The Trauma Myth by Susan Clancy (book review and commentary by Ray Harris)

Harris, Ray

The Trauma Myth by Susan Clancy

By Ray On June 12, 2011 ·


I finally took delivery of my Amazon order, books not easy to find in Australian bookshops, not even Readings. They are: The Red Book: Liber Novus, a magnificent reproduction of Jung’s infamous journal. The Book of Symbols published by Taschen. And The Trauma Myth by Dr Susan Clancy and Childhood Victimization by David Finklehor. It is these last two that are the subject of this review.

The Trauma Myth is controversial because it directly challenges the current understanding of child sexual abuse. Or at least, challenges the common understanding. The inconvenient truth is that many core experts have long suspected something is wrong. One of them is David Finklehor, a leading expert on child abuse for over 30 years, and someone I’ll reference to further illustrate Clancy’s argument. The problem, as Clancy amply illustrates, is that this issue has been highly politicized, and unfortunately, even though they know otherwise, many experts have remained silent about the truth. As Finklehor says in the blurb for Childhood Victimization.

The considerable ignorance about the realities of child victimization can be chalked up to a field that is fragmented, understudied and SUBJECTED TO POLITICAL DEMAGOGUERY. (My emphasis).

The reason people haven’t spoken up is because they know they will be vilified and either loose their funding or their job. Clancy herself describes facing enormous pressure not to report her findings.

But first an important caveat. I write this review as someone concerned about the effects of trauma and who believes fundamentally that the most important voice in this debate is the voice of the subject of the abuse. This is clearly also Clancy’s primary concern. In the preface she says:

Today, despite their best intentions, some professionals in the sexual abuse field have developed and fostered major misconceptions among the population about this terrible crime…

Now, I’m taking a rhetorical break to emphasize that the last two sentences of this paragraph are very important.

As a consequence of this misplaced emphasis, professionals ignore and the public misunderstands the concerns, worries and fears of millions of victims… These are instead overlooked, minimized and DENIED. Pg XV (My emphasis).

This is extraordinary!

How can it be that the victim’s experiences are denied?

The answer is simple (and this is something that Clancy misses, although she attempts to make the point) much of the field has been contaminated by moral shock. The public and many professionals, have reacted to the reality of child sexual abuse with moral outrage. As a result they have engendered a moral panic and in so doing, have chosen to overlook the difficulties and complexities of this issue. And more tragically, the very ideology that has caused the problem, Judeo-Christian sexual morality, has successfully commandeered the debate and twisted it to their own ends. Unfortunately Clancy fails to fully understand this point and even falls into the same trap – that of moral judgement.

The consequence of this moral judgement is that, as Clancy says:

Unfortunately, the current climate for survivors does not appear to be much different today than it was in the past. Today, victims still feel ignored, they still rarely speak out about the crimes against them, and when they do, they are STILL DISBELIEVED AND BLAMED. pg 109 (My emphasis)

What Clancy does well is describe the history of the professional and public response to child sexual abuse. This history is shocking and something I’ve commented on in regard to The Forgotten Australians report. At the time when Christianity had supreme moral authority and control, child abuse in general and child sexual abuse is particular was denied.

Make NO mistake. It still happened, except in those conservative times the child was blamed. In other words: it happened on their watch. Clancy highlights the common belief that some children were sexual deliquents who engineered sexual encounters with adults. She cites a case from 1914 of a 60 year-old man who had sex with an 11 year-old girl. The charge was dismissed because she was considered of poor moral character. If you want to understand the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, it comes down to a quite common belief that children are immoral tempters. A notion derived from the morally bankrupt teaching of original sin.

Clancy then goes on to highlight how that attitude began to change and here I must note that this occurred in 60?s and 70?s, concurrent with the sexual revolution. I don’t want to repeat this history, suffice to say it was feminism, a movement many Christians opposed, that exposed the problem of child sexual abuse and promoted the notion that it was widespread and that we must listen to the victim.

The trauma model: a new orthodoxy

So what happened? How is it that victims are still silenced? Because, in seeking to address the problem, various social forces, not least feminism itself, took a strongly ideological approach. This developed into the ideology of the trauma model: that child sexual abuse is always very harmful and very traumatic.

There was a strong public response of moral shock to the now recognised fact of child sexual abuse. Remember, this was once a hidden problem. It was not discussed so the public did not know about it. Even professionals denied the extent of the problem. And as a result of the moral shock there was a subsequent moral panic. Something needed to be done and be done immediately. The perpetrators must be stopped and stopped NOW! And in that moral panic, many people simply lost perspective.

