A couple of years ago a sympathetic friend asked me what books he should read in order to get an idea of the feelings, experiences and thinking of a pro-choice paedophile. I gave his request some thought and, knowing him to be a busy man, decided to limit my ‘reading list’ to just 3 books.
I will devote a blog post to each of these books. They include a novel (not Lolita), a piece of sustained advocacy, and the book I’m looking at in this post: ‘The Trauma Myth’ by Susan Clancy.
‘The Trauma Myth’ was published in 2009 and created such a furore in the United States that Clancy had to leave her research post at Harvard and live in Nicaragua. That she should have been the recipient of such opprobrium was predictable, in that the implications of her findings took apart the entrenched ideology and interests of the CSA industry, but also unfair, since Clancy consistently sides with the ‘victim’ and maintains a clear ‘anti-abuse’ and ‘anti-paedophilia’ stance throughout her book.
‘The Trauma Myth’ investigates the source of the trauma frequently experienced by those who, as children, were in consensual sexual relationships with an adult, and pinpoints how social attitudes and beliefs, which perpetuate a false idea of ‘child sexual abuse’, contribute to that damage.
Throughout the book Susan Clancy uses a vocabulary in-line with that of the Child Abuse Industry: all child-adult intimacy is described as ‘abuse’, all younger parties are described as ‘victims’ and the adults are always ‘perpetrators’ or ‘abusers’. Whilst genuine ‘abuse’ does occur, and genuine ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ do exist, I feel that this use of language is not adequate to honest and clear thought on such issues, and the book’s shortcomings may be due to the language not allowing Clancy to think beyond the parameters it establishes.
In my first draft of this essay, as an act of defiance, I put all such loaded words between ‘scare quotes’ in order to indicate that I was quoting her usage of those words but not necessarily endorsing it. But the text rapidly became unreadable. So I’ve decided, for the sake of clarity and readability, for the most part to use her vocabulary and trust that the reader will supply their own ‘scare quotes’ and be wary about the implied values such words carry and how they can ‘poison the well‘ .
The Trauma Myth – a Summary
Whilst interviewing adults on the impact of child abuse Clancy noticed that most of her interviewees didn’t talk about the abuse they experienced in the way she had been led to expect. The dominant narrative on child abuse says that it consists of a man forcing himself on an unwilling child and that the experience is severely traumatic for the child whilst it occurs, often so horrific that the trauma is repressed.
None of her interviewees presented scenarios that corresponded to this culturally ubiquitous idea of ‘abuse’. Many of her interviewees said that they didn’t mind the abuse at the time, or at worst felt a bit confused by it. Many said that they liked the attention, enjoyed the activity, loved and felt loved by the perpetrator. Many of the interviewees actually considered themselves to have consented to, and even initiated, the relationship and the activities. However all the interviewees felt that they had experienced trauma as a result of the abuse.
How could this be if the actual acts themselves weren’t experienced as traumatic?
It became clear that the trauma started to occur not at the time of the abuse but either when the relationship was discovered, or when the child grew old enough to realise the significance of what had happened. Clancy uses the word ‘reconceptualisation’ to describe a transformation in the victim’s understanding of what happened.
The victim realises that the person they thought loved them had actually betrayed them; they blame themselves because they allowed the abuse to happen and feel ashamed at any pleasure, enjoyment or happiness they got from the relationship. These feelings of betrayal, shame and self-blame trigger the trauma experienced by child abuse victims in adulthood.
One of the reasons that the victim comes to feel shame and self-blame is because their experience doesn’t correspond to the Trauma Myth – the unquestioned and unquestionable social narrative around child sexual abuse: that of an adult forcing himself on an unwilling, innocent child.
Genuine child rape is very rare (Clancy encountered no instance of this amongst her two hundred plus interviewees) and also causes trauma. However in these cases the trauma symptoms kick-in during and immediately after the assault.
The participant-victim perceives that their case doesn’t conform to the the idea of what a child-adult sexual encounter should be – the ‘Trauma Myth’ – they feel that they must have been dirty, are freaks, and brought the abuse on themselves, are confused because their abuser was someone they loved and maybe still do. They feel that society wouldn’t support them if they were to speak out about what happened because they don’t see themselves as being ‘innocent victims’. They fear that they may be the only person in the world who had sexual relations with an adult as a child and actually enjoyed them or liked their abuser.
