How could you not believe it?
August 12, 2008 9:29 PM   Subscribe

Why is it that certain people do not believe accusations of childhood sexual abuse?

There is someone in my family (who is the same age as me) who was molested and raped by her mother's live-in boyfriend, the only father figure she had ever known. When she told her mother, not only did the mother not believe her, she said the victim Wanted the abuse to happen.

I'm getting a master's in counseling, and I continue to see how this series of events has affected my life and my practice approach. On many occasions I have found myself thinking about why someone, especially a parent or close family member, would not believe a child who says they were abused.

I become enraged whenever I hear about things like that. At the same time, I feel like I have a responsibility as a mental health professional to come to terms with it for the sake of my own healing and my clients' needs. Help me deal with my survivor guilt and handle this issue professionally with my clients.
posted by mynameismandab to Human Relations (39 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because it is just so terrible, the first response is denial. Think of someone that you love very much and have trusted for years. Now imagine if they were the accused, especially by someone very young who doesn't really know about these things and has quite an imagination. Most people in that situation wouldn't believe the child right away.
posted by idiotfactory at 9:38 PM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Because they will have to accept their own guilt in not protecting the child, and because they would have to abandon their partner.
posted by b33j at 9:41 PM on August 12, 2008 [11 favorites]


There's research on the topic too.
posted by b33j at 9:46 PM on August 12, 2008


A couple of possibilities:
  1. Spousal dependency, aka "don't rock the boat". People (especially a partner who is financially dependent on the income / protection of the other) will prefer to believe the best of someone, or take their side, in order to minimize the perceived risk to their future should the accusation be true. ("He's the best I'll get (or the best that I deserve) so I'll prefer not to believe this of him.")
  2. Jealously, and / or blaming the victim. Female survivors of rape or abuse above the age of 12 are frequently blamed for gaining the sexual attention of men. Within a family, this can be seen as competitive. ("How dare you accuse X of molesting you! I see the way you dress! You're just a tramp!)... what you saw in the case you mentioned.

posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 9:48 PM on August 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm working on a psych degree myself, undergrad at this point.

As with almost everything psych related, the answer is "it depends." So the best we can throw out is theories.

The first thing that came into my mind was that for some reason the mother didn't want to believe her daughter. So she made up a story, and rationalized the feelings of the daughter. When I first read this I thought that the mother had contradicted herself and first said the abuse didn't happen and then said that it did and the daughter wanted it too. Then I read it as the mother thinking that the daughter would make the story up, possibly for attention. Which means maybe there's a mentally unstable mother. Good enough to not get noticed by the system, bad enough to be not all there.

There are also a ton of articles online about people saying that women who are wearing jeans can't get raped. So there's a precedent for people thinking that certain environments negate any chance of rape and sexual molestation from happening.

And you can't throw out the possibility that the mother just said that in order to keep the boyfriend around. Let's take your family ties out of the situation. As a cop, how seriously would you take a child coming in and telling you that she had been molested and raped when the mother tells you that it didn't happen? Throw in the number of children who will say (and honestly think) that they're being abused. Most people just can't fathom a mother letting this happen to her child, which would work against the child in this case.
posted by theichibun at 9:48 PM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's multifactorial. For the stepfather situation, the mother would have to face the fact that perhaps he only chose her for her children. For some parents, they came from their own histories of abuse which don't allow them to deal with it. Sometimes the pain that a child would lie about it is much more tolorable than the pain that it actually happened.

Just like every child is a unique story, every parent is a unique story. Having you carry anger at the parent or caregiver doesn't help the child. Focus on that. Unless the child has been removed from the non-offending parent, you need to heal that person too.
posted by 26.2 at 9:58 PM on August 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


In addition to the other answers, frankly, some people value having someone to sleep with over doing the right thing. Believing that a significant other has molested your child requires appropriate moral action, which means, at the very least, reporting the crime and not living with the molester any more.

Some people would rather be in denial about the accusation than risk "being alone."
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 10:17 PM on August 12, 2008


In addition to all of the above, there are (rare) cases of incorrect memories of abuse. (Though that doesn't sound like anything to do with your family situation.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:32 PM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


The primary research on this topic was that of Elisabeth Loftus, who was the first to rigorously test and analyze false memories. She found that it is surprisingly easy to implant false memories in people. This has been followed up with a huge amount of research, all of which expands on the original findings. A lot of people think hypnotism is a great tool for unearthing "repressed memories". Conversely, people under the effects of hypnotism are particularly susceptible to suggestion. Turns out, our memories are not very reliable, even about events which you would think were particularly traumatic and therefore etched in vivid detail.

