chapter  10
12 Pages

Attachment as recovery from child sexual abuse

Sexuality is built into every aspect of our being: it transcends the biological function of procreation to also become a vital force in human relationships and creativity. Sexuality is about both creating life and feeling alive. But it can go terribly wrong. Bowlby has been criticised for writing relatively little about sex. He was of course aware that sexuality is indispensable for human survival and development. But he was sceptical about the value of the Oedipus complex, one of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis, as a universal sexual principle governing mental life. Discovering and validating attachment as an essential relationship and a primary instinctual force in its own right was at the core of his professional life. It was well worth it. Bowlby (1969, pp. 233-234) saw attachment and sexuality as two distinct systems

that “are apt to impinge on each other and to influence the development of each other”. In his view, the introduction of attachment as a discrete organisation “in no way imperils the fruits of psychoanalytic insight”. He further stated that “a great research effort is required to unravel all these overlaps and the influences of one class of behaviour on another”. Such a research is not within the remit of this book. However, I would direct

the interested reader to a number of authors who have explored the interface between sexuality and attachment (for example, Fonagy, 2001; Holmes, 2001, 2010; Widlocher, 2002; White & Schwartz, 2005). Peter Fonagy and Jeremy Holmes extended their exploration beyond sexuality. They in fact straddled the worlds of attachment theory and psychoanalysis. The developing trend is one of non-prejudice, inclusiveness and fluidity in

respect of human sexuality, which is good news (Nitsun, 2006). But we need to be aware that there has been much pathologising in the past and, although there is a positive climate of political correctness, we have to be mindful about possible negative attitudes – internalised over generations, operating in subtle ways. There are increasing administrative requirements to tick boxes disclosing sexual identity

and orientation as well as gender. Of course, this is meant to be used to prevent any form of sexual or gender discrimination. But there is a risk of over-compartmentalising sexuality, which may end in abusive practices. What about just saying: I am only a human sexual being. Optimally, a securely attached sexual being? The only time I saw Bowlby angry in the six years of our work together was

when I asked him about child sexual abuse. He raised his eyebrows and said with a sense of regret that Freud’s change of heart on this matter had been a disaster! Until 1897, Freud believed that the stories of childhood sexual abuse reported by his patients were true and caused long-term damage. In his 1896 paper on the aetiology of hysteria, he had referred to child sexual abuse and had stated: “Injuries sustained by an organ which is as yet immature, or by a function which is in the process of developing, often cause more severe and lasting effects than they could do in mature years” (quoted in Zulueta, 1993, p. 140). But Freud then retreated and postulated that his patients’ emotional problems

were caused by unconscious phantasies or delusions of seduction that had not actually occurred (see Chapter 11). Bowlby considered that Freud’s disbelief or denial of childhood sexual abuse contributed to a dreadfully ignorant and unhelpful clinical practice with the victims. The denial also held back a much needed social awareness of the problem for more than half a century. In the final interview given by Bowlby on 15 February 1990, conducted by

Virginia Hunter at the Tavistock Clinic, he stated: “I have to say as a student I was almost forbidden to give attention to real life events. Well, I’m talking about the 1930s … and there’s still, I think, excessive emphasis on fantasy” (Hunter, 2015, pp. 139-140). He then went on to report that, only four years before, whilst he was at a case conference in a very well-known clinic in the USA, a psychoanalyst presented the case of a woman who reported that she had been sexually abused by her elder brother. Nevertheless, the analyst was convinced that this was a fantasy. Bowlby had no doubt that the woman’s account was true, as her problems were

typical of what you might expect as an outcome of child sexual abuse. He then asked the analyst whether he had read the literature on sexual abuse in childhood and its consequences. Bowlby was rather astounded to learn that this analyst was totally unfamiliar with any literature on the subject and added: “Well I mentioned this, you see, because this was only four years ago. So this reluctance to believe that what a patient tells you is true is still around and I think it’s not only un-therapeutic, it’s anti-therapeutic” (Hunter, 2015, p. 140). Besides psychoanalytic practitioners, the majority of professionals within mental

health and social institutions maintained a dignified silence. Denial was in fact present at all levels in the society. The strength of this defensive mechanism was masterfully described by Friedrich Nietzsche (2000, p. 270): “‘I did that’, says my memory. ‘I could not have done that’, says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually, the memory yields”. In the 1950s, a number of social scientists started to conduct large-scale survey

studies of sexual practices, especially in the USA. Kinsey et al. (1953) documented that between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of the women interviewed reported

having had a sexual experience as a child with a male; between 4 per cent and 12 per cent reported a sexual experience with a relative; and 1 per cent reported a sexual experience with a father or stepfather. The prevalence of childhood sexual abuse was substantiated in these studies but,

paradoxically, the reality of the phenomenon continued to be denied by both the professionals and the public. For example, most of the sexually abused women in the Kinsey study reported being disturbed by the experience and, yet, the researches indicated that the women’s distress resulted not from the sexual act itself but from their social conditioning. It seems that Kinsey and his colleagues, in their attempt to encourage enlightenment and tolerance of sexual attitudes, failed to distinguish between essentially harmless acts, committed by consenting adults, and frankly exploitative acts – such as the prostitution of women and the molesting of children. In the 1970s and 1980s, the feminist movement contributed to bringing the

problem of child sexual abuse into the open, along with other taboo issues such as rape and gender violence. In the summer of 1987, the Cleveland Report had a powerful shaking effect in all the social strata in the UK. In the spring of that year, 121 children from the then county of Cleveland – an area of some 583 square km that included the economically depressed towns of Hartlepool, Redcar and Middlesbrough – were taken into temporary local authority care on suspicion of having been sexually abused. The majority of the children had been abused and some were re-abused by an unprepared child protection system. Cleveland was the first known case of child sexual abuse in Britain that involved multiple victims and multiple perpetrators. Other shocking reports from Rochdale, Orkney and Broxtowe followed on in

quick succession. The magnitude of the problem was such that it could no longer be ignored. The media gave ample coverage. There was unanimous concern about the welfare of the victims and psychological treatment programmes developed. Unfortunately, the criminal justice process itself added much pain and distress to the victims’ trauma. Children were summoned unnecessarily and given little information; they were also kept waiting for long periods and subjected to tough cross-examinations. In February 2013, the UK media reported the suicide of Frances Andrade after giving evidence in the criminal trial of her abuser. This tragic event highlighted the re-traumatising nature of the legal process. New fires have continued erupting until the present day. On 7 July 2014, the UK

Home Secretary at the time and now Prime Minister, Theresa May, told the media that she had decided to set up a national inquiry into child sexual abuse. The announcement followed the revelation that 114 Home Office files on alleged abusers, during the period 1979 to 1999, had been lost or destroyed. This implies that the evidence must have been suppressed by people in positions of power. The now ongoing investigation includes public bodies, the private sector and wider civil society with a duty of care to protect children in England and Wales, from 1970 to the present. This full national inquiry may help address the wider social and political context in all its complexity. The first three Chairs of this ongoing inquiry have already resigned.