Societal Assumptions on Abuse and the Victim’s Perspective

Sexual abuse of children is morally revolting and a topic wrought with emotions. In the past few decades, awareness of the prevalence of child abuse and its psychological repercussions has increased. A “trauma model” has been built around sexual abuse that perceives it as being directly traumatic and frightening, and necessarily damaging.

Many psychologists now argue that what hurts most victims is not just the actual experience of abuse itself, but the meaning of the experience. How victims make sense of what happened and how these understandings make them feel about themselves and others have more long term psychological consequences.

Victims who were deeply traumatized by their experience are often angry and don’t feel guilty. However, many victims of childhood sexual abuse know and trust their abuser. They do not fully understand what is being done. Many such victims, in retrospect, reported that they did not initially experience the incidents as traumatic, they weren’t terrified; rather they were ‘uncomfortable and confused’. Any suffering they experienced came later, in the form of shame and guilt that they had somehow “consented” or that they did not experience the abuse as a horrifying trauma that the popular theory dictates they were supposed to have felt.

Victims whose experience was different might feel such because their case does not fit into the ‘trauma model’. When such victims mature and develop the capacity to understand their experience, they are confronted with a rhetoric that classifies sexual abuse as typically traumatic and frightening. They may learn to believe that their experience is abnormal and that there is something wrong with them. This may prevent them from seeking treatment, report the crimes, or worse they may believe that they never actually experienced sexual abuse.

Sometimes, well intentioned health professionals, whose interpretations of abusive experiences are more traumatic than actual events and effects, over emphasize abuse’s violence and fear which may differ from the actual experiences that victims might have had.

There is no doubt that using children for sex is an awful crime and it is also true that victims are often traumatized and need help. However, just as we now accept that “one size does not fit all” in treatment regimes, and that there is a need for personalized medicine, perhaps it is also time to accept these differences that different abuse victims might feel. Are we harming victims of abuse more by expecting them to feel traumatized? There is a danger of survivors being hence “victimized” not only by their abusers but also by the industry dedicated to helping them.

This line of thought is very controversial, going against the grain on an issue as sensitive as this may be misinterpreted by many as being insensitive to or complacent about sexual abuse. Everyone will agree that survivors of abuse need sensitivity and by respecting a victim’s personal perception of the incident is only a step towards achieving that goal.


Loftus, E., & Frenda, S. (2010). Bad Theories Can Harm Victims Science, 327 (5971), 1329-1330 DOI: 10.1126/science.1187716

Susan A. Clancy. The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children – and Its Aftermath. Basic Books, New York, 2010.

  • Anthony K

    An interesting point of view. Until recently I worked with very difficlt and damaged boys in a special school, some of whom – without doubt more than I knew about – had been sexually abused. I never got involved with any counselling to do with that specific area (though if I had concerns I certainly passed them on) but one or two things certainly struck me. The first was that the immediate consequences for the child of disclosure were, and would be, traumatic in themselves; the horror of social workers, police, family and others at the abuse itself, the process of endless interviews, case conferences, legal procedings and so on, and on and on could constitute a life event worse, psychologically, than whatever had actually happened, instilling a guilt in the victim that would last far longer than the (possibly) relatively mild events that inspired them.

    I felt quite strongly that, in cases without severe trauma or coercion, the child was in fact very badly served by the system set up to protect them.

    I mean if, on whatever level, the child had “consented” to a relationship with an adult – often a trusted one – then the child itself was somehow guilty: for if he wasn’t, why were all these awful things happening to him?

    (I became rather loathe to voice this. At one child protection course where I brought this up the instructor said: “that’s what paedophiles claim.” That shut me up.)

    But I don’t know the answer to this. We can’t downplay CSA, we can’t ignore it, and we must prevent it legally in every way we can: it does, however, seem unpleasantly ironic that our response to a victim’s disclosure seems exquisitely designed to prolong the victim’s suffering and to create in his or her mind the most fertile grounds for subsequent, lifelong trauma.

    I was also watching am interview documentary about two 11-year-old British girls who had been aducted, raped, and imprisoned for several days by a paedophile – pretty much the nightmare scenario, except that they were found, and saved. One of the girls (who are now OK and grown up) recalled her unhappiness for years afterwards with the breakdown of her relationship with her friend. This had to do with their counselling: after about a year the friend refused to go, while the other girl had to continue, and she found the constant reference, over and over again, to the events themselves destructive and distasteful – in a sense, the well-meaning counsellor was merely repeating and perpetuating the abuse itself.

    Sorry for the long post. I can’t see an obvious answer – perhaps it begins with an acknowledgement that there is a problem here and that society’s often hysterial response to paedophilia can sometimes harm the victims themselves.

