The Trauma Myth - Susan A. Clancy - (book review)

Herman, Peter
Type of Workbook review

Book Review

by Peter Herman

The Trauma Myth - Susan A. Clancy

In her book, The Trauma Myth, Susan Clancy, citing her scientific study, details a finding that anyone who has ever been subjected to non-violent*1 but unsolicited sexual advances in childhood could have come to on their own. Namely, the experience is seldom traumatic to the individual at the time. Although I have not done any formal research in this area, my own experiences, some of which I will expound on shortly, can attest to the validity of Clancy's astonishing finding.

  • *1 The victimization industry, in George Orwell type "newspeak," defines any sexual contact between statute-defined child and statute-defined adult as violent regardless of the actual circumstances of the relationship.

Ipce's note: See also< >

But first, let's demystify science:

Let me do it by stating clearly that it is simply the process of gaining knowledge through systematic observation. Most people can and do follow some form of scientific protocol in their everyday lives without necessarily realizing it.

It follows that some of what scientists tell us can be discovered independently by ordinary individuals provided they apply a modicum of thought. This is especially true of facts gathered through common experience.

As a simple example, let's take the perennial question of whether frequently turning a light bulb on and off over a period of time tends to cause it to burn out sooner. This is not a trivial question and has important economic and engineering implications. All of us have done the experiment without necessarily being aware we did. We open and shut our refrigerator doors many times a day, but when was the last time any of us had to replace the light bulb inside?

  • (And, yes the bulb does go out when the door is shut even if you don't see it happen!)

A formal experiment would have a tester keep a number of light bulbs on continuously while an identical bank of bulbs would be set to go off and on at random intervals. The easily obtained outcome is that it is primarily the length of time a bulb is on that causes it to burn out and not the on/off switching.

My personal observations on the subject

Besides my experience with light bulbs, as a prepubescent boy I did personally live through (oh the horror) sexual abuse! While I stood in a crowded subway or sometimes on a packed bus, on a few occasions, a man would get a little too close. Note that in those ancient days, kids did ride the subways unaccompanied. Note too that no matter how crowded a bus or a train may be, unsolicited body contact (frotteurism) is quite distinguishable from casual close proximity or accidental contact.

  • (And having one's penis grabbed, as once also happened to me, is no accident.)

In these long ago days, there was no talk of good or bad touch or any of today's psychobabble. No, I did not panic, or become traumatized, nor did I tell my mother or a responsible adult. I maneuvered my way out of reach, and that was it.

Kids in those days (and probably now as well) knew that there were weird individuals in the world who did strange things or did not follow the usual social norms. We dismissed them as weirdos and stayed away*2. On the other hand, in those youthful days, there were indeed individuals from whom I (and indeed my peers) would have welcomed intimate attention, but mutual consent was the operating principle.

  • *2 Women too can make unsolicited advances, but these are easily masked as motherly behavior. To illustrate, once, also in my youth, while traveling on a crowded train with my mother, a kindly lady suggested to her that if I were tired I was welcome to sit on her lap. Mind you, I was at least twelve and no longer lap appropriate! Though untutored in "stranger danger" I of course refused.

Dr. Clancy – The good and the bad

Dr. Susan Clancy has discovered what many other adults besides me (and perhaps you the reader) already know: as children, we were not traumatized by unasked-for sexual advances. In so doing, Dr. Clancy has chanced the wrath of an entrenched establishment invested in the traumato-genic (i.e. the so called abuse is traumatic when it happens) model. For her courage, she deserves praise that is especially merited given that her academic career was spawned within this very establishment.

This faulty model, Dr. Clancy points out, is encouraged by the lurid and misleading accounts presented in both the news*3 and entertainment media. Such demonization is nothing new as any rational observer of our culture can see all too clearly. Pedophiles on Parade by David Sonenschein details that process.

  • *3 "Infotainment" may be the more precise term for much of what is called news today.

Dr. Clancy, however, both begs the question and hedges her bet when she generalizes early on by stating,

  • "The idea that adults use children for sexual purposes is, quite frankly, morally and physically revolting." *4
  • *4 The assumption here is that all sexual behavior between statute-defined adults and minors involves the "use" of the child by the adult. If that were indeed the case, we would all be in agreement. The truth however is always more complex. Quite the reverse is true more often than not.
    I know from conversations with gay acquaintances that, as youngsters, in public places they propositioned men they assumed to be willing.
    There is even a mention of such youthful propositioning in the film The Word is Out, shown for a time on PBS. Those who moralize, as Dr. Clancy does, seem to be blind to the much more common "use" of children when adults expose them to destructive religious or political beliefs or coerce them into activities such as sports and other endeavors so as to vicariously relive their own faded or failed dreams.

