Looking away structurally

Herry Vos

The history of society's acknowledgement of sexual abuse is a long one, characterized by small steps, prolonged denial, and reluctant admission when something can no longer be denied. The list is long: incest, rape, abuse within institutions (religions, sports, drama schools, etc.). And last but not least? - abuse by well-known and powerful people in higher circles: abuse in an organized and criminal context.

Parallel to this is the history of not wanting to take seriously the stories of victims, and of the consequences - also and perhaps especially the psychological ones. The history of the recognition of the existence of post-traumatic stress shows the same slow process of recognition; slowly the acceptance of the great diversity in the nature of traumas and the (professions of the) people who are affected by them grows.

Also, the history of many psychiatric disorders teaches us that it takes time before we can understand what is going on with those who suffer from them. Why do we assume that schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression, domestic violence, incest exist? What makes us not assume that organized sexual abuse exists? People tell stories about that too. Specific symptoms arise from that too, just as they do from those others, and therefore we know it exists. With regard to the diagnosis of depression, for example, there are still ambiguities, there are sometimes conflicting opinions. They don't make us not believe it exists. One difference is that we can roughly count the number of people suffering from schizophrenia, depression and anxiety disorders; of the victims of organized violence we know only those who have the courage to be counted. But does that make them unbelievable, does that make what they have experienced non-existent?

It is, again and again, the history of not wanting to know - driven by disgust, fear and shame over one's own hidden fantasies, guilt over one's own actions, fear of acknowledging that people can do unimaginably cruel things to others, from babyhood or even before. Well, maybe in war situations or in 'less civilized' regions, but not here, close to home, by people like us. If ears and eyes are closed - because it is too unimaginable, and therefore too threatening to personal well-being - something does not exist. If it comes too close - emotionally, or if you are involved yourself - it cannot and must not exist.

If laboratory experiments on healthy volunteers demonstrate certain memory processes, the other memory processes demonstrated in victims do not exist and are contrived. If a single psychotherapist is too suggestive with clients, dissociative symptoms resulting from early and chronic abuse do not exist, and all therapists who deal with these issues are unreliable.

If victims are unable - due to their problems - to tell a congruent and consistent story when reporting a crime, then their story cannot be true. If no legally watertight evidence can be found, ritualized sadistic abuse does not exist. If the word 'ritual' is mentioned in a report, or if there are memories of abuse that emerge during a treatment process, then this is a reason not to investigate further. It does not exist.


Fortunately, every now and then there are big cases - Weinstein, Epstein, Maxwell - that suddenly create more openness. The result is the emergence of mass movements such as #MeToo - of which, incidentally, it remains to be seen what the effect will be in the longer term.

Fortunately, large child pornography networks are broken up now and then, as happened recently in Germany, so that - for a moment - the realisation dawns that something like this really exists. Without drawing the conclusion that it is 'just' among us and that stories of adults who say they are (or have been) victims of such practices may well be true. Because their stories, especially if they come forward during police interrogations, are as said often inconsistent. And thus - according to the guidelines of the Justice Department - unreliable. They 'forget' that these people's stories, by definition, cannot be consistent. That they might be true after all should not be believed.

Fortunately, everyone agrees that false declarations occur and that they cause a great deal of damage.

Fortunately, false declarations are probably very rare.

Not so fortunate is the fact that the fear - which has often become a belief - of false accusations leads, in probably not a few situations, to the disbelief of victims and the assumption that all possible perpetrators are more credible.

Dissociation, as a result of early traumatization in particular, has gradually gained a place in psychiatry and psychology. Still this place is doubted and disputed. Still the knowledge about dissociation is inadequate, especially when it comes to the knowledge and experience with its treatment. Still it is not acknowledged what disastrous consequences this has, in the first place for the person whose existence is once again denied by this, but certainly also in a social sense: various studies point to the large costs resulting from the poor or non-treatment of trauma-related complaints, such as those in the somatic domain, dropping out of the job market and claiming social benefits.

Gradually - far too slowly and far too infrequently - possibilities are opening up for the treatment of victims. Not to mention the effective treatment of perpetrators. But slowly the waiting lists are getting longer, to an unacceptable length.

Slowly but surely, knowledge has increased about how abuse can also take place within networks. Pedophile networks, child pornography networks, networks of a religious nature and finally criminal networks, often linked to human trafficking and constructed around the systematic and ingenious programming of people from their infancy to become suitable for work as sex slaves, in the (child) porn world and prostitution. Human trafficking in optima forma. The recent VPRO Argos documentaries on the subject and the investigation by RTL journalist Daniƫl Verlaan on the darkweb, make painfully clear what goes on in these networks. The reactions of the deniers to this were not slow: they could quickly return to the order of the day, or they could blame the researchers for taking the stories - and thus the person telling them - seriously, because they were supposed to be fantasies; without, incidentally, providing any evidence for their fantastical nature.

It is slowly becoming clear how these networks are able to conceal their existence and thus remain elusive to the police and the judiciary. With the result that they 'do not exist'. So the perpetrators go free, and we have allowed them to make even more victims.

Slowly the number of media paying attention to these phenomena is increasing. Much too slowly and too sporadically, because it is necessary that the knowledge about these phenomena becomes more widely known.

It is inconceivable that people still believe that the results of laboratory research on healthy adult volunteers into the functioning of the memory can be translated on a one-to-one basis into what happens to the memory when, from a very young age, people are exposed to the most terrible, frightening and (life) threatening experiences in complete powerlessness and dependence.

The influence of scientists, who insist that laboratory research should be the basis for our actions, on the functioning of institutions whose basic task is to protect vulnerable people, with the result that it is these people who are re-traumatised, is unimaginable.

It is inconceivable that a whole professional group of psychotherapists can be put away as the cause of the fact that their patients, step by step and with a lot of shame and pain, start to remember far away hidden misery in a slowly safe contact and without coercion, because a single therapist has been too suggestive - and thus wrong.

It is unimaginable that so little is said against this oppressive, arrogant attitude of a small group of scientists, who have remarkably little experience themselves with the treatment of people with these (very complex) problems, and who let themselves be corrected remarkably little by other scientists.

Unimaginable suffering apparently evokes unimaginable and not factually based reactions, which in turn evoke unimaginable suffering in those who have already experienced unimaginable suffering.

We are all responsible for this whole process and, above all, for the urgent need to change it. It is high time for a rethink and an end to decades of denial.

Herry Vos, former child and youth psychiatrist/psychotherapist, board member of the Knowledge Centre on Transgenerational Violence (KTGG)