  • Tamara

    Thx so much for this. I have personally railed against the insensitivity of people who automatically assume that someone who is abused as a child is going to be screwed up their whole life. Except this isn’t the case for all abuse victims. Many grow up, hand their issues and move on. It’s society that wants to cage them in as perpetual victims, which makes it hard to even talk about after the healing’s done, because people will end up judging healed “victims” after the problem has been dealt with.

    I wish we had a Mental Health Revolution like Jamie Oliver’s doing for healthy eating, ordinary people are so I’ll-prepared and under-equipped to handle these subjects and end up being insensitive and judgmental when what theyneed to be is compassionate and accepting.

    Speaking from experience… When folks find out what kind of childhood I had to endure, they actually want to deny me that reality because I’m otherwise so “put together” in their eyes, they can’t believe I would fit inside their personal definition of “damaged goods” (a permanent condition) which is, by and large, the prevailing stereotype in our culture.

    • nicola

      I just read your comment and wanted to ask you something. why? in your opinion do some abuse victoms survive while others fall apart. I am under the messed up for life catagory, I was told as a child I was destroyed and that has stuck with me ever since. I dont know weither abuse is resonsible for the state of my life, all I know is I just dont care anymore, I just want to sleep all the time or get drunk, I constantly want escape, not so much from my memories but from how i feel inside. I tried counselling and couldnt cope, found it unbearable. Is in strenght that makes some survive? cos I dont feel I have the fight in me for anything anymore.

      • I’m an incest survivor who’s well-recovered, thanks to persistence (even when I had no hope), good friends, support groups and skilled therapy. I had my SA come up in relation to a workers comp injury where they tried to argue that I had developed this heinous condition because I was damaged goods. It didn’t stick.

        You were told as a child that you were destroyed and it has stuck with you? Yes, the abuse you experienced is why you’re messed up. From outside, that’s clear.

        What you were told was false information. What was done to you was a series of horrible events, and every human life is made up of events, horrible, pleasant, mediocre, and otherwise. In the fullness of time, those hideous experiences can be pushed into a new perspective, and that heartbreaking lie of being “destroyed” can shift into words that reflect on the speaker, because they were not about you.

        This feeling of “don’t care” is called anhedonia. Knowing that will help you google ways to deal with it, besides drinking and zeroing out. Therapy that aims to give you some more strength before tearing those scabs off could be really helpful. You clearly need to remember your strength before bearing much more. But you’ve got it in you to survive. It’s not easy at all, but it’s worth it.

  • Eli

    Add me to the list of those who found the original sexual contact between me and the adult unacceptable, but certainly not ‘traumatic’ in any way. But I sure as hell did find the way others reacted to my revelations about the experience two decades later to be a very major life trauma, from which, a further two decades on, I still am trying to pick up the pieces and make something resembling a life. And I was supposed to be the victim that they were all ‘helping’! What a brutally incompetent farce.

    I bitterly regret ever mentioning it to anybody. (This is the first time I have since then.)

    Hysterical moralistic vigilantism from middle-class mediocrities, gutless opportunism from the political and legal class, and professional empire building by the psycho-babblers. A truly lethal cocktail.

    • I’m just saying

      Hysterical moralistic vigilantism from middle-class mediocrities, gutless opportunism from the political and legal class, and professional empire building by the psycho-babblers. A truly lethal cocktail.

      Wow. An absolutely brilliant statement that jarringly but oh-so-clearly put things into perspective for me. Thanks for writing that.

  • Morgan

    It is a very interesting article and i definately agree with everything that has been said. I am only a 17 year old student and this sort of thing strikes me, as with everyone else, as wrong and vile.

    But the problem is, the social perception of somebody who has been sexually abused is that they are going to be totally anti-social with the whole ‘relationship’ aspect of their life. I think that what society needs to be told and made to understand is that often these things (whilst needing to be dealt with for a short time) need to be left alone after a while because the ongoing reptition of the events in somebody’s head can lead to an even worse recreation of the vent, due to the wonderful, or in this case horrible, system of cretivity that the mind holds. Normally a while after the event has happened, some aspects of it are left behind in the even expanding line of time, and so are forgotten, thus leaving gaps in the event of the memory. Normally when the event is ignored there is no need for the memory blanks to be filled in, and it is when councelling comes in that the need by others for the whole event to come out forces the mind to think up what might have happened, often making it seem worse that it actually was in relation to how they feel about the abuse now.

    Also, just to add to what has been said before, i feel that a lot of the children that feel that they were in the wrong for being abused feel that way because often (in 50/50 of the cases) they are too young to really understand in the entirety what has happened. And since, as was stated before, that they often know and trust the person, and therefore look up to them, then the child may think that the adult knows more about what was going on than they do and can be left to feel as though they know nothing and so must trust the adult and agree with them.

