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Evolving Narratives About

Childhood Sexual Abuse:

Challenging the Dominance of the
Victim and Survivor Paradigm
Sally V. Hunter
University of New England, Australia

This research project explored the ongoing process of constructing a narrative,

following childhood sexual abuse. Twenty-two men and women aged 2570 were
interviewed about their childhood sexual experiences with adults using narrative
inquiry methodology. These experiences occurred in different social and historical
contexts, when the theoretical understandings and treatment of the issue of child
sexual abuse were significantly different from the present. Many factors made
disclosure even more difficult then than it is now including: respect for authority;
rigid gender roles; the taboo surrounding sexual issues; lack of supportive adults;
and lack of language to describe what was happening. Participants told four differing narratives about their experiences: narratives of silence; narratives of ongoing
suffering; narratives of transformation; and narratives of transcendence. These narratives were examined in relation to the changing social and historical context and
the current dominance of the victim and survivor paradigm in the child sexual
abuse literature.
Keywords: child sexual abuse, narrative, gender, historical context

Most qualitative research into child sexual abuse has been conducted with clinical
populations of victims or survivors who have attended therapy, often for many
years. By contrast, this research set out to explore the issue of childhood sexual
experiences with adults, regardless of how the person involved viewed their experiences at the time and whether or not they attended therapy. The study focused on
the development of their evolving narrative about these childhood events and how
this may have reflected changes in the theoretical discourse over time.

Address for correspondence: Sally V. Hunter, School of Health, University of New England, Armidale,
New South Wales, 2351, Australia. E-mail :



Volume 31 Number 2 2010 pp. 176190

Evolving Narratives About Childhood Sexual Abuse

In the 1950s incest was believed to be a rare occurrence. The issue of child
sexual abuse was shrouded by societal denial and the experiences of children were
ignored, denied, or minimised (Orbach, 1998). By the 1960s and 1970s this denial
was being challenged by feminists and systems theorists who insisted that child
sexual abuse be recognised as a crime and that the voices of the victims be heard
(Breckenridge, 1999). In order to create the climate for social change, it became
essential to emphasise the rights of the child and the suffering of victims.
Supporting affirmative action, many feminists adopted a legal framework and
language including the use of words such as rape victim, serial offender, perpetrator,
and child witness. For example, Ward (1984) described incest as sexual violence and
as an abuse of power by men over their daughters in her influential book, FatherDaughter Rape.
The main benefit inherent in the development of the victim discourse was that
it encouraged people to speak out about their abusive sexual experiences in childhood and to report their perpetrators to authorities. In this way, it gave women and
children a voice to a certain extent. However, it also led to victim-blaming since the
typical victim was seen as female, trapped by powerlessness and passivity (Dunn,
2005), and vulnerable to re-victimisation (Reavey & Gough, 2000). The victim
discourse gradually began to be recognised as potentially stigmatising to the victim
(Jenkins, 1998).
By the late 1980s this discourse had been largely replaced by the powerful
survivor discourse, with numerous books being published using the word survivor
in the title (Ainscough & Toon, 2000; Bass & Davis, 1988; Bryant-Jefferies, 2003;
Cameron, 2000; Courtois, 1988; Etherington, 2000; Gold, 2000; Sanderson, 2006;
Skinner, 2000). The survivor discourse focussed on the strength, courage, and
resilience of women and children who had overcome childhood adversity and
emerged stronger as a result. It offered hope of healing and recovery to the victims
of child sexual abuse, and a sense of solidarity with others who had suffered in a
similar way. It offered women a sense of power, in stark contrast to the sense of
powerlessness that often accompanied the victim discourse. The survivor discourse
has also been described as potentially stigmatising because it links the identity of the
survivor to their childhood abuse (Phillips & Daniluk, 2004; Warner, 2003).
Throughout the 1990s writers within the social constructionist discourse began
to privilege some of the less frequently heard narratives of children of both sexes
(Dorais, 2002; Durrant & Kowalski, 1990; Laing & Kamsler, 1990; White, 1989a).
Other voices emerged such as those of men and women who were sexually abused
by their mothers or by other women as children (Denov, 2004). Narrative therapists
have helped survivors to make meaning of their experiences by developing more
functional narratives of their lives, through the stories that they chose to tell about
them (Harvey, Mishler, Koenen, & Harney, 2000; White, 1989b). These narratives
may or may not focus on the traumatic events themselves.
Psychological and psychoanalytical approaches have been augmented by attachment theory, neurobiological, and trauma-based approaches to the treatment of
adult survivors. Herman (1995) believed that people experiencing prolonged and
repeated trauma or victimisation, such as child sexual abuse, often suffered from
Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (Complex PTSD). This association between


