Originally published 4 November, 2017
Following on from a blog I read this evening and a post I shared earlier in the week about why scenes of abuse/rape are traumatising and in no way helpful to educate children, young people or adults for that matter. I wondered if it might be helpful for practitioners and those who use Child sexual abuse/exploitation resources to gain a deeper understanding of why these films traumatise in the way they do.
Firstly, I am going to remind you how images that you see stay with you for a very long time. In short, I will not bore you with the science but images go straight into your nonverbal memory. Here’s how… (I used this particular example at a leading Sexual abuse charity national conference a number of years ago. I used images in that example to evidence my point but here I will use words to highlight just how these memory systems actually work).
I am assuming that you are over the age of 18 and during your childhood/adolescence watched a film you were too young (in line with the BBFC rating system) to watch. As I begin to remind you subtly here of those kinds of films, you know the 15 and 18 rated ones you may notice that you have a particular type of memory, such as which film, whose house you were in, why you were watching the film without your parent’s knowledge, perhaps you made others watch it with you too and perhaps you are now thinking of that film in more detail. Perhaps I have even created a feeling of embarrassment or shame about the impact of the event, for example, did you get in trouble with your parents, keep the light on all night and did you repeatedly recall scenes from the film that you couldn’t get out of your mind? I haven’t even said the words horror movie yet.
Can you see that a subtle reminder can be enough to call back into memory the circumstances around that film (usually a horror movie)? Perhaps I have just evoked feelings of guilt or shame (these are different). Perhaps none of this has happened for you as you may have never engaged in this behaviour so let me explain.
The example I am using here is to show you how images/words/feelings become ‘attached’ to a memory. The more emotive a memory the quicker you can recall it. Traumatic memories being the quickest to recall. When you are reminded about memories you are ‘transported back in time’ by your mind and you can almost feel the same feelings. Here the example is one that many of us have around our first scary film, however, most of us are and do find a way to become resilient to this incident. I wonder how you actually felt the first time you re-watched ‘that’ film. Did you notice you felt queasy/scared/funny etc? That’s a traumatic memory. Did you feel anything similar this time?
So let’s apply this to the films used in child sexual exploitation or indeed the recent film produced by Leicestershire Police that can be watched by children under the age of 18. (no age checks needed). To be clear not every child will have an experience of sexual abuse or exploitation, but we know from research that a substantial proportion of children do. This is a fact. What is not known is who those children and young people are in a classroom of people. It would be unethical to even attempt to find this out, nor would there be accurate answers (children are often told it is something else by perpetrators and would deny it to protect the perpetrator, also another fact). It would more ethical to assume all children will be traumatised by the resources and to not show them. This, however, is not the case.
Now just imagine for a moment that a video containing a scene that is either subtle (may not depict an actual abuse/rape scene) or perhaps is more graphic and is shown to the entire class without either a) gaining consent from parents beforehand and b) does not gain consent from the children beforehand either (a complete repetition of abuse in powerlessness and consent), nor are they told of the video content to give them an opportunity to consent. What is the likelihood that a number of children will not understand the video or find it frightening? (what if they have not been taught anything about sexual relationships by their family for religious or taboo reasons). Does this override family values based on the organisations remit to educate? What is the likelihood that a number of children in that very class will indeed be victims of sexual abuse or exploitation? What do you suppose their traumatic recall will be like?
I can tell you that they will have the following responses based on science and not hearsay.
You see traumatic memories (ie the sexual abuse) becomes stored within both the mind and body. It has an energy to it that is about survival. Their bodies are highly attuned to anything that this is familiar or similar to the abuse and their bodies are in a high arousal state and ready to friend/fight/flight/freeze/flop at any given moment. They need to survive, and their bodies and mind will find any way to do so. If this means freezing/dissociating/fainting/running away/screaming/panic attack or kicking off (whatever that actually means) they will because their bodies tell them to.
Now add in the complexities of school rules/regulations and their peers. What do you suppose a child who is terrified and having a trauma memory recall will do when confronted with a scene that tells their bodies that they need to do whatever it takes to survive this very moment? In a classroom of judgemental peers? They must stay in class, smile, remain silent, not cry, not have a panic attack and all of the other myriad of thoughts, feelings and bodily reactions that will be taking place at that very moment because others in the classroom may know this is a trauma reaction and put 2 and 2 together. The child becomes doubly traumatised through a second event of powerlessness.
These resources that depict words, phrases, allude to or show directly any scenes that depict abuse or rape will be interpreted by the mind and body as a similar event and will give rise to the trauma response in that child. The child’s mind doesn’t care to take chances that ‘this is not real’ or ‘not happening right now’, their bodies tell them it is. It’s how we survive as a species.
The issue at hand here is many of these organisations have been educated in trauma or rely on consultants (one recently purporting 90 of them) to advise them and yet show these films to children and young people, even claiming children report they were fine with the content or it really helped? Again, this gives rise to the power/powerlessness dynamic in adult child relationships, the ‘friend’ stress response (ie please others) and socially desirable answers (cognitive appraisal). How do we really know that these answers are not trauma led? How do we evidence this as fact? Where are the psychometric tests to check these answers robustly? Science evidences trauma and the mind body response so my question is why would anyone knowingly share these videos to an audience that has sexual abuse victims as a percentage of that very audience? What are the motives here and who does this really help?