The Trauma Myth

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The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children — and Its Aftermath is a book written by Susan Clancy, and published in 2010. It documents the work conducted during her graduate research project in the mid-1990s, including her interviews of adults who identified as survivors of CSA in responding to her newspaper advert. Much to her surprise, she found that most of the self-identified victims of CSA did not feel trauma, in the usual sense of the word, until they grew old enough to really understand what had happened. Clancy argues that the popular perception of CSA as a universally damaging experience has been overblown by media and popular culture, and that a more nuanced and individualized approach is needed to understand the effects of such experiences. Dr Clancy was met with hostility from her peers and academic superiors for challenging the "trauma myth".

From the book's description:[1]

Clancy calls for an honest look at sexual abuse and its aftermath, and argues that the reactions of society and the healing professions -- however well meaning -- actually shackle the victims of abuse in chains of guilt, secrecy, and shame. Pathbreaking and controversial, The Trauma Myth radically reshapes our understanding of sexual abuse and its consequences.


  • What Was It Like When It Happened?
  • The Truth About Sexual Abuse
  • The Politics of Sexual Abuse
  • Why the Trauma Myth Damages Victims
  • How the Trauma Myth Silences Victims

Some of Clancy's theses

The Trauma Myth

Most self-identifying CSA survivors' experiences do not fit the media stereotype of severe trauma (According to Clancy’s data only 5 % could be considered genuinely traumatic). And they feel shame and loneliness because of their underrepresentation.

[M]any researchers studying the psychological impact of sexual abuse do not even bother to ask victims detailed questions as to whether the experience was traumatic when it happened; they just assume it was. (p.12)[2]

"Confusion" is the most frequently reported word when victims are asked to describe what the experience was like. Confusion is a far cry from trauma. (Interview,[3]

You get all these people who are keeping it a secret because they're ashamed — because what happened to them is not what is portrayed in the media or psychological and medical circles. (Interview,[3]

Reconceptualization process

Clancy argues that the problem emerges later in life due to a reconceptualization (relabeling) of primary sexual experience. When a “victim” becomes older and realizes the sexual nature of the previous interaction and its profound wrongness, she feels betrayed, ashamed, as well as self-blame.

Victims reconceptualized the formerly “confusing and weird experiences” and understood them for what they were—sexual in nature and clearly wrong. Only at this point—when the sexual abuse is fully apprehended— does it begin to damage victims. (p116)[2]

Origins of self blame

[T]he less traumatic (forceful, frightening, threatening) the abuse was while it occurred, the more guilt and self-blame the victims report later on. Those victims whose abuse involved force or violence usually report the least guilt. In such cases, the victims know it was not their fault. (From Clancy's summary article)[4]

Victims say they feel guilty because the abuse was not done against their will. (p.132)[2]

Repressed memory is a false concept

The book also addresses the idea of repressed/recovered memory (along with her previous book Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens). Clancy argues that the reason many children do not remember sexual abuse until later in life was that it simply was not notable at the time. She says:

What therapists in the sexual abuse field refer to as repression is actually simple forgetting. Most children who get abused don't understand it at the time. Thus, it is not a significant experience when it happens — it's weird, perhaps — and so they forget it, like we forget so many aspects of childhood. Later on in life they may be asked by a therapist, "Were you sexually abused as a child?" and this question will cue a memory. When this happens it is not an example of a recovered memory. It is an example of normal forgetting and remembering.[3]

The need to differentiate types of CSA

Clancy is opposed to the conflation of “CSA” and “rape” in the media and law, because "rape" does not resemble the experience of most survivors, and this discrepancy results in more problems.

I think there should be clear legal terms to differentiate sexual abuse that involves touching and no force, and sexual abuse that's penetrative, and sexual abuse that involves force and violence. You have to make it clear that in all cases it is a crime, but clumping all of them under one title — when they range from genital stroking to anal penetration — is a bad thing.[3]

The trauma paradigm thwarts effective treatment

I don't think that sex abuse victims in most cases need years of therapy to get over the betrayal.[3]

The problem is that today, after more than twentyfive years, predictions based on the trauma model have not proved accurate. Characteristics of the sexual abuse experience related to trauma (like how frightening it was, whether penetration or force was involved, and how many times it happened) do not do a good job of forecasting the significance of the victim’s psychological harm in the aftermath. There appears to be no direct, linear relationship between the severity of the abuse and the psychosocial difficulties victims experience in adulthood. Worst of all, we have developed no clearly effective treatments for sexual abuse victims (p.112)[2]

The reason the truth matters—the reason advocacy is, in fact, best based on truth—is that our lies about sexual abuse are not helping victims. (p.108)[2]

About consent

At the same time, Clancy (in response to predictably being accused of "pedophile advocacy") condemned Minor-adult sex and opposed the idea of "a child's ability to consent".