Sally V. Hunter

trauma and child sexual abuse has become a popular explanation in this field.
Finkelhor and Browne (1986) proposed the traumagenic dynamics theory of child
sexual abuse which was based on the four concepts of traumatic sexualisation,
betrayal, stigmatisation, and powerlessness. Briere (1992) developed a self-trauma
theory, Freyd (1996) developed a theory based on betrayal trauma, and Sheinberg
and Fraenkel (2001) developed a relational trauma theory. Many treatment modalities have been developed based on a combination of concepts from neurobiology
and PTSD (Gold, 2000; Rothschild, 2000; van der Kolk & McFarlane, 1996) and
the concepts of childhood trauma and resultant attachment injury (Briere & Scott,
2006; Courtois, 1997; Herman, 1995; Johnson, 2002).
This study explores the narratives that people have constructed about their
childhood sexual experiences and how these have changed over time, in parallel
with the changes in theoretical approaches to child sexual abuse and the social
mores of the time.
Research Method

Narrative inquiry methodology was used. Having received ethics approval for the
study, the researcher sent press releases to the local press and spoke about the
research study on local radio. During this process, the researcher took great care not
to use the term child sexual abuse and the term early sexual experience was left
open for participants to define in their own way. Participants aged 25 to 70 who
had an early sexual experience under the age of 16 with someone over the age of 18,
were not currently under the care of a psychiatrist, and were interested in telling
their story were invited to contact the researcher. People currently seeing a psychiatrist were deliberately excluded in order to ensure that participants were not
emotionally vulnerable at the time of the interview, even though some of them had
suffered from mental health difficulties in the past.
Potential participants were then sent an information sheet about the study and
informed of their right to withdraw their participation at any point. The interviews,
which lasted for about one and a half hours, were conducted at a mutually convenient venue such as a community centre. Participants were reassured that, if they
were to become distressed during the process, they could stop the interview at any
time and the names of local counselling services would be provided if necessary. The
interviews began with a general invitation for participants to tell their stories about
their childhood sexual experiences in whatever way they wished. Most participants
did not require much prompting apart from a few clarifying questions, and spoke at
length about their experiences and how they had made sense of them.
The interviews were tape recorded and the data was analysed using the NVivo
computer program and Rosenthal and Fischer-Rosenthals (2004) method of analysis of narrative-biographical interviews. This involved a rigorous process including
the analysis of biographical data, thematic analysis, the re-construction of case
histories, the analysis of individual texts, a process of comparison between the
narrative and the life as lived, and the formation of different types of narratives.
A total of 22 men and women who had childhood sexual experiences under the
age of sixteen, with someone over the age of eighteen, were interviewed. Their



Evolving Narratives About Childhood Sexual Abuse

sexual experiences varied enormously from a sexualised kiss to vaginal, oral, or anal
intercourse. All 13 of the women had heterosexual experiences, mostly with their
father or stepfather. They tended to be younger than the men interviewed, and
more likely to have attended therapy in relation to their experiences. By contrast, of
the nine men interviewed five reported homosexual experiences, one a heterosexual
experience, and three described experiences with adults of both sexes. The men were
less likely to live with their fathers than the women. Twenty of these participants
had experienced other forms of child maltreatment in their homes growing up.
Twenty identified themselves as heterosexual in adulthood, one as a lesbian and one
as a bisexual male. Some readers may find their experiences distressing.
There are limitations to this study inherent in any qualitative research project,
such as the small sample size, the difficulty with generalising from the study, and
how the findings represent a reconstruction of events rather than any kind of historical truth. Even though some attempt was made to track the changes in narratives
over time, the interviews were conducted in a particular social, cultural, and historical context. Inevitably the researcher has influenced the narratives that participants
felt able to tell and, during the data analysis, has foregrounded certain issues of
relevance in todays society.
The Social Context in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s

