The Courage to Heal? A Critical Review

Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) is a genuine problem that merits serious attention, but it is also a subject fraught with nonsense and hysteria, an emotional issue exploited for personal and political gain. Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’ book “The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse,” first published over 20 years ago and now in its fourth edition, has sold over four million copies. Counseling for CSA “survivors” has become a big business, and CSA prevention is popularly considered one of the most important duties of modern parenting. This review points out some of the book’s many unsupported claims, distorted logic and questionable advice.

Here is a brief summary of what this very long book says: If you feel like you’re completely crazy (especially if you’re a woman), that’s Ok. It’s not your fault. In fact, it’s perfectly understandable. All these years you knew you didn’t have the happiness you deserved, and you thought you were a worthless loser. But now you discover that quite the contrary you’re an innocent victim; in fact you’re a hero. You’re a “survivor,” because when you were a child you were insensitively exploited by the very individuals who were supposed to protect and love you unselfishly. Your willingness to trust was viciously betrayed, your sense of security and your capacity for love were crippled, but that’s Ok. There’s no need to go on suffering. You can be born again. You can purchase your salvation right here, because this book will teach you a step-by-step process to completely heal (almost) the life-long damage, and finally become a happy person – after you’ve emptied your bank account into the wallet of a paid counselor.

That house of cards is built on two shaky claims: 1) that CSA causes certain symptoms, and 2) the “healing process” advocated in this book is effective. Countless minor claims, all without valid evidence, contribute to the fairy tale of heroic CSA “survivors” overcoming incredible odds, thanks to the professional help of their paid “counselors.”

Among the many blanket generalizations, the authors claim that damage “always” follows CSA, but then admit “…it isn’t always possible to isolate the effects from other influences in your life.” At least one “survivor” has used an interesting choice of words. Speaking about her decision to blame her later problems on her early sexual experience, she didn’t say she realized or discovered the connection; she says she “made the connection.”

A long list of symptoms attributed (without valid evidence) to CSA include just about every problem except the common cold, and in the interest of being completely one-sided the authors neglect to mention the counter-evidence: the meta-analysis of 59 unbiased studies that found in most cases early sexual experience between different age groups was NOT reported to be seriously harmful.*

The first step in healing from CSA is claimed to be to “acknowledge” you were abused. But “abuse” is vaguely defined as, e.g. being “fondled, kissed or held for an adult’s sexual gratification.” The only “sexual” gratification I know of is orgasm. Any other sexual contact that doesn’t lead to orgasm is frustrating for a sexually functional adult, not gratifying. If you are sexually dysfunctional, as surveys suggest most women are, then maybe any sexual contact may be “gratifying” in the sense of better than nothing. But if your abuser is sexually functional, as most men are, then fondling a child is no way to achieve an orgasm (unless he masturbates himself to orgasm while he’s fondling, kissing or holding the child, which the definition does not specify).

By making all contact (even kissing and holding!) suspect of an adult’s vague and unverifiable “sexual gratification,” the potential market for rescue services becomes universal. How convenient for the panhandlers of rescue services. The magical “acknowledgement” that you are a “survivor” will probably be followed by extreme suffering, almost as severe as the original abuse. (One survivor says: “I felt like I was going to die.” Another survivor: “I survived the abuse, but sometimes I wonder if I can survive the healing process.”) Hence the need for the paid services of a professional “counselor.” Fortunately for those employed by the rescue business this “healing process” doesn’t end quickly. It sometimes takes 20 years, continues throughout your life, and requires that “…you are able to find good resources and skilled support…” How convenient.

The moralistic fairy tale demands boundless and unconditional sympathy for the heroic Good Guys (the abused, mostly women), while the evil Bad Guys (the abusers, mostly men) are blameworthy criminals who merit all the raw anger and venom we can muster. CSA is claimed to be motivated by hatred, selfishness, greed, etc., as if any evil but clear-thinking man would commit CSA if he could get away with it. The implication is that since rational men would like to sexually abuse children, strict laws are needed to keep temptation from overwhelming the citizenry. Rational (though evil) men supposedly say to themselves: I sure would like to sexually abuse a child, but calculating the risk/benefit ratio, is it worth it? In reality, if a man fondles a child he’s not a rational (i.e. blameworthy) person, whether he masturbates himself during the fondling or not.