Whatever her personal views, as the scientist and seeker after truth she purports to be, she lacks the dispassionate voice necessary for unbiased scientific work. This should not however cause us to dismiss her analysis even if it contains some flaws in reasoning. For example, she correctly rejects the idea of recovered memories, discredited by many others. She pointedly states that such memories seem to apply only to adults who report "sexual abuse." *5

  • *5 Terms which I consider misused are placed inside quotation marks.

Dr. Clancy's research covers a ten-year period in which she interviewed over 200 individuals, approximately two thirds of whom were women. In an attempt to find a randomized sampling, her subjects were recruited through ads in newspapers. This, it should be noted, as a self-selected population, is not rigorously scientific. In reporting their anecdotes, she refers to the subjects as "victims" again showing an unscientific bias.

The subjects' perceptions as children

As children, she reports that the subjects did not feel threatened in any way and knew well the adults in question. They did not understand what the adults were doing. A very few felt that something was [morally] wrong, but they were reacting to the guilty cues the adults were sending. Although Dr. Clancy does not state this specifically, it is evident that the remembered reactions did not come from any innate moral code about what was being done with the subjects as children. Had Dr. Clancy had some training in anthropology, she would recognize that taboos are culture specific and not part of an absolute and universal moral code *6

  • *6 All human beings, apart from sociopaths, have the innate ability to incorporate a moral code. The specific form of that code depends on societal, religious, and cultural factors. This is similar to the ability of human beings to master a language, which is universal but infinitely variable in its expression, again depending on the same factors.
    Although some moral imperatives such as prohibitions against murder and stealing appear to be universal, even those vary depending on the social environment.
    Some institutions such as Christian churches, looking down on "primitive" cultures, have successfully imposed their own codes of morality.
    The US government has done the same thing when, early in the last century, it punished advocates of family planning or now denies aid to institutions and countries that would prevent AIDS through the use of condoms.

Children have an uncanny ability to pick up on the expectations of their societies as they become integrated into them. Clancy correctly says,

  • "accepting confusing, unpleasant things is, for better or worse [where sex apparently is always worse], an inevitable part of the life as a child."

This is mirrored by one interviewee she quotes as saying,

  • "But I think as a kid so much of what happens to you is weird and confusing that this [the sexual play] sort of joined the ranks of the stuff."
  • (As one of many examples, we could add to the "ranks of the stuff" all the weird religious rituals of all faiths that are unquestionably accepted and incorporated in childhood yet quite strange if looked at from an unjaundiced eye.)

Other reasons cited for acquiescence in their adult-child sexual experiences was that children are told to listen to adults and respect authority. Some subjects loved the adult and were reluctant to cause disappointment. Some enjoyed the sexual experiences oblivious to societal condemnation.

Disparity between child and adult perceptions

Nevertheless, all interviewed subjects reported current emotional distress. The disparity between their child and adult states of mind had to be resolved. After investigating all possibilities where her data could be wrong, Dr. Clancy concludes the traumato-genic model to be tautological.

In other words, the model is true because it is true: nothing that children experiencing sexual contact (she uses the term "victim") said could make "experts" believe them when they reported not feeling abused *7

  • *7 An egregious example is the unceasing questioning of young children in "sex abuse" cases until the children tell the questioners what they want to hear.

Her examining of the very few studies where "victims" were specifically asked what their "abuse" was like when it happened confirmed her conclusion.

Ironically, even though Dr. Clancy herself uses emotionally laden terms, she correctly points out that these very same emotions tend to color scientific inquiry.

  • (e.g. feelings of disgust and repulsion) *8
  • *8 Repulsion and disgust are clearly culture driven.
    Certain foods, for instance, can be a delicacy in one culture or cause for retching in another. We don't have to go far to see this: escargots (i.e. snails), horse meat, and raw minced meat are widely relished in Belgium and France but not here.

She recognizes that researchers too easily project these attitudes onto children without attempting to see things from the youngsters' points of view. In her effort to portray sexual experiences between adults and children as nevertheless reprehensible, she goes on to portray those adults as selfish, exploitative, concerned only with their own needs, and solely responsible *9.

