Societal Assumptions on Abuse and the Victim’s Perspective

Sexual abuse of children is morally revolting and a topic wrought with emotions. In the past few decades, awareness of the prevalence of child abuse and its psychological repercussions has increased. A “trauma model” has been built around sexual abuse that perceives it as being directly traumatic and frightening, and necessarily damaging.

Many psychologists now argue that what hurts most victims is not just the actual experience of abuse itself, but the meaning of the experience. How victims make sense of what happened and how these understandings make them feel about themselves and others have more long term psychological consequences.

Victims who were deeply traumatized by their experience are often angry and don’t feel guilty. However, many victims of childhood sexual abuse know and trust their abuser. They do not fully understand what is being done. Many such victims, in retrospect, reported that they did not initially experience the incidents as traumatic, they weren’t terrified; rather they were ‘uncomfortable and confused’. Any suffering they experienced came later, in the form of shame and guilt that they had somehow “consented” or that they did not experience the abuse as a horrifying trauma that the popular theory dictates they were supposed to have felt.

Victims whose experience was different might feel such because their case does not fit into the ‘trauma model’. When such victims mature and develop the capacity to understand their experience, they are confronted with a rhetoric that classifies sexual abuse as typically traumatic and frightening. They may learn to believe that their experience is abnormal and that there is something wrong with them. This may prevent them from seeking treatment, report the crimes, or worse they may believe that they never actually experienced sexual abuse.

Sometimes, well intentioned health professionals, whose interpretations of abusive experiences are more traumatic than actual events and effects, over emphasize abuse’s violence and fear which may differ from the actual experiences that victims might have had.

There is no doubt that using children for sex is an awful crime and it is also true that victims are often traumatized and need help. However, just as we now accept that “one size does not fit all” in treatment regimes, and that there is a need for personalized medicine, perhaps it is also time to accept these differences that different abuse victims might feel. Are we harming victims of abuse more by expecting them to feel traumatized? There is a danger of survivors being hence “victimized” not only by their abusers but also by the industry dedicated to helping them.

This line of thought is very controversial, going against the grain on an issue as sensitive as this may be misinterpreted by many as being insensitive to or complacent about sexual abuse. Everyone will agree that survivors of abuse need sensitivity and by respecting a victim’s personal perception of the incident is only a step towards achieving that goal.


Loftus, E., & Frenda, S. (2010). Bad Theories Can Harm Victims Science, 327 (5971), 1329-1330 DOI: 10.1126/science.1187716

Susan A. Clancy. The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children – and Its Aftermath. Basic Books, New York, 2010.

Divya Mathur, PhD

Divya Mathur, PhD, holds a doctorate in molecular biology with several peer reviewed journal articles. She currently writes about medical research for the lay audience.
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