My PhD was awarded today. I feel…vindicated and so proud that I’ve turned the most horrible thing that ever happened to me into one of the best. It means SO much to me. Hopefully, it shows that we are not just victims of circumstance, tossed this way and that by fate, we can have some impact upon the future. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to be doing next but I have a few irons in the fire so we’ll see what works out. Whatever I do I will continue fighting for a better world.
I hope that everyone is well and coping with this very strange time. Two things to update you about. I had my viva and passed! I have to do some minor changes (re-label tables etc) then I’m done – and will be Dr Cunnington. I’ve also written a piece that’s been published by NAPAC – The National Association for People Abused in Childhood. You can read it here
This article explains why people who have experienced trauma can be calm when they are faced with an emergency. I found it really interesting and obviously very apt at the moment.
I hope everyone is doing ok at the chaotic time. I have my viva soon. When that’s done hopefully I’ll have my PhD and can start sharing my results.
In my research I’ve found a surprising number of academics that minimise the harm caused or even defend child abuse. Oh look here’s one where his research reflects his interests….
You can read about that here. There are many that argue that research should be approached in a scientific manner, without any bias. Personally I don’t think anyone should be scientifically detached when researching such abuse. You can approach your research in a systematic way but you should have an opinion about it. This is why I think we should be honest about our relationship to our research and consider the ethics of it.
Paedophile websites quote favourable academics. This matters because it enables abusers to minimise the harm they will cause. It is not an intellectual exercise – it’s research with real life consequences. We need more researchers, like me, who are honest about experiencing abuse. I am honest because then you know I have an opinion – it’s a blight on humanity – I wish all academics thought the same.
I’m not sure how I missed this – drowning in thesis writing I’d guess – but there was a third APPG report published in October. This included data that I submitted from my research. The APPG recommendations were:
1. All court staff should undergo mandatory training that gives them a basic
knowledge of trauma and its impact on witnesses.
2. The Government should legislate so that witnesses attending a criminal trial under
a court summons or police warning have a statutory right to paid leave and
witnesses without a court summons or police warning have a right to unpaid leave.
3. All survivors of sexual violence and abuse should have an automatic right to
special measures such as video links to give evidence; it should not be at the
4. The Government should urgently make an assessment of the number of
Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs), their geographical spread, their
average caseload and the variability in quality of service.
5. The Government should ensure justice is commensurate with the crime by:
• Consulting with survivors of childhood sexual abuse on the appropriate
length of sentences for offenders, taking into consideration the lifelong
impact of abuse
• Extending the Unduly Lenient Scheme to include all child sexual abuse
offences in order that survivors can appeal lenient sentences
• Legislating so that Parole Board always whether offenders seeking
parole have fully disclosed information about their victims
6. Government should publish a revised Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme
without delay and ensure it consults thoroughly with specialist sexual violence and
abuse services (SSVSS) so that the needs of survivors are reflected in the new
Scheme. The Scheme should include measures to:
• Abolish the unspent convictions rule for survivors of child sexual abuse.
• Abolish the time limit for application for compensation for crimes of
sexual violence and abuse.
• Extend the definition of violent crime, and thereby eligibility for the
Scheme, to include non-contact forms of child sexual abuse including
• Recognise children can’t consent to their own sexual abuse.
The last one is so fundamental. You can read the full report here.
For #WorldMentalHealthDay2019 I’d like to see a recognition of how society affects mental health. For example, for people who have experienced trauma stigma and stereotyping can make them feel worse and stop them asking for help. We all need to change.
Plus we need properly funded and appropriate services. This would mean trauma informed treatment where people are asked about their life experiences. Also no one should be left in the position of not being able to afford the treatment they need.
Finally anyone reporting trauma should be tested for PTSD. It’s very common after trauma and as a diagnosis helps people understand why they struggle with life sometimes. It’s definitely helped me.
The second All Party Parliamentary Group Report (APPG) has been published. You can read it here. This one looks at people’s experience of the Police and Crown Prosecution Service. As before I submitted my research evidence to this. The recommendations are:
- Introduce a victims law with a code of practice, complaints procedure and properly resourced Victims Commissioner
- Amend the Policing and Crime Act 2017 to create a presumption that suspects under investigation for sexual offences against children and adults only be released from policy custody on bail.
- A national cross-government strategy on addressing childhood trauma and adverse experiences. This should include training and support for police officers in how to recognise and respond to abuse in a trauma-informed way and in particular how to communicate investigation outcomes sensitively.
- A national, standardised leaflet for officers to provide survivors with the information they need when they report the crime.
- Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS)
should undertake a national thematic review of non-recent ‘child sexual abuse’ which focuses on the experiences of adult survivors.
Thank you to everyone who contributed. I’m currently writing my thesis so I’m a bit quiet online. However, once it is done I’ll be able to feed back what the results were.