An advantage of claiming that abusers are blameworthy criminals rather than sick individuals, is to excuse people’s primitive lust for violence against scapegoats, and to justify punitive compensation. Another advantage is to free women from any responsibility for their problems, past, present or future. The book instructs us: “It’s all the abuser’s fault, remember?” Whatever goes wrong is the abuser’s fault, but if the abused woman survives that is all to her credit alone. Laws are useful if they have some deterrent effect, but righteous rhetoric about shame and blame is merely a cover for shameless vengeance. In a section called “Letting Go of Crisis,” the book quotes one former drama queen who confessed: “I became addicted to my own sense of drama and adrenaline.”

After describing how shame is supposedly such a crucial aspect of a victim’s suffering, the authors go on to claim that to overcome your shame about your experience you should focus on the abuse. But wait a minute. Where did that crucial propensity to shame come from, and why should proper ladies just skip over that little detail? Children certainly aren’t born ashamed of their bodies or ashamed of pleasure. Maybe some time after birth a sense of shame just falls out of the sky during a rainstorm?

The authors are strangely silent about girls being mentally castrated by their mothers long before sexual abuse takes place, just as millions of daughters are still physically castrated by their mothers in the Third World today. In other words, here in the West girls are the victims of anti-sex indoctrination and shame-training in very early childhood, so that what might otherwise be interpreted as harmless or possibly even healthy sex play later will be interpreted as uninvited and unwelcome, i.e. abusive. Like most defenders of sex hysteria, the authors completely ignore early shame-training (usually by mothers), and instead seem to assume that children are naturally born ashamed of the human body in general and your own body in particular.

The authors claim that children get “mixed messages” about sexuality, but that’s hardly an accurate description of what happens. New parents who are distraught when their child discovers masturbation are typically advised: Distract the child with other activities. There is nothing “mixed” about that message. The message that little girls traditionally get in very early childhood is loud and clear: sexual pleasure is totally unacceptable, no matter what, where, when, why, how or with whom. If there is anything more pathetic than CSA, it is the spectacle of millions of parents not only mentally castrating children but also needlessly terrorizing children against the very thought of childhood sexual experience. See my post on “Sexual Inhibition and Mental Castration.”

In a short chapter on the newly official diagnosis of “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD), the authors express faith in the belief that we have evolved a reflexive reaction to traumatic events that has certain negative characteristics and effects, which may be treated by psychotherapy and drugs. Aside from the unmentioned fact that PTSD is controversial, this book makes no attempt to demonstrate the shaky assumption that CSA (broadly defined) is in fact a traumatic event. Here’s how the authors define trauma: “…in every instance, there is a devastating combination of terror, helplessness, and loss of control.” That isn’t a list of variables distilled from careful laboratory research; it is an arbitrary definition. There are obviously many different kinds of CSA, but the authors ignore differences and conveniently conclude: if you were sexually abused, then you are at “increased risk.” In other words, you are a likely customer for the purchase of rescue services.

In my humble opinion, any contact that is unwanted, initiated without the child’s consent, and primarily for the adult’s benefit rather than the child’s, is abusive (that just about covers most traditional adult behavior towards children), unless it’s necessary to prevent a greater, imminent harm. Whether the contact is sexual or not is actually irrelevant. On the other hand, it is ludicrous to suggest that children aren’t thrill-seekers, they are never selfish, greedy or cruel, they never lie or bear false witness, never cheat or steal, never assault an innocent person, never exploit weaker siblings nor fantasize pushing younger sibs down the stairs, never betray or threaten to abandon their friends or the people they love or who love them. They are all young Mother Teresas with unblemished consciences waiting to grow into sainthood. Nonetheless, children’s angelic nature is extremely fragile, so an “evil” adult (usually a man) can demolish it easily and quickly (instantly) by kissing you for his own gratification.

