Sexual Assault Plus

Yesterday, Richard Dawkins issued an apology. In talking about his own sexual assault at a young age, he had generalized their experience from his. He was relatively unaffected by the experience and expressed his opinion that the same was true of “all of us”. He apologized for doing so.

Dawkins’ apology was very welcome, if incomplete, as was his admission that he should not speak to the experience of other victims of sexual assault. Alex has a pretty good take on what it missed. I don’t agree 100%, but I’m close enough not to quibble. Instead, I’d like to dig into this idea of degrees of assault. What Dawkins has had to say on the topic isn’t entirely wrong, but his naive take on the topic obscures as much as it reveals.

Let’s start with what he’s gotten right. First of all, he is correct that the meaning that a society gives to unwanted sexual contact makes a difference. It doesn’t appear to have the direct effect he imputes to it. Nor is it the case that in Dawkins’ lifetime, society has not broadly condemned the behavior of abusive priests and predatory producers–at least in the general case. We haven’t always been good at bringing the consequences of such behavior down on the powerful, but that hasn’t changed as much as we might like over the decades either. Still, there is a grain of truth to the observation.

Secondly, in his apology he makes two statements: “To make light of their stories, even after all these years, might in some cases re-awaken the trauma of not being believed at the time when it was all happening, and when being believed would have meant so much to the child” and “To have done so would have been to belittle and insult those many people whose lives really were blighted and cursed, perhaps by year-upon-year of abuse by a father or other person who was deeply important in their life.” These both get at important differences between his experience and the experiences of others who have been sexually assaulted, though repetition of the abuse is not the important difference.

Finally, I think everyone is in accord that, as Dawkins noted on Twitter, an eight-year-old girl being raped to death is worse than what happened to him. I didn’t see anyone claim in the first place that they were equivalent, but I doubt anyone disagrees.

That tweet, however, does provide a useful point for examining where Dawkins’ lack of structured thinking on this topic, as well as his probable lack of education on the topic of sexual assault, steers him wrong. The reason we think what happened to young Rawan is worse than what happened to young Richard is not because she was more sexually assaulted. Young Richard did not consent any more than young Rawan did.

The reason we think what happened to her was worse is because more than sexual assault occurred. Young Richard was sexually assaulted. Young Rawan was sexually assaulted plus sold as property plus subjected to pain plus subjected to injury plus killed. Each of those is independently bad in its own right. That more things happened to her than sexual assault does not make the fact that she was sexually assaulted worse than the fact that he was.

The same applies when you look at the statements from his apology or his thoughts on societal views of sexual assault. He was sexually assaulted. Others may have been sexually assaulted plus betrayed when they asked for help. Others may have been sexually assaulted plus made to live with–or told they must love–their abusers. Others may have been sexually assaulted plus been shamed or denied by the society in which they live.

In each case, it isn’t that the sexual abuse is worse. Instead something else bad is also happening in addition to the sexual abuse, which is still independently bad.

Photo of light streaming through very dark clouds.
“Light through the clouds (3 of 5)” by flakeparadigm. Some rights reserved.

Decades of research on stress, trauma, and resilience (including both the ability to productively cope with stress and trauma as it happens and the ability to recover from stress and trauma) have given us insight into factors that make events like sexual assault more likely to cause lasting psychological harm to the victim. Some of these have to do with the circumstances of the assault itself:

  • Age: Sexual assault in childhood presents a small but statistically significant risk over sexual assault in adulthood for mental illness, suicide attempts, sexual dysfunction, and other negative outcomes. Early sexual activity is listed as one of those negative outcomes. I’ll discuss this in greater depth later.
  • Injury: As is probably obvious, the sexually immature (and small) human body can easily be damaged by penetrative assault. This can lead to damage that provides a lasting reminder of the sexual assault well into adulthood.
  • Damaged relationships: One of the strongest contributing factors to resiliency is strong social support. In childhood, familial relationships are particularly important. Sexual assault by a member of a child’s social network can effectively cut off a major line of support, or more than one if other member’s of the network have to choose between supporting the assaulted child and maintaining their own social networks intact. Additionally, loss of a close relationship like this is an additional stressor in its own right.
  • Repetition: Dawkins has a point about the repetition of sexual assault, though it’s by no means as absolute as his writing on the subject would suggest. While one instance of assault can be damaging, repeated assault by one or by multiple predators can make a child feel particularly helpless and vulnerable. Feeling helpless to stop or deal with assault weakens resilience.
  • Emotional abuse: Some sexual assaults come with messages that specifically deflect blame from the predator onto the victim. This can undercut a child’s positive self-image, which can reduce resilience.
  • Additional direct trauma: Multiple stressors have an additive effect, though the relationship isn’t always that mathematically straightforward. Pregnancy is a serious stressor in its own right, even when not coupled with sexual assault. So is a sexually-transmitted disease.