The majority of participants were in their forties or fifties and had childhood sexual
experiences in the 1960s or 1970s. A few were younger and had their childhood
sexual experiences in the 1980s. When these events happened, social mores were
very different from today. This led to great difficulty for participants when they
were children in that they mostly felt unable to tell anyone what was happening to
them at the time. The main inhibitors to disclosure related to fear, shame, and selfblame and have been reported on elsewhere (Hunter, 2009). Disclosure of child
sexual abuse is difficult today, but the barriers to disclosure were even greater in this
earlier time period when they were growing up. These barriers included: respect for
authority; rigid gender roles; the taboo surrounding sexual issues; lack of supportive
adults; and lack of language to describe what was happening. As a result there was
no supportive structure or scaffolding to help them to make a disclosure (Jensen,
Gulbrandsen, Mossige, Reichelt, & Tjersland, 2005).
Respect for Authority

Children were expected to be respectful of their parents and the other adults in their
lives especially their teachers. For example, Jim described how You lived with the
idea in those days that teachers, they did no wrong. Participants saw their parents
as authority figures and did not feel able to talk to them freely about issues such as
sex. Several described their parents as strict, religious people who never spoke about
sex, except as something to be avoided at all cost. As Greta said, We were taught
that you didnt have sex until you got married, and if you did, then you were a tart.
This was one of the barriers that prevented participants from talking to anyone
about their childhood sexual experiences. Anthony was brought up in a traditional
Catholic family and said, I didnt tell my parents. Ive told nobody. He went on to


Sally V. Hunter

explain: You cant talk to Italian parents about sexual things (looks incredulous).
No, you cant do that. The idea of having such a conversation with his parents
appeared to be unimaginable.
Rigid Gender Roles

Gender roles within marriage were circumscribed and many participants thought
that their mothers were subservient to their fathers or stepfathers, who tended to be
aggressive or violent. For example, Greta believed that her mother spent most of
her life keeping Dad happy. There was also a belief that women were vulnerable
and needed to be protected by men. Diana grew up believing that men only
respected other men and that the only way to be safe, as a woman, was to find a
man to protect you. Her mother had repeatedly told her: When you grow up,
Diana, dont get married. Dont let them own you. However, Diana came to the
conclusion that she would be safer with a boyfriend since the men all respected
the other men, but they dont respect women. But if a man had a woman, well you
dont touch that woman, not out of respect for her, out of respect for him.
Just as the women interviewed had internalised the belief that they were the
weaker sex who needed protecting, the men knew from an early age that they were
not allowed to show any form of weakness or vulnerability. They were not allowed
to cry or to demonstrate any feminine traits. Rod described how Australian men
should behave: Big boys dont cry. Be a muncho (sic) man. Someone knocks you
down, you get up. You express no emotional feeling whatsoever, not even when
youre with a woman. I saw women as sexual objects, to be used and abused. These
stereotypical gender roles appeared to be strong during this era and linked with the
taboo against talking about sexual matters.
The Taboo Surrounding Sexual Issues

In the 1960s and 70s sex was a taboo subject, even within families. If a young girl
became pregnant it was assumed that it was her own fault and she must be a slut.
Three women reported having had terminations at a young age. Diana became
pregnant at fifteen and had her child adopted, Karen had a termination at sixteen,
while Sylvia had several terminations. Karen described this in a matter of fact
manner: I lost my virginity at 14 but it wasnt special At 16 I fell pregnant and
I had that aborted, because I was too young. My mother didnt know anything
about it.
Bert described how he thought his parents didnt know anything about sex or
homosexuality. When he had a homosexual experience, he decided not to discuss it
with them because they would punish him. So talking about it to my parents was
just, was just impossible really because I would have been punished for bringing the
subject up. And in any case, I didnt think that theyd have any understanding of
what I was talking about. Homosexuality would bring great shame to the family. As
a result it was very difficult for male participants, as young boys, to find a way to
talk about their childhood homosexual experiences. They had feelings of shame and
were afraid that if they discussed their experiences publicly, they might be seen as
homosexual. They also harboured concerns that they might have been chosen by
the adult because they were themselves homosexual or that they might become
homosexual as a result of their experiences. Even those men who had childhood



