for years.  And, most sexual offenders are known to their victims, often being in positions of trust.

Susan C goes further, however in that she contends that sexual abuse therapists’ adherence to the trauma model of sexual abuse (that the abuse must have been traumatic at the time it occurred and that a child will only participate in abuse if forced threatened or coerced,)  discounts victims’ experience and “shackles (them) in chains of guilt, secrecy and shame.”  She thinks that adherence to the trauma model brings about a situation whereby victims do not find their experiences understood, do not experience satisfactory outcomes in therapy and that all of this allows a climate of sexual abuse to continue.

This, of course raises more hackles!

I have read the book carefully and it is plain to me that Susan C has a compassionate regard for victims of sexual abuse, has an understanding of the people she had contact with and is quite unequivocal that sexual abuse can never be seen as the responsibility of the victim, in any way, nor can victims be blamed for the abuse.  That said, I don’t necessarily agree with all she has said.

For a start, I wonder how many experienced sexual abuse therapists adhere to the trauma model in quite the way she has described.  I would be surprised if most nowadays do not have an understanding of the grooming process I alluded to above and how this can “normalise” the experience of abuse for a child – for a time.

More tellingly perhaps, I think she generalizes too extensively from the experiences of the subjects in her study.  She states in the introduction that she avoided recruiting subjects from therapists’ offices to avoid ending up with a biased sample ( i.e. those in therapy.)  Instead she placed ads in newspapers.  She does not appear to realise that in doing this, she would have ended up with a different form of biased sample – those who could read, who would read, who would respond to a newspaper ad, who could respond (many are in institutions, for example.)   

So the outcome is a book which seems to have sharply polarised many people and deeply offended some.  It is worth reading for the fact that it outlines a number of features of sexual abuse of children which should be evident.  And her ideas are worth exploring and debating.  At the same time, it contains a number of statements (victims make “errors of judgement” for example,) that would make many of us uneasy.  I suspect that had she been a therapist carrying out this research, she would have written a somewhat different book.

Additional notes for those who are interested:

There is a continuum of  severity of sexual abuse and of the way victims experience it.  I don’t think the book covers this particularly well.  It is not a smooth continuum either, but has various links and side-roads and can be very complex.  Below are some of my understandings of this – doubtless I have missed some things:

Warning – what follows is very unpleasant.

1.  The child is accosted by a stranger.  Intrusiveness can range from exposure to severe sexual assault/violation. This “stranger danger” is relatively rare, but it happens.  Injury may be extensive.  Depending on the level of intrusiveness, trauma may be immediate and severe, depending on severity of assault.

2.  Injury following sexual abuse (from any source) can be severe, requiring surgical intervention – bowel resection, anal repair, vaginal repair etc.  Trauma, in such cases, is immediate and severe.

3.  Abuse of child takes place within a subculture of endemic sexual abuse – either a family or community.  Adults know what is going on, but lack the will or knowledge to stop it.  Abuse may be accepted as part of growing up and victim’s feelings are not considered, or are discounted.  Offenders often do not consider they have done anything wrong.  Trauma us usually immediate and severe.

4.  Sexual abuse takes place in the context of other familial abuse – physical, psychological, intimidation, random severe punishment, scapegoating etc.  Often also a climate of violence, drug/alcohol abuse, neglect etc. Victim’s feelings are not considered and abuse may be seen as taking pressure off others.  Usually multiple and immediate traumas.

5.  Abuse takes place in the context of a severely dysfunctional family.  Caregiving parent sometimes knows of the abuse and colludes with the abuser.  Child may be punished for not complying with abuser’s demands.  Trauma is immediate and severe.  Probably multiple traumas.

6.  A variation of #4 above – abuse takes place in the context of wider community neglect, violence drug abuse, poverty, maltreatment etc.  No one knows, or particularly cares about the abuse.  Victim may or may not be groomed by offender.  Trauma may be delayed or immediate.

7.  A child may experience serial sexual abuse by several abusers.  These children often learn to please adults by complying with abuse advances, or may even initiate sexual contact.  Trauma may be delayed but always severe.

8.  Offender is known to the victim, and is often in a position of trust, for example baby-sitter, parent, uncle, aunt, older sibling etc.  The child is “groomed” so that the abuse, when it occurs appears innocuous or “normal.”  As noted in the book, the child may be puzzled, confused, vaguely disturbed, may be pleased to receive the attention and may respond to the abuse.  Trauma is delayed, but then often severe, especially if the child responds to the abuse.  I have heard people say “I went along with this sick ****.  I even enjoyed it – therefore I must be a sick ****.”

9.  A variation of #7 is that the victim is groomed by the offender, but also intimidated or coerced, or blackmailed into silence.  “If you tell, I will go to jail.  If you tell, no one will believe you.  If you tell you will go to jail.  If you tell I will hurt you (hurt your mother) etc etc.  The child is aware that something is dreadfully wrong and trauma develops rapidly.

10.  Children may be sexually abused by other children – either older or younger than them.  A degree of sexual contact amongst children may be considered normal (playing doctors and nurses sort of thing) but some assaults by children on other children may be quite disturbed and nasty and are committed by the next generation of sexual offenders coming on-line so to speak.  Trauma may be immediate and quite severe.

I note these categories as if they are clear cut and distinct.  They may be, but there may also be blurring or mixing of various features – for example, a child may be subjected to a grooming type abuse over time by a trusted person, in the context of a violent neglectful family who have inflicted physical and emotional abuse on the child.

Child abuse victims often become sexualized and act out sexually, sometime initiating sexual activity.  (See, for example, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Perry & Salavitz – reviewed on this site.)  This, unfortunately can play right into the hands of offenders, who smugly proclaim that it wasn’t their fault, as the child started it.  Yeah right!   Such children often also display a range of disturbed behaviour from an early age (school problems, emotional outbursts, alcohol consumption, difficult behaviour etc)

I would have to say that many of the (adult) clients I see, who have been sexually abused as children, have grown up in badly dysfunctional families and/or communities in which other forms of abuse (eg physical, emotional) have been common.  Most of these people, as kids, knew there was something badly wrong at the time.  They dreaded going to the swimming pool with Grand-dad, or off with Dad in his truck, or the regular visits from uncle Victor, but felt helpless to do anything about it.  Their trauma began immediately and sometimes continued for years. 

Whilst I recognise that many sexual abuse victims experience their abuse in the way that Susan C relates it,  I would hesitate to say that this is the majority experience without a lot more research backing.  It should be obvious from the above that the sexual abuse of children can be very complex and varied and that making categorical statements from a sample of people in one particular city, in part of one country, at one time, is not a good basis for wide generalization.

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