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.
As well as therapy two things are often suggested as ‘cures’ for trauma – art and yoga. This can be annoying, for its simplicity and the potential imposition of someone else’s ‘cure’ for your ill. However in my research art and yoga have indeed come out as positive experiences. So what’s the truth to this?
Yoga is thought to reduce anxiety and switch the body from an anxious state to a calmer one. More here about that. Art and anything creative is seen as a safe way to express trauma. So why don’t they work for everyone? Why isn’t this THE answer?
Reading my participants responses, about what helps their recovering, I found great similarities whether they were describing creating art, writing, performance poetry, financial management, reading, music, gardening, dancing, walking, karate or even cross country jumping on a shire horse. They all described activities that were somewhat challenging (but achievable) and so absorbing that they lost all sense of time. They talked about rhythm, motion and a feeling of mastery over their environment. Something that engendered a sense of pride in their achievements.
This phenomenon is called ‘Flow’ and it was described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. When we reach that flow state we don’t have space in our minds for anxiety. He suggests that we try to move from chasing pleasure to enjoyment. Pleasure is a momentary ‘hit,’ a mouthful of chocolate, for example. Enjoyment is something that creates long term growth, like a really good deep conversation with a friend. They are both good but one has more positive effects on the future for that individual – they learn something, they change and they grow – that is where we find happiness.
The responses from my participants and this idea of flow has really made sense to me. Indeed I am researching precisely because I enjoy it – when I find that flow through my work I lose myself in it, I am truly happy and this is why I want to make it my career. This is why people say that you should do the thing you love and then you’ll never work a day in your life. I’m nearly 50 and am aiming for the rest of my working life to have more flow.
Coming back to the art and yoga issue. They don’t work for everyone because they don’t always lead to flow and enjoyment. It really is a case of ‘whatever floats your boat.’ I have created a mental list of fun activities I do where time zips by; researching, drawing and painting, gardening, cooking, music, watching a good documentary, model making, playing a computer game, meditating, a good chat with friends, lego with my children, laughing with my husband – my list will be different from yours but I’m planning on doing more of these things. I also understand why other things people love just don’t work for me.
This idea of creating flow can be minimised into encouraging people to do their hobbies but really its much wider than that – it is about learning to find that flow in as many activities as possible – setting ourselves goals to achieve even in the smallest things – gamifying life.
The most important thing about it is that it comes from the individual and really can’t be imposed from outside.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., (2002). Flow: The Classic Work on how to achieve Happiness 2nd ed., London, Sydney, Auckland, Johannesburg: Random House (Rider).
It’s been a while since I blogged. I’ve been typing up interview transcripts – a long and complex job and investigating future possibilities – more of those in later blogs. Now the University teaching year has started I’ve been teaching seminars and covering my supervisor’s lectures about the sociology of evil. It’s really interesting stuff so I thought it’d be a good subject to blog about.
Different disciplines approach evil in differing ways. Theology views it as the great battle between good and evil. Psychologists and psychiatrists look for its origins in people’s childhood experiences and neuro-biologists scan brains for damaged or missing areas.
Sociologists ask a different question. What is evil for? Why do we use the term? Why do we describe some people or acts as evil and not others? Alexander (2001) argues that evil is used to highlight good – we talk about things being evil to make it clear what we, as a society, want people to do instead.
As an example, child sexual abuse is generally seen as an evil act. This highlights our horror at people hurting children because, as a society, we want children to be cared for. This is good – the abuse of children is extremely wrong and could definitely be described as evil. Society wants to underline that abuse is wrong.
There are, however, a few unintended problems with this. Firstly when we think of ‘evil’ people we imagine monstrous, almost bestial, people. The vast majority of abuse is carried out by family members or acquaintances, not demonic strangers, so most abusers appear completely normal. If we are looking for ‘evil’ are we ignoring what is happening in our community, street or even home? Does this mean we are more likely to dismiss or ignore accusations?
Secondly ‘evil’ is seen as something catching. So there is the idea that people who have been abused go on to be abusers – something that there isn’t very much evidence for. This means that people who have been abused are scared from talking about it – so perpetrators get away with more crimes. It also means that families encourage children (and adults) to stay silent, to avoid the shame – but why would there be any shame unless there was this idea that people who have been abused are ‘tainted’ in some way?
So what do we do? I absolutely think that as a society we need to define what is acceptable and what is not. Abusing a child is not acceptable. It is utterly selfish to take what you want regardless of the harm done to another – particularly a child. But society needs to talk about it and learn about it. The label of evil, whilst an understandable way of expressing our horror at abuse, means that we don’t talk about it and we silence those who do want to talk about it. Openness is the key here. Silence allows abusers to get away with their crimes and prevents recovery for people who have experienced it.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. (2001) ‘Towards a Sociology of Evil’, in Maria Pia Lara (ed.) Rethinking Evil: Contemporary Perspectives, pp. 153–72. Berkeley: University of
One of the things I was interested in whilst doing my research was whether anyone else found music as important as I did in recovering. Quite a few people mentioned music but I thought I’d share the songs that meant a lot to me. It’s all about the lyrics.
