Content warning: sexual abuse, rape, arguably trivialising thereof.


When I was 11 an older boy used to pull me behind a door in one of the school corridors, trap me there, shove his hand down my pants, and touch my penis.

This happened about once a week for a couple of months, until I moved to a different school (for non-related reasons).

I knew it was taboo, but I didn't yet know about sex, and didn't really understand why. I never thought about it again till a few years later when he sent me a letter apologizing. My parents were extremely curious about what the letter was but I burnt it before they had a chance to read it.

I never told anyone about this until now, and even now I'm writing this pseudonymously.

Not because I'm ashamed or embarrassed. I'm not - I didn't do anything to be ashamed of. But because I'm fine.

I really am. I don't think this made any lasting impact to my life. I'm happy, well adjusted, married, successful etc. I just don't really think about what happened very much, but then again I rarely think about anything that happened to me when I was 11.

And yet I feel like society is telling me that I ought to be broken. That I've been sexual abused. That recovering from this will be a difficult painful process, probably requiring therapy. And I fear that if I tell someone that, they'll treat me like that's the case, and I might end up believing it about myself.


From a purely objective perspective, non-violent rape doesn't seem quite as bad as society makes it out to be.

It's obviously unpleasant and frightening, but we treat rape as one of the worst things that can possibly happen. We expect "rape victim" to become someone's whole identity. We expect them to need intensive therapy to put themselves back together.

And I'm sure for plenty of people that's true. But for plenty of others it's true only because we expect it of them. People fill the social role that's been made for them, even when that's not ideal for them.

I don't know what to do about this. How do we communicate that sexual abuse is really not ok, without making victims of it feel like it's worse than it actually is?

But at the very least, when you hear somebody's abuse story don't jump straight into treating them like a victim. Find out how they feel about it, and if they don't feel like it was that bad, there's really no need for you to make them feel like it was worse.

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A similar phenomenon is at play in modern Western discussion around age-gap relationships.

Anyone admitting that they experienced one when they were young is almost inevitably told that they were abused, and made to feel that they were suppressing some deep-seated trauma over any and all protestations that they're fine, no really, it wasn't that big of a deal.

In fact, on Reddit and other places, I've seen people get downvoted if they persist in claims that they didn't experience any notable negative sequelae. The same people who did the downvoting are often the ones who claim to value "lived experience" above all else, but perish the thought that your lived experience should clash with social orthodoxy.

In India, we have within living memory people who got married off at the ripe young age of 12 to 14, and grew old and have grandkids with kids of their own. The vast majority of them are well-adjusted, at least compared to their age cohort, and many of the women (because they make ever larger fractions of the population pyramid as men die off faster) had husbands who were older than them by numbers that modern Westerners would immediately see as red flags.

A funny example would be Emmanuel Macron, who was 15 when he met his 40 year old teacher who he's still married to, for all that he's pushing up against the limits of what can be called "success", he's often pointed to as a poor victim who can't even perceive his own trauma. Really headscratching that.

I studied in a Christian school, and we were sex-segregated until we made it into college. I'm intimately familiar with hundreds of adolescent boys who spent their time lusting after their female teachers, who were the only woman they saw most of their days. If anyone of them had managed to sleep with one, he'd have been receiving high-fives until the day he died, for all the protestations that he was horribly abused.

And of course, that's just for boys, who can sometimes get away with admissions of that nature. If a girl were to have the same story..

Similarly, the bigger a deal parents make out of a child's injuries (voluntarily or not), the worse the perceived pain for a child:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24494782/

"Hierarchical multiple regression and path analyses indicated that parent posttraumatic stress reactions contributed significantly to the development and maintenance of child PTSS. Other risk factors for child PTSS included premorbid emotional and behavioral difficulties and larger burn size. Risk factors identified for parent PTSS included prior trauma history, acute distress, greater number of child invasive procedures, guilt, and child PTSS."

While in the context of burn injuries, it certainly lines up with more anecdotal evidence of toddlers injuring themselves, looking at their parents, and if seeing a great deal of concern, then bursting into tears. Encouraging pain seems to exacerbate pain.

Edit:

While on the topic of more unpopular/unacceptable opinions to air in Western society, parental reactions to miscarriage or infant mortality:

Till not very long ago at all, childhood mortality was considered a fact of life. People mostly treated the death of a child as bad, but not life-disrupting as so many people do today. A miscarriage is a cause for mourning and great outpourings of social concern for the bereaved couple, who in turn display great stress and trauma from the event. This is not to minimize their pain, it very much is real, but the sheer magnitude of it is far larger than it ever was (or even is, Indian women typically don't react that way to a miscarriage, I've handled plenty, and the ones who do are almost guaranteed to be the ones exposed to Western takes on the matter.)

Of course, the death of a child is considerably more surprising than it once was, we can quite easily expect a child born healthy today to have a ~99% chance of making it to adulthood, versus ~50% at the turn of the century. But people genuinely used to accept that they might lose half their kids before they made it out of childhood, and hedged accordingly by having massively higher birth rates. They couldn't afford to shutdown and go into shock at the loss of one, and thus generally didn't do so as a matter of course nor were they expected to.

I could accept the shock easier when it happens to a once healthy child, whereas early miscarriages haven't had the same effect.