Especially with kids, leading questions from adults who they trust, respect, or fear may encourage them to say they have been abused even though there was no intent of misconduct on either side. There is also the possibility that they are simply trying to punish someone who was mean to them or slighted them in some way. Sexual abuse is a serious charge, and there are many reasons for doubting the sincerity of the accuser. Like any other criminal charge, it should have to undergo the scrutiny of law in order for someone to face punishment. If you were wrongly accused, I am sure you would hope someone stood up for your rights.
posted by sophist at 11:21 PM on August 12, 2008 [12 favorites]


As a mental health professional, I am mildly surprised you aren't familiar with this research. It was covered multiple times in different psychology classes I took.

Specifically, from article I linked earlier:

Harvard University psychologist Richard McNally tested 10 people who said they had been abducted, physically examined and sexually molested by space aliens. Researchers tape-recorded the subjects talking about their memories. When the recordings were played back later, the purported abductees perspired and their heart rates jumped. McNally said three of the 10 subjects showed physical reactions "at least as great'' as people suffering post traumatic stress disorder from war, crime, rape and other violent incidents. "This underscores the power of emotional belief,'' McNally said.
posted by sophist at 11:26 PM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


On the process of rationalizing away identity-threatening facts in general, the book
Mistakes were made, but not by me
provides interesting explanations. There is, however, a longer discussion on recovered memory (false positive) than on the situation you describe (false negative), but the rationalization seems to work the same way.
posted by meijusa at 11:52 PM on August 12, 2008


Well, let's look at it from the other side. Why would someone believe, without question, every accusation ever made, so long as the accusation was that sexual abuse had been committed? We do not automatically believe that all accusations of murder or robbery or alcoholism or adultery are true. Why would sexual abuse be in a privileged category?

If you grant that it might be possible - at least conceivable in the realm of events that could really happen - for someone to relate a history of sexual abuse that is not factually true, the next questions are, would that ever actually happen, and in what situation could it happen?

I see a lot of patients with severe mental illness, conversion disorders, dissociative-type disorders, psychogenic seizures, people who are severely disabled by their mental illness. Many of these people relate a history of sexual abuse. On at least a few occasions they have related stories of systematic daily abuse, Satanic blood sacrifices and ritual sexual abuse daily for months, those type of things - stories that strike me as so bizarre as to be rather unlikely. Stories where several adults would have had to devote most of their daily energies and efforts for years at a time without rest in order to deliver the described abuse. The psychological underpinnings of these stories are as transparent as they are tragic.

I never question these stories. I proceed as if they are true. I feel fairly certain that for the people relating these stories they carry the force of truth; their psychologic meaning is equivalent to what it would be if the stories had actually happened. So in that sense it does not matter if the factual events described actually took place; my job is limited to caring for the patient who is before me, and to that patient these stories are real. And for people with stories that are plausible enough, there is certainly no point or reason to question these stories. (Such patients, in my experience, not infrequently recant their abuse histories; or give a history of no sexual abuse, then recant that history; even the truest believer must scratch his head when this occurs, because both versions cannot be true.)

Still, because I am a person who cares about truth, I wonder - privately - how many of the abuse stories I hear are factually true and undistorted. I feel that it is likely that the percentage is less than 100%, and I often wonder why and how that would come to pass.

I also suspect, however, that there is an epidemic of sexual abuse of girls and young women in this country that is fairly well silent and fairly well hidden from the sight of those who are not directly affected by it, which I suppose includes many of the readers of this thread. So if you are one of those people, please read my comments in context.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:08 AM on August 13, 2008 [25 favorites]


I am one of those who do not believe this. I think that at least 9 out of 10 claims of sexual abuse as a child are completely made up because of the current cultural climate. It's much easier for me to imagine a person misremembering an event from their childhood than it is for me to imagine millions of child rapists on the lose, and millions of women who are so dumb they do not notice such things happening, and tens of millions of children who refuse to speak a single word about this to anyone in their lives.

Sorry, it just is not realistic, and that's why I would deal with such cases very very carefully, as you cannot hang a man based on such crimes without evidence and the very one sided accusations by people who are emotionally unstable.
posted by ChabonJabon at 12:54 AM on August 13, 2008


As well as false recovered memory, there are rare cases of social workers and family services departments becoming convinced of the existence of abuse despite there being no evidence. People tend to remember unusual examples like that more vividly, though it doesn't sound particularly relevant in the example you mention.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 4:11 AM on August 13, 2008


ikkyu2: I see a lot of patients with severe mental illness, conversion disorders, dissociative-type disorders, psychogenic seizures, people who are severely disabled by their mental illness. Many of these people relate a history of sexual abuse. On at least a few occasions they have related stories of systematic daily abuse, Satanic blood sacrifices and ritual sexual abuse daily for months, those type of things - stories that strike me as so bizarre as to be rather unlikely. Stories where several adults would have had to devote most of their daily energies and efforts for years at a time without rest in order to deliver the described abuse. The psychological underpinnings of these stories are as transparent as they are tragic.

