It’s not just fight or flight…

Smith, Thomas Stuart; Study of a Rabbit; The Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum;
Study of a Rabbit, Thomas Stuart Smith

Recently a group of men who gang raped a woman in Pamplona had their conviction reduced from rape to sexual assault, despite the fact that they raped their victim. There is no question about this as they filmed it on their phones. The reason why their convictions were downgraded was because the victim didn’t fight, but was ‘passive or neutral’ according to the police reports. This has lead to many demonstrations and anger over this apparent judgement of the victims behaviour.

It also ignores the fact that there is another response to violent attack than fight or flight – there is also freeze or ‘tonic immobility’ to give it its formal name. Ignoring, for now, the fact that this victim blaming attitude goes right back at least as far as the Bible (read Deuteronomy 22:23-27) let’s look at the evidence for this third reaction to fear and violence.

Like in animals there is evidence that humans can sometimes freeze when faced with danger, literally be unable to move. Moller (2017) et al, interviewed 298 women who had been victims of a sexual assault. Of those 70% reported significant tonic immobility and 48% reported extreme tonic immobility – so nearly half could not move at all during the assault. They also found that the women who had experienced this were more likely to develop c-PTSD and/or severe depression.

So it looks as though the ‘freeze’ reflex is very common and I’d argue it may even be more common in children where, even more so than adults, fight or flight may not be options.

Going back to the Pamplona case it did inspire the nuns of Hondarribia to send out the following message.





Möller, A., Söndergaard, H.P. & Helström, L., 2017. Tonic immobility during sexual assault – a common reaction predicting post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, 96(8), pp.932–938.




Research Update April 2018. Victorian government corruption and Catholic Saints

Gadsden, Judith; Field of Flowers
Field of Flowers, Judith Gadson

I’m right in the middle of fieldwork at the moment, which means that I am arranging interviews and then actually doing them. The next job is transcribing them, typing out everything that was said, which takes much longer than you’d think! I’m also applying to talk at some conferences and I’m going to submit an abstract to a journal to see if I can get the research published. If accepted the article wouldn’t be published until next year so you have to start planning ahead really early on!

I’ve just done a presentation for the Sheffield Gender History group about my PhD side project. As part of background reading about laws relating to childhood sexual abuse I read about the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which aimed to raise the age of consent to 16 for girls. The author of the paper, Gorham, commented that MPs were reluctant to pass this law because they might fall foul of it themselves, as many visited brothels owned by a woman called Mrs Jeffries. So I’ve have been investigating Mrs Jeffries and her connections to MPs and other VIPs of 1885. This is what my talk was about and I’m hoping to turn it into an article in due course.

Another talk, which I’m due to give in June at a Gendered Emotions in History conference, is about the different emotions reported by male and female participants in my survey and if there are any parallels between them and historical examples. I’ve been reading about Francesca Bussa, who was married at 12 or 13 in 1397 and after the wedding night refused to speak or eat. She only recovered after being inspired to do good works but continued to punish herself shockingly throughout her life; eating only 1 meal a day, whipping and torturing herself. She cut off her own hair and complained of being tormented by demons. She also did some amazing things – performed miracles, opened her home to the sick and founded a monastery for women. In the end she was canonised and is now known as Saint Frances. I don’t want to minimise her significance to Catholics but there is a clear link between her early marriage and the onset of symptoms of self harm. Many female participants in my research have described a sense of disconnection between the body and mind, which I think has parallels with the story of Saint Frances.

As you can probably tell I am doing lots of things at the moment! Luckily the PhD gives you time to explore different avenues and decide which are the most fruitful.


Bell, R.M., 1985. Holy Anorexia, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gorham, D., 1978. The “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” Re-examined: Child Prostitution and the Idea of Childhood in Late-Victorian England. Victorian Studies, 21(3), pp.353–379.

March 2018 Research Update

Patrick, James, 1938-2005; Sunset on Snow
Sunset on Snow by James Patrick. Kilmardinny Arts Centre

I’ve missed a month out but it only takes a tiny bit of snow here in the UK to send everything, including my life, haywire! I’m catching up with myself now (although more snow is due). I am contacting people who volunteered for interview about ten at a time so I don’t become overwhelmed. So if you haven’t heard from me yet you may still do. Thank you to everyone who has responded so far.

In the meantime I’ve been continuing with some side research I’m doing and keeping up with the news around child abuse. Interestingly they have combined recently with this story about Florida banning child marriage, something that is shockingly common in the USA. As you can see here half of the US states have exceptions to their laws which result in no minimum age for marriage and it does actually happen. Between 2000 and 2010 248,000 children were married, most to adults, not their peers. The UK also has an issue with child marriage, particularly forced marriage.

