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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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, C. B. (2006). Reinterpreting the Sexual Abuse Experience from an Adult Perspective. In Counselling survivors of childhood sexual abuse (pp. 59-62). London: Sage Publications.
The box directly below contains references for the above article.
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.
15 Why do many survivors experience self-blame contrary to the belief
that they believe they instigated the abuse or enjoyed the experience? To select and enter your answer go to Test.