Evolving Narratives About Childhood Sexual Abuse

sexual experiences with women experienced difficulties discussing these events

with other people. Anthony explained: You cant talk to male people, male friends,
because theyd say youre bullshitting, or youre lucky, or you hit the lottery.
Lack of Supportive Adults

The other message most participants received was that difficult events were best
not spoken about. Diana described how her parents had done nothing when she
was molested at the age of 5. She believed that this had set the pattern for her
nondisclosures at 14, when she was raped by a gang of men. They chose to be
quiet about it, which I think, I believe, set a certain scenario for me. Not only had
their parents often done nothing to help them but their teachers, neighbours and
extended family had also done nothing. For example, Jane and her twin sister were
physically assaulted by their father and would attend school with visible bruises
that their teachers ignored. When she met previous neighbours as an adult she
reacted strongly: I just wanted to scream at them Why didnt any of you ever do
anything? It only needed one person to step in and say these kids are screaming
but they never did.
Emm had a physically violent and neglectful mother and an alcoholic father
who kissed her in a sexualised way. She described how she adopted a self-protective
approach. She needed her fathers care so she chose, as a child, to believe whatever
would be helpful to her at the time. As an adult she reflected that:
It feels devastating as an adult, but it actually would have been devastating as a child
to put this together. To feel this now, it feels devastating, but its not. It would have
been devastating, it would have killed me But I think when I was a child, there
was a sense of only letting those things be true that would get you through. (Emm)

Emm demonstrates how it was easier for participants to protect themselves from the
historical truth of their experiences and to create a version of events that they could
accept at the time. Creating such a self-narrative was complicated by the lack of a
language to describe their experiences.
Lack of Language

Another reason that participants found it difficult to talk was that the language of
child sexual abuse and child rape had not yet been invented. Mandatory reporting
of child sexual abuse had also not been implemented. Victoria and her sister Tess
were well into adulthood before they discussed their experiences. It was Victoria
that first named them as abusive. Tess said: Victoria said sexually molestering and
it wasnt until then that I put me in that category. What he did do was, he did
sexually molest us, but Id never put a name on it.
As an adult Peter described his childhood sexual experiences with an older
cousin as rape but added that Rape applies to women, it doesnt apply to boys.
Theres still a lot of men around that wouldnt accept it as rape I suppose. He
demonstrated that for men, there is still a lack of acceptable language to describe
such experiences. He had never told any of his friends: Ive got a couple of fairly
close male friends. We do things together. Ive never, ever mentioned it to them,
never, ever, and I wouldnt. Only five participants tried to tell anyone, usually their
mothers, and none of them was believed.


Sally V. Hunter

Changes in Narratives Over Time

Participants believed that the current social context was different from that of their
childhood. The increasing media focus on child sexual abuse and paedophilia had
fostered a sense of moral panic (Jenkins, 1998:1) and had created a climate in
which participants felt more able to talk about their childhood sexual experiences.
Gradually society had become more open to exploration of sexual issues. The breakdown of automatic and unquestioning respect for authority, increased flexibility
about gender roles, reduction of the taboo surrounding sex, increased responsibility
that adults have to report child sexual abuse, and existence of a language with which
to describe these events, made it easier for participants to share their childhood
sexual experiences in this study. Some of them were talking about their experiences
to someone other than their intimate partner for the first time.
Four narratives emerged within participants stories that are explored below:
1. narrative of silence
2. narrative of on-going suffering
3. narrative of transformation
4. narrative of transcendence
While there was some evidence that participants moved between narratives over
time, for simplicity they have been placed within the narrative that fits most closely
with how they described their childhood sexual experiences and its ongoing impact.
These narratives have been described in greater detail elsewhere (Hunter, 2007).
Narrative of Silence