In the 1990’s there was a lot of press about recovered memories of child sexual abuse (CSA), most suggesting that they were false memories implanted by therapists. I’ve been researching this area for my thesis and was surprised by what I found. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was founded by Peter and Pamela Freyd after their daughter, who is also an academic, accused her father of CSA. The most significant proponent of this theory is Elizabeth Loftus who argued that recovered memories were not reliable or necessarily true. Her research has been used in many criminal cases, including the Cosby trial, to ‘disprove’ claims. This isn’t the first time that memories of abuse have been questioned. Sigmund Freud first concluded that such memories were real before changing his mind and deciding that they were fantasies. You can read all about that here.
In contrast, there is clear evidence that repressed memories are possible. For example, Linda Meyer Williams interviewed 129 women with previous documented experience of CSA and found 38% did not remember. She found it was most common where the child had been very young at the time of the abuse and/or abused by someone they knew. Indeed, in a recent Australian case a perpetrator, convicted of assaulting multiple victims, confessed to abusing a boy and the victim, now older, did not remember although he does have PTSD. Repressed memories have also been demonstrated to be just as accurate as other trauma memories.
It is important to consider why people are making such arguments – in this case a man who was himself accused of abuse. All academics have reasons why we research particular things. I think that we should be open about what they are particularly when our research affects real people especially children.
The idea of false memories are still under debate within the academic and medical community as well as wider society. In general the pendulum has swung from disbelief of memories in the 1990’s to more acceptance now. However, it continues to affect people’s reactions and should be challenged by highlighting its origins.
Loftus, E. (1993) ‘The Reality of Repressed Memories.’, Am Psychol, 48(5), pp. 518–537. doi: 10.1300/J229v03n01_03.
Masson, J. M. (1984) ‘Freud and the Seduction Theory: A challenge to the foundations of psychoanalysis’, The Atlantic, February. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1984/02/freud-and-the-seduction-theory/376313/
Rydberg, J. A. (2017) ‘Research and clinical issues in trauma and dissociation: Ethical and logical fallacies, myths, misreports, and misrepresentations’, European Journal of Trauma & Dissociation. Elsevier Masson SAS, 1(2), pp. 89–99. doi: 10.1016/j.ejtd.2017.03.011
Scheflin, A. W. and Brown, D. (1996) ‘Repressed Memory or Dissociative Amnesia: What the Science Says’, Psychiatry & Law, 24, pp. 143–188.
Williams, L. M. (1994) ‘Recall of Childhood Trauma: A Prospective Study of Women’s Memories of Child Sexual Abuse’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, pp. 1167–1176. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.62.6.1167.
I believe research should aim to change things for the better so I feed my results in wherever I can. One submission I made was to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA). They have published the first in a series of reports and included the evidence I submitted, alongside evidence from organisations and individuals. You can read the report here.
The recommendations they make in this report are:
- Research the economic and social costs of CSA.
- Fund core support services.
- Collect data on the demand for support and ring-fence money to meet that demand.
- Inform professionals how to respond in a trauma informed way.
- Have a government public health campaign to destroy CSA myths and stereotypes
I’m happy with these recommendations. It is clear in my research how underfunded mental health services are and how poorly professionals can react to CSA disclosure as well as how badly this impacts individuals who have experienced CSA. The fifth recommendation is key – stigma and stereotyping makes recovering so much harder.
I hope that the government takes this report on board – it makes financial and moral sense to do so. I’ll look forward to reading the other reports when they are released. Many thanks to everyone who contributed to my research.
During my research it has become clear that people who have experienced CSA do not know about advances in CSA research. This is no fault of theirs but instead reflects how taboo the subject is. Nobody talks about it but lots of people experience it. I want to share up to date information about CSA research and the first topic is memories.
Traumatic experiences are difficult for the person to experience. Animals sometimes freeze when they cannot escape a situation. Humans are no different. It is common for the individual to dissociate and attempt to mentally leave the situation. Dissociation is defined by MIND as ‘an experience where you feel disconnected in some way from the world around you or from yourself.’ During the traumatic incident the person might enter an altered sense of reality, detached from the self and time. Children are more likely to dissociate so people who have experience childhood sexual abuse frequently experience this. What does this mean for them as an adult?
Amnesia is common following dissociation, as this state might affect how memory is stored. The person may struggle to recall facts about the incident(s) or even that it took place at all. It does seem however that emotions and sensations around the event(s) are retained, which means that someone can feel fear, for example, without remembering why. Many people find memories returning later, often in adulthood.
PTSD and other Conditions
Dissociation raises the risk of long term conditions such as Complex-PTSD. With C-PTSD things that remind the person of the traumatic experience (triggers) lead to a re-experiencing of that event. This does not necessarily mean a complete flashback but can mean the re-experiencing of emotions as described above. There is further information about C-PTSD here on the NHS site.
There are other dissociative conditions such as Dissociative Identity Disorder, see the MIND link here, that are again tied to early trauma.
To sum up memory gaps and even total amnesia is common in people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. It is a consequence of the body trying to deal with an traumatic experience. C-PTSD is also common and may be, in part, a consequence of that dissociation.
Scaer, R.C., 2001. The Neurophysiology of Dissociation & Chronic Disease. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 26(1), pp.73–91.
Van der Kolk, B., 2014. The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, London: Viking.