Trends in Self-reported Spontaneous Abortions: 1970–2000

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3787708/

"Little is known about how the miscarriage rate has changed over the past few decades in the United States. Data from Cycles IV to VI of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) were used to examine trends from 1970 to 2000. After accounting for abortion availability and the characteristics of pregnant women, the rate of reported miscarriages increased by about 1.0% per year. This upward trend is strongest in the first seven weeks and absent after 12 weeks of pregnancy. African American and Hispanic women report lower rates of early miscarriage than do whites. The probability of reporting a miscarriage rises by about 5% per year of completed schooling. The upward trend, especially in early miscarriages, suggests awareness of pregnancy rather than prenatal care to be a key factor in explaining the evolution of self-reported miscarriages. Any beneficial effects of prenatal care on early miscarriage are obscured by this factor."

Even with the relative paucity of data, I would support the conclusion that this is likely due to increased maternal age more than anything else. Which is why it's all the more perplexing that miscarriages are considered to be among the most traumatic possible events in a couple's life, in what is likely a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As I understand it in India the parents are very involved in who are the individuals involved in the marriage. The minors are not the ones seeking out their suitors.

For statutory rape purposes the consent of the minor carriers little weight. Thus there is increased responcibility on the behalf of the teachers to keep things proper. Such an exploitation without the target feeling exploited doesn't make it okay.

As I understand it in India the parents are very involved in who are the individuals involved in the marriage. The minors are not the ones seeking out their suitors.

Today? It's 50:50, and even then, arranged marriages aren't usually anything similar to the popular misconception that the bride and groom see each other for the first time when they're underneath the pavilion. It's far closer to dating, but with parents assisting in the search for acceptable suitors, the kids still have a say and (usually) a veto. Think of having your friends setup a date for you with someone else they know is looking, but soliciting a larger section of the social web.

Before the 70s, it was much more dictatorial of course.

For statutory rape purposes the consent of the minor carriers little weight. Thus there is increased responcibility on the behalf of the teachers to keep things proper. Such an exploitation without the target feeling exploited doesn't make it okay.

I don't agree with the is-ought implication you're presumably making here.

A large degree of the harm of "exploitation" is the perception of said exploitation. If you're working a summer job and see the owner's kid making double per hour for the same work, you can feel unfairly treated, compared to an alternate universe where you didn't, and as long as you're making a living wage either way, I would contend that there's no actual exploitation involved unless you were deprived of some right you ought to have had.

A 16 year old can have shitty relationships with a 17 year old, and that's generally acceptable for all the harm it might otherwise cause. But say they have a relationship with a 25 year old, people will still make a fuss regardless of whether any harm is committed. It's clearly not that the harm itself is what scandalizes them.

And there's the aspect where the general stigmatization of the age gaps that were once unremarkable means that the adults who still seek out such relationships are more likely to be bad people, further poisoning the well.

As you can see, I'm not a fan of victimless crimes, and I disagree with the presumption that such a statutory violation is necessarily bad or should be treated that way.

I would imagine a 12 year old going into marriage would not be doing so at their own initiative. In a western setting the assumption would be that the other party to the marriage would be pushing for it. In an Indian setting its more plausible that a mature person that genuinely has the interest of the younger party at heart is meddling with the situation (parent marrying off child for the benefit of the child).

Say that the owner's kid is doing x2 and then 10 other randos are doing x1.5 with not even an attempt at justification why. There is some degree of exploitation which can not be made away by making it not percieved as exploitation. One of the patterns of work exploitation is to arrange for people from poorer countries to come work in a rich country where they are happy to work below minimum wage. In their home country it would be par for the course - from a subjective viewpoint they are not likely to complain especially if they get a little bit more money than they would in their previous country. The fact that they would be entitled to a minimum wage makes it illegal. Whether it is in the legal or illegal zone seeking out parties which will settle for bad terms is predatory. And being aggressed on in this manner does not require for the target to be unhappy.

If two equally strong people are fighting people might or might not get hurt. But if a body builder karate master "fights" an anoreksic civilian the issue is not so much how much damage is sustained but what could possibly create a ground for the karate master to geniunely need to defend themself. With enough power difference if there is possiblity of a conflict of interest a relationship can't be a cooperation but will be dictated by one side. Your mileage may wary how much power difference the developmental gap between 17 year old and 25 year old confers, but if the circumstances place the parties in way different leagues then individual variation and detail will get less and less able to make it okay.

I've long suspected that things like this are almost entirely made traumatic by society's socially constructed ideas about them, but it's very taboo to talk about - it's a very dangerous opinion to have - and I've almost never told people I think this. Thanks for saying it for me.

I had sexual trauma as a child that didn't even involve any actual sexual event. Rather, I had and wrote down a quasi-sexual fantasy about a playmate from the playground (I was 8) and my mom found it and confronted me about it, thinking that I had been molested or something because why else would "a child!!" be thinking of such things. I felt disgusting afterward, for years, like I must be evil for thinking this way about another kid, and throughout my teenage years I would occasionally have almost panic attack like ptsd feelings when I would think about sexuality in certain contexts that reminded me of that experience.

So it seems to me that the trauma comes from believing that you have been violated, because authority figures or parents or society tell you that you have - not from being violated, itself. And what constitutes a violation is to some extent socially constructed. Sometimes, because of this, as in my case, you can feel violated when nothing has even happened to you.

I agree with your point and you give a very convincing example. Still, I object quite strongly to the phrasing "[...] that things like this are almost entirely made traumatic by society's socially constructed ideas about them."

Why "almost entirely"? 