As part of my PhD research I’ve been looking at the laws around child sexual abuse including marriage and the age of consent for sex. I’ve been researching the circumstances around the UK Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 when the age of consent was raised (for girls only) from 12 to 16. Before 1885 sex or rape of a child under 10 was a felony and between 10-12 was only a misdemeanour – which I would suggest demonstrates an attitude towards older children that continues today – for example see this French case. Such stories in the news show me, as if I didn’t know, that there is much work to be done and I hope I can contribute.

January 2018 Research Update

Letter/Letter Writing by Lisa Milroy. Credit: Imperial College Healthcare Charity Art Collection
Letter/Letter Writing by Lisa Milroy. Credit: Imperial College Healthcare Charity Art Collection


I wanted to keep everyone up to date as to where I am in my research. The survey is going to close on the 1st of February, so if you do want to fill it in now is the time. As of now I’ve had 133 responses and I’m in the process of analysing these. My next step is to develop questions and start interviews. I really want to thank everyone who has taken the time to fill in the survey. Your responses have been fascinating and so helpful.

About Interviews

88 people have volunteered for interviews, which is 66% of people who filled in the survey. That’s an amazing response and I’m so grateful. It shows me that people do want to talk about this subject and contribute to positive steps forward for all victims and survivors.

Unfortunately I’m not going to be able to interview everyone who has volunteered as I simply cannot do justice to that many interviews in the time that I have. I am aiming to do about 25 interviews and will be contacting people in February to see if they are still interested. If you are no longer interested, that’s absolutely fine. The email will have the subject title ‘Survey Response.’

As people have responded from around the world I will offer interviews via Skype, Messenger, email, telephone or face to face  (if near to Sheffield, UK) – it will be the interviewee’s choice, not mine. All verbal interviews will be recorded, with your permission, to ensure that I can report your opinions and experiences correctly. All interviews will be anonymous. I will be using pseudonyms for contributors so you will get the opportunity to choose yours, if you want to.

It’s worth stating again that I do not want to focus interviews on the abuse people have experienced but the recovery journey afterwards. There may be specific things mentioned in survey responses that I’d like to hear more about, which I will mention in my email. You can then choose if you want to talk about them or not.

I’m so pleased at the success of my research so far and I will do my best to do justice to the information you have shared with me.

Do the Abused become Abusers?

Short answer: Not in general, no. Long answer follows below.

Billingham, Roy, b.1944; Anger, Frustration, Acceptance
Anger, Frustration, Acceptance by Roy Billingham,  Photo credit: St George’s Hospital

Most studies into offending get their data by asking child abuse offenders if they experienced sexual abuse as children (CSA), with many reporting that they did. It has been pointed out that their word is not necessarily reliable and they may have other reasons for stating this.

Not many studies look at abuse victims and survivors in general. A recent Dutch study by de Jong and Dennison (2017) looked at the history of offending amongst 943 child abuse victims, comparing them with 1439 of their siblings, over a 30 year period. They also compared these with a control group of 645 randomly chosen people. So this is not a small scale study.

They found that victims of CSA are at a higher risk of being convicted of a crime, in general, than the control group. Looking at child abuse convictions specifically they found that some CSA victims did have higher rates of convictions but so did their (non victim?) siblings.

What does that mean? It suggests that it is the family environment and experiences, or even genetics, that creates offenders, not the experience of CSA. A question here is whether the siblings were also abused but their abuse was not part of the original court case. de Jong and Dennison looked again at the data excluding convictions for incest and found higher rates of violent offending, traffic crimes and drugs offences for victims but again no higher rates of CSA offending.

If you look at it by gender they found a small but not statistically significant (so it could just be by chance) rise in CSA offences in women who were victims of CSA and no rise in offences by men who had experienced CSA. This last point is very interesting as the majority of convicted abusers are men but there is no evidence, in this study, that abuse creates abusers.

What this study also highlights are the higher risks of criminal behaviour for people who have experienced CSA and this is important too. I believe this is proof that we need better support and information for victims and survivors to help them in their recovery. Society in general will benefit, from reduced crime rates and happier people, as well as the individual themselves.


de Jong, R and Dennison,S (2017) Recorded offending among child sexual abuse victims: A 30-year follow-up. Child Abuse & Neglect 72, 75-84.



December 2017 Research Update

Peruzzi, Baldassare, 1481-1536; Dance of Apollo and the Muses
Dance of Apollo and the Muses by Baldassare Peruzzi. Photo Credit: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

I thought it was time that I update you all on how the research is going. I’ve had 79 responses to the survey so far. Thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to fill it in. There are responses from people of different ethnicities, abilities and ages (from 18-70+). The majority live in the UK but there are responses from all over the world. Most of the responses are from women (86%) with 14% from men.