I never question these stories. I proceed as if they are true. I feel fairly certain that for the people relating these stories they carry the force of truth; their psychologic meaning is equivalent to what it would be if the stories had actually happened. So in that sense it does not matter if the factual events described actually took place; my job is limited to caring for the patient who is before me, and to that patient these stories are real. And for people with stories that are plausible enough, there is certainly no point or reason to question these stories.


IANAP, and please don't take offense; I just find this fascinating and vexing.

I understand the importance of unquestioning support for the vast majority of survivors of sexual abuse, but what about the potential consequences and costs -- to the client and others, healthwise and even legally -- of allowing very implausible reports to go unquestioned indefinitely? I don't suppose it'd be appropriate for doctors or counselors to challenge such histories head-on every time with every client, but mightn't there be therapeutic value in pointing, as sensitively as possible, toward what seems far more likely to be truth (insofar as it can be inferred), or in questioning compassionately the weirder elements of such accounts? Wouldn't that be more consistent with effective care in cases where "[t]he psychological underpinnings [...] are as transparent as they are tragic"? Or is that impossible in practice, given the limitations of the caregiver's role and the nature and severity of such clients' symptoms?

I don't doubt that sexual abuse is hugely underreported, but it also seems likely to me that, as you imply, some of the most bizarre accounts of abuse arise from trauma of far more mundane (though still very ugly) origins; these sorts of accounts themselves seem to me to be probable manifestations of pathology. I don't understand how accepting without question those histories "where several adults would have had to devote most of their daily energies and efforts for years at a time without rest in order to deliver the described abuse" can actually help anyone. They may be "psychologically true" for the patient, but it's hard for me to see the benefit to anyone of helping maintain such a divide between the "psychologically true" and the factually true.
posted by FrauMaschine at 5:00 AM on August 13, 2008


Sorry for the derailment above.

mynameismandab: I have found myself thinking about why someone, especially a parent or close family member, would not believe a child who says they were abused.

I don't think the power of denial -- refusal, even incapacity, to become fully, consciously aware of terrible things, especially having to do with people one is close to, even in the face of irrefutable evidence -- can be overestimated. To recognize such things means taking some responsibility, and will lead quickly and inevitably to drastic, emotionally violent change -- for the better, one assumes, but still incredibly difficult for people in situations where pathology is deeply entrenched. Also, if parents were abused themselves, their attitude toward their children's abuse might be, consciously or not, that "I dealt with this and so can you."
posted by FrauMaschine at 5:21 AM on August 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


In some cases, I think (IANAP, but I am a sexual abuse survivor) there may be some mental health issues on the part of the denier, especially with the accusation that the abused invited the abuse. Borderline personality disorder seems to me a possibility when a mother accuses a child of seducing their partner.
posted by lleachie at 6:44 AM on August 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


I also think sometimes people have an image of the person accused of abuse that doesn't jibe with what they think abusers are like.

Thinking of a person - 'Terry' - as considerate, funny, kind to animals, attractive - all good qualities is hard to square with individuals who sexually or physically abuse children - Terry is lecherous, cruel, etc....cue ominous music here.

It's hard to imagine that people can be considerate, funny, etc., AND hurt a child.

But they can.
posted by anitanita at 6:48 AM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Because every child says a lot of things that aren't true. Making up and telling stories is a great part of childhood; sometimes those stories stay close to reality and sometimes they veer off into way out fantasy.

That's not a reason to reject all (or even most) stories of abuse, but combined with the false memory problem and other things mentioned above, one needs to keep an open mind when hearing these accusations. False accusations happen, and can tear a life apart.

I'm not a mental health professional, so I don't hear these stories often. But when I do hear them, my response has been the same as Ikkyu2's: to accept the story at face value as being true to the person and important, rather than probing for inaccuracies and complications. I've only ever been told adult stories of childhood abuse, many cases after the accused abuser has died, so no action other than sympathy and being a careful listener is required from me — unlike if a child told that story, and you would have to figure out what actions are needed, and the truth would really matter.
posted by Forktine at 6:52 AM on August 13, 2008


It's important to separate two things that a lot of people are conflating here.

1) There are lots of people who refuse (for various psychological reasons well described by several commenters; I particularly like FrauMaschine's answer here) to believe that children close to them are being abused, often in the face of what should be convincing evidence. This is what mynameismandab is asking about and what the thread should be addressing.