Here some ingredients to my view:

  • There are vast individual differences in neuroticism and ability to process potentially-traumatic events.
  • Just like some phobias develop more commonly than others, some experiences are more likely to elicit trauma than others.
  • On trauma reactions, there might be biological priors that make people more afraid of "bad agents" than "bad environment," just like there are priors that children are less likely to learn to become scared of outlets/power stations and more likely to learn fear of snakes. (And maybe it's not a "prior" per se but rather a logical fact that agents are less predictable than the environment and it makes logical sense to be more scared of unpredictable things.) 
  • Society's take on what's dangerous/scary/bad isn't entirely random; instead, there's often a wisdom it.

Now, looking at the example in the OP with the above background assumptions, I form the following view.

  • The example has some features that make it more conducive to eliciting trauma than other experiences (i.e., there are good reasons why society has a different attitude to the experience in the OP compared to "being forced to look at the color orange as a child.")
    • If I had to describe exactly why, I think it's about powerlessness in being forced to a secluded room and touched against your will by a person who could beat you up or otherwise take revenge, and the combination with "this sort of thing may elicit shame in shame-prone people." (We might be shame-prone around sexuality for biological reasons or for the sort of reasons why people are more likely to evolve fear of snakes than other phobias – it may not be entirely "hardcoded," but there could still be "structural reasons" related to emotions around sex and the types of dynamics around it that typically emerge in societies.) Then, with trauma risk from "bad agent" often being worse than trauma risk from (just) "bad environment," it seems natural that some people at least will find it scary to process an experience where they firsthand learn that there are others who lack concern for people and will do bad things to you if they catch you and think they can get away with it. This is an uncomfortable thought in itself, people like that shouldn't exist in a just and safe world. (With the example "forced to see the color orange in a society where this is judged to be really bad" – my bet is that people in that society would be a lot less traumatized if they encountered an orange bird in the forest vs. if someone forcibly takes them inside a secluded room and puts a sheet of orange wallpaper in front of them!) Lastly, issues with disgust and disgust sensitivity probably play a role – being touched by someone who creeps you out or grosses you out can feel horrible for the same reason it doesn't feel good if someone spits in your face – has very little to do with societal conventions because most cultures don't condone spitting into someone's face. Touch/contact, especially involving bodily fluids, is inherently more disgust-evoking than other potential disgust triggers.) 

To conclude, I find myself roughly equally alienated by "all forms of sexually inappropriate touch are inherently trauma-causing" and "inappropriate sexual touch is primarily traumatic because of societal expectations." Both lack important nuance. I might agree that sexually inappropriate touch is less likely to traumatize people than societal discourse would suggest (depending on what sort of discourse we have in mind), which means that the discourse might be doing some harm here while also having the benefit of making these experiences less likely to happen – so it seems complicated.

(Unrelated to the rest of my comment, but relevant to the topic: this video about an account of being molested by a priest.)

You're right. I shouldn't have used that wording. It was stupid of me.

You don't have the data to make this conclusion (or a similar one). You haven't explored how traumatizing it would be to be raped, and so merely observing that being treated as if you had been traumatized traumatized you isn't enough to conclude that if you were raped and then treated as if you were traumatized, most of the trauma (or even a significant part) would come from the latter.

It's entirely possible that the more progressive parts of the society aren't mistaken, and that rape is so traumatizing that your experience of being treated as traumatized wouldn't be anywhere close to making a meaningful contribution to the entirety of the trauma.

The Marind people in New Guinea are subjected frequently to sodomy by their elders because they think that absorbing sperm from the anus will make them grow strong and they don't seem to develop any traumas at all. So yes, I agree 100% that what constitutes a violation is socially constructed.

I (maybe) agree directionally but I'm again irritated by the lack of nuance here ("100%").

  • There are good reasons to think that an experience is worse when it's not socially condoned. People aren't just afraid and disturbed about "what happened" – they're also afraid about "what could've happened." Traumatic experiences are often from near-misses (you didn't die, but something went wrong and you better avoid it in the future!). If the experience is contextualized as "elders do this by tradition; it's meant to benefit you" – that seems less concerning than if you have something done to you by someone who is blatantly ignoring your personhood (and engaging in criminal behavior). In the latter instance, you don't know what comes next – the person doing it to you has demonstrated that they don't don't feel the same way about other people (this is disturbing in itself, possibly for hardcoded evolutionary reasons around fear/apprehension of bad agents; it also has implications like "since they have no concern for you, nor for the law, they might murder you if they suspect you could tell someone").
  • Just because something's considered normal doesn't mean it can't traumatize some people. (For instance, it's common among rationalists to express the view that school can be traumatizing – "small t trauma," admittedly.) And activities do differ in their risk-to-traumatize. (See my other comments on this post.)
     

Those are good points and you are right about my lack of nuance. Thanks

How do we communicate that sexual abuse is really not ok, without making victims of it feel like it's worse than it actually is?

I'd distinguish between the seriousness of the crime from the suffering of the victim. I think that this distinction is common sense. I agree with you that they are sometimes conflated. It seems like you could communicate this with a message structured somewhat as follows:

"C is a serious crime. Victims of C may suffer X, Y, and Z as a result. Not all victims of C experience these consequences, and it is important to let the victim of C decide how it affected them."

Yeah, I think the reason sexual abuse is wrong is because it has an unacceptably high risk of traumatizing someone, not because it always in all cases does. (Sort of like drunk driving.)

I find this a helpful distinction!