Six participants told the narrative of silence as adults and were successful in suppressing all thoughts of what had happened to them as children and in getting on with
their lives. They chose to remain silent about their experiences and found this a
useful coping strategy that fit with the level of community denial of the issue of
child sexual abuse at that time. They did not feel silenced as children; rather they
believed that they had chosen silence in adulthood. This choice enabled them to
continue to function well in the world and was less about fear of the negative
reactions of others than a way of believing that they were largely unaffected by their
childhood experiences. This may seem paradoxical, since these participants had
volunteered to be interviewed about their childhood sexual experiences with adults.
These participants, four of whom were men, stated that they had not been badly
affected by their childhood sexual experiences and most had not attended any form
of therapy. They came from relatively well functioning families, compared with
other participants, and their sexual experiences had started in adolescence rather
than early childhood. However, the belief that they had not been unduly affected
had become harder for them to maintain in recent years. As media discussion of the
impact of child sexual abuse on its victims increased, they began to question their
own narrative. Peter asked: Why are all these people getting so upset about this?
Jim came to the realisation that: Ive never really put it down. They began to see
possible connections between their childhood sexual experiences and ongoing difficulties in their intimate lives, such as having affairs or repeating their childhood
sexual experiences as consenting adults.



Evolving Narratives About Childhood Sexual Abuse

These participants were relieved to be able to discuss their childhood sexual

experiences in this study. Perhaps it offered them an opportunity to speak without
being seen as victims of abuse. For example, Bert knew that his belief that he had
not been badly affected by his experiences with an older male friend of the family
was no longer socially acceptable. He described being reluctant to talk to close
friends about his experiences because Im afraid of their reaction, because I dont
think that Ive been traumatised by this event. He felt unable to discuss this
publicly for fear of being labelled a child abuser, homosexual, or even a paedophile.
While they believed that they made the right choice in remaining silent, thereby
protecting their families from distress, they had come to realise there was a cost
associated with this choice. They had to withstand the increasing pressure placed on
them in the current social climate to tell their stories. One of their main concerns
was whether or not they should have told someone about their experiences in order
to protect other children. For example, Peter asked himself: Has he abused
somebody else because I didnt spill the beans? He had recently begun to feel guilty
as a result. It is possible that these participants will tell a different narrative about
their experiences in the future or if they attend therapy.
Narrative of Ongoing Suffering or Victimhood

Those participants telling the narrative of ongoing suffering had been silenced as
children and adolescents, sometimes through a process of amnesia. Paulians
explained that the beauty of dissociation is that it keeps me totally safe. They
had all found a voice in adulthood, sometimes through the painful process of recovering memories of child sexual abuse. They seemed to have gained from telling their
stories as adults. Some had gained a better understanding of their previously chaotic
lives, and others had gained a sense of agency and control. However they still felt
intense anger as well as other strong emotions. Sylvia described how the life
had been raped out of me. My base chakra had been penetrated. To date, they had
been unable to move out of a vortex of strong emotions or to develop a strong sense
of self beyond that of victim.
Narrative of Transformation or Survivorhood

The narrative of transformation was told only by women in this particular study, all
but one of whom had experienced incest by their father or stepfather. Perhaps
because it was more socially acceptable for a woman to be a victim than a man, it
was easier for these women to talk about their experiences publicly and to mobilise
social support. Overall they were probably more successful than the men interviewed
at moving on from their childhood experiences. Many of them acknowledged their
feelings of anger, placed the blame where it belonged, reported their victimisers, or
developed a strong relational sense of themselves. In this way they had transformed
their experiences and chosen to see themselves either as protectors and helpers of
other people, or as seeking justice for themselves and for other survivors.
It is hard to determine why some participants like Jewels had to really cling to
that role as a victim, whereas others who had seemingly similar childhood experiences had managed to move from victim to survivor and told the narrative of transformation. Some of these six participants had tried to protect their siblings from
being abused, by keeping silent as children. They had managed to develop a positive


Sally V. Hunter

sense of themselves. Some had taken on an identity as a protector of others. For

example, Heather knew from a young age youd protect your sisters as well, you
know, because if he wasnt doing it with me, he was going to do it with them. Others
saw themselves as seekers of justice, although this had been achieved at great personal
cost. For example, Karens father went to jail where he died. She described the relief
of telling the police: This secret thats been held in for so long. Ive told somebody
thats going to do something about it. The cost was the loss of all contact with her
mother and grandmother as a result of the court case. Similarly Tina described the
pain of the betrayal by her family: It is worse that the family did what they did, and
Ive sort of glossed over it but it was dreadful. They said awful things about me and
said I was lying.
Narrative of Transcendence