Sometimes it’s about being angry….
Or, incidentally, when you need music to clean your house to. Metallica is good for both: cleaning and rage.
Sometimes you need reminding that you are strong.
Back in the day, before digital downloads a friend searched secondhand record shops to find me that single. That meant so much. I wasn’t alone. Which brings me to…
Something I’ve always aspired to be. Lately my favourite has been this one
Ultimately though every day is a new day and a new start. No one singer is more important to me than Nina.
And rinse and repeat. As I was frequently reminded throughout my research recovery is actually recovering – an ongoing, never ending process but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have moments, days or months or years of happiness. Do you have any music that speaks to you? Please share in the comments or on Twitter.
Summer is the time for conferences and I’m speaking at 3 this year. Last Friday was the Gendered Emotions in History conference at the University of Sheffield and I compared some historic examples of child sexual abuse (CSA) with things that people had told me in my research. I’ll talk a bit more about the other two conferences later.
So the two historic examples I talked about were the life of Saint Frances which I’ve talked about here and the ancient Greek practice of pederasty. Pederasty is an example of CSA that is utilised now to argue that attitudes have changed and thus can change again. Paedophiles use this argument to justify present day abuse.
So what was pederasty in Athenian Greece? It was an arrangement between an adult male citizen and a boy. Sometimes a sexual relationship it was primarily about educating the boy to take up his role as a citizen. The ideal age of the boy was 16 and the abuse of young (pre-pubescent) children was illegal. There was an awareness even at the time that sexual activity in the pederastic relationship was a negative experience for the boy.
The following are 2300 year old quotes about pederasty.
‘there is no real kindness; he has an appetite and wants to feed upon you’
Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus 370BC
“A boy does not even share the man’s enjoyment of sexual intercourse as a woman does: he is a sober person watching one drunk with sexual excitement. In view of all this, it is no wonder if he even develops contempt for his lover.”
Xenophon, Symposium VIII, 360BC
Bloch (2001) argues that many such arrangements were for the political or financial benefit of the father of the child. She points out that to the Greeks being penetrated ‘like a woman’ was seen as shameful and any male who experienced this, and this was known, was banned from participating as a full citizen and indeed could be prosecuted. What Bloch argues here, and the quotes reflect, is that pederasty was not emotionally beneficial for the boy and was likely to feel shameful.
One of the key emotions people, particularly men, have spoken of regarding sexual abuse is my research is shame.
‘I realise I have carried a lot of shame around with me since the abuse. I am currently working on reframing and healing the shame I feel about being gay as it links with the abuse by a male teacher.’
‘with same sex abuse I think there’s so much shame around it that people (especially the victims) don’t speak out about it as much’
‘You are taught shame at a very early age with sexual abuse’
In Ancient Greece, they didn’t have the same concepts of hetero- and homo- sexuality as we do today but they did define an active and a passive partner with being passive seen as shameful for a man. In Athenian Greece it could literally mean that you were not legally a Citizen, a real Athenian man. I think this connects with modern ideas about masculinity – what a man should be. Child abuse shakes the foundation of that. How can you be a man and be a victim?
Hopefully it is clear, when it is written in this way, that abuse does not affect one’s right to be male. You should not be blamed or punished (even by yourself) for something that was not your fault. It also shows the clear differences between homosexuality and paedophilia – including age, consent and harm. Attitudes have indeed changed over the years about abuse but the fact that it is harmful to the child has not changed.
My first journal article has been published. It’s about Victorian child sexual exploitation and can be found here. It’s only a short article and there is a lot more to write about Mary Jeffries – which I hope to do in other later articles.
I’ve reached an important point in my research – the data gathering bit is finished and next I will analyse it all. There are 141 survey responses and 21 interviews. I will transcribe every interview (those that were recorded) which is taking me 5 hours/ish for each hour recorded. I’m aiming to get that done by the end of June. Thank you so much to everyone who took part.
It has struck me, whilst doing these interviews, what fascinating, wise and intelligent people my research participants are. There is a phenomenon called ‘post traumatic growth’ – which is not to suggest that trauma is a good thing because it’s not – but that trauma can lead to wisdom and a different perspective on life. I’m not ignoring the negative effects of course and that will all be part of the thesis, as well as the need for properly funded mental health services – but it is really clear to me the difference between the traditional idea of what an abuse ‘victim/survivor’ looks and acts like, and the people I have been talking to. That’s the difference between a stereotype and reality.
I have also been working on, with my supervisor, an academic article which is due for submission at the start of next month, based on people’s comments about #metoo and the perpetrators of abuse. Whilst writing the article I came across the quote above from Maya Angelou and it really sums up the point of the article as well as what people have been telling me over the last 5 months. I found the painting on Art.uk and it is entitled ‘A Time to Listen’ – let’s hope it is!