Recently someone did something to me that would have been a very serious violation of trust in ~50% of worlds (involving taking some private feedback I'd written for someone and sending it to them), but on reflection I was happy with what I wrote, so I didn't mind. But I told them that had it gone wrong (which it easily could've) they wouldn't have had any defense and I would have been absolutely furious with them. They realized how close they came to doing something exceedingly costly and changed their policies going forwards, but I did not actually punish them in that instance because nothing bad happened.

This had a similar distinction, where the seriousness of the crime was high, but the severity of the case was low, so there was nothing to punish.

>so there was nothing to punish.

If I was you I'd still trust them less. 

Seems right.

This may be trivializing your experiences as well, but I think an important consideration here is that you're a man. Many of the circumstances others in this thread are citing also involve male victims.

Men tend not to react to sexual abuse the same way that women do, and there's no reason to expect that they would. Some of the reasons people aggressively protest that fact or attempt to have anecdotal evidence of it dismissed are:

  • They, male or female, genuinely would be distraught if that had happened to them, and project that strong preference onto others.
  • They feel it's necessary to downplay men's tolerance of sexual abuse as part of a general policy that says to downplay sex differences.
  • They feel acknowledging those differences in this specific case will reduce the ability of men who actually feel sexually violated to seek help.

It's a bad idea to assume that, because a lot of men seem to be OK after being assaulted, or because a lot of people seem to engage in motivating reasoning about men being "secretly traumatized", that means there are lots of women in the same situation.

I obviously disagree with the logic that says we shouldn't talk about this, partly because it causes people like OP to become confused about their personal experiences and wonder why they're not feeling something they think they are supposed to.


You say

From a purely objective perspective, non-violent rape doesn't seem quite as bad as society makes it out to be.

I say we should stop playing this meta-game of attempting to assert or influence public perception of the "proper" emotional impact of events, and just take people at their word about how they feel. Subjective preferences are just that. If someone says that they were raped and that they don't feel very shaken up about it, I will generally assume they're telling the truth. If someone says that they were raped and that it was the worst thing that ever happened to them, I will also assume they're telling the truth. I generally don't have some comprehensive model of human psychology I can trust to deduce people's basic instincts about things like aversion to sexual violation, in lieu of honest statements from that person.

I'm aware that taking people at their word about their pains more often means you're a little more vulnerable to being manipulated for sympathy points. Personally, I'm ok with this. It seems like an acceptable tradeoff before we invent empathy links.

Not sure if a single anecdote is worth anything at all, but I am a woman, and I experienced what is legally and culturally considered rape at least twice (arguably 3x), and it really didn't bother me very much (though I think different versions, e.g. more violent ones or one perpetrated by people I looked up to, would have been much more damaging). One of the people who technically raped me (it was a very drunken screwup with, I believe, no malevolent intent) is still a friend of mine. I feel scared about people finding this out about our friendship, mostly on his behalf.  

Notably, I think it was way less traumatizing than several experiences I have had for which I've never been able to garner 1/10th as much sympathy; a trusted close friend failing me in a time of need, a painful and embarrassing medical experience, a pet dying. 

I share the view of the OP that there's something off here; I think the combination of a pretty wide range of disparate acts being considered rape/sexual abuse + rape/sexual abuse being considered among the worse experiences a person can have, is pretty unhealthy for the reasons described and some others. I also think it drains social energy from recognizing other kinds of trauma people can experience and helping them with it. 

I am a bit surprised about one of them still being a friend of yours. Do you in a sense forgive him because I don't know it wasn't too painful or him being not aware of what he was doing? My intuition was kind of the amount of trauma might be about the amount of pain. If it's really painful one can of cause get very traumatised as you also point out, it would have been diferent if it would have been very violent

This is may be trivializing your experiences as well, but I think an important consideration here is that you're a man. Many of the circumstances others in this thread are citing also involve male victims.

Agreed, from an evolutionary standpoint rape is vastly more impactful for women than men, in a world with no abortion or contraception, rape means the removal of a woman's procreative agency, while it's merely very unpleasant for men, maybe on the level of being humiliated in a fist fight. The closest thing that I can think of to make myself (a man) have an emotional reaction equivalent to what I observe women having to the concept of rape, is cuckolding. A woman lying to me about the genetics of her child, and making me unknowingly raise the child, that is what elicits the white-hot, primal rage that our society seems to feel about rape. No woman that I've talked with has understood my reaction to cuckolding, because in the ancestral environment there was no possible doubt that the child growing in her womb was hers, just like there's no chance of me getting pregnant from being raped. So for men, translate "raped" as "cuckolded" to elicit something like the equivalent emotional reaction.

I think this is a solid point, and that pointing out the asymmetry in evolutionary gradients is important; I would also expect different statistical distributions for men and women here.  At the same time, my naive ev psych guess about how all this is likely to work out would also take into account that men and women share genes, and that creating gender-specific adaptations is actually tricky.  As evidence: men have nipples, and those nipples sometimes produce drops of milk.

Once, awhile ago and outside this community, a female friend swore me to secrecy and then shared a story and hypothesis similar to the OPs (ETA: it was also a story of sexual touching, not of rape; I suspect rape is usually more traumatic).  I've also heard stories of being pretty messed up by sexual abuse from both men and women, including at least two different men messed up by having, as teenagers, had sex with older women (in one case, one of his teachers) without violence/force, but with manipulation.  My current guess is that adaptations designed for one sex typically appear with great variability in the other sex (e.g. male nipples' milk production), and so we should expect some variability in male reactions here.  Also everyone varies.