2) There are an undetermined but significant number of people who for various psychological reasons believe themselves to have been abused when they were not (there was a classic, and horrifying, epidemic of this in the '80s, when child care providers were locked up on the basis of absurd accusations of "Satanic abuse"); this is sad and problematic on various counts, and I don't envy people (like ikkyu2) who have to decide how to deal with patients who they suspect fall into this category—but this is not what the thread is about and discussions of why kids make up stories are not responsive to the question.
posted by languagehat at 7:20 AM on August 13, 2008 [4 favorites]


languagehat: this is not what the thread is about and discussions of why kids make up stories are not responsive to the question.

Thanks for stepping in to moderate, but the question very clearly contains multiple parts, including this:

Why is it that certain people do not believe accusations of childhood sexual abuse?

And this: On many occasions I have found myself thinking about why someone, especially a parent or close family member, would not believe a child who says they were abused.

It's absurd to suggest that the existence of well-known instances in which stories of abuse have proved to be false couldn't possibly, in any circumstance, influence the attitudes people take towards allegations of abuse, including when those close to them are involved. I agree it doesn't apply to the mother in the question, who clearly understands on some level that the abuse has taken place — "she said the victim Wanted the abuse to happen" — but the OP is asking a broader question than that.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:52 AM on August 13, 2008


There is absolutely no way I believe that children make up stories of abuse more often than it is real (and immediately thinking that a child is making up abuse and dismissing it is abhorrent to me). I think it has far more to do with the ideas already expressed above - that it's extremely easy to slide into denial that someone you love and trust could do such a thing, especially to someone you also love, who is vulnerable. Adults dismiss children all the time, it's easier on the psyche to dismiss them in this instance and keep things as they are in the mind.
posted by agregoli at 8:05 AM on August 13, 2008 [5 favorites]


Apology for the long comment in advance.

IANAPsychologist, but I have my own history in this topic. I've been through this, and my mother believed me. But the result was the same as if she hadn't believed me: she forced me to recant it until after my stepfather died. I still haven't told my half-sisters (his children), which sometimes makes me feel as though there's no acknowledgement of wrong-doing. (My sisters look at him as the angel that was taken too soon.) I love my mom, but she is still immature and not quite experienced at the more adult aspects of parenting. There are several factors that I believe are in play in my own history, some of which are her fault/mistake.

(1) Dependency: my mom has since admitted that she wasn't sure that she would be able to support me and my 2 sisters without my stepfather.

(2) Even though my mom claims she believes me, I think a small part of her also blames me for it. I don't think it's something she would admit to.

(3) I am one of the last people to excuse this kind of behavior because of abuse in the other party's past, but any abuse (and reaction to claims of the actual abuse) the mother may have received might have made her a little hesitant to believe her daughter. Personally, I don't know why. To me, it would lend your daughter's claim more credibility if you know how it affected you. My mom *and* her mom were both molested by immediate family members over a long period of time, and neither were believed by their respective mothers. I think that my grandmother not supporting my mother's claim and not knowing how to deal with the effects trickled down into the same reactions by mom. I'm not saying that's what happened in this situation, but it's possible.

(4) Likeability, and fear: my stepfather was extremely popular. He was seen as a man's man, and the most successful person in his family. All but one of his siblings think that I'm an outright liar, and seem genuinely shocked. Those that don't believe me claim I made it up for attention. On the flipside, my mom and I were actually afraid of him. Especially to me, he had made himself out to be the end-all, be-all of our lives. He made all of the decisions and everything relied on him. Speaking out was a huge rebellion, and I think the concept of leaving him was too much for my mom. I think she was afraid that he would make her regret it.

(5) Guilt, and to an extent, shame: my mom continues to say that she should have known, and that this was the one thing she swore would never allow to happen to her own children. To me, this is the same as a child feeling guilt because of the parents' divorce. No matter how many times I explain to my mom that I don't blame for not seeing it as he hid it from her, she insists it was her fault.

(6) Inability to cope with the truth once it's accepted, even if it's not admitted: this is a major problem. This behavior is obviously wrong on the abuser's part, but it's still hushed up. I think that boils down to out of sight, out of mind for the other parent. It took my mom 16 years to even admit that what my step-father did was wrong, but she would still only admit that to me. I can't even imagine what she must go through now that she's actually accepting it.

I don't think there's any concrete way to know exactly what the mother in this situation is basing her reactions on, but I think the main thing to keep in mind is that the abused child is not the only one whose feelings need to be considered. The victim's reactions can be predicted: anger, shame, guilt, pain, and in this situation, isolation and rejection (and of course her health and well-being are most-important). The mother's feelings can be varied and contradictory, sometimes without reason. Whatever her thoughts and feelings are, she is having a huge impact on her daughter's health.

Regarding the possibility of false accusations, I believe that the majority of these cases are true. That's probably because my claims were confirmed by a doctor's exam and my story still wasn't believed (obviously that's not the case for everyone else on the planet). I think the majority of people do not want to believe that these things could be happening this much, so they choose not to. You can't stick your head in the sand for every bad thing happening, though.

