New approach reveals roads to recovery from child sexual abuse

Published 12 March 2010

sallybookBy taking a novel approach to the subject of child sexual abuse, a researcher at the University of New England has revealed some of the inner sources of resilience that can enable adults to recover from such childhood experiences.

Dr Sally Hunter, who has just published her findings in a book titled Childhood Sexual Experiences: Narratives of Resilience, decided at the outset of her research not to label such experiences “abuse”. “This approach enabled me to hear new narratives of resilience – especially from men,” she said. “Most of the men (and some of the women) I interviewed refused to be labelled as a victim – or even as a survivor – of child sexual abuse, either because they chose not to see their experiences as abusive or damaging, or because they didn’t want their whole identity to be linked to events in childhood.

“I have found that it is more useful to frame the discussion of this issue around ‘childhood sexual experiences’ rather than ‘child sexual abuse’ – at least to begin with.”

Using this approach, Dr Hunter was able to hear stories that, she said, impressed her with “people’s amazing ability to overcome the effects of truly horrendous events in childhood”. “After often having a difficult time in early adulthood, these people are now living good, satisfying lives,” she said.

Speaking at the launch of Childhood Sexual Experiences at UNE earlier this week, Dr Hunter paid tribute to “the 22 remarkable men and women to whom I’m indebted for telling me their stories”.

“I have tried in the book to describe some of the impact that listening to their stories had on me,” she said. “And I have tried to do justice to their stories, and use their insights to help other people come to terms with their own experiences and recognise their own strengths and resilience.”

“As a result of my research,” she explained, “it is my belief that childhood sexual experiences often cause relational injuries. After all, if you feel betrayed or used by someone that you loved or admired as a child, this is going to affect your ability to trust people and to build good relationships with others. It is this relational injury that I believe is a more useful construct than the concept of ‘trauma’, or the idea of ‘victimhood’ – or even ‘survivorhood’.”

In officially launching Childhood Sexual Experiences, the Vice-Chancellor of UNE, Professor Jim Barber, spoke from his past experience as a researcher on several projects related to child sexual abuse. “How do you ‘welcome’ a book on this subject?” Professor Barber asked . . . and then said: “I welcome it because it’s a book about resilience and the fact that it is possible to recover.”

Childhood Sexual Experiences: Narratives of Resilience, by Sally V. Hunter, is published in Oxford, UK, by Radcliffe Publishing.

Clicking on the image displayed here, featuring the cover of the book, reveals a photograph of Dr Sally Hunter with Professor Jim Barber (left) and Professor Steven Campbell (Head of UNE’s School of Health) taken at the book launch.