ETA: I'd like to quarrel with the use of the word "infohazardous" in the OP's title.  My best guess is that people would be better off having all the stories, including stories such as the OPs that is is currently somewhat taboo to share; my best guess is that there is a real risk of harm the OP is gesturing at, but this is significantly via the selective non-sharing of info, rather than being primarily via the sharing of info.

I've known several men who had sexual encounters with women that... labeling them is hard, let's say the encounters left them unhappy, and would have been condemned if the sexes had been reversed. These men encountered a damaging amount of pushback and invalidation when they tried to discuss their feelings about those encounters.  One was literally told "I hope you were grateful", for others the invalidation was more implicit.  For at least 2, me saying "that sounds fucked up" and then listening was an extremely helpful novelty. So I'm really nervous about pushing the wider cultural narrative in ways that would reduce the ability of male victims to be upset.

OTOH, one of those dudes had his complicated experiences with a same-age girlfriend, and had nothing but good things to say about losing his virginity in high school to a woman twice his age. You definitely couldn't help him by creating and enforcing general rules about what counts as bad. 

There's probably an important distinction to be made between men who have such high sex drives/wide preferences that they'll sleep with anybody, and men who don't care that much about sexual violence.

I agree that this is probably a reason for the greater harm to women, but I don't think it gets to the heart of it.

Suppose that instead of rape, our culture portrayed some benign, non-sexual experience as deeply harmful. Say, being exposed to the color orange as a kid. In that case, would you predict men or women to be more harmed by having seen orange? If you predict women (as I would), then the explanation has to be more general than evolved attitudes towards sex. 

My theory is that it comes down to influenceability. When an authority figure says that something is true, a man is more likely to note that he must act like it's true, but reserve an inner skepticism; whereas a woman is more likely to accept it wholeheartedly. 

For example, it's easier to imagine a man proactively (without outside influence)...

  • doubting his religion
  • doubting the benefits of hand-washing
  • doubting that perpetual motion is impossible

I know for sure that women are higher in neuroticism. I'm not sure about influenceability, are they really higher on this? In any case, it seems to me that the neuroticism difference can account for this effect all by itself, assuming that the evo-psych explanation by lc isn't quite correct. (Personally, I feel like Anna makes good points against it but I also wouldn't totally rule out the evo-psych explanation.) 

Edit: And on influenceability, you could argue that men are influenced to feel worse about being abused because of how people think men should be (strong, in control, not victims).

Just as a short note to support this model, there was that old finding (probably from pre- replication crisis area, I wonder if it's survived?) that women experienced stronger post-rape trauma when it happened in their reproductive age; girls and old ladies were less traumatized. Also, women who were beaten and raped felt better than those who just raped, because then they could show that they had fought back. 

Myself, as a woman, I don't intuitively feel like getting beaten as well would lower my trauma, but I haven't tried, so I don't know. What really feels important is the way how it is done, in details. Getting groped by a drunken friend, as described above, wouldn't traumatize me much; getting raped by a group of soldiers who are trying to outperform each other in humiliating the victim as much as possible, that's an event that causes me the white-hot rage just by thinking about it (not because I would fear getting pregnant, but just because of the unbearable humiliation). In some countries group rapes get punished more severely than individual endeavors, for the same particular reason probably, for it doesn't really affect the feared outcome (getting pregnant) much. 

Too late to the debate, but I would suggest splitting this into multiple questions:

  • Is it true of human suffering in general that if you tell people "this was a horrible thing that happened to you", they will subjectively suffer more than if you tell them "shut up, that was nothing"?
  • Assuming that the answer to the previous question is a clear yes, how should we organize our society to minimize human suffering?

Note that these two questions can be explored apart from sexuality. The question whether sexual abuse is different from abuse in general, could then be treated separately.

The reason I would like to have the debate about suffering in general first, is that many arguments made about sexual abuse actually are generalizable to all kinds of abuse -- so it feels like motivated reasoning to only make those arguments with regards to sexual abuse.

I mean, the point of signaling that you suffer is to elicit compassion; and the signal is more credible if you actually suffer. If you were 100% sure you would never get any compassion, no matter what, there would be no need to signal suffering, so perhaps there would be less suffering. Maybe engineering our society to eradicate compassion would lead to less human suffering! ...see, I just made the entire argument without mentioning sex at all. If it perhaps did not convince you in its general form, why does it sound more convincing if I make the same argument specifically about sexual abuse?

I suspect that it's worth mentioning sexuality as a special case specifically because our society treats sexual abuse as a separate and somewhat magical magisterium; you're correct to note that the dynamic matters much more broadly than just with sex in particular, but if there is a problem here in the way the OP theorizes, it seems to me that it's especially virulent in the domain of sexual assault.

Another way to say this is that not singling out sexual assault in particular makes this almost a ... bait and switch? Like, you'd in practice be doing something like trapping people in a way that feels a little disingenuous, by first getting them to admit to a general conclusion and then springing it on them that it applies in this highly-charged, poor-epistemic-hygiene domain as well, ha ha!!

Or something. It feels like burying the lede, or failing to put your thesis up front, even though the argument is more elegant the way you want to make it. Something something the pragmatics of people's actual attitudes toward/behaviors around sex in particular.

If we first figure out how things work in general, and then check whether the conclusion also applies to sex, we can find out how much is the same and how much is different. Maybe it is different a lot! But if we start with sex, then the conclusion "sex is different" is kinda already assumed.