Moreover, when they do speak about their experiences parents, family, professionals and society at large don’t, or don’t want to, believe them because the narrative they give doesn’t conform to the Trauma Myth and is shameful. Only the Trauma Myth is accepted – that’s why victims of real child abuse, abuse that conforms to the trauma myth ideal (such as rape by a stranger) have better long-term psychological outcomes: they’re listened to, believed and supported by society because their experience conforms to society’s only permissible narrative around child-adult sex.
The victims of participative child abuse often don’t speak about it for years or decades after it has happened because of their perception that their case doesn’t fit the innocent ‘child being raped’ scenario, and they realise that they won’t be believed, or if believed, will be judged negatively for their complicity in the abuse.
In her conclusion Clancy calls for a greater awareness that abuse can appear consensual. That victims should be listened to and be reassured that sexual abuse can never be the victim’s fault – even if the victim feels that they in fact consented or even provoked the abuse.
A thought on her sample
To return to the question of language : the advert she placed in the Boston Globe was as follows :
« Were you sexually abused as a child ? Please call Susan for more information regarding a research study on memory in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. »
By using the words ‘abused’ in her announcement she effectively selected a sample of people who felt negatively about what had happened. Despite skewing her sample in this way she was still shocked at how her interviewees reported positive elements to their abuse.
If she’d instead written “Did you have a sexual relationship with an adult as a child?” she may have got a sample of interviewees that included people who had experienced no negative effects even despite the inevitable exposure they would have had to stigma as they grew up.
Her field of interest is ‘child abuse’ not ‘children’s sexual rights’ or ‘paedophilia’. She could answer the above criticism with ‘I’m interested in helping people afflicted with trauma: those who aren’t suffering from trauma and don’t see themselves as victims fall outside my field of interest.’. However she goes on to say:
“Sexual abuse is very wrong, regardless of how it affects victims. As…Carol Tavris has written, – A criminal act is still a criminal act, even if the victim recovers.”
Of course, this is nonsense: one has only to remember the acts that used to be ‘criminal’ (i.e. homosexuality, atheism, abortion…) to know that ‘criminal acts’ don’t always remain criminal acts, that there are such things as ‘victimless crimes’, and that the issue with consensual child-adult intimacy is not whether a child ‘recovers’ from it, but whether any harm at all is cause from which a child might need to ‘recover’.
It’s a shame that Clancy excluded from her sample ‘victims’ who felt positively about their childhood sexual relationships with adults since their testimony could have helped her thinking go that extra mile that her research findings seem to be begging her to take.
The Betrayal Myth
In a chapter headed “Why the Trauma Myth Damages Victims” she looks at the reconceptualisation that takes place when the victim becomes aware of the stigma associated with child-adult intimacy.
Clancy presents three subsections in the following order: ‘betrayal’, ‘self-blame’ and finally ‘shame’.
After reading the ‘betrayal’ subsection I felt that my conviction in the essential harmlessness of consensual paedophlia had been somewhat shaken. This subsection leaves a strong impression that betrayal is something intrinsic to child-adult sexual intimacy, that such feelings would emerge even if the ‘abuse’ had happened on a desert island or in a society accepting of child-adult intimacy.
She describes the feelings of betrayal her interviewees experienced when they understood that the person whom they had loved, who they believed had loved and cared for them, were all the time acting from base, selfish motives. They felt that they had been used, and therefore abused, hence the feelings of having been betrayed.
But the way Clancy has ordered these 3 subsections obfuscates the real causes for the feelings of ‘betrayal’. By placing her consideration of what are in fact the causes of ‘self-blame’ and ‘shame’ after the ‘betrayal’ section she has presented her ideas in such a way that one is left with the impression that the mechanisms of ‘betrayal’ are somehow intrinsic to the act.
However if you were to read the ‘self-blame’ and ‘shame’ sections before the ‘betrayal’ section a different impression would be conveyed. Both these sections are clear and persuasive: the ‘shame’ occurs when the ‘victim’ becomes aware of the social stigma associated such intimacy, the ‘self-blame’ occurs because the child, having enjoyed the sexual interaction at the time, perceives themselves as having been complicit in this heavily stigmatised activity.
Thus, by the inverting the natural order by which ideas should be presented (from cause to effect) she disconnects the ‘betrayal’ from its true causes – ‘self-blame’ and ‘shame’, both of which are, in their turn, caused by social stigma.