Fortunately, children aren’t usually very effective liars. But when an adult testifies for a child or talks about her own childhood (as “survivors” of fondling are encouraged to do), we have the worst of both worlds: an experienced liar putting words in a child’s mouth. One survivor is quoted as saying: “Although I was close to my father, I had no relationship whatsoever with my mother.” Are we supposed to believe she was bottle-fed by her father, toilet-trained by her father, learned the loaded phrase “private parts” from her father, not from her mother? This woman has apparently forgotten that long before she became close to her father, she had already been taught body shame and been prepped to interpret sexual contact negatively by her mother.

I don’t mean to trivialize the suffering of any individuals who were victims of really serious abuse, such as painful attempted penetration with bleeding or threats of abandonment or physical violence. But the dramatic rhetoric applied to virtually any and all sexual experience between different age groups lacks reasonable perspective. The book suggests that adults should volunteer with survivors of fondling, but to find out what real suffering is like I suggest you volunteer with child cancer patients and their families. Listen to the hysterical screams of a six-year-old who doesn’t understand what’s happening to her but can perceive in her mother’s eyes that her young life is in imminent danger. Or listen to the hysterical screams of a father whose child with a neuro-blastic tumor has just received the prognosis of TERMINAL. Then those “survivors” of fondling can walk out of the hospital, go home, and write a letter to the abused little child inside them.

Something the authors mention but fail to emphasize is that therapists now call themselves “counselors,” and patients are now called “clients,” to avoid the multi-million-dollar malpractice suits that have plagued “recovered memory” quacks. (See Paul R. McHughes’ “Try to Remember: Psychiatry’s Clash over Meaning, Memory and Mind.”) Such “counselors” encourage “survivors” to blame your life’s problems on one aspect of your childhood, ignoring the massive emotional abuse, insensitivity and neglect that most (perhaps all) children suffer, and instead focus on the “Bad Guys” who ruined everything in your otherwise idyllic existence.

The so-called healing process is contrary to what we know about how the emotional brain really works, revealed by modern imaging technology. The best way to short-circuit emotional distress is to stop fixating on the person or event you are tempted to blame for everything imperfect in the world, and instead calm yourself by thinking of alternative explanations for what happened, or mitigating circumstances: maybe the Bad Guy was so numb he was incapable of love; maybe he had an untreatable genetic/organic disorder; maybe he was even more pathetically helpless and confused than you were; maybe your reaction to the abuse would have been very different if you hadn’t been mentally castrated by your mother beforehand.

Of course, it’s possible that I’m mistaken. Maybe this long and torturous form of “healing” is the best approach for some real victims of serious abuse. But the standard way to demonstrate that a therapy is effective (and safe) is to follow a significant number of subjects from the beginning to the end of therapy, and then follow-up, compared to a control group (matched for symptoms and other personal characteristics) that doesn’t go through the therapy or goes through alternative therapy. There is no indication in this book that the supposed effectiveness of this “healing process” has ever been demonstrated by medical standards.

I agree that we should encourage people who had early sexual experiences not to “blame” themselves; what could be more natural and healthy than a child wanting and enjoying sex play, especially with those she loves and trusts? The authors touch on the important topic of normal sex play between same-age peers, and seem to respect children’s sex play, but repeat the ancient belief in the supposed dangers of “overstimulation” (never defined), and the “power imbalance” between different age groups (unsupported by valid evidence). The authors are brave enough to concede that some children feel sensual pleasure and even have orgasms during their early experience, but at one point the authors use the phrase “the unbearable experience of sexual abuse.” I guess that includes unbearable pleasure and unbearable orgasm.

The authors also seem to accept a parent’s ancient right (?) to impose her anti-sex values on children and disregard children’s privacy. That’s popularly considered politically correct abuse. Adult anxiety over supposedly “inappropriate” play, and a parent’s perceived need to keep kids under constant surveillance, even interrogating kids about what they were playing when the Authorities weren’t watching, is an expression of adult insecurity and an attempt to make adults feel more secure at children’s expense.