I suspect that the real answer will include a lot of "people are different" and "it depends". If one victim is traumatized, it does not necessarily mean that all must be. If one victim says is was no big deal for them, it does not necessarily mean everyone else would also be okay except for having been programmed by the society to react strongly. -- I felt the need to react, because it seemed to me that this debate had a vibe of "one victim said it was actually no big deal, therefore everyone who complains is... oversensitive; hey I am not blaming them, of course, I am only blaming the society that made them so sensitive!"

Context probably matters a lot; whether it was "it happened in a special situation, but I am no longer in that special situation so now I am safe" or "it happened out of the blue, it could happen anytime again" (or "it happened in a special situation, and I am still in that special situation"). Did it happen once or repeatedly? Was everything else okay, or was this just one bad experience among many? Was the environment supportive to me or to the aggressor? The important things may actually be subjective, such as "I feel responsible for what happened to me" or "it was clearly someone else's fault"; where sometimes two people could interpret the same situation differently.

And I think the topic is worth exploring in general. I mean, life sucks (the first Buddhist noble truth), and we experience all kinds of not-optimal-experiences, some of them smaller, some larger, of different kinds. For some of those experiences, the attitude of the society is "for fuck's sake, grow up and stop whining", for others, it is "this is a horrible thing that should have never happened to you". What is the exact rule that separates the unwanted experiences into these two heaps? Is there already a research on this?

(As an interesting example of this more general case, some rationalists disagree with the society in general on the topic of death -- is it something that wise people need to accept and preferably find some way to see as a good thing; or is it a definitely bad thing that is merely too difficult to fix, but once we become able to do something about it, we definitely should? In the meanwhile, is it an infohazard to tell people that death is bad?)

For some of those experiences, the attitude of the society is "for fuck's sake, grow up and stop whining", for others, it is "this is a horrible thing that should have never happened to you".

Let's not forget that, to a normally socialized man, the latter carries an implicit "and you alone are at fault for not having been strong enough to stop your assailant in their tracks. You should be ashamed forever and have no business being alive". Therefore, it may be more damning than the former.

The reason why sexual harm is (correctly) considered a serious case of harm distinct from other harms might be evolutionary - in ancestral environment, being physically injured or hurt some other way might've been much less of a predictor of that person's future than being raped (and possibly also a predictor of a much less seriously bad future).

This fits what I've seen from talking to women who have experienced rape/sexual abuse. 

In one case, the abuse happened as a kid and she didn't feel traumatized for many years until she heard people talking about such things as if they're supposed to be traumatic and it was helpful to her to have someone give her permission to disregard those pressures as ill informed and stupid.

In another case, the woman was much older and somewhat traumatized by the experience, but talking to her friend about it just made her feel more traumatized because he emphasized how bad the situation was even more than she did. There was actually a considerable amount of humor in that particular case, and being invited to see it and recognize that she's actually totally fine and doesn't have to freak out about it anymore was helpful.

With respect to the question of "How do we communicate that sexual abuse is really not ok, without making victims of it feel like it's worse than it actually is?", it depends where the harm is. Hypothetically, if the only harm is in the psychological trauma, and the act isn't actually psychologically traumatic in itself, then you bite that bullet and say that nothing bad happened and no one did anything that wrong. Or perhaps you treat it like drunk driving, to the extent that you believe the lack of trauma was not predictable.

However, the premise that the harm resides solely in the psychological trauma is false. Trauma serves an important function, and aiming away from experiencing trauma at all costs can be dangerous.

Imagine one day you go driving after a first rain, fail to account for the added dangers of water on the road, and as a result nearly drive off a cliff. No harm happened, and if you're sufficiently unintelligent or unobservant -- or afraid to experience fear -- you might not recognize what's scary about this and end up non-traumatized. Given the situation though, that lack of trauma doesn't mean you're "psychologically healthy" or well adjusted; it means the opposite. It means that you didn't notice the problem, and so next time it rains you're going to drive again like the roads are dry, putting yourself at further unnecessary risk. If instead you were a little more traumatized, you might be appropriately scared of driving fast on wet roads -- at least, until you learn the new limits.

You want psychological trauma to match objective threats and your ability to handle them. It's possible to be overtraumatized, or to fail to recover from trauma through more specific learning, but trauma has it's legitimate place. In the second example where the woman talked to her friend and ended up more traumatized, I don't know that the friend was wrong to do so -- certainly the two of them as a system decided that the situation was more dangerous than she had been giving credit for, and maybe it was. She got out of that one fine, but the next one she might not have and she did some dumb things to get there.

There is a more fundamental and more squishy issue here too.

In the first example I gave, society's local reaction was clearly maladaptive and just harmed the kid while giving her nothing actionable to do to either reduce risk or to get out of the trauma. I'll even hazard a guess that the initial experience wasn't particularly harmful to her in this specific case, but the squickiness I feel when thinking about those things doesn't stem from "I think it's likely to be traumatic for the kids" and the reason I think she got away from it unharmed is because such things are so frowned upon by society that it was kept from growing to a scale that likely would have been harmful to her -- even if nontraumatic. 

