The Trauma Myth: The Truth About Sexual Abuse of Children – and Its Aftermath

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Susan A. Clancy
Basic Books
256 pages. $25

When I began researching and writing about child sex abuse two decades ago, one thing that struck me about the victims I interviewed or whose case files I read was the extreme diversity in how the abuse affected them.

For some, the abuse was a life-changing trauma. Those are the ones that we journalists write about most often.

For others, the abuse was less than that: not just a shrug, but not an earthquake, either. These victims were upset to varying degrees and moved on with varying degrees of help, such as talking through it with their parents or a counselor.

In both groups, many found the most painful part of the ordeal to be the reaction of adults around them after the abuse was revealed. Parents, neighbors, social workers and police hammered home the message that they had suffered through a horrendous and embarrassing experience that they would burden them forever.

Which is why, when reading The Trauma Myth, I often found myself thinking, “Yes!” Finally, a researcher is challenging the conventional view of sex abuse, especially the notion that being molested is always the equivalent of stepping on a roadside bomb.

Now let’s pause for a moment, to be careful.

Author Susan A. Clancy has taken a lot of heat for this book, and here is why: She contends that for many, if not most, abuse victims, the abuse is not traumatic at the time it happens. Nor do they feel that they were forced into it. But society’s standard reaction – wherein we label abuse a de facto traumatic experience and treat victims as if they suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – often makes things worse.

Detractors have accused Clancy of making light of abuse and blaming children for going along with it. The author feels compelled to write repeated variations of, “Sexual abuse is never, under any circumstances, the child’s fault,” in hopes that we can then have a grown-up discussion.

I doubt it, but here goes.

Surprising Responses

Clancy did not set out to cause a stir. She began interviewing abuse victims as part of a graduate study at Harvard University that eventually included more than 200 adults who participated in her study between October 1996 and August 2005. The book follows her journey of discovery, as victim after victim shatters her assumptions and even tells her she’s asking the wrong questions.

Clancy, the grad student, started the study with the standard assumptions about how abuse affects people, and quickly got thrown off balance by the responses. Here is one exchange, in which Clancy asks a woman to rate various feelings on a scale of one to five:

“Can you rate how frightened you were?”

“Frightened?”

“Yes, frightened.”

“Umm. You mean at the time of the abuse?”

“Yes, at the time of the abuse.”

“Not very. … Maybe a two?”

“Can you rate how painful it was for you?”

“Painful? Not at all. … A one.”

To be sure, the story is dramatically different for many victims. But in Clancy’s interviews, the victims repeatedly deliver different but still uncomfortable stories. They often enjoyed the relationship with their molesters, with whom they had friendships that extended beyond the sex. Sometimes the sex made them uncomfortable, but sometimes they enjoyed it. They usually consented to it. They knew they were doing something that would be frowned upon by others, so they stayed quiet. But their lack of sexual knowledge prevented them from fully understanding the abusive nature of the relationship until years later.

Then they felt significant guilt, shame and/or anger – partly because they recognized that they were taken advantage of, and partly because the stereotypical image of the innocent child being traumatized by forced sex acts made them wonder if they were guilty themselves. Several participants even asked Clancy if they belonged in the study, because in their minds their acquiescence to the sex meant that they were not abused.

There is no way of knowing just how typical this point of view is, but the perspective sounds like many of the abuse cases I’ve researched in the Boy Scouts. I recall one particularly painful deposition of a youth who had been abused by his Scoutmaster, a family friend, and whose family then sued the Boy Scouts. The Scouts’ attorney repeatedly asked the boy if the sexual activities with the man felt good, to which the boy had to confess that they did “at the time.”

A New View

Clancy wondered if her sample was skewed. (The participants had responded to newspaper ads.) When she dug into past research, she was surprised to find many similar observations, which have been largely swept aside. Well-meaning child advocates, she writes, “do not want to see, hear or collect any data that might rock the boat.”

As a result, she says, we have elevated abuse to a level of trauma that compels victims to stay quiet, to feel fundamentally damaged and to be treated incorrectly when they do seek help. “Our lies about sexual abuse are not helping victims,” she writes.

Clancy doesn’t give enough credit to how far we’ve come in openly discussing sex abuse. Victims report abuse today far more often than they used to, and molesters are punished far more often and severely. Nevertheless, our thinking is simplistic to the point of caricature, leaving us unwilling to openly discuss some of the nasty complexities of how adults seduce children for sex.

Her solution amounts to having that kind of discussion. In a society that just wants molesters to go away – witness the ever-growing number of laws banning them from living near such places as schools and parks – I doubt that will happen soon.

But we can help people like a woman who recently e-mailed me about her distraught husband. Abused by a Scout leader as a boy, he is just coming to grips with how the abuse fueled the emotional and psychological troubles that he struggles with today.

The man wants to report the abuser to authorities in order to protect other potential victims, but his wife says that “he worries what his family, friends, colleagues and neighbors will think of him if they know that the abuse took place repeatedly over three years.”

I recommended that she read this book, to help him see where he fits in. Many other victims, and those who work with them, would do well to do the same. (800) 343-4499, http://www.perseusbooksgroup.com/basic.