The five participants telling the narrative of transcendence were reluctant to adopt
the identity as a victim or a survivor. This was the main difference between the
narrative of transcendence and the narrative of transformation that these participants defiantly rejected being stereotyped as victims or as survivors of child sexual
abuse. They were less keen to talk about their experiences publicly, since this meant
that they might be viewed by others in this way. Will said: Ive never considered
myself a victim, never. I think that takes away your humanity, if youre considered a
victim. However, they were perfectly willing to talk about their experiences if they
believed that it would be helpful to others. Diana explained: If it didnt have a
purpose, then there was no reason to talk about it.
These five participants willingly admitted that they had been badly affected by
their childhood sexual experiences, especially in young adulthood. However, they
were defiant in their rejection of being labelled as victims. Diana stated this most
clearly when she said, Id rather that people think Im a tart than a victim. Belinda,
one of the youngest participants, said: I dont feel sort of trapped by it anymore.
Like its not the only thing that defines who I am anymore, and theres so much
more to life than that. Although the name of this narrative sounds spiritual and
some participants had taken a spiritual path to overcome their experiences, they
shared their stories in a down-to-earth manner. For example, Will described his
view of TV coverage of the issue: They convey the message that you should feel
something terrible because this has happened to you, this has been done to you, and
youre ruined. Stuff them.
Despite important similarities between men and womens responses to their
childhood sexual experiences, there were some important differences (Hunter,
2009). Male participants were often stoical or longed to be seen as normal. They
were less likely than women to disclose their experiences, even in todays society.
They described experiencing non-relational sex as adults, but rarely recognised this
as a possible form of re-victimisation or re-enactment of their childhood experiences. The current social construction of victims as women and men as victimisers
also created difficulties, possibly making it even harder for men to reach out for
help. It may also be harder for men than women to recover from the relational
injury at the heart of childhood sexual abuse, thereby potentially making men more
likely than women to move from victim to victimiser.



Evolving Narratives About Childhood Sexual Abuse

Discussion: Beyond the Victim and Survivor Discourses

In this article, the focus has been placed on the changing social mores and their
impact on the narratives that people tell about their childhood sexual experiences.
However, these experiences were also greatly influenced by the interaction between
the adult and the child and the way in which this interaction was often manipulated
by the victimiser, through the use of threats or grooming of various kinds (Briggs,
1995; Warner, 2003; Watkins & Bentovim, 2000). These interactions created both
relational injury and barriers to disclosure that have been reported on elsewhere
(Hunter, 2007; Hunter, 2009).
In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s child sexual abuse was a little-discussed phenomenon. In an analysis of the UK media, Kitzinger (2004) argued that it was not until
the mid-1980s that the media, acting as a conduit for social change, invented child
sexual abuse as it is understood today an act of violence. Extensive media coverage from the 80s onwards had profound implications for what people could
imagine, what they could say and what they felt they could do (Kitzinger,
2004:46), as it broke through the culture of denial and enabled people to speak out
about their experiences. A subject as complex as sexuality is particularly sensitive to
social influences and has been a conductor of the subtlest of changes in social mores
and power relations (Weeks, 1992:393). The narratives that participants told in
this study about their childhood sexual experiences were subject to the influence of
changing social mores.
The social context changed rapidly, driven initially by the feminist agenda in the
1970s and 1980s. Child sexual abuse was named publicly as a crime against women
and children (Finkelhor & Williams, 1988; Herman, 1996; Jenkins, 1998; Ward,
1984). Paedophiles were exposed by their victims and sent to jail. Incest was
discussed more openly, although fear of paedophilia and sensationalised stories were
the main focus for the Australian media (Foster, 2005; Mendes, 2000). Paedophiles
were identified as monsters who therefore needed to be defeated, captured, and
killed (Jenkins, 1998:237).
Although increased media attention enabled people to speak out about abuse, it
also had some negative aspects with victim and survivor stories becoming appropriated and exploited (Kitzinger, 2004). When media personalities and public figures
started to talk about being sexually abused as children and the terrible impact that it
had had on their lives, (Trotter, 2004), it became difficult for participants to
continue to tell themselves that they had not been affected by their childhood
sexual experiences and maintain the narrative of silence described in this study. This
left participants feeling confused and somewhat guilty about their previous silence.
They also started to consider the possible impact of their experiences on their
relationships and intimate lives suggesting the possibility of a previously unrecognised relational injury, especially in cases where there was grooming, pleasurable
sexual experiences, or the complication of a strong affectional bond between the
adult and the child (Briggs, 1995; Wolfe, 1999).
The narrative of ongoing suffering or victim narrative can be seen as a personally
and socially coherent narrative, particularly for women. Courtois argued that the
individual has been so conditioned to the victim role and her self-concept so eroded
that she continues the process even after the original victimisation has ceased