As Clancy forcefully points out, the truth is that child sexual contact with an adult is not always seen as harmful by the child and is not always traumatic. It certainly is for some and no-one can deny that it can have severe consequences. The problem is that many children have a different response and this is VERY hard for people to understand. And this is where the victims are further silenced.

Most people are morally outraged (understandably) by child sexual abuse and they suffer cognitive dissonance when a victim does not share that same outrage, indeed, especially when some victims report liking the experience and seeking to repeat it. So what happens is that those victims who do not fit into the standard trauma model are further silenced. Indeed, some even tell them they are wrong. And for this reason, as Clancy points out, they feel wrong, complicit, different and do not report their abuse.

In other words, there is now a new orthodoxy that excludes a significant proportion of abuse victims.

David Finkelhor

Okay, time to introduce the work of David Finklehor. Finklehor is what I’d describe as a core expert. The type of expert who does the hard work of original research and conception and the expert who all the other experts turn to. Look through any book on child abuse and you invariably find Finklehor mentioned in the notes or bibliography. Sadly the problem with the child abuse field is that it is dominated by self-appointed child advocates and populists who revel in opinion and who do not really understand the core research.

I’ve already mentioned his Traumagenics Model and it is to this that we must turn in order to understand Clancy’s findings. She controversially reported that many of her subjects reported that the initial abuse was not especially traumatic and that the impact of the abuse only sank in much later. The reason is rather simple. As children they did not necessarily know that what was done to them was either unusual or wrong; they did not necessarily know it was sexual. Several reported thinking it was just odd and so they easily dismissed it. It was only later, when they understood the full import of what had been done, did they suffer moral shock and subsequent trauma.

This is where Finklehor is essential. In his Traumagenics Model he describes four potential sources of trauma:

  • the initial shock of premature sexual activity,
  • disempowerment,
  • betrayal and
  • stigmatization.

What Clancy found, although she does not formulate it in exactly these terms, is that the source of trauma for many of her subjects was not premature sexual activity or even disempowerment, but a later sense of betrayal and a self-stigmatization. Clancy reports that many of her subjects reported feeling ashamed.

Shame, as most researchers and clinicians in the field can attest, is a recurrent theme in the context of sexually abused people. It is an awful emotion, one in which the self is viewed as incompetent and as an object of ridicule, contempt and disgust. pg 141

Interesting; given that the whole object of moral judgment is to treat the morally suspect with ridicule, contempt and disgust.

A growing body of data indicates that feelings of betrayal, shame, guilt and self-blame are potent predictors of psychopathological symptoms and disorders like depression, low self-esteem, and PTSD in the aftermath of sexual abuse. pg 143

I can go further than that. Negative emotions of all kinds increase stress, but especially emotions of rejection, social isolation and stigmatization. We now know that prolonged exposure to the hormones and chemicals released as a result of stress is extremely damaging and corrosive to good physical and psychological health. A recent study reported in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry showed that stress attacks DNA, shortening the telomeres on chromosomes. They also attack the immune system, kill brain cells and increase the incidence of heart disease.

This is very serious business and we need to do everything to decrease trauma and stress.

But if I have one criticism of Clancy

It is that she fails to connect all the dots. In fact she makes the same mistake as the people she criticizes. The mistake is that she indulges in moral judgment. She repeats in several places that sexual abuse is a terrible crime. Yet many of her own subjects reported that they felt ashamed because they did not see it as terrible. When they read reports as adults about how terrible child abuse was, some concluded they had not been abused because they did not think it was terrible at the time. Here are some quotes from Clancy’s subjects:

I could kind of sense it was wrong – by the way he was reacting – like trying to be quiet and telling me we shouldn’t talk about it… Also, it didn’t hurt or anything… So there were no bells going off, no alarms going whoop whoop whoop this is wrong pg 34
And the benefits? If I did it – this thing I didn’t really understand – I would be making him happy. Whatever it was it was something he clearly wanted… I guess you could say I was eager to please. pg 31
I was what, maybe twelve? I had no idea what was going on… I knew it was wrong, but I also knew it felt good. Totally fucked up, if you know what I mean. pg 45
I wasn’t afraid. Sometimes I liked it. Obviously somethings screwed up with me. pg 140

These reports troubled Clancy because they contradicted what she had been taught to believe. Child sexual abuse was meant to be traumatic. How could anyone say it felt good or that they wanted to please the perpetrator, even like or love the perpetrator? So like any good researcher she questioned her results and looked through all the available literature to see if her findings had been replicated.

