The Trauma Myth

Archives of Sexual Behavior

Green, Richard


The Trauma Myth

By Susan A. Clancy. Basic Books, New York, 2009, 236 pp., $25.00

Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

The headline, press release, book title message trumpeted
here is: Most children who experience sexual contact with
adults are not traumatized at the time of the experience.
Breaking news? Non-traumatic child–adult sexuality has
been previously reported by International Academy of Sex
Research members Gagnon (1965), Sandfort (1984), Okami
(1991), and Rind (Rind, Tromovitch, & Bauserman, 1998).
Here, however, Clancy presents it in italicized, bold, upper
case 26 font.

Nevertheless, Clancy repeatedly reminds us how evil this
non-traumatic (at the time) experience actually is. This moral
mantra is identified as the catalyst of later trauma: ‘‘It is the act
of sexual abuse and not the damage it causes that makes it
wrong’’ (p. 185), ‘‘the act is inherently vile’’ (p. 186), ‘‘why
sexual abuse damages victims probably has little to do with the
actual abuse and a lot to do with what happens in its aftermath’’
(p. 113), and ‘‘Sexual abuse is very wrong, regardless of how it
affects victims’’ (p. 185), etc.

Thus, it is this aura of evil in the adult world that energizes
the social construction of trauma that attaches to experience
that was not traumatic. Contact morphs to abuse. This is Post-
Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) without the T.

Clancy stresses how this insight should shape therapy with
traumatized adults. But is Clancy, when broadcasting the
trauma myth while invoking the moral mantra, contributing to
the problem or the solution? Might her finding be an argument
to dilute societal condemnation so that delayed trauma would
be diminished? If non-pedophile adults became less excited
about adult–child sexual contact that was not aggressive/
violent, as with adult–adult sexuality that is not aggressive/
violent, could this reduce the nascent trauma?

Not condemning adult–child sex is not endorsing it. But it
has been around a long time. And it is not going to go away,
no matter what code number is attached in DSM-5 or how
long the prison sentences that attach. As Clancy dispassionately
observes: ‘‘There are always opportunities for molesters
to find ways to tarnish the lives of young children.’’

To effect a social reappraisal of some child–adult sexualized
contact, parents need not enrol their children on a
North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA)
website in the U.S. or sign them up for summer camp at a
Christian Brothers facility in Ireland. But, if parents become
aware of an interaction unwanted by the child they can
intervene to have it terminated, and if it is not, there are laws
to prevent unwanted pursuits. Currently, they are invoked
with adult–adult interactions with stalker laws or sexual
harassment laws and restraining orders or prison for noncompliance.
Were aggressive/violent behavior evident, there
are laws to be invoked similar to those involving aggressive/
violent adult–adult sexual conduct.

Of course, there is a power/authority imbalance between
adults and children. Children are directed into many activities
promoted by adults: passive cigarette smoking, spanking,
Hebrew school, Sunday church, bed time, vegetarianism.
Why must sex be so different?

Would this hypothetical social reappraisal enhance the
prevalence of child–adult sexualized contact? Perhaps. But,
if societal attitudes change in the direction of accommodating
non-aggressive contact doubles the prevalence rate and is
usually non-traumatic in childhood and later, is that to be
preferred over half the prevalence rate where most children
will later experience trauma?

The penal system could also consider whether the extent of
punishment that awaits conviction for child sexual contact
necessarily serves the child. If conviction for contact can
carry incarceration for decades, is there incentive to eliminate
the witness when punishment for that crime may not be much
greater? Genital caressing of a child can invoke substantially
more prison time than beating a child over the rest of its body.

Some annoyances in this slim volume that are less central to
‘‘whither trauma’’: Here and there I wondered whether Clancy
was up for tenure at Harvard when writing this book. ‘‘As the
head of Harvard’s Department of Psychology explains in his
beautifully written book…’’ Harvard’s Judith Herman is
described as a ‘‘famous psychiatrist,’’ but there is no adjective
for Jean Piaget, John Bowlby, D. W. Winnicott, or Harry
Harlow. Herman is also the author of a‘‘wildly popular book’’
published by Harvard University Press (‘‘Father-Daughter

Clancy forays briefly into ‘‘recovered memories.’’ She
turns that now-debunked myth on its head by correctly stating
that traumatic events will always be remembered but adds
that non-traumatic ones may be ‘‘recovered.’’ Therefore, ‘‘the
victims should probably be believed.’’ Even if not a victim?
The reader is force-fed the status of some child abuse
centers. The New Hampshire Center directed by Finkelhor is
‘‘tremendously influential’’ on p. 61, although losing some
esteem two pages later where it is merely ‘‘influential.’’
I wondered when some chapters were written. ‘‘ As the
influential psychiatrist Roland Summit recently explained
…’’ The explanation was published 22 years earlier.

Some research projects came to mind when reading this
volume. In contemporary cultures where child–adult sexuality
is less condemned, are the sequelae reduced? What are
the longer term consequences when children were not sexually
abused but were led to believe that they were? Adults who
were convinced that they were abused as little children in the
McMartin Pre-School fiasco in California decades ago would
provide an interesting doctoral dissertation.

So, what do we see here in this book and this review?
Sighted readers will ‘‘see’’ different parts of the child–adult
sex elephant. Those invested in the immediacy of the trauma,
depicted here as myth, may be incensed for political, moral,
or religious reasons. Further, they may ‘‘see’’ a threat to their
livelihood in providing therapy for the children. Many who
read Clancy’s words that do not underscore the immediate
harm to the child will mistakenly ‘‘see’’ her report as pro-pedophile.

Parents who I have suggested might effect a cultural
repositioning on some adult–child sexuality, a repositioning
that I ‘‘see’’ as potentially helpful to children, might
chant the moral mantra and shout me down. They will ‘‘see’’
my position as condoning violation of the child’s trust as well
as its body. If the cultural repositioning is effected, some
therapists who survive financially by treating adult ‘‘survivors’’
of abuse will ‘‘see’’ themselves taking another hit, following
their now extinct ‘‘recovered memory’’ practice. And
pedophiles may ‘‘see’’ me as an honorary member of NAMBLA.
Characterizing the elephant is not only challenging for
the blind.