Narrating the Impact of Child Sexual Abuse on Adult Mental Health

Monday, 11 July 2016: 09:45
Location: Hörsaal 32 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Katie WRIGHT, La Trobe University, Australia
In response to increasing societal concerns about the widespread sexual exploitation of children, Australia is currently undertaking a major public inquiry: the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013-17). Central to the evidence being gathered is the testimony of individuals who have experienced abuse in institutions. Typically, such testimony includes reflection on survivors’ views of the long-term impact of child sexual abuse, notably, major psychosocial dysfunction. Drawing on witness statements tendered to the Royal Commission, this paper examines biographical accounts of mental health problems and their link to sexual abuse in childhood. It utilises testimony from more than twenty public hearings and over one hundred individual statements. The paper begins by considering the particularity of the context in which these biographical accounts were constructed – a major public inquiry – and in so doing, evaluates the methodological possibilities and limitations of using testimony from public inquiries as social science data. Employing a thematic analysis, it then considers these narrative accounts alongside evidence in the scholarly literature, particularly psychological studies, of the often profound and long-term impact of sexual abuse. Drawing on Jeffrey C. Alexander’s theory of cultural trauma, the paper then examines how individual narratives are both shaped by, and also influence, broader societal understandings of the effects of child sexual abuse. The analysis illuminates how the construction of childhood trauma has been made possible by a cultural climate of increasing openness and disclosure on the one hand, and high levels of psychological literacy amongst the general population on the other. Finally, the paper makes some speculative observations on contemporary constructions of the impact of abuse and dominant narratives of trauma that have emerged in concert with major public inquiries, like the current Royal Commission in Australia, and similar inquiries globally.