Removing Stigma in the Aftermath of Sexual Abuse

Therapy's Ongoing Duty to Help Victims Eliminate Shame and Self-Blame

Susan Clancy

As a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-1990s, I participated in research studies carried out by the psychology department that began in October 1996 and continued until August 2005 to interview adults who had experienced sexual abuse as children and learn what effects the abuse had had on their lives. Although I was sure I knew what I would discover---that the abuse would be remembered as a horrible experience that overwhelmed the people I interviewed with fear when it happened and had always been viewed as a traumatizing occurrence---what I heard in the hundreds of interviews I conducted was quite different. In nearly all the cases, the adults I questioned had not experienced the abuse as traumatic when it occurred and only came to regard it as so years later. And in many of the cases, they had never been questioned about their evolving sense of the abuse and the ongoing impact that it had on their lives, but only about what the traumatic experience had been like at the time. These findings led me to question the progress professionals in the sexual abuse field have made when it comes to understanding and treating child sexual abuse.

Certainly we have advanced to the point that the right things are being said (sexual abuse is common and harmful; it is never the child's fault). Funding in the trauma field has been secured, research conducted, studies and books published, treatment centers established, and public awareness raised through sex-education programs and campaigns in the media. But is any of it translating into actual progress for victims? Do they feel that they're being helped, that they're understood and their needs are being served effectively?


When they discover that they have been abused, victims most frequently report feelings of betrayal. As Cheryl, a forty-three-year-old high school teacher on maternity leave with triplets, put it, "I realized that I trusted him, what he was doing, and I should not have. He knew he was doing something wrong, and he knew I didn't know.... It was all an elaborate game of sexual betrayal." As Neil, an AIDS activist working for a hospital in Boston, said, "I realized that it wasn't just what he did to me physically. At that moment [of discovery] I lost my father. He was no longer someone who loved and took care of me. I was just being used by him for his personal gratification."

For the victims who spoke to me, the degree of the betrayal was a function of two main variables. First, it depended on how close the victim felt to the perpetrator, on how much he or she trusted, cared about, or loved him. The second variable was the degree to which the victim believed he or she had been emotionally manipulated by the perpetrator or "taken in" by the situation.

Betrayal affects not only victims' feelings of security and trust in others but also their self-worth. They feel that since they must not have been loved, perhaps they were not worth loving. As Charles, a history professor, explained to me, "You learn that who you are and what you might want or need just does not matter."


According to philosophers, psychiatrists, and intellectuals from Aristotle to William James, from Sigmund Freud to Donald Spence, when bad things happen to people---like discovering they were sexually abused by an adult they trusted---it is human nature to want to engage in a search for meaning, to understand why the event occurred and what its implications for one's life are.

As victims struggle to make sense of their experiences, they engage in an attribution process: they scan through all the possible explanations they can generate to come up with the one that they believe fits best. Traditionally defined, attributions are individual causal explanations for why events occur.

If a victim asks, “why did someone I trusted abuse me?” there are, of course, endless possible answers. For example, he was screwed up or drunk, or I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The famous attributional theorist, Martin Seligman, would refer to this category of answers as "external explanations for negative events." It assigns responsibility for the event to someone or something else. But almost all the victims I've spoken with, to some degree, endorse an "internal" explanation. They see the abuse as their fault—caused by their own characteristics or behavior.

Today, victims need to hear the truth. This requires us all to highlight publicly the true dynamics of sexual abuse---to expose the painful reality that most victims care for and trust the perpetrator (before, and sometimes during and after, they are abused), that they do not really understand the nature of what is being asked of them, that they feel they are receiving love and attention, that it does not hurt and sometimes feels good, and that, for all these reasons, participation is common.

Once exposed to the truth about how victims feel and behave during sexual abuse, victims need to hear, loudly and clearly, why they were not at fault. We cannot accomplish this with platitudes or blanket statements like "You were not to blame" or "It was done against your will." They consented not because they were forced to but because they did not understand enough not to. And victims need to know that this is normal.

In short, in order to help victims feel less stigmatized in the aftermath of sexual abuse, we must all communicate that they were helpless victims---not, as the trauma model portrays them, literally helpless but metaphorically helpless, victims of their own level of development.

This information needs to be highlighted in the form of prevention campaigns, books, websites, and other culturally accessible outlets. Until that happens, victims will continue to feel alone, guilty, and ashamed.

This blog is excerpted from “The Trauma Myth." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Trauma | Children/Adolescents

Tags: betrayal | martin seligman | psychology | psychotherapy | PTSD | sex | suicide | therapist | therapy | trauma treatment | traumatic | networker | clinician | sexual abuse | ruminating thoughts | self-blame | shame

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015 12:04:20 PM | posted by Stewart
The most urgent amendment still needed relates to gender-based discrimination when it comes to child sexual abuse. As pointed out, the Penal Code only recognizes that ‘males’ commit rape and that a male (regardless of his age) cannot be considered the object of rape.

Monday, October 5, 2015 2:40:25 AM | posted by Helen Jones
Really excellent article which mirrors what I have experienced with my clients. Most love their abusers and do not feel victimised at the time. Often they willingly participate because they believe they are loved by the perpetrator. The realisation that what felt ok at the time was actually abuse is very traumatic and disempowering.

Saturday, October 3, 2015 10:18:39 PM | posted by JOSE NAVARRO
Thank you for sharing such valuable insight in the effort to help individuals struggling with these issues.