The literature available within the realm of child sexual abuse (CSA) is extensive to say the least. CSA is defined by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) as any sexual activity witnessed by, interacting with, or in any way including a child under the legal age of consent. All acts of CSA are unlawful and unethical, which is why it is critical to study their impacts on memory in order to better aid victims and support law enforcement to eliminate all instances of sexual violence or misconduct. This review will focus specifically on the hypothesis that memories of CSA can and do change from the time a victim reports or recalls an experience during childhood versus their recall of the abuse as adults. The review will encompass lines of research, primarily conducted in the 1990s, including the works of Sue Bidrose, Gail Goodman, Roger Mulder, Lenore Terr, and Linda Meyer Williams. Their work covers a range of empirical experimentation that investigates CSA in its varying forms, including long-term penetrative abuse, one-time coercive encounters, and other forms of physical and psychological sexual molestation in victims ranging in age from 0-16 at the time of said abuse.
The variety of literature on this topic concludes that children with developed autobiographical memories and hippocampal activity have relatively high recall for experiences of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and other genital or physical encounters (Bidrose, Goodman, 2000). On the other hand, it has also been widely concluded that adults who recall their experiences of CSA (in instances of abuse occurring after they had developed autobiographical memories) have a high rate of dissociation or forgetting such experiences (Williams, 1994). The cornerstone of this review has been on a line of research conducted by Gail S. Goodman and multiple colleagues, which extensively explores how children react to varying forms of genital contact, as well as the pivotal work of Linda Meyers Williams, focusing on the progressive changes in the memories of adults who were self-reported victims of CSA. The first of Goodman’s studies that will be relevant in this review, Testimony and Evidence: A Scientific Case Study of Memory for Child Sexual Abuse, was published in May of 2000 and conducted alongside Sue Bidrose, focusing on a case that took place in New Zealand in the 1990s. In the study, four girls between the ages of 8-15 abused for a period of 2-14 months by the same group of men were interviewed by local authorities and testified in trials and deposition hearings. The perpetrators had taken extensive photographs and taped audio recordings of the abuse, supplying evidence as to exactly what kinds of sex acts and psychological manipulations occured. Bidrose et al.
used recordings from the interviews and testimonies with the victims, as well as the audio-visual evidence, to create a coding system for their study. Each code was separated by sexual act, the adult male who perpetrated it, and the respective victim. One ‘coding unit’ consisted of a combination of each of the aforementioned categories, and as such, resulted in 112 individual units. Through the coding system, Bidrose et al. were able to compare the girls’ interviews and testimonies recounting what happened to the audio-visual evidence.
They concluded that 80-85% of the accounts of sexual acts recalled by the victims proved to match that of the evidence. This includes all acts for which there are photographic and audio-visual evidence, however, coercive acts had only a 42% accuracy. Bidrose et al.
found that the only age-related correlations in the investigation were that the youngest victim had lower recall and accuracy for sexual coercion, which could be explained by her lack of experience due to age with more complex and abstract situations of emotional manipulation. When it came to sexual contact, however, the same youngest child had comparable recall to that of the older victims.While evident that the four victims, regardless of their age or length of the abuse, clearly recalled their experiences of physical abuse and were even able to reject false accounts, the study is limited in that it does not follow the victims into adulthood. If this were to occur, there would be more clear indications as to whether such vivid details could be carried into adult memories. This particular set of victims also poses a question of whether undergoing extensive legal action or other similar prolonged periods of recalling the abuse as a child could extend the vividness of the memory into adulthood, compared with adults who were victims of CSA but did not report or speak of the crime at the time. Gail Goodman had previously explored this line of research in collaboration with Karen J.
Saywitz, Elisa Nicholas, and Susan F. Moan in their investigation, Children’s Memories of a Physical Examination Involving Genital Touch: Implications for Reports of Child Sexual Abuse, 1991. In this study, Goodman et al. investigated the memory of children for any contact with their genitals, regardless of it being in a CSA context. A group of 72 five and seven year old girls in the Los Angeles area were asked to participate in a routine doctor’s visit including a physical examination, a post-visit questionnaire, and a doll demonstration. All of the subjects were examined by a female doctor, with a nurse in the room recording all of the events, and with their mothers present to help them undress. Half the subjects, however, had a check-up that included genital and anal examinations, while the others were instead tested for scoliosis. During their interviews, all subjects were asked a series of abuse related, free-recall, and misleading questions in order to gage their memory of the events.