  • *9 It seems that it is only in the area of sexuality that children are totally immune from responsibility. Witness the many children who, in the wake of even petty crimes, are abused in juvenile and even adult prison.
    Today, in the US, there appears to be very little recognition that even children who commit heinous crimes can be rehabilitated through humane treatment.

It may be that such an attitude on the part of Susan Clancy is meant to blunt the hostility she experienced from her colleagues. Or it may be a genuine, albeit unscientific and biased, emotion she has. At the end, it does not matter as her words testify to the flawed conclusion she ultimately arrives at concerning the actual harm she believes is done.

This is very sad, as Dr. Clancy is undoubtedly a very intelligent and perceptive individual. She understands the tenacity of received wisdom and she is fully aware that scientific theories can arise from "social, cultural, and political forces" and serve "those who promote[d] and legitimize[d] it." *10 

  • *10 An emblematic example is the Catholic Church persecution of Galileo for his heliocentric view of the universe as opposed to the earth centric view that the Church imposed for its own purposes.

She cites the feminist *11 movement beginning in the 60's as a major motivator for childhood "sexual abuse" theories but fails to include the confluence of the anti-gay backlash at about the same time as a major contributing factor. 

  • *11 Feminism is not a monolithic phenomenon and should not be condemned. Indeed, it should be applauded when it champions women who fight oppression and insist on freedom of personal choice.

She blames Sigmund Freud's influence for the invisibility of "child sexual abuse" until as late as 1975. Until about then, the relatively few criminal cases that were prosecuted, given that no real harm was done (which according to Dr. Clancy's research is still true), were perceived in most cases as inconsequential offenses as opposed to the felony prosecutions that are the rule today.

Some historical background

Dr. Clancy cites the discovery by medical professionals in the 60's that many children who were brought in for various bruises, broken bones, and other physical trauma were actually victims of their parents or caretakers, and not of accidents as claimed by the parents.

I recall the reporting of these shocking findings on television and other news media. I remember too that the uproar soon died down only to be replaced soon afterwards by the reporting of child "sexual abuse," a more titillating subject, certainly, that fascinates the public to this day. We hardly hear anymore about the child battering that shamefully still goes on. Apparently, the definitely non-traumatic and, to the child, almost matter-of-fact sexual experiences discovered by Dr. Clancy seem more shocking and deserving of condemnation than young broken bodies.

Contributing to the traumato-genic model, Dr. Clancy cites the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suffered by Vietnam veterans at the time. This was seized by feminists as applicable to "victims of child sexual abuse." To her credit, she forcefully debunks this application of a real disorder to children who experienced socially condemned behavior without immediate harmful consequences.

Dr. Clancy is also to be admired for her showing how fear is marshaled to manufacture conventional wisdom. But then she praises this fakery as bringing needed

  • "societal attention to the existence and harmfulness of sexual abuse."

The end justifying the means is something I had been taught in my youth as being solely the province of evil communism. 

Explaining the delayed trauma

Although Dr. Clancy is steadfast in her findings that children being traumatized at the time of their "abuse" is a myth, she nevertheless argues that these individuals have been harmed, and relying on a false model does not help them.

The harm, she discovers from her interviews, comes afterwards as the affected subjects "re-conceptualize" their childhood experiences in light of their new understanding of adult sex. At that point they "relabel" their experiences as traumatic. The ancillary reason for the delayed traumas reported by her subjects was the intense feeling of betrayal the subjects experienced when they "re-conceptualized." This sense of betrayal for the subjects cascaded into very damaging feelings of

  • insecurity,
  • doubt about their self-worth,
  •  self-blame, and
  • shame.

The self-blame was evident especially among the subjects who had been quite willing participants. For some, the re-conceptualization came as a light bulb moment of sudden realization.

My own light bulb moment 

Well, I too had such a moment. In my younger days, while traveling, I stayed in an English hostel where a group of young boys were also staying. At bed time, one of the boys asked the adult leader whether his friend who had never been away from home could sleep with him in the same bed. The leader tightened up as his body language telegraphed a mixture of horror and discomfort and gave the boy a disapproving "no".

Until hearing that exchange, I had not thought about a similar situation many years earlier when I was about seven on vacation in a children's camp. I had been assigned to a dormitory with somewhat older boys and felt very proud to be in such august company. At bed time, one of these boys invited himself into my bed. I recall simultaneously feeling flattered at the older boy's attention and enjoying the warmth of his body. On the pretext of our making too much noise, a disapproving counselor came in, and I was immediately switched to a different dormitory. *12 

  • *12 It does not matter in this example that the older boy in question was himself a child. In today's hysterical climate a child can be at once a victim and perpetrator.