Some of the factors that lead to worse outcomes are related to the social environment:

  • Blame: Blame is a tricky thing in sexual assault. Laying the blame for an assault on a victim’s behavior does not protect other potential victims from being assaulted. No matter how much the behavior of various less-powerful (more likely to be assaulted) classes is restricted, predators still assault those people. However, some assault victims do find a certain utility in laying some blame for their assault on their own behavior. It is theorized that this allows them to feel an illusory control over whether they are assaulted again. It combats helplessness.Does this mean that other people pointing to the victim’s behavior and laying blame helps the victim? Almost certainly not. Telling someone who has been assaulted that their behavior was responsible for the assault is the opposite of providing social support. Additionally, internally focused self-blame–blame that is based on who someone is rather than what they did in a particular situation–is incredibly harmful. Someone who believes an assault occurred because of a fault in who they are is going to face a long road to recovery.
  • Shame: This is one of those instances where purity culture is particularly damaging. Telling someone that they’re “damaged goods” because of something that’s been done to them is not just morally reprehensible; it can seriously undercut someone’s healthy self-image just when they need it most.
  • Denial: This should be obvious, but when it comes to social support after a sexual assault, it is important to take a victim at their word. Making them fight to be believed on whether they consented or to what degree the experience is affecting them is adding to their load, not lightening it.
  • Additional trauma: When not handled well, the reporting of sexual assault can be as bad or worse than the assault itself. Changing schools or neighborhoods or jobs because the predator will not be forced out instead are all traumatic.
  • Sexual intelligence: I mentioned above that early sexual behavior is considered a bad outcome of childhood sexual abuse. This isn’t simply because we, as a society, have decided that children should not have sex (though the shame tied to these attitudes can be directly harmful). This is also a problem because of how we provide education on sexuality and consent. That is to say, we largely don’t educate children on these matters.This means that children who are introduced to interpersonal sexual behavior at a young age (sometimes referred to as “sexualizing children”, though that usage is not consistent with the term “sexualization” as used in media criticism) may go on to engage in additional sexual behavior on their own without a good education to rely on. They may abuse other children or engage in behavior that is more likely to lead to pregnancy, disease, or additional abuse (sexual, emotional, or physical) by adults.

Some of the factors that lead to worse outcomes are related to the victim:

  • Personality: Whether they are transferred genetically or developed otherwise (current research is not particularly conclusive–unsurprising given that this is a difficult web to untangle), and irrespective of how you classify them, people tend to have some number of personality traits that are fairly stable over their lifetime. These can directly or indirectly affect how well someone copes with stressful experiences. Indirectly, what most of us would classify as extraversion can lead to stronger social networks. Directly, there is evidence that some children may simply be more sensitive to the kind of treatment they receive than others.
  • Coping skills: Behavioral responses to stress aren’t something we’re born with, except maybe those that are classed as self-stimulatory, like rocking. These behaviors have a utility in helping regulate sensory input and emotional state, but they aren’t effective in negotiating complex social or emotional situations. This can make recovery from trauma directly difficult or may make additional poor outcomes more likely.
  • Isolation: Predators frequently target children who are already without much social support. This makes recovery more difficult for reasons already discussed.
  • Additional incidental trauma: While not all trauma will be directly related to the sexual assault, children who are already stressed by factors outside the situation (changing schools, loss of a parent, etc.) are still dealing with multiple stressors. They still face the possibility that an assault will be the one stressor that makes the whole more than they can effectively deal with.

Looking at all this, it should be obvious that various people’s reaction to the same sexual assault–even a single instance of non-penetrative assault–may vary widely for reasons that have nothing to do with the characteristics of the assault. We cannot rank the severity of assault on those characteristics if we mean to use harm as our indicator of severity. Any assault has the capacity to do significant harm.

So when Dawkins says this in his apology:

To have [lied and said it was the worst thing that ever happened to me] would have invited the justifiably indignant response: “How dare you make a fuss about the mere half minute of gagging unpleasantness that happened to you only once, and where the perpetrator was not your own father but a teacher who meant nothing special to you in your life. Stop playing the victim. Stop trying to upstage those who really were tragic victims in their own situations. Don’t cry wolf about your own bad experience, because it undermines those whose experience was – and remains – so much worse.”

though I will assume that Dawkins meant to emphasize the lie rather than the brevity of the assault, I have to disagree very strongly that any statement to that effect is ever justified. We can’t see all the factors that can affect the outcome after a sexual assault. The only way to know for certain whether someone is lying about their reaction to a sexual assault is to read their minds. That, of course, is impossible, but taking people at their word on the effects sexual assault had on them is simple and cost us nothing.

I understand Dawkins impulse to be clear on how much (or little) his sexual assault affected him. I appreciate his public statement that he should not be speaking for others on how much their experiences affected them. I hope that before he talks about the subject again, he comes to a better understanding of the complex reality of sexual assault so that he does not end up incorrectly speaking for others even incidentally.