This stuff is all much harder to figure out so I can't point to concrete damages and justify them well, but "this stuff is all much harder to figure out" is kinda the point; no one really knows what the effects are or what the damages are, so no one really knows what's safe and what's harmful and how. "How do our early experiences (sexual and otherwise) determine who we grow up to be, and what do we want to grow up to be?" is a big messy question, and "Well, the kid didn't feel harmed" isn't very strong evidence that they weren't harmed (even if it is strong evidence that they aren't traumatized, and that you shouldn't be pushing unaimed trauma willy nilly). To give a stupid example to illustrate the type of non-obvious things that can happen, if a kid were to hypothetically "play doctor" and pick up a medical instrument fetish from it, the kid doesn't have to be traumatized and the fetish doesn't have to be morally wrong for it to negatively impact their life when their partner pool is narrowed to "People who also have medical fetishes". "What kind of people we become, and how" is just a bigger question than we know how to navigate deliberately as kids or as adults or as a society. We have a sense that certain things are not okay, and it's not entirely clear where they came from because our justifications break down here, but that doesn't mean there's no informational value there (or that it's correct at face value either).

 

So as the bottom line, returning to the question of "How do we communicate that sexual abuse is really not ok, without making victims of it feel like it's worse than it actually is?", it is a specific instance of the question of how to relate to people in general, and the same principles apply. We want to orient empathically both to the experience of the person we're talking to and also everything else we have that bears on the reality of what happened, and then see what happens when we integrate all of the things.

Sometimes this will simplify when it turns out that the kind of "sexual abuse" wasn't actually abusive in the context in question, and that society is wrong. Or not as harmful as it's made out to be.

Sometimes this will simplify when the causes of harm are nice and clear, and we can lead people to recognize these dangers and how to avoid them -- no (permanent or debilitating) trauma needed. Maybe that means soberly showing them that while they got away with it this time, there's this other risk. Or maybe it means recognizing that they actually have learned their lesson, and showing them that it's okay to laugh and to move on.

In the specific instances where it resolves to neither of these, and you're stuck with the apparent paradox of "Yes, that was actually very bad in my best estimate" and "I can't point to a particular harm to avoid", then until we can figure out more about where that sense is coming from and what the lurking danger is (which is a potential option to pursue), we're kinda stuck acknowledging our uncertainty. Instead of "This is super bad including in your specific case!!!" or "Don't worry, nothing at all is wrong with what happened", just stick to what is known to be true. I can't be too concrete as it will depend both on the specific situation and also what you know about it, but "There was likely nothing harmful in this case, but that's a slippery slope that most likely leads to really bad things, even if it's hard to explain exactly what those are" is one potential resolution of the apparent paradox.

Imagine a society where people considered "being exposed to the color orange" inherently very traumatic (inspired by this comment). 

My bet is that people in that society would be a lot less traumatized if they encountered an orange bird in the forest vs. if someone forcibly takes them inside a secluded room and puts a sheet of orange wallpaper in front of them. 

The fact that some commenters don't seem to "see" this difference is IMO what's triggering about some people's attitudes to sexual abuse, etc. 

Sounds similar to what this book claimed about some mental illnesses being memetic in certain ways: https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/book-review-crazy-like-us

This rhymes with my experiences and thoughts. To say it another (slightly more general) way, it's often the reactions of adults that are traumatizing well beyond anything else that happens to children (and other adults). It isn't always the case that measured response produces a trauma-free experience, and some events tend to leave terrible scars. But where I see people bringing their own feelings into someone else's situation is also where I see far more of lasting psychological trauma.

Parents really need to realize - or be taught - that they are exocortices for their children, one of whose primary roles is to process things that the child cannot and be a sink for big emotions, NOT a source of them. When parents push their own emotions onto a child, that invariably is traumatizing - as in the case of parentification or "emotional incest", or narcissistic abuse, etc. This is another example of that. Arguably, telling a child they ought to feel worse about something that has happened to them is itself a form of abuse.

Driving Under the Influence can have a similar kind of pattern where ti can be painted as a surefired way to mess up things. Then if somebody is a bit drunk while operating a vechicle and doesn't hit anybody that might lead to a "update" that its no at disastrous as advertised. It is not so that DUIng leads somebody to die but that there is a RISK of somebody dying. And this risk is sufficiently high that its not okay to gamble on it.

Being sexually manhandled likewise carriers the risk of things going wrong. Its not like shooting somebody is okay if you happen to miss any vital organs.

The fantasy that maybe a dark experience heals or goes away if it is not talked about or processed can lead to inaction where action is needed. It doesn't remove the fact that action is not always needed. Maybe you can indeed skip going to the hospital if the bullet only gave a flesh wound. And it can be hard to ascertain who is actually fine and who only thinks so (certain black knight comes to mind). So the default on erring on the side of having some people treated/processed that did not need it rather than not processing some people that needed it seems right.

Even for those that do need or benefit from being socially processed as rape victims it would be great if those burdens of having that status was lessened. The direction of it being easy so there is no threshold to speak up is probably a better direction rather than making less people speak up so that the amount of people that go throught the drama can be driven down.

It seems to me that the psychological state on burning the letter waas not being chalant about what happened. There might been a cost-benefit analysis about having little to gain and lots to lose for having that event be aired. What was the negative side for the parents knowing about the incident?

So the default on erring on the side of having some people treated/processed that did not need it rather than not processing some people that needed it seems right.

Medicine long operated by that paradigm and did all sorts of harmful treatments. Maybe the person doesn't need bloodletting via leeches but why take the chance?

https://www.racgp.org.au/afp/2013/september/psychological-trauma is an article about the current state of the knowledge we have.

It says "Structured psychological interventions, including psychological debriefing, are not routinely recommended in the first few weeks following trauma exposure."

