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Section 15
Issues to Reframe Abuse from an Adult Perspective

Question 15 | Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Printable Page


Attribution of Blame
Most authors who have addressed the counseling needs of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse have indicated that survivors' self-blame for the abuse is a key therapeutic issue (Briere, 1989; Faria and Belohiavek, 1984; Gelinas, 1983; Hall and Lloyd, 1989; Westerlund, 1983). Survivors generally believe that they were responsible for the abuse. Herman has proposed that this belief reflects the attitudes of society that blame the daughter, or at times the mother, for sexual abuse that occurs in the family. She describes this myth: 'Ensnared by the charms of a small temptress, or driven to her arms by a frigid, unloving wife, Poor Father can hardly help himself, or so his defenders would have us believe' (1981: 36). Herman argues that the concept of the 'Seductive Daughter' is culturally embedded in religious traditions (e.g. the biblical story of Lot and his daughters), in popular literature (e.g. the story of 'Lolita'), and even in some clinical literature.

General societal prescriptions also reinforce self-blame in survivors. Westerlund (1983) listed three attitudes of society that contribute to the self-blame of the female survivor: females 'incite' male sexual behaviors; 'boys will be boys'; and it is the responsibility of females to control male sexuality. One participant in the incest healing study (Draucker, 1992) stated:

Your parents teach you that you are responsible if you get pregnant or if you have sex with a boy. You are the one that's responsible, you're the one that's in control of the situation and, you know, if your dad's taking advantage of you, you are responsible.

Often, survivors as children had received direct messages from the offender that they were to blame for the abuse (e.g. the abuse was a punishment for being 'bad'). Survivors might also have received blaming messages from significant others. Many survivors relate experiences of being punished for their 'naughty' behavior when they disclosed the abuse. Undoubtedly, incestuous family dynamics, as outlined by Gelinas (1983), would also reinforce their self-blame. Due to the process of parentification, incest survivors learned to assume responsibility for the feelings, needs, and behaviors of others. Male survivors often blame themselves, not necessarily for instigating the abuse, but for failing to protect themselves against the offender (Struve, 1990). This often results in internalized anger or compensatory behaviors to regain control (e.g. aggression, exaggerated masculine behaviors). These beliefs are rooted in societal prescriptions that males are not victims and should be powerful enough to protect themselves from the intrusion and aggression of others.

Reframing the attribution of blame from an adult perspective involves survivors coming to accept that the offender, not themselves, was responsible for the abusive sexual activity. This is true regardless of the 'engagement strategies' (e.g. threat, bribery, force, 'brainwashing') employed by the offender (Sgroi and Bunk, 1988). Children, by virtue of their stage of psychosocial and cognitive development and their dependent position within the family structure, are unable to make a free choice regarding involvement in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of the adult, or the more powerful other, to resist engaging in exploitative sexual activities with the child, regardless of the child's behavior.

Childhood Sexual Responsiveness
Many survivors responded physically with pleasure or arousal during the abuse experience, and therefore concluded that as children they had enjoyed and sought the experience. Males, who are often the victims of same-sex abuse, may believe that such responses represent latent homosexual desires (Struve, 1990). Reframing the issue of sexual responsiveness from an adult perspective involves survivors realizing that the sensations they experienced as children were natural physiological reactions to sexual stimulation. Such responses differ from sexual arousal in adulthood, when mature emotional and cognitive factors are able to influence one's enjoyment of a sexual experience. Arousal in childhood does not indicate that the child either sought or enjoyed the sexual experience.

Issues of Attention and Affection
Similarly, many survivors enjoyed the attention Or affection associated with their abuse and concluded that as children they had sought or desired the sexual activity. Often, given the dysfunctional nature of their family systems, the attention or affection they received from the offender may well have been the only emotional nurturance they received. In fact, special attention is often effective as an 'engagement strategy' (Sgroi and Bunk, 1988) because the child's life is so often void of caring from others. Refraining the issue of the seeking of attention and affection from an adult perspective involves survivors coming to believe that the need for attention and affection from a significant adult is basic to all children and that children will naturally try to meet this need in any ways that are open to them. It was emotional nurturance from an adult that the survivors sought as children, not the accompanying sexual activity.

Why Me?
Survivors often reach adulthood with the belief that they were singled out for the abuse because of inherent characteristics they possessed as children. This belief is especially prevalent if they were the only victim within their family. Some survivors assume they were basically bad or 'naughty' and some assume they were especially 'sexy,' although often in an 'evil' (Herman, 1981) or, dirty way. Reframing the 'why me?' issue from an adult perspective involves survivors coming to appreciate that they were chosen as a victim, not because of any inherent personality characteristics, but because of factors related to the offender's motives or to the family dynamics (e.g. as the oldest child, a female victim was the most likely to be parentified; the child was at an age that met the offender's emotional needs; the child was the most 'available'). To dispute the belief that as children they were inherently sexually provocative, adult survivors must appreciate their 'level of sexual knowledge and awareness before the start of the abuse' (Hall and Lloyd, 1989: 112), thereby realizing that initially they did not have the capacity for sexual seductiveness. Seductive behaviors are not the cause of the abuse; rather, these behaviors are typically learned as a result of a sexually abusive experience.

Having Kept the Secret
Many survivors experience self-blame, not because they believe they instigated the abuse or enjoyed the experience, but because they never told anyone of the abuse and therefore did not 'stop' it. This concern is especially salient if the abuse went on for a long time, if the child was older when the abuse started, if the 'engagement strategies' (Sgroi and Bunk, 1988) did not involve the use of force, and if the child had no role in stopping the abuse. Reframing 'secret keeping' from an adult perspective involves survivors considering their assumptions as children regarding the consequences of disclosure (e.g. punishment, family break-up, disbelief by significant others, rejection by the offender). It is also important for survivors to consider that telling others, a proactive behavior, was often simply not in their behavioral, repertoire as a child. Also, disclosure would have required the availability of receptive significant others, something many survivors were not privileged to have. As one survivor in the incest healing study (Draucker, 1992) stated:

Even at the time it never occurred to me to tell anybody. I didn't know who to tell, I didn't know how to tell, I didn't know what the consequences of telling would have been, I just wanted it to stop. But it never occurred to me to tell. That given the way I was raised in the household, no, I wouldn't have told. I just wouldn't have. Again, that's me being a normal little kid if you will.
- Draucker, Claire, Counselling Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Sage Publications: London, 1992.
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

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Personal Reflection Exercise #8
The preceding section contained information about issues to reframe from adult perspective. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

QUESTION 15
Why do many survivors experience self-blame contrary to the belief that they believe they instigated the abuse or enjoyed the experience? Record the letter of the correct answer the Answer Booklet.


Answer Booklet for this course
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