It’s no surprise that the victim, under the psychological pressure of self-blame and shame and with society telling her that his acts were ‘evil’ and ‘criminal’, would re-interpret the actions of her lover in light of this stigma, and feel that his love was in fact an act of betrayal.
Having demonstrated that child-adult sensual intimacy is not traumatogenic in itself I suspect that ‘betrayal’ is the mechanism by which Clancy tries to preserve the idea that there is yet some intrinsic harm in child-adult sexual intimacy.
Of course, if one takes a cultural absolutist stance and doesn’t question the stigma associated with child-adult intimacy then the betrayal mechanism would appear to be intrinsic. And given the context and attitudes of contemporary western societies, it could be argued that any act which risks bringing such stigma and trauma into a person’s existence is an act of betrayal.
However Clancy’s lack of interest in the adult in such relationships means that she doesn’t consider that the feelings of love the child experienced from the adult may have been absolutely genuine (something I’m sure all paedophiles will attest to being very probable).
In Chapter 2, “The Truth About Sexual Abuse”, Clancy writes about her struggle to reconcile her interviewees unexpectedly non-traumatic accounts of their abuse with the account of coercion and trauma she’d been expecting:
“[E]ven if […] my victims were misremembering what had happened, they should be remembering [the abuse] as more traumatic than it actually was. Research shows that people have a tendency to let current psychological states bias their memories of past events. The worse you feel at the time someone asks you about a previous event in your life, the worse you remember the past event to be. If the people I interviewed were psychologically distressed at the time I spoke with them (which they definitely were), one might expect them to, if anything, remember the abuse as worse than it actually was.”
Clearly she recognises how stigma and psychological distress can pressure the victim to misremember the past: she could have also added that this same pressure can lead them to misinterpret the feelings and motivations of their adult partner, and also to under-report any pleasure or happiness they got from the relationship.
So, assuming the adult were a normal, loving paedophile, and his expressions of love weren’t just a ruse to get sex from a child he had no affection for – it seems likely that feelings of betrayal involve the victim in a move away from the truth – that the passing of time and the pressure of stigma is leading him/her into a misinterpretation of something she perceived more clearly when a child.
As so often in these matters the truth comes from ‘listening to the child’. The trouble is that the CSA industry only listens to the child when that child is saying what the CSA industry wants to hear.
It may seem perverse to have devoted most of this essay to the criticism of a book I’ve chosen as essential reading for anyone wanting to understand paedophilia.
Undoubtedly ‘The Trauma Myth’ represents a very major leap forward in our understanding of the nature of child-adult sexuality in our society: it presents clear evidence that most child-adult intimacy is of a consensual nature, that far from being a traumatic experience it is often positive, pleasurable and rewarding for the child (to the point that the children are often complicit in prolonging the relationship, are proactive in requesting intimacy and feel genuine affection and love for their adult partner), it reveals that it is the stigma that society loads onto such interactions that is the source of the trauma experienced by adult ‘survivors’ of child abuse.
But I also find it a frustrating book – I feel Clancy is like the cross-channel swimmer who gets within 50 metres of the French coast, feels too exhausted to complete the crossing and so swims back to Dover. Clancy gets one short step from making an even bigger discovery than the one she explores in her book.
Maybe she did think at some point “Well, if the actual experience wasn’t unpleasant, if the trauma only kicks in when the child becomes aware of stigma associated with such acts, then maybe it’s the stigma that’s the problem not the sexual interaction.”
But then, if that had been her thesis, no one would have listened to her, her book wouldn’t have been published, she’d have suffered even worse opprobrium than she did (the spectre of the Rind controversy hovers over all academics who dare take an independent line on these matters) and the Trauma Myth would remain unchallenged. Maybe her refusal to question the Abuse Myth and her insistence in condemning all child/adult intimacy regardless was necessary if she were to pursue her debunking of the ‘Trauma Myth’ and helping people suffering from trauma.
Which brings me to a larger issue: do we have to accept the conclusions Clancy reaches from her research wholesale or can we take her data and come to our own, different conclusions? Properly conducted research should be able to stand free of the conclusions drawn by those who conducted it. The data from which Galileo worked out that the solar system was helio-centric was data observed and noted by astronomers who believed in an earth-centered solar system.
The fact that Susan Clancy was either unable or unwilling to follow the implications of her research through to their logical conclusion should not stop us from doing so.