Traumagenic Dynamics

Traumatic sexualization refers to a process in which a child’s sexuality (including both sexual feelings and sexual attitudes) is shaped in a developmentally inappropriate and interpersonally dysfunctional fashion as a result of the sexual abuse. This can happen in a variety of ways in the course of the abuse. Traumatic sexualization can occur when a child is repeatedly rewarded by an offender for sexual behavior that is inappropriate to his or her level of development. It occurs through the exchange of affection, attention, privileges, and gifts for sexual behavior, so that a child learns sexual behavior as a strategy for manipulating others to get his or her other developmentally appropriate needs met. It occurs when certain parts of of a child’s anatomy are fetishized and given distorted importance and meaning. It occurs through the misconceptions and confusions about sexual behavior and sexual morality that are transmitted to the child from the offender. And it occurs when very frightening memories and events become associated in the child’s mind with sexual activity….

Betrayal refers to the dynamic in which children discover that someone on whom they are vitally dependent has caused them harm. This may occur in a variety of ways in a molestation experience. For example, in the course of abuse or its aftermath, children may come to the realization that a trusted person has manipulated them through lies or misrepresentations about moral standards. They may also come to realize that someone whom they loved or whose affection was important to them treated them with callous disregard. Children can experience betrayal not only at the hands of offenders, but also with family members who were not abusing them. A family member whom they trusted but who was unable or unwilling to protect or believe them – or who has a changed attitude toward them after disclosure of the abuse – may also contribute to the dynamics of betrayal….

Powerlessness – or what might also be called “disempowerment,” the dynamic of rendering the victim powerless – refers to the process in which the child’s will, desires, and sense of efficacy are continually contravened. Many aspects of the sexual abuse experience contribute to this dynamic…. A basic kind of powerlessness occurs in sexual abuse when a child’s territory and body space are repeatedly invaded against the child’s will. This is exacerbated by whatever coercion and manipulation the offender may impose as part of the abuse process. Powerlessness is then reinforced when a child sees his or her attempts to halt the abuse frustrated. It is increased when the child feels fear, when he or she is unable to make adults understand or believe what is happening, or when he or she realizes how conditions of dependency have him or her trapped in the situation….

Stigmazation,i the final dynamic, refers to the negative connotations – for example, badness, shame, and guilt – that are communicated to the child about the experiences and that then become incorporated into the child’s self image. These negative meanings are communicated in many ways. They can come directly form the abuser, who may blame the victim for the activity, denigrate the victim, or, simply through his furtiveness, convey a sense of shame about the behavior. When there is pressure for secrecy from the offender, this can also convey powerful messages of shame and guilt. But stigmatization is also reinforced by attitudes that the victim infers or hears from other persons in the family or community. Stigmatization may thus grow out of the child’s prior knowledge or sense that the activity after disclosure, people react with shock or hysteria, or blame the child for what has transpired. The child may be additionally stigmatized by people in his or her environment who now impute other negative characteristics to the victim (loose morals, spoiled goods) as a result of the molestation….

These four traumagenic dynamics, then, account in our view for the main sources of trauma in child sexual abuse. They are not in any way distinct, separate factors, or narrowly defined…. They are best thought of as broad categories useful for organizing and categorizing our understanding of the effect of sexual abuse….

Although the sexual abuse itself is assumed to be the main traumatic agent in victims, it is important to emphasize that any assessment approach to understanding trauma must take into account the child’s experiences prior to and subsequent to the abuse. Abuse will have different effects on children depending on their prior adjustment. And abuse will have different effects depending on how others respond to it.

The four traumagenic dynamics we have been discussing are not dynamics that apply soley to the abuse event. They are ongoing processes that have a history prior to and a future subsequent to the abuse. They can be assessed in each phase. In the preabuse phase, the traumagenic dynamics need to be understood particularly in relation to a child’s family life and personality characteristics prior to the abuse. For example, if the child was a previous victim of physical or emotional abuse, he or she may already have been suffering from a disempowering dynamic before the abuse occurred….

The operation of the traumagenic dynamics can also be assessed in the events subsequent to the sexual abuse. Two main categories of subsequent events have particular importance: (1) the family reaction to disclosure, if and when it occurs, and (2) the social and institutional response to the disclosure. For example, much of the stigmatization accompanying abuse may occur after the experience itself, as a child encounters family and societal reactions. A child who was relatively unstigmatized by the molestation itself may undergo serious stigmatization if friends…reject her, if her family blames her, or if the fact of her being abused remains a focus in her life for a long time…. If, for instance,…authorities become involved in the experience, the child is forced to testify, forced to leave home, forced to tell the story on repeated occasions, and subjected to a great deal of unwanted attention, this can also greatly increase the…sense of powerlessness. If the [individual,] on the other hand, has a sense of having been able to end the abuse and obtain support and protection, this may greatly mitigate any sense of powerlessness that resulted from the experience itself.1

Researchers have identified a host of medical and psychological symptoms that are associated with a history of childhood sexual abuse in women. One of the best predictors of this history is somatization or a high number of medically unexplained symptoms.2 Adolescents who are abused have a higher risk of unwanted pregnancy, emotional problems, eating disorders, substance abuse and delinquent behavior.3 Many patients who have been abused have problems such as obesity, chronic depression or anxiety, and multiple symptoms with psychosomatic potential – for example, headaches and chronic abdominal, pelvic, and low back pain.4

Women who reported contact sexual abuse…had voluntary sexual intercourse 15.4 months earlier than women with noncontact…or no abuse. Likewise, women with contact abuse engaged in necking and petting behaviors at earlier ages, and had more sexual partners during adolescence and briefer sexual relationships than women with noncontact or no abuse.5

i Where such repair is possible, what often results is not the aquisition of fully normal status, but a transformation of self from someone with a particular blemish into someone with a record of having corrected a particular blemish.
Stigma by Erving Goffman.


1 David Finkelhor & Angela Browne, “Initial and long-term effects: a conceptual framework,” A Sourcebook on Child Sexual Abuse, ed. David Finkelhor, 1986.

2 Arthur J. Felitti, Ami Laws, & Edward A. Walker, “Women abused as children,” Patient Care, 15 Nov 1993, 27(18), p. 169(9).

3 Council on Scientific Affairs, American Medical Association, “Adolescents as victims of family violence,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 20 Oct 1993, 270(15), p. 1850(7).

4 Felitti et al, “Women abused as children.”

5 G. E. Wyatt, “The relationship between child sexual abuse and adolescent sexual functioning in Afro-American and white American women,” Annual of New York Academy Science, 528, 1988.

See also

Child Sexual Abuse
Memories of Abuse
Freud and Seduction Theory Reconsidered