Sexual Assault Plus
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9 thoughts on “Sexual Assault Plus

  1. 2

    I wrote a fair amount about this over on Alex’s blog, but reading what you wrote about the social aspects of assault triggered another thought.

    The atmosphere of the school where Dawkins went, and where the “masters” were apparently allowed to molest the boys as an open secret, was obviously horribly toxic. But I wonder if, in another sense, the openness of it all may be one of the reasons he escaped from it so lightly. It sounds as if the boys all talked about what happened, in a “Oh, so you got felt up by old so-and-so too” sort of way. That’s a huge contrast to the isolation that most assault victims experience, where they usually get no assistance at all in processing their reaction.

  2. 3

    I am kind of flabbergasted at the number of Big Name atheist bloggers who are praising Dawkins’ classic nonpology as if it were a real apology of any substance. I suppose I shouldn’t be, since I witnessed a similar thing with people forgiving, and forgiving, and forgiving CFI for its nonpologies, but……… I am disappointed.

    I have a feeling that you considered the various advantages to taking Dawkins’ words at face value, but have you considered the harm of consistently accepting “apologies” that only serve to double down on the point? Because that kind of repeated behavior from the few “good” (ie. the least problematic) Big Names is yet one more thing that keeps me out of movement atheism.

    Dawkins doesn’t deserve a cookie for his fauxpologetic, doubling down words and when people fall all over themselves to give it to him that reinforces to him, and all of us watching, that using the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” are all that’s needed for people to afford you a base amount of forgiveness. (Forgiving people/organizations based mostly on their apologies is another toxic dynamic I have witnessed, but that is a rant for another day.)

  3. 4

    Is anyone interested in the question of whether or not the culture of pederasty is NOT a “thing of long ago and far away”? Dawkins seems uninterested in asking that question….and at least they aren’t in Sunday School.

  4. 5

    cityzenjane @4:

    Is anyone interested in the question of whether or not the culture of pederasty is NOT a “thing of long ago and far away”?

    Our culture is certainly less tolerant of it today, but that’s a very recent phenomenon.

    As recently as the early 1980s, reported judicial decisions dealing with sexual abuse committed by teachers or other school employees against students were exceedingly rare. Although a lack of reported cases cannot be taken to suggest the absence of a problem long known to educators and psychologists (if not the general public), it is noteworthy that the dearth of reported cases ended within the decade. […]

    Because the problem of child sexual abuse has been on the public agenda for only about the past two decades and there is no central agency responsible for defining and reporting incidents of abuse, there are enormous problems in almost all attempts to accurately illustrate the existence and extent of child sexual abuse.

    Sorenson, Gail Paulus. “Sexual abuse in schools: Reported court cases from 1987-1990.” Educational Administration Quarterly 27.4 (1991): 460-480.

    The best study I’ve seen on the prevalence of child sexual abuse doesn’t include any data about school personnel, unfortunately, but it otherwise paints a very grim picture.

    In all, 1943 students and 210 school non-attenders answered a self-administered anonymous questionnaire, distributed by school nurses. Six out of 170 questions dealt with personal experiences of child sexual abuse, i.e. age at onset, frequency of abuse and relationship to the offender. Peer abuse was excluded by the definitions used. The overall response rate was 92.2% for students and 44.2% for school dropouts. Among male and female students, 3.1% and 11.2%, respectively, acknowledged sexual abuse, 2.3% and 7.1%, respectively, when exhibitionism was excluded. Mean age at onset was 9.1 y (SD 4.3) for boys and 9.0 y (SD 3.9) for girls; 1.2% of the boys and 3.1% of the girls reported abusive oral, vaginal and/or anal intercourse. Suicide attempts or other acts of self-harm were reported by 33.3% of the male students reporting abuse and by 5.1%(p <0.001) of those who had not been abused, and by 30.4% of the abused student girls compared to 9.1% of the non-abused (p < 0.001). Sleep and eating disorders, use of alcohol at an early age and/or experimentation with illicit drugs and consensual coitarche before age 15 y was reported significantly more often by abused than non-abused girls (p < 0.001, differences not found among the student boys).

    Edgardh, K., and K. Ormstad. “Prevalence and characteristics of sexual abuse in a national sample of Swedish seventeen‐year‐old boys and girls.” Acta Paediatrica 89.3 (2000): 310-319.

  5. 6

    I wanted to say that Dawkins apparently thinks that people are like wooden latches that break when you add power X. Then I thought about it I noticed that it would actually be progress if Dawkins understood that people are like wooden latches in some respects. No two are alike. One might have a knothole in a crucial place, one might have it where it causes little damage. And we all understand that there’s structural damage that will never heal.

  6. 7

    You said what I thought was missing (and more) from all the other responses I’ve seen. There is research on the subject; we should use it. It’s great to see the various factors broken down like this; really makes it easy to see how the same event(s) could be an annoyance to person A but a catastrophe to person B. Plus, I’m a sucker for blog posts in which I learn something.

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