Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sexual assault without trauma

The latest uproar in the atheosphere is that Richard Dawkins mentioned that he was sexually assaulted by a schoolmaster when he was 11.  He said it was "extremely disagreeable", but it did not do lasting harm.  The same schoolmaster assaulted many kids Dawkins knew, and he says he thinks it didn't do lasting harm to any of them.  You can see the quotes and context on Friendly Atheist.

Incidentally, I said on Tumblr a few weeks ago that I was a victim of sexual assault.  There were two separate incidents where some drunk guy at a party repeatedly sticking their hand down my pants, despite me physically trying to pull it out.  One guy was a stranger, the other was (and is) a friend.  I was not upset by either incident, much less traumatized.

However, unlike Dawkins, I do not generalize my experience.  Just because I didn't get significantly hurt does not mean that others are not significantly hurt.  That's sort of like saying, I fully recovered from cancer when I was younger, therefore cancer is not as bad as it's usually made out to be.  Rather insensitive, yes?

My own experience isn't even generalizable to myself.  There was a third incident where I had sex at a party.  I've interpreted it as consensual, but one could argue otherwise given that we were both drinking.  I was very upset by the incident over the next month (although I wasn't traumatized in the long term).  I think this incident was different largely because of where I was in life--I had recently come out at the time.

In the comment thread on Friendly Atheist, multiple people are suggesting that Dawkins actually was traumatized, and the trauma prevents him from admitting it.  Just to take an example:
His downplaying of the scenario probably was how it damaged him. He writes it as if it was happening to someone else. And that's a way people cope with these issues.
This is sort of like saying, you think you recovered from cancer, but you must not have because cancer is just too awful.  Or like saying, you think you're not in pain, but clearly this is just a pain-induced delusion.  I'm not sure it even makes sense to say that a person experiences pain or trauma without being aware of it.

And I find it personally offensive.  They are not just telling Dawkins that his experience isn't real, they're telling me that my experience isn't real.  No, really, I was not upset by those two incidents.  And I know because I can compare to a third incident which did upset me.

I don't like what Dawkins said about sexual assault, but I believe him when he says it did not do him lasting damage.  This is within the range of experiences of sexual assault.  It is both important and humane to acknowledge this.  It is important, because when someone comes forward with a story of sexual assault without trauma, it should not be so shocking so as to shatter the blanket condemnation of sexual assault.  It is humane, because it helps victims of sexual assault admit that they were assaulted (my understanding is that it's common for victims to not admit it), even if they did not respond to it in the "standard" way.


miller said...

Update: Richard Dawkins apologized.

ACH said...

I don't think that there's any evidence that Dawkins' response was in any way unusual. In the book, The Trauma Myth, by Susan Clancy, she did some research on people who had been molested as children and was quite surprised to discover that for the large majority it was not traumatizing at the time (and those tended to be the cases where physical force was used, iirc).

Upon further research, she learned that the using "trauma" as the primary lens for understanding all adult/child sexual contact was a political move made by (some) feminists in the 1970s. Not only did they do this without research to support it, it was done in open defiance of most of the research out there (which was generally rejected on moral--not empirical--grounds).

I think that what we see with Dawkins case is that some people are ideologically committed to suppressing data and silencing people talking about their own experiences if their understandings of their experiences are inconvenient for one's politics.

It seems altogether inconsistent with the rhetoric (often from the very same people) about the importance of listening to and believing survivors' accounts.

miller said...

My understanding of what Susan Clancy claimed was that most victims were not traumatized at the time, but many were traumatized when they looked back upon their experience later in life. So when Dawkins was neither traumatized at the time, nor traumatized later in life, I do not know how typical his experience is.

Dawkins says that he spoke with his classmates about it, and concluded that no one else experienced lasting harm. But I wonder if he was mistaken because he assumed that anyone who was harmed would have been traumatized at the time. (Based on his apology, he also seems to think that the level of trauma is mostly determined by whether the child sexual abuse was brief or frequent.)

When I looked through blog comments on this particular kerfuffle, people seemed to be saying different things about it. Some insinuated that Richard Dawkins might have been more traumatized than he cared to admit, while others were fine with Dawkins' description of his own experience, but criticized the way he erased other people's experiences. I think the former group is motivated by confirmation bias, and the latter group is motivated by the principle that we should listen to victims' own accounts.