Claiming that early sexual experience between different age groups is necessarily and inevitably harmful (despite the counter-evidence cited below), and encouraging women to demonize virtually all early sexual experience between different age groups, is where healing talk ends and the Sexual Inquisition begins. Among the praise received from profiteers and opportunists in the rescue business, at least one ally has complimented the authors for their “clear political vision.”

Granted, once a child has been mentally castrated, she should never be sexually approached later. But that is putting the cart before the horse. If CSA is so frequent (as hysterics love to claim), then mothers should never deliberately set the stage for a negative reaction through early shame-training. In reality parents aren’t free to choose not to mentally castrate their daughters. Mental castration of little girls is virtually mandated by law; any parent who refuses to mentally castrate a daughter risks being arrested and the child kidnapped by some 9-to-5 bureaucrat to “protect” her.

In this climate of mass hysteria, political opportunism and financial profiteering, there seem to be almost as many different reactions to CSA as there are victims, and the existence of contradictory sequelae in different individuals clearly indicates there are intervening variables. One philosophical woman is quoted as finally realizing: “I simply got in the way of forces that were beyond my control.” A courageous woman says she was sexually abused by her father but suffered far more from her (non-sexual) relationship with her “extremely controlling” mother. The complexity of child development is not an appropriate subject for facile generalizations.

The second half of this new edition contains a lot of general advice on intimacy, sexuality, etc., that would be of interest to a general audience, if it were not for the frequent references to CSA and “survivors.” Mixed in with a lot of questionable advice there are some things I would agree with. In a section on parents overprotecting their own children, the authors wisely advise: “You need to overcome your fears, not pass them on.” It’s unfortunate that the authors didn’t write a general advice book, and instead seem to have assumed that unless they relate general relationship advice to the sensational topic of CSA nobody would buy it. Buying a few good advice books would be a lot cheaper than paying a “counselor” for 20 years.

A very powerful antidote to “The Courage to Heal,” is Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ofshe‘s insightful book “Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, And Sexual Hysteria,” which specifically discusses an earlier edition of “The Courage to Heal,” the people driven to suicide by their “counselors,” and many other tragic stories of the “recovered memory” and “multiple personality”** fringe.

– Frank Adamo, author of “Real Child Safety.”

*Rind et al. “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples” (Psychological Bulletin 1998, Vol. 124, No. 1, 22-53); and Rind et al. “The Validity and Appropriateness of Methods, Analyses, and Conclusions in Rind et al. (1998): A Rebuttal of Victimological Critique From Ondersma et al. (2001) and Dallam et al. (2001)” (Psychological Bulletin 2001. Vol. 127. No. 6. 734-758).

**Multiple Personality Disorder has recently been renamed and repackaged as “Dissociative Identity Disorder” to avoid malpractice suits. If you were formerly diagnosed as MPD, you should consider hiring an attorney to seek damages from your “therapist.”

About Frank Adamo

Author of the novel "Revolt of the Children," the eBook "Real Child Safety", a photo-documentary "Girl Becomes Woman," and a video for kids "Buddy Massage." I do not defend, promote or excuse any kind of abuse or exploitation. Become a part of the Foundation for Research and Education on Child Safety.
This entry was posted in child sexual abuse, children, parent education, sex, sex education, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Courage to Heal? A Critical Review

  1. Pingback: Overstimulation: the Devil in Disguise? | Sexhysteria's Blog

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  4. Rasmussen says:

    You write “I guess that includes unbearable pleasure and unbearable orgasm” with a seemingly ironic tone, but in cases of actual abuse, there being pleasure does not excuse the abuse. For rape victims whose bodies react with arousal/orgasm to the rape, feeling that arousal is not just a positive thing, from my understanding.


  5. sexhysteria says:

    Thanks for your comment. You’re right, but I’m not trying to excuse insensitivity or exploitation. The problem is that opportunists and profiteers exaggerate sexual transgressions, which is an excuse to promote the fraudulent sex abuse rescue industry.


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