Psychological trauma : discourses of childhood sexual abuse

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

There are difficulties with the ways in which childhood sexual abuse and its consequences have been conceptualised and studied. This thesis takes a critical and reflexive approach in examining conventional, dominant ideas about psychological trauma following the sexual abuse or molestation of girls. The empirical and clinical literature in this area is reviewed, to contextualize two studies in the first part of the thesis. Case studies of three women who disclosed childhood sexual abuse as a major problem area in psychotherapy are presented within a psychodynamic framework; the therapeutic issues which emerge are ones common among women. A prevalence study of child sexual abuse experiences among a sample of university women students is then presented and compared with North American studies; the prevalence figure of 44% is discussed in relation to the methodology used, which was informed by feminist conventions of a supportive, non-intrusive group setting, providing educational input as a therapeutic intervention. Given that childhood sexual abuse is a common experience for girls, a conceptual analysis of psychological trauma is developed. In Part II of the thesis the methodology is informed by the importance of linking current ideas about ideology with language and social practices, in an investigation of themes of power/knowledge in relation to the issues raised in Part I. Verbal and written texts gathered from a group of women were subjected to discourse analyses. In the third study presented it is shown that the professional discourse concerning the traumatic effects of child sexual abuse is pervasive in discursive themes elicited from lay women. This is interpreted as an example of the production and reproduction of knowledge which perpetuates existing power structures (lay /professional; female/male; child/adult); anomalous themes are understood as agentic strategies of resistance. In the fourth study presented, discourse analysis of spoken and written texts collected from women showed the extent to which fears and anxieties about childhood sexual abuse affects the lives of girls and women in a South African sample, and the forms these fears take. Interpreted as discourses of female control, every girl is placed and has to place herself in relation to these discourses, in which she invests in various ways. The conclusion is that the individualization of specific events of sexual abuse obscures the everyday discourses and discursive practices which govern the lives of girls and women, against which they may struggle. These constitute aspects of the interpellation of female gendered subjectivity. The conflict areas and problems which bring women to therapy are related to being female in a particular socio-historical context, rather than to experiences of childhood sexual abuse.

Bibliography: pages 334-360.