    Sorry for the long post, just had a few things that i needed to say, for everyone to think about

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  • I’m just saying

    Interesting blogpost. I wanted to comment on a few things, particularly about how semantics are important, and how misuse of commonly accepted terms can produce exactly the type of situation this article is concerned with.

    First, I have concerns, in general, with the hijicking of the term “Abuse” to mean only Sexual Abuse. I realize that the authors of these articles often don’t write the Headlines/Taglines – that’s often done by misguided editors. For the record, this article itself was quite clear that it was referring to sexual abuse specifically. My concerns are with the title (“Societal Assumptions on Abuse”) and all others like them which are in fact referring to SA only, that have the overall effect of making non-sexual child abuse (which is ironically far more likely to produce actual severe trauma and death) essentially “disappear” from the public discourse and conciousness.

    Further, there is, as this article and many of its commenters have pointed out, somewhat of an “industry” unquestioningly pairing “Abuse” (by which they often mean ONLY SA) with “trauma”.

    Lastly, and where the above becomes problematic, this sometimes misguided use of the term “trauma” is used to encompass both “violation” (which many of the above descriptions of SA are) and the type of trauma which produces PTSD (which by definition means life-threatening to the point that the victim expected that s/he would not physically survive).

    So what we end up with, because we don’t really look closely at the terms we’re using, is an assumption that abuse=SA, and all SA=Trauma and Trauma=PTSD, therefore all SA requires the ‘full court press’ that is, in truth, probably warranted for those victims whose experience WAS threatening enough to produce PTSD.

    There are more implications to the situation described in your article. As a survivor of sadistic NON-sexual but severe physical and psychological abuse, where I was often threatened with death by my mother(a medical professional who knew how not to leave evidence), my non-sexual life-threatening trauma is invariably considered to be far less damaging because I didn’t experience SA, and there are absolutely no supports and resources for adult survivors that aren’t loaded with the assumptions that my abuse isn’t as relevant, important, or damaging. So the ‘full-court press’ of services, which I probably could have used and which would have validated and countered my experience of being a “disposable-at-whim, not-deserving-of-life, here-only-to-experience-pain-for-someone-else’s-pleasure human being” is unavailable to me and the unfortunate children who come after me, while simultaneously being (from the comments above) inappropriately ‘forced’ on those for whom it is more damaging than their original experience.

  • Just DonnoWat

    This is the first time I am writing on a Public Space. I think I was sexually abused as a child. This person – obviously known to me and trusted by my family (I was too young to understand trust and betrayal at the time) I must have been about 10 or 11. So this person came onto me in a way – I think. The abuse happened quite a few times over time. The abuse was not traumatic as such. Was it my fault? Did this person not understand what he was upto? I have had a lonely and depressed childhood. At that point of time I did not know how to say no. I thought it was normal. It did take away sometime from my otherwise lonely time. Was I abused? Or am I plain sick? Did I allow him to abuse me? Do I just think the abuse was not traumatic but actually what I am feeling now – is trauma? I am constantly worried now. I fear I am not good or clean enough. Lets see what you people can make of this. I have no idea what I am doing or what I will hear from you.

  • Anonymous

    As someone who has experienced abuse – sexual and psychological and violent in multiple ways, I can without a doubt say that this ‘one size fits all model’ is supremely problematic.

    Attempted rapes and actual rapes where I felt my life threatened were responded with all the bells and whistles at first; An article in the paper, life-long therapy, police involvement…. – but then dropped by the entire system (as many survivours experience) because of doubt, disbelief and an apathetic police force that performed improper investigations. The opposite of the hysteria claimed by this article – apathy really. This experience of apathy re-victimized me. The silence is deafening. My rape kit and DNA – lost. Investigations shelved. Etc….

    Whereas, other abuses that were sexual in nature but not life threatening- a family friend waking me for sex, a relative attempting sex, a friend’s father speaking inappropriately to me etc… these “softer” abuses made me uncomfortable – and yes, less mistrustful of men generally – but In NO way was I traumatized in the way I was when my life felt threatened during the rapes. And, these I keep silent about in order to avoid the overreaction that they could cause.

    So, while I feel frustrated, betrayed, and let down by a system that failed to offer protection and or justice from violent rapes…. I also feel that the very same system would overreact to these lesser events by lumping them all into a category of ‘traumatic abuse’.

    This is why I feel it so important to have forums from victims’ perspectives instead of the current model where our experiences are silenced.

Divya Mathur, PhD

Divya Mathur, PhD, holds a doctorate in molecular biology with several peer reviewed journal articles. She currently writes about medical research for the lay audience.

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