In short, they had, but she also discovered that many studies had not bothered to ask the subjects what they thought (again an example of not listening to the subjects). However, she did find a number of studies that asked the subjects to rate their experience from non-traumatic to traumatic and from pleasurable to painful. On a five-point scale most subjects sit at about three.

But this is where Clancy again allows her moral judgment to enter the picture. Whilst she is happy to suggest that one study showed that 33% were very upset, she fails to address the obvious point that 67% were not. In fact she fails to mention how many subjects sat at the lower end of the five-point scale and how many reported their experience to be enjoyable and not traumatic. But she does quote our friend Finklehor:

He concluded that “contrary to the stereotype, most victims readily acknowledge the positive as well as the negative elements of their experience”. pg 60

Please note that no one is suggesting that sexual abuse is justifiable. My own view is that no adult should ever seek to seduce, cajole, manipulate, trick or force a child into participating in a sexual act. But nor should anyone dismiss the accounts of those who say the sexual encounter was not particularly problematic.

What Clancy fails to fully explain is ...

... that some of her subjects experience stress and trauma because they judge themselves on what they think society says they should feel rather than on what they actually feel. A number said they were unusual or different or weird because they did not fit the stereotype. In other words, the trauma was partially caused by the subject’s own moral judgement on their childhood experiences; a judgement encouraged by the moral shock many impose on their experience. Clancy quotes Burkhardt and Rotatori as saying:

Due to the morally reprehensible nature of child sexual abuse, researchers have an understandable tendency to project their adult fears, repulsions and horror onto child victims… pg 64

Real harm hurts real people. It is demonstrable and measurable. With the recent findings on the pathology of stress we can now measure its impact on the body. It is no longer in the realm of subjective opinion; of someone saying I ‘feel’ stressed.

Moral harm is an offence against an idea, not a real person.

The problem with the whole child abuse debate is that too many people are reacting from a position of moral harm and not real harm. Susan Clancy attempts to separate these two but fails because she herself conflates the two.

…a disturbing tendency exists among many people to equate wrongfulness with harmfulness. Thus, if sexual abuse was not traumatic for the victims when it happened, if it did not immediately and directly cause harm, many people conclude “not wrong”. Sexual abuse is very wrong, regardless of how it affects the victims. pg 185

Note how Clancy reinforces the moral argument – ‘regardless of how it affects the victims’. Meaning, regardless of the extent of real harm; meaning, ignore what some victims say. She also seems to miss the other side to this conflation, that moral abuse must necessarily cause actual harm – which drives the expectation in many victims that they should feel more traumatized than they actually do.

This is a contradiction in her argument. She argues quite forcefully that we must listen to the victim of the abuse, then says it is very wrong ‘regardless of what the victim feels’. Yet she provides many examples from subjects that did not feel it was very wrong at the time. Indeed, who were caught between competing feelings of good/wrong.

By insisting that it is very wrong isn’t she negating and silencing those victims who say that it did not feel wrong at the time?

This is important because Clancy tells us directly that our failure to accept that these victims were not traumatized at the time, did not necessarily think it was wrong and even continued the relationship, creates the conditions in which they self-stigmatize and come to reconceptualize themselves as bad people. This feeling comes from the growing gap between how they initially saw the incident and how they have reconceptualized the incident later on.

The missing fact here ...

... that how they reconceptualize the incident will be dependent on the prevailing attitude to such things. What Clancy fails to point out is that a person raised in the Bible-belt of America will reconceptualize the event using the prevailing norms of that society, whereas a person raised in a tribal culture in which some adult-child sexual contact is considered normal, even amusing, will reconceptualize the event entirely differently.

This is BIG omission in Clancy’s book – the cross-cultural and historical data. Even in her native country of America there are vast differences between conservative, White Americans and Black and Latino communities. And globally there are vast differences between conservative America, progressive Holland, deeply conservative Islamic countries and the many tribal cultures. Not to mention the shifts over time.

This is no small point because different cultures define different things as ‘morally’ wrong. For example many conservative Christians regard exposure to adult nudity as an example of child abuse, yet Europe has a long-standing, intergenerational sub-culture of naturism.