Sally V. Hunter

(Courtois, 1988:301). This is a regressive narrative or tragedy (Gergen & Gergen,

1986) in which things initially go well for the narrator and then suddenly take a
dramatic turn for the worse. Some participants accepted the identity of a victim and
told the narrative of ongoing suffering.
In the last 20 years victim narratives have, to a large extent, been replaced by
survivor narratives (Phillips & Daniluk, 2004; Warner & Feltey, 1999). The
survivor narrative is now the preferred cultural narrative in the sense that it portrays
a young person, usually a woman, who has overcome childhood adversity and been
transformed in the process into a better person. It can be described as a regressive
progressive narrative or melodrama (Gergen & Gergen, 1986) in which things
initially go badly and then take a dramatic turn for the better. It can also be
described as a heroic quest narrative, in the course of which the phoenix rises from
the ashes. In many subtle ways our society supports this gendered discourse (Kaye,
2005), in part because it offers the survivor a sense of power that was missing from
the victim discourse.
There is evidence in this study that about half of the participants rejected being
labelled as victims or, indeed, survivors of child sexual abuse. They felt that these
labels carried with them a great deal of stigma. Some preferred to believe that they
had not been affected by their experiences and told the narrative of silence, although
there was some evidence that this narrative was becoming socially unacceptable and
difficult to sustain. Others believed that they had overcome their difficulties and
were greater than the sum of those experiences, choosing to tell the narrative of
transcendence. They disliked the way that the victim and survivor discourses inextricably linked their identity to these particular childhood experiences, particularly
male participants who were fearful of the stigma attached to both homosexual and
heterosexual experiences.
Those participants telling the narrative of transcendence had rejected both the
role as a victim or as a survivor as different types of stigmatising identities (Phillips
& Daniluk, 2004; Warner, 2003). These participants may have recognised the
matrix of domination and the dynamics of gender, race, culture, and sexuality that
were embedded in the survivor discourse (Naples, 2003:1151). They may also have
been reacting to the way in which both these narratives bound people to heteropatriachy (Worrell, 2003), by viewing the woman as the survivor and the male as the
victimiser (Holmes, Offen, & Waller, 1997). They were defiant in their rejection of
both these narratives.

Taking an historical perspective has enabled the evolving narratives to be examined

in terms of their relationship with both the social mores of the time and the theories
used to explain child sexual abuse. Theoretical approaches have moved away from
theories based on denial and the concept of seduction of the adult by the child,
through family systems theory, feminist theory, recovered and false memory
theories, to trauma theories and social constructionist approaches. In parallel, the
narratives told by participants in this study reflected some of these constructs. The
narrative of silence can be seen as a form of denial or adaptive coping. The narrative



Evolving Narratives About Childhood Sexual Abuse

of ongoing suffering and transformation both fit with the trauma approach to the
issue, whereas the narrative of transcendence reflects a social constructionist approach
which challenges the dominance of the victim and survivor discourse.
This study adds evidence to the growing body of knowledge about the potentially limiting impact of the victim and survivor discourses and the trauma-based
theories of child sexual abuse. It indicates that theorists, researchers, and practitioners need to demonstrate greater flexibility in interpreting, analysing, and responding
to childhood sexual experiences with adults. Collectively, we must recognise the
influence of social and historical contexts, and that helpful and empowering
responses must draw on different discourses in order to respect peoples particular
journeys into adulthood.

This article is based on my PhD research conducted at the University of New

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