Psychological debriefing is one of the things someone who thinks that the victim might need to be processed might do, but it's not helpful.

Instead, the sense that's helpful to communicate is:

General practitioners can be guided by five empirically derived principles in their early response: promoting a sense of safety, calming, self efficacy, connectedness and hope.

Telling people that they are likely going to need a lot of therapy to deal with their experience is the opposite of providing a sense of self-efficacy and hope. 

Basically, you are telling people "you should not believe that you are self-sufficient, because you can never really know whether you are self-sufficient. Telling that meme to potentially traumatized people is the modern equivalent of bloodletting. 

What was the negative side for the parents knowing about the incident?

There's risk that the parents traumatize him over it and try to push him into the victim role. 

It is a balancing act and false positives are not cost free and the optimal point is unlikely to be at either extreme.

A person that could get it over with self-sufficiently is also less likely to suffer a great deal to being told they are not self-sufficient. I guess it could be interesting if there is a great assymmetery there.

The advice seems to say "room now, debrief later by somebody else" which seems to suppose that that later application elsewhere is actually beneficial.

There is an important part to the "I am here, if you need me" that leaves really open the possiblity of "No, I don't need you". I would rather have help rejectable than control whether you get helped by covering up your need for help.

Parents are unlikely the explicit goal to create trauma for their child. The main way I can imagine being traumatised would be to dig in and make existing trauma worse by poking it. But if there was existing trauma then he was not fine at that moment. And holding psychological scars for two years is not getting off scratch-free.

A person who's suggestible and who you tell "You are not competent to evaluate whether or not experience X damaged you psychologically" might regularly go back to thinking "Did X damage me psychologically?" and suffer psychologically from that. To the extent that there's a strong cultural push to the suggestion or it's given by people with a lot of authority like parents, it might even have an effect on people who are not very suggestible. 

The advice seems to say "room now, debrief later by somebody else" which seems to suppose that that later application elsewhere is actually beneficial.

It suggests that if someone suffers from distress it's useful to give them therapy to help them deal with their distress. 

There are many different ways to do therapy with many different theories of action. Research suggests that attributes such as the empathy of the therapist and the relationship between the therapist and patient are more important than the theory of action of the therapy. As such it doesn't make sense to rule out trauma-based therapy. As described in one podcast from Spencer Greenberg, that trauma-based therapy just might not be any better than therapy that's about banishing demons. 

There is an important part to the "I am here, if you need me" 

I have no problem with communicating that and I don't think anyone here voiced any criticism of that frame. It's a very different frame from suggesting that people's own experience of whether or not they need help shouldn't be trusted.

Parents are unlikely the explicit goal to create trauma for their child.

Just like the doctor in the middle ages didn't have an explicit goal to make things worse for their patients by applying leeches.

In general, the situations where parents do something that's traumatizing for their child are often those where the parent is strongly emotionally triggered and doesn't have the skills to deal well with the situation. 

A parent hearing that their child suffered from sexual assault can be hugely emotionally triggering and produce a sense in the parent that they have to do something about it. It's very hard for the child to defend from that sense of "something has to be done to process this". 

The main way I can imagine being traumatised would be to dig in and make existing trauma worse by poking it. 

Studies show that you don't need existing memories of sexual assault to get someone from psychologically harmful sexual assault memories when you do psychological interventions that dig around. 

Unskilled psychological interventions that try to dig into possible repressed trauma got us cultural phenomena like the Satanic panic largely fed by fake memories. 

I understood that the problem is that there is a kind of automatic reaction of "oh you were assaulted, now I am going to help you very intensely for 2 years" where the unconditionality or uncontrollability and the harm from the conduct that results are the problems. Thus the problem is "I am here, whether you like it or not" and not going "I am here, if it helps you"

It sucks that people would have legitimate fears for getting such support.

I could also imagine that some parents would put the well-being of their child in front of their own psychological comfort. Doing psychological pressure in the name of easing that "something has to be done about this" is not help. I would love for it to be the case that children could rely for their parents to be on their sides in difficult situations like this. If the child models that the parents can not or will not take it in a level-headed or constructive way I guess hiding and soloing the recovery is more constructive way forward. But I would be disappointed in such parents. And I would like the children to be able to have the trust that such disclosure will benefit them. That there is coverup is a tell that things are not going according to my utopia. Like if somebody goes "Off-course I didn't tell my layer" that is in contradiction with the design of client-attorney priviledge similarly if somebody goes "Off-course I didn't tell my parents" I will go "wait, why not and why is that a given?".

A lawyer is usually a trained professional. Most parents just aren't at a comparable skill level. It takes emotional awareness to distinguish between parents themselves getting triggered and the child needing help from the parent.

There are certainly good parents who actually provide effective support to their children and who are then likely to be trusted by their children in cases like this, but it's not surprising if someone has a parent that's not trustworthy in this case. 

One of the reasons abusers of kids/teens aren't fully prosecuted is because parents of victims rightly predict that everyone knowing you were raped by the babysitter or whatever will generate additional psych baggage and selfishly refrain from protecting other children from the same predator.

I am no expert in law, but to some extent we treat rape and killing someone similar. I don't know if the way I think is just fucked up or it is really this way, but breaking someone's leg and rape are probably more comparable to each other than rape and murder. So I would like to add that in my opinion even the legal code is punishing rape pretty harsh more comparable to murder than comparable to breaking someone's leg.