'Accounts of Innocence:' U.Va. Sociologist Considers the Meaning of Victimization

Jan. 19, 2007 -- For sociologist Joseph Davis, stories are more than just a way to amuse the children at bedtime. In his world, stories are how human beings make sense of the world, how we understand our experiences and how we come to grips with difficult situations and are able to move on. In his recent book, “Accounts of Innocence: Sexual Abuse, Trauma, and the Self,” Davis documents the evolution of what he contends is a very new story.

“I was interested in victim stories,” explains Davis, who is a research associate professor of sociology and a director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. “I was interested not so much in collective experiences such as genocide but individual experiences of victimization.” So, taking one key example, he set out to explore how people came to think and talk about the experiences we now refer to as sexual abuse. What he found was that this story dates only to the 1970s. “It’s not an old way of thinking about it that sexual experience as a child might have lifelong consequences.”

His book received the Cooley Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, an international social science professional organization.

Davis traces this narrative from a time when much of what we now consider pedophilia involved sexual incidents such as fondling that were regarded as inconsequential. According to professionals in that era, the vast majority of children were not overly traumatized by such incidents, he says, especially if supportive parents did not panic. Since the 1970s, however, these experiences have been redefined as damaging, not just to some, but to everyone involved. Proponents of social movements such as the anti-rape, family therapy and child protective movements in effect “discovered” sexual abuse, he explains. They gave it a new name, they incorporated incest and other aberrant sexual experiences, and they sought to expose these incidents, which they claimed were widespread but hidden.

In the 1980s, therapists began to create a new psychology around this emerging phenomenon called sexual abuse. In doing so, they turned to trauma theory, the idea that one could have a terrible experience, such as being involved in a bombing during war, and could be so psychologically traumatized by it that one would have difficulty functioning in everyday life. Davis asserts that psychologists refitted trauma theory to accommodate the physical experience of sexual abuse, creating a mechanistic, treatment-ready disease with a predictable course and continuing effects long after the actual experience.

“Therapy is a kind of story-framing process,” Davis asserts, “in which you learn the story, you learn to tell the story of your past that makes linkages between current experience and past abuse. So you get coached in how to be a survivor.

“The part that I found troubling,” Davis continues, “is that the trauma theory was a very deterministic theory. You have a trauma, and then what you do is irrelevant. This thing begins to work on you and has all these bad outcomes, so that your choices and what you do become unimportant. What it did was to inadvertently, but nevertheless quite emphatically, pathologize victims.”

As a sociologist, Davis prefers a more expansive view of human beings, one that recognizes strengths, resilience and capacity to stand heroically in the face of terrible circumstances. In reviewing the therapeutic literature, he was dismayed. “There are no soaring human spirits here,” he says. “It’s all about damage and trauma. That seemed to me an inadequate picture of the human person.”

A second troubling aspect of the victim narrative for Davis involves the idea it engenders that human beings are selves in isolation, that empowering people means they must rely on themselves for everything from identifying and fulfilling their own hopes and dreams to maintaining their own health. The risk of failure under the strain of this story is significant, setting one up for disappointment, disillusionment and even moral discomfort.

“There is a de-emphasis in that literature on strengthening your connection to other people,” Davis asserts. What would happen, he wonders, if instead of running from problematic relationships, people tried to work through them? “I think people are stronger in community than they are in isolation,” he declares.
In thinking about healing, wholeness and our growth as human beings, Davis would like to engage a richer conversation. Talking about people as mechanistic creatures subject to the whims of external circumstance or trauma, or as isolated individuals who are completely responsible for everything that happens to them, is an inadequate story for understanding human social experience, he says.

“What we call things, how we talk about them, makes a great deal of difference in what we do about them and how we actually experience them,” Davis declares. “It doesn’t deny that people really have this experience or that it can be really bad, but these ideas have a kind of history. We could think about them in other ways.”