After that, similar questions were asked with nude and clothed dolls and props for the children to demonstrate their memories with.Goodman et al.’s most significant findings showed that of the 7 year old subjects, the group in non-genital examinations had better recall than their peers experiencing genital check-ups.
In fact, the 7 year olds in the genital group had the same recall as their 5 year old counterparts, which was the only age discrepancy in the overall findings. 78% of children in the genital group failed to report physical contact by their doctors during the free-recall portion of their interview, and 83% failed to do so during the doll and props demonstration. For the group in the non-genital condition, there were no cases of reporting genital touch during the interview or props sessions.
The age-related discrepancy in these findings begin to show that every year in which a child’s cognitive abilities are hardwired matter in the study of memory. Possible explanations for a 7 year old having the recall of a 5 year old regarding genital touching could be due to more developed experiences and autobiographical memories of emotions such as anxiety or self-consciousness (Goodman et al., 1993). Goodman et al.
further cites Rogoff and Lave in her suggestions that since the discrepancy only occured during free-recall and improved to the normal 7 year old level during the doll demonstration, that visual cues assist children in making sense of their memories. This could account for the age-related discrepancy in regards to coercion in Goodman’s aforementioned study with Bidrose, and suggests that since coercion is not something a child could physically see or point to in a doll, they would have increased difficulty recalling it. Goodman continued this line of research with a third study in collaboration with Jodi A. Quas, Jennifer M. Batterman-Faunce, M.M.
Riddlesberger, and Jerald Kuhn, in their 1994 study, Predictors of Accurate and Inaccurate Memories of Traumatic Events Experienced in Childhood. Whereas in her previous work Goodman had looked at routine, non painful genital touching at a doctor’s office, here she specifically focused on painful/invasive genital procedures. Her goal was to understand whether situations resembling the pain or invasive vulnerable nature of sexual assault could produce varying impacts on the memories and accuracy of children experiencing them. Goodman et al. sought out subjects whose parents had requested Voiding Cystourethrogram Fluoroscopic (VCUG) exams, which involves catheterization through the urethra (Goodman et al., 1994), due to their child suffering from urinary tract problems. From a group of 46 children ranging in age from 3-10, 29 were undergoing their first VCUG exam while 17 had had at least one previous examination. A checklist was used by the researchers during the exam itself in order to quantify how much the child had cried, expressed happiness, or overall emotional responses during all stages of the procedure.
Further, the children’s mothers completed questionnaires regarding their child’s reactions, or lack thereof, post-exam. Finally, a third round of questions were presented to the child after an average delay of 6.81 days, which included free-recall, doll/prop demonstrations, and direct rounds of questions to test their memory.Goodman et al.’s findings primarily showed that there was a correlation between age and recall, noting that 7-10 year old children had more than double the correct responses to direct, misleading and free recall questions about the VCUG exams than their 3-4 and 5-6 year old peers. Further data comparisons between the mother’s questionnaires and child responses showed that children whose mothers did not provide emotional or physical comfort after the examination had a -0.2 correlation to inaccuracy on the direct question portion of memory questioning, and a -0.
3 correlation to incorrect responses on all other questioning. Goodman et al. found no correlation between a child who had experienced more than one VCGU exam versus those who only had one, although children who expressed some degree of knowledge showed a 0.4 correlation to overall accuracy (Goodman et al.,1994). When combining the lines of research presented by Goodman and her colleagues, it becomes clear that children’s memories are vulnerable to reactions as their traumatic experiences are occuring.