There are themes coming out regarding recovering from abuse and I’m going to explore them further through interviews. So many people have offered to take part in interviews (over half). Thank you so much! I’m not going to be able to interview everyone but I will try to talk to as many people as I can. I will contact people in the New Year to arrange these interviews, which can be face to face or by phone, skype, email or messenger.

I wanted to feedback to everyone about two themes that have come out strongly in your responses, as they don’t cost much and are available to most people. If you want to try them please do. A few people have said that these things did not help them so be aware that they may not work for you.

There are many comments regarding the positive effects of creativity, in any form, on recovering. Examples people have given so far include: drawing, painting, writing, poetry, music, crafts, dance, gardening and sewing.

There are also lots of people saying that physical activity, particularly yoga, is helpful. There are free YouTube yoga videos; examples include Yoga with Adrienne (who has created this Wheelchair Yoga video),  Yoga for Men and Body Positive Yoga.  I’m going to do some yoga and crafts over the holidays.

If you haven’t yet taken part, and want to, the survey can be found here. I’m going to keep it open for another few months and I’ll keep updating the website with information as I get it. If you try yoga or something creative I’d love to hear how you get on. You can comment below, fill in the survey or email me.

Thanks once again to everyone who has filled in the survey, shared it or is interested in the research.

Insider Research and Objectivity

Spanish School; The Child Papirius Saluting Harpocrates as God of Silence
The Child Papirius Saluting Harpocrates as God of Silence. Photo credit: Wellcome Library

Recently I have been told that it is not ethical to research something I have experienced because I will not be objective. Objectivity is seen as key to the scientific method and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the ability to consider or represent facts, information, etc., without being influenced by personal feelings or opinions; impartiality; detachment.’ 

It is true. I am not objective. I think that the abuse of children is a blight on humanity. How unemotional can we be when we study the human world that we live in? Is anyone unemotional about child abuse? Surely it is expecting too much and may in fact be an unwanted approach.  Sociologist Richard Jenkins argues that if objectivity means being unemotional it is at best misguided and at worst dangerous: the ‘sociologist without politics or values, without an ethical point of view on the human world, sounds too much like [Weber’s] ‘specialists without spirit’ (2002, p.9). 

I think that the use of the term ‘objectivity’ is actually to suggest that I will in some way manipulate the data to reflect my own views. I have no intention of doing so. I will try, as I hope all researchers do, to represent and consider all viewpoints in the data I gather in any research I publish. The conclusions will be mine, as with most research studies and this is why I think it’s important that I state where I am coming from. Also the anonymised data set will be available to other researchers so my interpretations can be evaluated. As Paul Hunt (1981) said, regarding the disability rights movement, ‘Oppressed groups have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, from the most precise and thorough understanding of the situation we are struggling to change. To change our oppressive reality we cannot afford to leave out of account any significant factor in the situation’ (p.43) and I completely agree with this approach.

There are people critical of the scientific method itself. Donna Haraway (2004) views science as ‘rhetoric, a series of efforts to persuade relevant social actors that one’s manufactured knowledge is a route to a desired form of very objective power’ (p.577).  Hunt (1981) argued that experts are more concerned with ‘presenting themselves to the powers-that-be as indispensable’ than questioning the status quo (p.39). Thus the veneer of objectivity when it comes to researching humanity can be seen as just as much manufactured and political as anything else.

Others have suggested that I should not disclose that I am an abuse survivor because it compromises my status as a researcher. Although I am aware of the relative power my position as a researcher brings I do not see the participants as objects to be studied but my equals; people active in their own recovery. I don’t see my experience of recovering as particularly special or having more validity than anyone elses so whilst I have opinions on recovering it doesn’t mean I’m right.

It can be argued that having experienced the issue being studied means I have a deeper understanding which can then be tested against others experience. The ‘only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular’ (Haraway, 2004, p.590). Researching from the perspective of marginalised or oppressed people adds a fuller and thus more complete view of society as well as challenging the status quo (Harding, 2004). I may well approach the subject from a completely different angle than someone who has not experienced it and surely different viewpoints mean a richer understanding?

There also seems to be an undercurrent here, maybe I’m being paranoid, of infantilising people who have experienced abuse. Does anyone say to an Asian British person that they can’t research racism? Or a woman can’t research sexism? Or that they cannot disclose their status as a person affected by the subject of their research? Is it because people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse are seen as inherently vulnerable and fundamentally ‘ruined’ that we are incapable of doing research without further damaging ourselves or others? Do we really believe that all the current researchers in this area are unaffected by it?