I understand that all cases cannot be true, but I don't think that should be a reason to discount a person before considering all of the facts and hearing everyone's representation of the truth. Each story should be taken at face value, unless proven otherwise. I don't think an adult's story should carry more weight than a child's. If it were a case of robbery, the alleged perpetrator would be considered innocent until proven guilty, but the victim would not automatically be considered a liar. The same process should be used when approaching all crimes, whether it's molestation, robbery or murder.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 8:38 AM on August 13, 2008 [16 favorites]


The younger sister of a friend of mine accused her new stepfather of repeatedly raping and abusing her. Her mother, and the entire family was torn: the new stepfather was beloved, but the only daughter was just 9 and alleging really heinous abuse.

My friend's Mom divorced her husband (the stepfather), but in the process the 9 y/o girl was removed from the house by social services. She went to foster care and refused to go back, even after the stepfather was out of the house, citing fear of future sexual abuse from her stepfathers, and tragically even accusing her brothers of molestation. There was never any physical evidence but the girl was really compelling to listen to. She lived with us for a little while and she had me pretty much convinced that my friend had touched her inappropriately.

Fast-forward 12 years. The young girl is now 21 and getting ready to get married for the second time, to the father of her third child. Except for brief visits, she was never willing to come back and live at home, and social services would not compel her to come back despite the fact that the stepfather was now living in a different city. Her Mom and stepfather began to reconcile after the last of the kids moved out and are now tentatively moving towards another relationship. And the girl's fiance convinces her she needs to talk to them.

She recants everything. Says that she didn't like school and felt lonely and wanted attention.

It was a tragic situation all around, but this is a situation where all the adults listened and believed the child immediately, causing legal problems for the stepfather, destroying his marriage and causing a decade of estrangement between everyone involved. My friend still is wary of his little sister and doesn't trust her.

I'm not saying this applies to your situation but after watching this horrible thing happen to my friend's family, I can understand why some people would be initially skeptical. FYI, I still think what the Mom did was right: trust your kid and act immediately, even though it later turned out to be wrong.
posted by arnicae at 9:17 AM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


For me, it's useful to look at this in light of the power difference in larger society. A child, male or female, has far less power than an adult. A female child abused by an adult male is at the absolute bottom of the power hierarchy. An adult who discounts the girl's report has the support of generations of family and cultural dysfunction.

Women who have a background in this might get some insight from, of all places, Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. Quotes from Woolf's writing reveal the dynamics of the Victorian patriarchal family, and it can be startling to see how little some families have changed since then.
posted by PatoPata at 9:24 AM on August 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


It goes wider than just denial, as mitzyjalapeno points out, and covers more than just the (ex-)partners of abusers, who might be seen to have a strong interest in this.

I was abused by a friend of my fathers, something that he (my father) learnt of only years later, when the police contacted him, in order to get hold of me, as part of a wider investigation. I was an adult by this time, and happy to help, and had no great interest in making any accusations. No doubt he was shocked but certainly, at the time, he seemed to accept what I was saying. In the following years however he seems to act as if none of this ever happened. Fairly often, in conversation, he will bring up of topic of this person, as if this is someone who I have an interest in reminiscing over, or hearing news of (and this despite the fact that he knows as well as I do, the person moved to Thailand, out of reach of the police).

Its bizarre, and not a little disturbing, but the best explanation I can come up with is that it is a form of cognitive dissonance. There is an inherent contradiction between what he now knows, and the view of his friend, and their relationship, that he has always held. This in turn can be interpreted as threat to his sense of self, not only was he wrong about his friend, but in some way he must be wrong in the way he sees himself, since this was someone he chose as a friend (as well speaking to his relationship to me), these kind of threats to the ego are difficult to handle, and I think its simply easier to ignore or suppress them (whih might be an unconscious process in any case).
posted by tallus at 9:44 AM on August 13, 2008 [5 favorites]


There was a whole trend for a while of people suddenly "remembering" that they were abused after they went through hypnosis. I should hope that anyone who is eligible to serve on a jury sees a problem with accusations stemming from such techniques.
posted by dagnyscott at 9:58 AM on August 13, 2008


If you were following the elaborate and imaginative child abuse hysteria the 80's, your experience will likely be molded towards child sexual abuse meaning all sorts of things: confusion, hysteria, lies, false beliefs, but things that often (if not usually) don't include any actual child sexual abuse occurring.

I assume that sometimes it does happen, but so many people have been crying wolf for so long (regardless of whether it was deceitfully or earnestly) that skepticism has been conditioned into my immediate reaction to such claims.

