According to a recent book by Susan Clancy, The Trauma Myth, childhood sexual abuse is not traumatizing. In fact, according to Clancy, children may even enjoy it. Let me begin with this caveat: I have not actually read Clancy’s book. I read the Salon.com interview discussing her book. While Clancy is clear to point out that sex with children is a crime, her primary argument is that it does not result in trauma or PTSD. This is the “myth” she is referring to. According to Clancy
Most victims do not understand they are being victimized, because they are too young to understand sex, the perpetrators are almost always people they know and trust, and violence or penetration rarely occurs.
My first response to this is: of course they don’t understand that they are being victimized, they’re children and since, as Clancy notes, the abuse is usually perpetrated by people (and I would add “adults”) that they trust, they may very well think that it’s normal. Not consciously knowing that one is being victimized is quite distinct from the reality of being victimized. Many children who experience physical abuse at the hands of parents are also frequently unaware that they are being victimized. Quite simply, if it is the norm in their household, they assume that it is the norm in all households. Does this make the abuse less “wrong” or traumatizing? Furthermore, I wonder how Clancy defines “violence.” I would argue that all acts of sexual abuse are violent by nature. Perhaps these children aren’t being beaten, but they are certainly being coerced and forced to do something that they cannot freely consent to.
According to her interview, Clancy does believe that childhood sexual abuse is harmful but that the resulting psychological state is not traumatic. She cites the fact that few people seek treatment for the abuse in adulthood and that most of them first describe the experience as “confusing,” which she says is “a far cry from trauma.” She also notes that shame is part of the reason people don’t come forward about their sexual abuse. This is one of the few points that we agree on. However, Clancy argues that the shame isn’t so much a result of the abuse but rather that victims don’t see their responses as consistent with what they see portrayed in the media and pop culture. In other words, their response to the abuse isn’t identical to cinematic representations, etc. I disagree. The shame does not come from the fact that their responses may be different from those of others (although that may be a factor; I can’t say since I’ve seen no research on this) but is instead the result of feeling as though they are somehow to blame for the abuse.
I’m trying to not have a knee-jerk reaction to her argument, but knowing what I know makes that difficult. I’m sure that this is something I share with other researchers and survivors. Unfortunately, many of the comments posted on the Salon site reflect agreement with her argument. Certainly there are those who disagree and they have posted their refutations, but I am saddened by the number of people who dismiss the traumatizing effects of childhood sexual abuse.
In all honestly, I will probably not read Clancy’s book. I have neither the time nor inclination. This is a song that, sadly, I have heard before.