Later, in high school, I and a friend [to whom] I was very much attracted to, were discreetly separated by our teacher when he observed our hands touching ever so slightly. Though not traumatized by the experiences, I too feel betrayed by the adults who imposed their homophobic views on me. I was a victim, but not in the sense that Dr. Clancy has in mind.


And here then is one of the fallacies of Dr. Clancy's reasoning. Her search for subjects included only those who saw themselves as "victims" of socially defined crimes. In the light of the hysteria she herself acknowledges, what subject would volunteer that he/she was never a victim and enjoyed intimacy with an adult, solicited or not?

The columnist Liz Smith, when she publicly defended her own youthful sexual intergenerational experiences was roundly criticized and treated as delusional. Dr. Clancy does not acknowledge that human beings are infinitely variable and that the many who were sexual at an early age are unlikely to defend the fact that they were enthusiastic participants when faced with certain condemnation. More basically, her samples did not include people comfortable with their experiences or who would not be motivated to talk about them.

Another problem with her methodology is her failure to examine other dynamics, totally unrelated to childhood experiences, that cause people to be highly dysfunctional in their lives and relationships with consequently great distress (i.e. trauma).

It is only human nature to find blame outside of oneself. So, given the inordinate focus for nearly forty years on child "sexual abuse" that Dr. Clancy correctly faults, sexual childhood experiences that have been "relabeled" can now also re-imagined and blamed for dysfunctional lives -- lives that would be dysfunctional regardless of any early sexual experiences which Dr. Clancy has determined to be either neutral or enjoyable.

Another personal note

I too had been skeptical and wondered if adult-child sex was so innocuous how there could be criminal prosecutions absent an aggrieved party

  • (e.g. a boy who was so distraught that this would be obvious to some adult).

In my own unscientific polling, I once asked a man who had been sent to prison for such an "offense" how he came to face criminal prosecution. The answer was that the 13-year-old boy whom he had befriended had been in a car with his parents and their friends when a discussion ensued that such sexual experiences were terribly harmful. The boy then naively interjected, defending his own experience. 'nuff said!

Of course, I could have been given a highly colored account, but I doubt it. Too many other informally obtained anecdotes point otherwise. Rather than engaging in dueling accounts, I challenge Dr. Clancy and other researchers to be much more rigorous in their protocols so as not to restrict themselves to subjects biased on one side of the issue.


So, what is Dr. Clancy's point? In brief, trauma from "child sexual abuse" comes much later, and not recognizing this while sticking with the traumato-genic view (i.e. the trauma myth) greatly hinders the healing of the "victims."

In her conclusion she differentiates between "wrongfulness" and "harmfulness" where the former is the sexual act itself even if it does not cause any direct harm. This view is certainly not a scientific one. As a silly example and non sequitur, she quotes the "brilliant social psychologist Carol Tavris" as saying,

  • "A criminal act is still a criminal act, even if the victim recovers."

Whether to placate her detractors or because she really believes what she says concerning "wrongfulness," she resorts to too many arguments that are unconvincing and too numerous to tackle one by one.

She correctly identifies harm as the result of "re-conceptualization" within the social structures that condemn adult-child sex regardless of whether harm has been done. As such, and in the situations she documents, it is the social reactions that cause harm. These social attitudes are self-referencing in that they posit harm regardless of the evidence.

She looks through the wrong end of the binoculars when she ignores the obvious: some of our current social attitudes are just as toxic as they were when women were denied the vote, when proponents of family planning were jailed or quite recently, homosexuals were vilified, and it is these attitudes that need to be changed. Unfortunately, she does not challenge these social attitudes that criminalize harmless behavior she terms "wrongful". If social attitudes are to be the arbiter of what is criminal, then (among other idiotic mores) honor killings in parts of the Moslem world are also quite justified. *13

  • *13 Though such killings are technically illegal, they are so weakly prosecuted as to make them in fact as acceptable as if they were legal.

We should however not throw away the baby with the bathwater. Dr. Clancy, along with Dr. Bruce Rind *14, to whom she refers, have suffered much opprobrium for stating the truth. 

  • *14 Rind's meta-analysis was based on data from a much larger and more diverse set of the total population, unlike Clancy's self-selected sample of only 200 subjects.  Rind et al. found that they did not experience trauma at any time in their lives, whether as children or adults.

As such, I believe her research, even if partly flawed, is a very important step in the right direction. How long society will take to accept reality is quite a different question. If you think anytime soon, think again.