Alcoff and Gray (1993) argue that survivor voices are subversive and inherently political because they attack the dominant discourse in society and question truths; ‘At various times and in different locations survivor speech has been absolutely prohibited, categorized as mad or untrue, or rendered inconceivable’ (p.265). There are gender differences in these silencing techniques; women are labelled as hysteric or having a victim personality, men silenced through fears of homophobia and loss of masculine status (Alcoff & Gray, 1993). Ultimately I do see my disclosure of being a survivor of abuse as being political and is, therefore, to me a moral requirement. Other researchers can choose for themselves of course.


Alcoff, L. & Gray, L. (1993) Survivor Discourse : Transgression or Recuperation ? Signs, 18(2), pp.260–290.

Haraway, D. (2004) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies. Vol 14. 3. 575-599.

Harding, S. (2004) The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. New York: Routledge. Smith,

Hunt, P. (1981) Settling accounts with the parasite people: a critique of “A Life Apart” by E.J. Miller and G.V. Gwynne. Disability Challenge, (1), pp.37–51.

Jenkins, R. (2002) Foundations of Sociology. Basingstoke, Macmillan.

How many victims?

One of the shocking things coming from the Harvey Weinstein scandal is the sheer number of victims. When it comes to child abusers again the numbers of victims can be staggering. There are different ways of gathering data on this, including identifying the victims such as in the case of Jimmy Savile or asking the perpetrators.

Researchers have tried asking convicted perpetrators. For example, Wortley and Smallbone (2014) examined the criminal history given by convicted offenders in prison. The average (mean) number of victims per offender was 5.6, however, this masks the differences as one offender claimed 300 victims and 49% of the others only claimed 1. The difficulty here is twofold. First you can’t generalise easily and secondly that they are unlikely to admit crimes they have not yet been convicted of.

Abel et al (1987) tried a different approach, one which I’m not sure would pass ethics approval these days. They recruited offenders who were not incarcerated, or presently in the court system. Many were referred by therapists, social workers, lawyers or police. Results are below.

Self reported sex crimes of non incarcerated paraphiliacs

The total reported number of male non-incest victims is very high at 22981. So in this study non incestuous offenders claimed to abuse on average (mean) 150.2 male victims.  The number of acts per victim is much higher for incestuous abuse, presumably because of more opportunity for the offender. This is not to minimise the effects of abuse on anyone. One act or one victim is one too many.

There are similarities between the two studies. There are great differences in numbers of victims per offender from one to hundreds. Both have a problem taking an average number because of these disparities. For each study it is worth considering what the offender gains or potentially loses by taking part and reporting truthfully the number of their victims. Those in prison could gain favour by taking part but also get extra convictions if they tell the truth. Those not in prison were promised anonymity but may still want to please the agency that referred them. Might they also have been motivated by the opportunity to brag?

Taking these factors into consideration, however, I do feel that these figures (if not 100% accurate) are significant. Firstly for law enforcement. People reporting abuse are likely to not be the only victim of that perpetrator as most abuse more than one child. Also it is important for the estimates of the number of active child abusers. It doesn’t take many offenders to cause a lot of damage to many children. Finally the number of male victims bears no relation to the level of crime reported to police or health services. How are these victims coping with their past? What can we do to help? This is one area I am trying to research through my recovery survey.


Abel, G.G. et al., 1987. Self-Reported Sex Crimes of Non-Incarcerated Paraphiliacs. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2(1), pp.3–25.

Wortley, R. & Smallbone, S., 2014. A Criminal Careers Typology of Child Sexual Abusers. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 26(6), pp.569–585.

Ready, Steady, Go!

Lakin & Co. (Edwin Hall), R. J.; Sam Crow's Dodgem Track: Race Cars
© Michael Smith. Photo credit: The Fairground Heritage Trust

I’m really pleased that my survey passed ethics approval at the University of Sheffield. I was concerned before I started my PhD that it would be tricky as people who have experienced abuse are seen (in general) as inherently ‘vulnerable.’ My argument has always been that whilst people who have experienced abuse might have mental and/or physical health issues resulting from trauma they must also be extremely resilient to have survived it. Besides if having mental health issues made you unable to be consulted that’d exclude the majority of humans at one point or another!

It is vital to me that people who have experienced abuse (victims, survivors, people or whatever they want to call themselves) should have a say in how their recovery is managed. I don’t believe asking them is particularly upsetting; it is not as though the issue goes away if we don’t ask about it. I also find it quite offensive that we (survivors of abuse) are placed in a different box from normal people when we ARE normal people! We are just normal people who experienced trauma in childhood.

The ethics approval process is very rigorous as the point is to avoid doing any harm to participants. I completely appreciate that, as I’d hate to cause any harm, and I’m really glad that the University supports research such as mine. The next step is to pilot the survey and then get as many responses (and opinions!) as possible. If you are interested in the survey or helping me pilot it please check out my survey page.