It doesn’t go into any graphic detail about abuse as it is focused on recovering but it may well be triggering for people with cPTSD. Certainly parts of it were for me but I still think it’s worth writing and, hopefully, reading. It’s written in academic language so I’m working on a two page summary that I’ll post as soon as I can.
I also want to publish a book on it that is jargon free and that’s my next task. Work has been tricky lately as I have my children at home so it’s taking much longer to do anything. I get about an hour’s quiet time a day to do anything that requires thinking so it will take me longer to do.
I was really enjoying teaching undergraduates but it looks like that won’t be available next year as Covid19 has affected the university’s finances. This is a real shame because teaching about inequalities feels like you are contributing, even if only in a small way, to ending them. Hopefully opportunities will pick up again soon.
If you want to ask me anything about the research please use the contact form on the website and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Short answer: Not in general, no. Long answer follows below.
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.