Comparing her research of standard genital check-ups versus painful genital examinations, it is clear that feelings of pain, shame, and embarrassment contribute to a child’s ability to accurately recall sexual contact. Her findings on how age impacted memory contradict each other in the latter two studies, in that memory of non-painful genital touching amongst older children proved to be worse than that of younger children, whereas recall of painful touching was lower amongst younger children. The research by Goodman and her colleagues suggests that the accuracy of children’s memories of CSA or other forms of genital touching are not contingent upon one factor alone, but rather a combination of the nature of the abuse/touching, age, and exposure to visual or other social cues. There continues to be a discrepancy, however, when comparing childhood accounts of CSA to those done of adult recollections.
There is an overwhelming amount of literature focused on the recollection and accuracy of adult victims of CSA, and how those accounts change throughout adulthood. This introduces the second cornerstone of my research, which is the study conducted by Linda Meyer Williams on women with previously documented histories of childhood sexual victimization. The study focused on the following question: “Do people actually forget traumatic events such as CSA, and if so, how common is such forgetting?” (Williams, 1994). Williams interviewed 129 women (out of an original 206) who previously self-classified as victims of CSA, ranged in age at the time of their abuse from 10 months-12 years, and had visited the same hospital in the Northeastern United States from April to June of 1975. The newfound interviews with 66% of the original group who chose to return 17 years later were unaware that there was a correlation between their previously reported CSA and this new round of questioning, and thus arrived ready to discuss their experiences as women who had visited this particular hospital as children. Through a series of 14 pointed questions regarding abuse, molestation, or incenst by individuals at least five years older than the victims, 38% reported no instance of ever experiencing CSA. Of these women who did not recall abuse, 68% did report other instances of sexual abuse in childhood not pertaining to their original hospital visit in 1975.
Williams also found that other traumatic life experiences and previous treatment for alcohol and/or drug abuse did not correlate with forgetting CSA. Victim age, however, did impact the findings. Victims aged 0-3 or 4-6 at the time of their abuse were both about 59% likely to forget their abuse, while those in the 7-10 and 11-12 age groups were only 28% likely to do so (Williams, 1994). Although likely that the lack of recall in the 0-3 age group is due to infantile amnesia/lack of autobiographical and cognitive development, Williams does not cite a concrete explanation for the amnesia in children aged 4-6. Although children aged 4-6 would have more established autobiographical memories than when they were 0-3 years old, they certainly do not have a full breadth of psychological and cognitive resources available to them (Herman and Schatzow, 1987), meaning that they are still vulnerable to a lack of understanding regarding the impact of their abuse.
Williams attributes an unknown percentage of the 38% memory loss to a hesitancy to confess by the victims, which could be due to embarrassment or shame. Likewise, she counters this possibility by suggesting that the same victims were willing to report other kinds of detailed sexual activity throughout their lives, and that it would thus not make sense for them to hesitate on confessing abuse, meaning that they genuinely did forget. William’s point fell short on this matter due to the fact that abuse and rape are not acts of sex, they are acts of sexual violence and should not be compared with other consensual experiences unless discussing their impact. Despite this miscue, Williams’ work clearly showed that a staggering percentage of women did not recall the abuse that they had self-reported 17 years prior, but it lacks an investigation of whether dissociation is experienced in these proportions only by CSA survivors, or whether it is a psychological consistency throughout the general population. It is worthwhile to investigate whether all adults experience forgetting regarding physical, sexual, or other forms of abuse that could potentially lead to dissociation, PTSD, and other memory disorders.
One study led by Roger T. Mulder of the University of Otago in 1998 surveyed a random sample of 1,028 adults who underwent face-to-face interviews. The subjects were asked a range of questions to determine their experience with sexual abuse, physical abuse, symptoms related to a DSM-III-R diagnoses, and selected items from the Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES). Results showed that roughly 53% of adults experienced occasional forms dissociation throughout their lives, and that 6% experience high forms of dissociation at some point. Amongst the 6% with high dissociation, the rate of CSA was roughly 2.5 times higher than the rest of the population (Mulder, 1998), which demonstrates a strong correlation between CSA and high levels of reported dissociation in adulthood. In comparing the studies of Williams and Mulder, there appears to be evidence to suggest that a direct correlation exists between CSA and high dissociation in adulthood.