On top of that, when so much as a whiff of accusation can (and has) destroyed the lives of so many innocent accused, while conversely, if true, much of the damage is already done, so the least harm (ie the most moral course of action) is done by taking an "innocent until proved" guilty stance towards anyone accused of these crimes.
For the same reasons, there is no need to pick a side immediately, things will become clearer over the course of time, when conflicting accounts can be examined, and so on.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:28 AM on August 13, 2008


why someone, especially a parent or close family member, would not believe a child who says they were abused

A few ideas:

Blaming another person is not an easy thing, especially when it's in the family.

Lots of people fear confrontation. And confronting the abuser would be necessary once the sexual abuse is taken seriously.

Once the blame is allocated the integrity of the family is compromised. Sides are taken. Blame for such kind of abuse may impact the entire extended family, perhaps dozens of people, over decades.

Family integrity is taken seriously around the planet, some places more than others. In some cultures or traditional/fundamentalist religious situations it is considered a huge social betrayal, socially shaming, to out an abusive family member and contempt may be heaped on the person who "aired the dirty laundry" in public.

A book I read once said that the reason this not believing the victim of sexual abuse happens, not just among family members but the general population as well, is because everybody is guilty of doing some bad things at some time or another and feels guilty, free floating guilt. So blaming an abuser means holding oneself accountable for any wrong doing and people may feel scared of blame in general, being blamed by others, even if the blame has nothing to do with sexual abuse.

All people in life have endured some suffering. Some people feel that talking about their suffering, if it means having survived sexual abuse, is asking for more sympathy than is due.

Most women, imo, have survived sexual abuse, either as a child or as an adult and many don't take this abuse seriously but simply part of the job of being female.

Some people think it is merely an act of gossip, to speak negatively about a family member in any way and the character of the person talking about a sexual abuser is then brought into question as "a rat" or a person who rats on others.

People who handle the negative in life by automatically forgiving others who hurt them, may find that not forgiving an abuser but holding them accountable, feel at a loss in their spiritual practice.

Some people identify with persons who play the role of social scapegoat. If the abuser has been a social scapegoat, came from a poor environment and survived abuse, others may feel the abuser has suffered so much it is not okay to heap further blame on the abuser.

The abuser may be rich and powerful, charismatic and some people may tend to see others in a black and white way, as all good or all bad. So if the abuser is a good business person, a priest, an artist, a teacher, a leader, a CEO, successful in other ways, well liked socially, the reality that they are a sexual predator doesn't fit into this picture and isn't believed when the victim speaks up.

The victim of sexual abuse is commonly blamed and held accountable for being too seductive, too attractive.

Valuing children's feelings, their legal rights, their credibility, their stories, their reality has only been treated with respect fairly recently in the West.

PS. I'm glad you're a mental health professional asking this question, expressing the feelings you have in writing this post.
posted by nickyskye at 12:12 PM on August 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


I used to be an Americorps domestic violence volunteer, so I've had some training, etc., that addresses this question. I agree with the folks above who said the phenomenon is multifactorial. Two of the most important factors, to my mind, are:

(1) The Just World Hypothesis, which is a thinking error wherein people, believing that the world is fundamentally just, can't wrap their minds around the idea that someone could be victimized out of the blue for no reason, and scramble to find ways of denying the victimization, or of making the victim her/himself responsible for it.

(2) Use of denial and selective amnesia as a means of (unhealthily) preserving stability. Many families in which abuse of various kinds occurs learn to simply edit the past in order to avoid having to react to it. People will "not hear" verbal abuse, or they will behave as though a violent episode just never happened-- even if there are still broken dishes on the floor. By speaking up and acknowledging the abuse, a victim may be seen by others within the family as rocking the boat, or on a more visceral level, as reifying the things the family has done its best to throw down the memory hole.

At the same time, I do have to agree with what ikkyu2 said. Scads and scads of abuse stories are told every day, and not all of them are credible. These stories can and are used as a means of wielding power or getting attention. They can be used as permanent excuses, or they can be the product of various kinds of emotional and cognitive disturbance. However, for those of us in direct service roles, attempting to fact-find with regard to this stuff is not necessarily useful. Also, it's very easy to get it wrong. One of the must bizarre sets of abuse claims I ever heard-- a set that came from a barely-functional person who'd been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder-- also turned out to be the most easily documented, and the most demonstrably true.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:20 PM on August 13, 2008 [4 favorites]


Speaking from direct personal experience, I agree with almost everything mitzyjalapeno said. I can't go too much into detail as I'm at work but email in profile etc etc.

The complication in my case was that nothing happened to my sister, just me. And nobody could believe that a father could do that to his own son. Yep, I'm a guy.