Another example is the tradition of genital stimulation found in many cultures where adult women play with infant boys’ penises, primarily to calm them. And as I mentioned in my article on Polynesia, adult women would massage young girl’s vaginas in order to stretch their labia minora or clitoris. Other cultures indulge in a degree of sexual teasing of children. The list goes on and on and Clancy mentions none of this.

This is important, because some incidents of child sexual abuse such as penetration are more or less universally repugnant (but even then, some cultures allow ritual pederasty) and therefore actually rare. Most child abuse cases are confined to manual and oral stimulation, some of which are normative in other societies.

I in no way want to suggest that we normalize these things. My point is that some of the things Westerners regard as moral abuse and therefore child abuse is particular to our culture and is not at all universal.

And here’s the CENTRAL point:

conceptualizing a thing as moral abuse, especially as extreme moral abuse (as Clancy says: very wrong) creates the very gap that is the primary cause of real harm in some sexual abuse victims. Clancy says something very interesting as she begins to grasp this point but lets it slip through her hands:

“For the two years, while it happened I felt good about him. I believed him, all his lies and let him do whatever he wanted. It makes me think about how much I trusted him, how much, for how long he took advantage of that.”
In other words, the degree of betrayal victims feel in the aftermath was an inverse function of how traumatic the abuse was at the time it happened: THE LESS TRAUMATIC IT WAS, THE MORE BETRAYAL THE VICTIMS REPORTED. pg 125 (My emphasis).

Clancy goes on to suggest that the same applies to stigmatization, that the more the victims learned that the incident was morally wrong and considered harshly by society, the more they viewed their own complicity as itself morally bankrupt and the more they felt ashamed.

Okay, time to return to the science of real harm.

As Clancy reminded us (and as I mentioned in part 2) there is a growing body of research that shows that it is the sense of shame and self-stigmatization that is the primary cause of the trauma, not the incident itself. Remember, it is the gap between one’s actions and the social disapproval of those actions that releases the stress chemicals that cause real harm.

Might this not suggest that the real problem here is the imposition of the notion of moral harm and the subsequent moral outrage that is the real cause of the trauma? As Finklehor says in describing the stigmatization phase of his Traumagenics Model:

Stigmatization refers to the negative connotations (e.g., badness, shame, and guilt) that are communicated to the child around the experiences and that then become incorporated into the child’s self-image …
But stigmatization is also reinforced by attitudes that the victim infers or hears from other persons in the family or community. Stigmatization may thus grow out of the child’s prior knowledge or sense that the activity is considered deviant and taboo, and it is certainly reinforced if, after disclosure, people react with shock or hysteria, or blame the child for what has transpired.
Children may be additionally stigmatized by people in their environment who now impute other negative characteristics to the victim (e.g., loose morals or “spoiled goods”) as a result of the molestation. Here

What this suggests is that the way to minimise the amount of trauma a victim experiences is to let go of the moral judgement, to let go of the idea of moral harm, something Clancy herself cannot quite allow herself to do.

So how should we respond?

From the first premise: always, always listen to the victim. If they tell you they thought it was wrong, but liked it and went along with it, then accept what they say and validate their experience.

Whatever you do, don’t become morally outraged on their behalf because then they might to begin to doubt themselves and enter the spiral of negative thoughts that are the real cause of stress.

One of the causes of trauma is disempowerment. It follows that we must empower the victim by listening to their wishes. How do they want to resolve the issue? If they want to prosecute the perpetrator then support them in that decision. If all they want is to confront the perpetrator and have him understand the impact he has had and get him to apologise (and this is what some do indeed want) then support that decision. If all they want is to tell someone of their experience then listen without judgement.

Unfortunately too many people, including some child advocates, fly into a state of moral outrage and moral panic and decide that they must ‘protect the children’ at all costs, without bothering to stop and really listen to the individual child. Whilst it may seem noble it can clearly be shown to backfire very badly, the end result being that the victims end up being revictimized. And here we can trawl through the bizarre world of moral panic; of repressed memory syndrome, ritual satanic abuse, reflex anal dilation and surreal cases of mass abuse in child care centres – all of which caused massive trauma and created hundreds of victims out of people who had never been sexually abused in the first place.

All as a response to perceived moral harm. And dare I suggest that more harm, more trauma has been caused by the self-appointed moral protectors than by the the actual abuse itself.