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10 November 2011

Hyperbolic Victimhood

Let me begin with a disclosure and a caveat. I have never been the victim of sexual abuse, and in no way am I excusing, rationalizing, or dismissing child sexual abuse with what I write below.

With all the fallout at Penn State this week, I've been thinking about how we talk about the victims. Is it possible that we cause more harm to victims by insisting that their experiences are catastrophic? Recent research summarized by the American Psychological Association indicates that:
Some children even report little or no psychological distress from the [sexual] abuse.... They may experience no harm in the short run, but suffer serious problems later in life.
In the past, we made sense of this by inventing the now-discredited notion of "repressed memories." Today, we might be tempted to think about this in terms of a "sleeper effect," in which the pain is simply lurking under the surface, waiting to emerge at some future point.

I would like to purpose an alternative explanation. Perhaps, by insisting that child sexual assault is so thoroughly and permanently damaging to the psyche, we are creating a situation in which victims are forced to play the "ruined victim" role. Why would we do this? I think that it might be because the issue is the intersection of two culturally troubling concepts, sexuality and childhood.

Childhood as a part of the lifecourse is a social construct. It wasn't that long ago in human history when we treated children essentially as short adults. When we were still an agricultural society, we needed all of the manual work that we could muster; we simply couldn't afford to make a distinction between kids and adults. We still make exceptions today for children who work on farms, allowing them to drive automobiles at an earlier age than their more urban counterparts and exempting their families from the usual child labor laws. It isn't until the industrial revolution that we really start to think of children as somehow different. As kids became competition for adults in factories, we pass the first child labor laws, booting kids out of the labor force. Rather than allow the kids to muraude around the streets reeking havoc, we make education compulsory and stick them in schools until they're adults. As a further way to inact social control, we start to think about children as uniquely vulnerable, both physically and psychologically.

We have always had our hangups about sexuality in the West. The connection between patriarchy, gender norms, and heteronormativity have left us with an experience of sex that is intimately connected to power. Men are aggressors who strive for power and domination. Women are passive and are thought of as generally being asexual or at least resistant to sexual advances. Notions of romantic love thus conflate social power and status with physiological and emotional stimulation. It's essentially BDSM lite.

So, sex is about power, and childhood is about vulnerability. Put them together, and we end up with deviance that seems particularly egregious, and we insist that the aftermath of this hyper-deviance must match-up in its direness. It then becomes deviant for a victim of childhood sexual assault not to exhibit the debilitating psychic fallout that is expected. It might be that this socially forced victimization, rather than the abuse itself, causes the late-presenting distress. In other words, perhaps victims don't learn until adulthood how upset they are really supposed to be.

UPDATE: I also feel the need to state this is no way should be read as an apology for Paterno, Spanier, Schultz, or Curley and certainly not for Sandusky.

1 comment:

  1. Brad, Brad.

    Love you long time, but what you are engaging in here is pseudo-intellectual masturbation. I don't care to dissect this piece and turn the exercise into a circle jerk, but I do think it needs some response. Want to see a neat trick? Replace "children" with "African-Americans" and look how nicely your rationalization works to diminish the atrocity of enslavement. This works equally well with other victims. It's like a victim-hood Mad Lib!

    I, too, have found myself engaged in the brand of mis-application of logic that is going on in this post. To help myself weed out the nonsense, I've developed a test.

    - Follow the natural trajectories of each potentially logical assertion
    - See which trajectory intersects with common sense

    This intersection will be at that sweet-spot called truth. If you have trouble finding it, it will typically be located due north on your moral compass.

    Keep fighting the good fight.