It wasn't until I was taken into state custody because a stranger noticed a huge red handprint on the side of my face (three main types of abuse: physical, sexual and mental; I got all three) that anyone gave it much credibility. As part of the process, a physical and psychological exam takes place, during which things were confirmed.

In my situation it was fear of survival (my mother wasn't working, how would she support us?), outright denial, a whole lot of "we deal with family matters within the family and don't involve outsiders" and a big huge dose of "this is God's revenge for you(r mother) leaving the church".

It still comes up every so often, thirty years later, and sometimes the subtle hint is dropped that maybe I was exaggerating or outright making it up to get attention, and sometimes I wondered too, but I have a very good memory. I may have only been 6, but I still clearly recall the entire process, the police, the doctors, the childrens' shelter, all of it. And court records don't usually lie.
posted by geckoinpdx at 1:43 PM on August 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


Several posters seem to be conflating all allegations of abuse with "recovered memories". Hypnotically-induced "recovered memories" may indeed be questionable, but there are many, many, many people who have undergone childhood sexual abuse and remember it just fine without hypnosis or coaching by a therapist.
posted by tdismukes at 1:47 PM on August 13, 2008 [4 favorites]


Thanks to everyone that has contributed so far.

To clarify my personal family situation, the child was admitting the abuse to her mother while she was still a child (11 years old). It was not a false memory, and there were circumstantial clues that she was being victimized. At 11 years old, she was already acting out sexually and getting into trouble at school. At some point during the situation (I can't remember whether before or after), she ran away from home and used sex to get what she needed (like food, shelter, etc.) from older boys.

There is no doubt in my mind that she was being abused due to the circumstances involved. I am very angry about the situation because her mother failed to nurture and protect her once she came forward. And that, I believe, has made all the difference. Since that time, the survivor has run away countless times, been placed in foster care (where sex happened just as easily), married twice and has three kids by three different men, lost custody of all three children, and been in and out of psychiatric facilities and prison.

I can't help but think that her mother's reaction was what changed everything for this girl. I mean, at 11 years old she tested at college level in mathematical reasoning, English vocabulary, and rhetoric. But I believe that her mother's rejection of her when she was most vulnerable caused her to try to self-destruct, and only recently has she begun to establish some safety and stability in her life.

Thanks again, and keep it coming!
posted by mynameismandab at 9:55 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also I wanted to respond to something 26.2 said:
...the non-offending parent, you need to heal that person too.

I'm so glad you brought that up. One of the things that prompted me to ask this question was a television show I recently viewed. The show was about a drug addict. As a little girl (age 4 or so), she and her sister both went to their mother and told them they were being abused by someone in their family. The mother didn't believe them.

As time went on, it became clear that what they had been saying was true, and they testified against him in court. By this time the mother believed them, but 20 years later she is still feeling guilty about not believing them.

When I first heard her say she didn't believe it, I was angry, "How could she be so stupid? Little children don't even know what sex is, they don't even think about that!"

So I started thinking to myself, "People like her surely need help themselves. How can I get inside their mind to understand the factors influencing their disbelief, and how can I help them without judging or getting angry at them about their ignorance?" Twenty years after the fact, I can help them grieve about their choice, but how can I help people who do not realize that they have unintentionally endangered their own children by their failure to act?"

So maybe that is another question for another time, but please feel free to address this issue as well...
posted by mynameismandab at 10:42 PM on August 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


FrauMaschine: I don't suppose it'd be appropriate for doctors or counselors to challenge such histories head-on every time with every client, but mightn't there be therapeutic value in pointing, as sensitively as possible, toward what seems far more likely to be truth

How am I to know what is more likely to be true in another person's past?

The keystone of a therapeutic relationship is trust, and trust is based in part on honesty. How is someone to trust me when I start making up wild stories about their past and telling them that my stories are more likely to be true than theirs are - especially when, as I have said, the stories that they recount to me are deeply meaningful to them?

ChabonJabon: Sorry, it just is not realistic, and that's why I would deal with such cases very very carefully, as you cannot hang a man based on such crimes without evidence and the very one sided accusations by people who are emotionally unstable.

In my experience the recounting of these stories has not frequently been associated with a desire to implicate or punish. There is often a lot of anger or hostility present, but I have not found people to be recounting these stories in an effort to get someone hanged or jailed. I think you may be missing the whole point here.

palmcorder_yajna: Scads and scads of abuse stories are told every day, and not all of them are credible. These stories can and are used as a means of wielding power or getting attention. They can be used as permanent excuses, or they can be the product of various kinds of emotional and cognitive disturbance. However, for those of us in direct service roles, attempting to fact-find with regard to this stuff is not necessarily useful.

