Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Childhood Sexual Trauma

Sometimes I think that half of the drama series on Netflix involve childhood sexual abuse. Whether it is as pervasive as psychoanalyst Alice Miller once imagined-- she thought that it had happened to all children-- and whether it is as influential as people believe-- recent studies from Canada suggested that around two/thirds of victims recover without treatment-- by now everyone blames it for everything that has ever gone wrong in their lives.

Freud’s ghost is still haunting us.

Anyway, a peri-menopausal woman wrote to Guardian advice columnist Annalisa Barbieri to explain that her husband has taken a lover. She and her husband have not had sex for a year, so now he has started looking elsewhere and has found someone who actually desires him. Apparently, his wife does not. One gains the impression that she never has.

This woman was sexually assaulted by a cousin when she was twelve-- repeatedly. She, as age twelve, was apparently home alone most afternoons. Her nineteen year old cousin used to drop by and raped her. 

Apparently, she was unsupervised after school, which I suspect is illegal, even in England. She had no siblings. And she never had friends over or had extracurricular activities. Apparently, she never said a word to anyone. Or, if she did, as sometimes happens, no one believed her. If a child has been raped, you would suspect that her mood and her attitude would show her parents that something grievously wrong happened. A semi-normal parent would want to know what was wrong. Neighbors might have seen a nineteen year old boy drive up on a motorcycle. 

We would like to hear more details about this story, because it does not seem entirely plausible. One suspects that in the current cultural climate we are not allowed to ask.

Now, the woman believes that her lack of desire is the reason why her husband is cheating. And she believes that her abuse produced her lack of desire. Or, should I say, her lack of desire for her husband. Is it possible that she desires someone else? How does it happen, incidentally, that her husband waited ten years before having sex with her?

Before proceeding, here is the letter:

When I was 12, my 19-year-old cousin started to sexually abuse me, showing up at my house most afternoons. I worshipped him, so I didn’t know how to say no. I do not remember how or when it ended, but I know I still feel the dread I felt when his motorcycle stopped in front of our house.

I met my husband when I was 17. I was terrified of sex, so we waited almost 10 years to make love. We had a child, who is now a young teen. Last week, 30 years after we met, I discovered that my husband had been cheating on me for a year. At this point, we hadn’t made love for a year. I enjoy sex to a degree, but never feel the urge, even though I masturbate.

He tells me he needs to feel desired, and this other woman gives him what I never could. He says he’s in love. I’m devastated, and I wonder if the trauma I experienced as a child is behind my incapacity to satisfy his needs, or if there were too many unsaid things in our relationship for it to be healthy? Do you think therapy would help?

Now, Barbieri is going to promote psychoanalytical talk therapy. It is precisely the wrong approach, for various reasons. It assumes that the woman has not processed her experience and that, once she processes it, she will feel better about it. Any psychoanalytic treatment also resides on the assumption that we forget traumas and that remembering them will release their hold. This woman has certainly remembered what happened. 

Besides, if this happened some thirty five years ago, how does it happen that it is just now that it crosses her mind that perhaps she ought to do therapy. 

Naturally, neither Barbieri nor the therapist she consults has anything to say about the woman’s age, or about the fact that she is now approaching menopause. They live in a world where hormones do not matter, where biology does not matter, where it is all in the mind.

Of course, the therapist tells Barbieri that the woman has a lot of feelings. What would we do without idiot therapists? Barbieri reports her conversation with the therapist:

We talked about how you must have so many conflicting feelings towards your cousin, and any feeling you have is OK. Abuse survivors often report myriad emotions – guilt, shame, anger, even loss – especially if the abuser was someone they loved.

Now, both the therapist and Barbieri want the woman to relive the experience and to say something to her rapist and her parents. This too is contemporary therapy-speak. It is not very useful:

We talked about how you must have so many conflicting feelings towards your cousin, and any feeling you have is OK. Abuse survivors often report myriad emotions – guilt, shame, anger, even loss – especially if the abuser was someone they loved.

Not to sound too simple-minded, but this woman should put the experience behind her, not relive it. She has very little to gain by getting back into it, because getting back into it will simply make it more powerful and more influential.

One assumes that child molestation necessarily produces neurosis and bad sex. But the resilience studies referenced above suggest that this is only the case in a minority of situations. Of course, this woman is seeking a reason for her disinterest in sex with her husband, and if that is what she is looking for, she will probably find it. Or, at least, she will find a narrative explanation-- one that will almost assuredly not solve the problem. Besides, even if she does solve her own problem, this does not necessarily mean that her husband will end his affair. We know nothing about the mistress, whether she is single or married, whether or not she wants to have children, and so on. And, we do not know whether the husband is planning to leave the marriage.

I would also highlight this passage from Barbieri’s response:

I do urge you, if you can, to invest in some one-to-one, in-depth, psychological support. NHS waiting lists are long, and they often offer only CBT, which is great, but I don’t think that’s right for you at the moment (Beeken agreed).

Beeken is the name of the psychoanalytic therapist.

We remark that the British National Health Service only offers cognitive-behavioral therapy. This suggests that the reign of psychoanalytic therapy is over and done. Good riddance. It also tells us that cognitive treatments have been shown to be more effective and to cost less.

Now, a cognitive-behavioral therapist would immediately notice that a lack of sexual desire is a classical symptom of depression. He would note that no therapy has every cured depression by finding the root causes, or by examining past history and traumas.

I will not rehearse the ways that cognitive therapists treat depression, but I will notice that once depression is treated, desire often returns. Though, not necessarily for the husband. The basis for cognitive treatment is correcting aberrant thought patterns, not reviving and narratizing past trauma.

1 comment:

trigger warning said...

Families, and particularly fathers who are present, are evil. We know this because an erudite word theory in the Harvard Crimson tells us so. Consequently, the psycho therapy cultists can reveal families, and particularly fathers, as evil influences on the victims during the Feelings and Renunciation Stages of indoctrination.

One of my favorite movies ever is "Waking Ned Devine". One critic pointed out that it could never have been made in America, because Hollywood views small towns as breeding pens for Evil Alien Pod People.