Sexual abuse is never OK. No matter what the circumstances are, or how it impacts the victims, sexual abuse is an atrocious, despicable crime. Just because it rarely physically or psychologically damages the child does not mean it is OK. Harmfulness is not the same thing as wrongfulness. And why is it wrong? Because children are incapable of consent.[3]

Though some of Clancy's quotes pave the way to more subtle reflections:

[T]he fact that children cannot understand or react appropriately to sex is why, from a legal standpoint, children cannot technically consent to having sex with adults. For consent to truly occur, two conditions must prevail: A child must know what he or she is consenting to and have the freedom to say yes or no. So, in a court of law, children cannot consent. The problem is that most people do not live in a courtroom. We live in the real world, and in the real world, from the perspective of child victims, they do consent. (p. 72)[2]

Comparisons with the Rind data, and his later studies

Since Clancy was open about the fact that she canvassed for "abuse survivors" in a newspaper, her data only concerns those who unambiguously perceive that they were abused, and are willing to share their experiences. When interpreted as unambiguous self-perception of abuse, this fraction is as little as 14% in some more representative samples.[5] As a result, most of her subjects were much younger (at the time of recalled contact) than in the 1998 Rind datasets. Still, Rind did have some data on these much rarer interactions with a child under 12, and it was not as universally damning as Clancy's dataset was. 72% of girls and 34% of boys had a negative recall. Particularly for boys, that's a far cry from Clancy's "almost every". The reconceptualization theory suggests that perceptions of the encounter should get markedly worse with time. Yet the Rind studies suggest the opposite: perceptions of the abuse tend to mellow out and drift toward "neutral" over time.

Clancy herself does cite Bruce Rind several times in her footnotes. She also explicitly talks about Rind (1998) when talking about how any dissent in CSA academia is roundly shut down. She even defends Rind (1998)'s methodology and statistical validity. She also admits in the end notes that Rind (1998) contradicts her claim that CSA is widely harmful to children (p. 208).[2]

Reflection on implications of Clancy’s findings

  • Book review by Green, R. (2010). The Trauma Myth. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(5), 1205–1206. doi:10.1007/s10508-010-9643-y

Thus, it is this aura of evil in the adult world that energizes the social construction of trauma that attaches to experience that was not traumatic. Contact morphs to abuse. [...] But, is Clancy, when broadcasting the trauma myth while invoking the moral mantra, contributing to the problem or the solution? Might her finding be an argument to dilute societal condemnation so that delayed trauma would be diminished? If non-pedophile adults became less exercised about adult–child sexual contact that was not aggressive/ violent, as with adult–adult-sexuality that is not aggressive/ violent, could this reduce the nascent trauma?

Would this hypothetical social reappraisal enhance the prevalence of child–adult sexualized contact? Perhaps. But, if societal attitudes change in the direction of accommodating non-aggressive contact doubles the prevalence rate and is usually non-traumatic in childhood and later, is that to be preferred over half the prevalence rate where most children will later experience trauma?

Clancy asserts that trauma only occurs years later, when a hostile society condemns it to the victim once an adult. One wonders whether if society were to accept such relationships as inevitable, as it has homosexuality, prostitution, and gambling, there would be no harm at all – a solution that she doesn’t seem to consider. Since legalizing those relationships often seems to have had positive results, she should at least consider having the age of consent lowered to 14, which would mark progress and reduce trauma and other damage.

"[...]'Confusion' is the most frequently reported word when victims are asked to describe what the experience was like. Confusion is a far cry from trauma." It's thoughtful of Clancy to point this out, but what she sails over, of course, is exactly why a youth is "victimized" if they are not traumatized by the incident. Is it possible that the "confusion" may be the result of the fact that they enjoyed a mutually consensual experience while always hearing from others that such interaction constitutes "abuse"?"

Clancy: "You get all these people who are keeping it a secret because they're ashamed — because what happened to them is not what is portrayed in the media or psychological and medical circles." [...]is this perhaps more indication that people are ashamed of mutually consensual experiences in their youth because this is how the various institutions of society tell them they should feel? And are they actually made to feel guilty because they were not traumatized by the experience?

the fact that someone enjoys something and receives pleasure from it, and the fact that they don't resist as a result, isn't cause for Clancy (or too many other people, for that matter) to question whether we should continue to categorize something as "abuse." Instead, it's assumed that the youth in question "doesn't know what's going on," because if they did, according to the logic being presented here, they would resist. This is a case of stereotyping younger people as much as it is their "abusers."

Always, always listen to the victim. If they tell you they thought it was wrong, but liked it and went along with it, then accept what they say and validate their experience. Whatever you do, don’t become morally outraged on their behalf because then they might to begin to doubt themselves and enter the spiral of negative thoughts that are the real cause of stress. [...] Dare I suggest that more harm, more trauma has been caused by the self-appointed moral protectors than by the the actual abuse itself.

Reaction to the book

The book evoked many negative judgements among media commentators and professionals, many of them personally invested in questionable realms of expertise such as repressed memory and recovered memories, which are reliant upon the idea of "CSA" and its inherent trauma. Clancy was accused of promoting CSA, despite her repeated strong emphasis on anti contact attitudes and inherent wrongfulness of adult-child sex.[6] She was forced to flee the country, now works in South America, Nicaragua [7], and her career was harmed in the process - making any subsequent work in her area of expertise a near impossibility.

See also

External links


  1. Description
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Susan A.Clancy (2010) The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children--and Its Aftermath
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 "The Trauma Myth": The child betrayed. Susan Clancy's interview by Thomas Rogers. Salon. 2010
  4. Clancy's own summary article for her book
  5. Yesmap Campaign (Feb, 2022). Rind (2022) – Your 5-minute Guide. Prepared by Newgon Organization.
  6. Abigail Zuger, M.D. "Abusing Not Only Children, but Also Science", The New York Times, 2010
  7. Susan A Clancy at the INCAE Business school