Well, I am not sure I always know the purpose of stories that my patients tell me. I do not believe I have heard more than 1 or 2 intentionally fabricated stories of abuse designed to manipulate my actions or gain my attention, and I have heard hundreds of abuse stories. Riddling out subconscious reasons for such fabrications when one is not even sure they are fabrications is a job that is too hard for me. I do not try at it. And laying blame for "permanent excuses" at the feet of a patient (or her cognitive set) is the job of the therapist, and a thankless and difficult task it is, one I do not envy them.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:52 AM on August 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


Somewhat related, though less family-focused...

Sexual abuse that takes occurs within the church can also be yuck. There's an amped up moral and spiritual aspect to the thing -- each person is supposed to have a spiritual commitment to doing what is 'right and just' so the idea that someone is messing with a child is an unthinkable thing. Private matters seldom stay private, so even if a person confides their own abuse or that of someone else there's a good chance divisiveness will surely follow once the gossip (prayer chain, fellowship hall exchanges, etc.) has spread. And there's that whole forgiveness conundrum...

nthing the false memories suggestion.

It's possible that a grownup learning that a child has been violated does believe the child but is hoping that saying 'no that did not happen' will make it be so.
posted by mcbeth at 1:01 AM on August 14, 2008


I would be curious to know what percentage (roughly) of victims actually forgive the abusers. I have been pushed, counseled, warned and pleaded with to forgive the person that abused me. But I never have. I still have dreams that he's alive and after me, and my response is always fight now, never flight. The people that actually can forgive the abusers must be saints.

Another situation I remembered late last night is one of my in-laws, who was abused as child by her uncle, who was the head of the child abuse crimes department of our city's police force. (It started around four and it continued until she was 11.) She told her mother and father, and neither believed her. Eventually he was convicted for abusing two children. She acted out with a lot of drinking and drugs, dated a lot of men that took advantage of her in the same way over and over again, and has been continuing that behavior for the last twenty years. Her abuser was just released from prison a couple of weeks ago, and immediately her tenous lifestyle and living arrangements have gotten worse, even though I didn't think it was possible. I think that the life-long effects of child abuse (self-esteem especially) must put up a red flag for anyone considering the possibility that claims of abuse aren't true. Of course, there are so many factors that can contribute to these types of effects that it can't be attributed only to child abuse, but it should be a clear sign to be aware of that.

I'm also a firm believer that a child should never be asked a leading question. Children sometimes do just answer a question without thinking about it. If they come to you with a story of what they feel happened without any prompting from you, it seems more plausible.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 7:17 AM on August 14, 2008


mitzyjalapeno, count me in the percentage that tried but couldn't.

I had a very long explanation, but the nutshell version is that I can't because he's not sorry he did it, he was sorry he was caught. If had been genuinely repentant and acknowledged how much he fscked me up, I would have had an easier time with forgiveness.

As to the red flags/long-term effects, it's not just the obvious you should be looking for. Not all survivors become hypersexualised or act out in ways you would expect.

For example, my family has no pictures of me from my childhood as far as I know. I found them all and destroyed them. I was conditioned for so long that I was evil, so therefore photographic evidence had to be destroyed as well. This was at the height of everything; I don't think that these days. But I am extremely camera-shy.

It also leaves you with volumes of unanswerable questions. Not just the obvious "why me" or "why at all"...I will always wonder if I would have turned out straight, for example. I am completely fine with my orientation, make no mistake, but at the back of my head there's always a voice wondering if what I lived through had some hand in how I eventually turned out.

(and to everyone else, I'm completely OK with everything and not trying to be an attention whore or anything. Just trying to give honest first-hand insight)
posted by geckoinpdx at 11:48 AM on August 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


how can I help people who do not realize that they have unintentionally endangered their own children by their failure to act?

Understanding inappropriate self-abandoning of a partner/spouse to an abuser, codependence. Caring and altruism are one thing, self-abandoning to a person who is repeatedly, in a pattern and over a long time, behaving other-destructively or self-destructively is another.

Finding ways to build healthy ego strength in the partner of the abuser, so the non-abusive partner can come out of denial about the abuser? Perhaps putting a focus on how wonderful a parent the partner would be if the child is saved from further abuse? Imo, long term partners of abusers are in an addictive enmeshment, which may even feel like a drug dependency and lose their ability to see clearly what is really going on.

Possibly a useful group for you.

The Malignant Optimism of the Abused


This conversation on the Object Relations board may be useful. The comment I wrote that Vidalia is referring to as "comparison of breakups in normal and pathological
relationships" is this one I wrote ages ago to an online friend, grieving a narcissist. And now, 7 years later, I don't feel it's only a hole in my life.

Other possibly useful/related comments of Vidalia's, here.

Naivete and chaos as defense mechanisms, original question.

A possibly related question, could repeated naivete be a type of defense mechanism?
posted by nickyskye at 11:57 AM on August 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


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