The overwhelming idea in social work is that we must stop all trauma from happening. Such is especially true when trauma involves child sexual abuse. My thought, please tell the fox that it can no longer eat the bunny, especially the babies.
Such an approach is magical thinking and unhealthy. What we do know is that people have bad things happen to them and have little to no control over such events. But we can learn how to be resilient. Resiliency is a tool we can use to overcome what has harmed us.
The baby bunny can escape from a fox, but much of that will depend on how resilient the bunny is from attack. Fortunately for humans, we can learn beyond instinct. Some of us have resiliency; others, not so much.
One of my surprises as a social worker is how the social science fields have missed such important connections, one that the co-founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman has pointed out for years. To put his argument in a generalized context, if you all are seeking pathology, you will find plenty of it. He often places his granddaughter as the true founder of positive psychology: “If I can stop whining, then you can stop being such a grouch!”
What is positive psychology? Instead of looking at what is wrong with people, we look at what is right about them. Why can one service member function well after experiencing horrific combat while another is permanently destabilized?
In the Rind study back in the 90’s, the finding was that children can be quite resilient and many with abuse pasts, including sexual abuse pasts, can recover. Outrage ensued because many read this study or misinterpreted it as the researchers’ attempt to minimize abuse. In fact, the researchers in the study were simply doing what ethical and creditable researchers do. They were seeking the truth through research. If we can understand resilience, why some have it and some don’t, then we can reduce the effects of harm. We cannot stop harm, unless we stop living. We cannot stop trauma from happening, but we have been given a defense. It’s called resiliency.
I was so inspired by Seligman’s work that I applied for the program in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where Seligman teaches. What did I want to study? Well, those attracted to children. My thinking was that though attraction to a child can be a factor in abuse, many with this attraction do not abuse. I wanted to do a thesis on those that are exclusively attracted to kids (pedophilia) under 12 and find out what protective factors they used, the resiliency they had, to avoid inappropriate contact with kids. These “positive protective factors” whatever they are would point to resiliency. I could then use these to help those with Pedophilic Disorder (not the same as pedophilia by the way) to reduce risk.
Of course, my application was rejected. Two graduate students interviewed me, both school teachers, with no faculty. Though disappointed, I still believed in the program. I recall, though, what Seligman told me when it comes to studying sexuality at UPenn. He retorted in five words, “We don’t do human sexuality.” I guess nothing is positive about sex.
I guess there is no place for positive psychology when sex and paraphilia are involved. I have found that years after my exchange with the co-founder, that we have largely walled off any legitimate research on human sexuality and have, in fact, gone after researchers. Not only was Rind and other researchers targeted for doing legitimate research that was, it turns out, positive-psychology focused, but such a targeted and dangerous approach is now more in vogue that ever with our reliance on social media, and in the case of sexuality studies, QAnon.
In The Trauma Myth, Susan Clancy highlights how psychiatrists and other experts knowingly gave the public false information by saying that “the traumatic event,” usually child sexual abuse, is what caused the client/person trouble. However, as Clancy notes, many people can have symptoms before the traumatic event. I knew of a child sex abuse survivor that spent years hearing how the event they faced was the cause of their anxiety, depression, and their phobias. Finally, at one point, they said, I had these as long as I can remember. I had all of them before I was molested.
Clancy was punished by Harvard for writing her dissertation, what would become this book, having to hold it back for five years. Yet, Clancy is an expert on child sexual abuse prevention. What I gather from her book is that being trauma focused has become a business in the U.S. Get in line or get out.
Recently, Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score was selling like hotcakes. This is surprising because the book is so dense. In a recent interview, the author pushed back on this assumption of “collective trauma,” that we all were traumatized by COVID. He noted that many people are doing fine in the pandemic and even those that suffered can be resilient and overcome. He seemed concerned that we could create an industry of trauma.
We already have.
As a survivor myself, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with this idea that if we call ourselves “survivors,” if we label ourselves such, that everyone else will validate us and change the world for us. I was told that my book may “harm others.” I was told that my advocacy to better understand those with pedophilia or hebephilia was dangerous, that my push for research is harming “survivors.” When I note studies as far back as the 50’s that show consistently that heterosexual men can have some arousal to female minors, I was told such is dangerous because that encourages child sexual abuse.
My posts on the National Association of Social Work forum were censored, though I credit peer review research, while the one writing the above comment values unsubstantiated opinion. What has happened in forums like the NASW forum is this troubling idea: if research runs contrary to our feelings, then we must ban the research. We must create a myth of safety that is not based on reality. We must alter research so that survivors can feel safe in a world that, it turns out, is anything but safe.
Such a mentality, if I am correct, is victim-based, not survivor-based. The goal is to stop trauma, stop harm and change the world so that those that were hurt by the world can live in it. This makes no sense. The key is resiliency, but the reason many don’t focus on resiliency is that doing so makes it look like we are “blaming the victim.” It is the victim’s fault.
Let me clarify. It is not one’s fault that they were abused. Abuse is a choice another person makes toward another person. These choices are often irresponsible, showing disregard to those we often love and care about. We cannot stop people from being irresponsible. We can try and encourage people to make better choices. We can reduce harm or abuse, but we can never stop it. Just like we cannot purify a society. That would mean total destruction.
You, me, and everyone else cannot often stop someone from doing something they chose to do. This is why, from a program evaluative point of view, I would never approve a program that wants to “stop child abuse” or public health’s reliance on “no deaths.” Such is counterproductive, unrealistic, and sets us up for endless defeat; for survivors, endless victimhood.
This “I am traumatized for life” position sets us up as life-long victims that must use revenge against those that hurt us. If someone hurts us “for life” then they should be punished for life. Revenge is not a positive coping strategy. This is exactly what has happened with sexual abuse cases.
Focusing on resiliency instead of trauma helps those get up again and learn how to move forward after something harmful happens to them. They don’t expect the world to change for them, authors to be censored for them, clothes to be changed for them because such has nothing to do with being resilient or surviving, or thriving. The fear is that if one is okay after sexual abuse, then that somehow means that those with the sex offense are being encouraged to do more. What can happen is that we sabotage survivor’s resiliency because they must be destroyed for life. That way, we can destroy those that hurt them for life. We harm kids in order to protect kids so that we keep harming them. We cannot deal with this reality, so we create make-believe safe spaces that empower us in nothing more than a walled-up prison.
So, when I oft-quote the psychiatrist that says, “Sometimes you have to put up with a little shit on your glasses” I don’t mean to put down survivors. What I mean is that if we want to get up at the end of the day, we are the only ones that can get ourselves up. We can choose, and that choosing cannot happen if we are blaming or attacking others.
Earl Yarington is a social worker (LMSW) and a professor. He has a Ph.D. in literature and criticism and specializes in paraphilias. He is the Leader of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists Special Interest Group and often writes about human sexuality and politics.