Together they show that forgetting CSA is not correlated with normal instances of amnesia, such as infantile amnesia or occasional adult dissociation, but should rather be classified as abnormally high periods of amnesia. It is when adding Bidrose and Goodman’s findings to this equation that inconsistencies arise, as neither Williams nor Mulder’s work explain when memory loss occurs, they simply show that it does. If children truly had such high rates of recall as found by Bidrose and Goodman, then when and why do they forget it? Lenore C. Terr’s 1991 research on trauma explored this question through her categorization of traumatic experiences as Type I and Type II. Type I was classified as a single traumatic event occurring in childhood, while Type II persists on a long-term basis (Terr, 1991). Type I traumas were noted by Terr to be recalled by children in vivid detail due to the sense of shock that they instill, while Type II are overwhelmingly suppressed in contrast. Type II traumas instill a sense of anticipation and self-defense in victims, and thus, they seek modes of protection during the trauma.
One case study cited by Terr was about a nine year old girl, Suzanna, who was sexually abused by her older brother on a consistent basis at age six. In sessions with a psychiatrist two years later, Suzanna stated that during the abuse she would repeat the words ‘I don’t know’ over and over to herself, entering what Terr called a ‘mini-trance.’ Cases of hypnosis or other forms of dissociation while the abuse is occuring could explain forgetting the act altogether in adulthood (Terr, 1991). Terr’s analysis of multiple case studies in which children report such behavior, including Suzanna’s, showed that forgetting is not necessarily taking place somewhere between childhood and adulthood, but rather during the long-term abuse itself. This means that children develop coping mechanisms in anticipation of their continued abuse, and as such, begin the process of forgetting as a means of coping with their current reality (Terr, 1991). Another possibility for why children forget their long-term abuse could go back to Goodman’s findings on the role of a mother or parent in a child’s recall of painful genital touching. Goodman’s findings showed that children whose mothers comforted them after the painful procedure had increased recall and accuracy, whereas those whose mothers did not have time to comfort them showed significantly worsened memories.
Since CSA overwhelmingly occurs without the knowledge of a mother or parent (in cases where a parent is not the perpetrator), it could be inferred that children who suffer from long-term CSA and hence do not have parental comfort are more vulnerable to memory loss due to a lack of emotional support. Having to internalize experiences of CSA would lead to, as suggested by Goodman, a lack of recall of the events themselves and a focus on the internalized state (Goodman et al., 1994), as exemplified by Suzanna when she entered her trance. In Suzanna’s case specifically, she reported that her older brother did not speak to her during the acts, which challenged Bidrose and Goodman’s findings of Type II victims who could perfectly recall their trauma. Those participants, however, were asked by their abusers to moan or otherwise verbally participate during the acts. If the children were forced to speak, there would likely be less room for them to enter self-defensive spaces of allowing their minds to wander, as employed by Suzanna. Although it remains unclear how both of these findings would change as the children grow, they do demonstrate that one of the greatest contributors to dissociation could be the nature of the sexual abuse itself and the child’s reaction as it is occuring.
Applying William’s findings to these cases, however, would suggest that if Suzana and the New Zealand trial subjects were reevaluated as adults, a 38% loss of self-reported CSA could be expected as a result of suppression during the acts.A 1993 study by John Briere and Jon Conte looked further into the correlation between Type II sexual trauma and memory suppression or amnesia. In a group of 450 male and female victims (7% and 93%, respectively) of CSA who were referred to Briere et al. by their therapists, the average duration of abuse was 10.
57 years perpetrated by an abuser averaging 25.8 years older than the victim. Victims were administered a questionnaire regarding the abuse itself, the perpetrator, and their personal reactions during and after the acts.
The overarching question of the study, however, was: “During the period of time between when the first forced sexual experience happened and your eighteenth birthday was there ever a time when you could not remember the forced sexual experience?” (Briere et al., 1993). The results of the study showed that an overwhelming 59% majority of participants reported some period of complete amnesia regarding their first CSA encounter before their 18th birthday. These findings present a notable difference to those in the previously cited studies in that this amnesia is self-reported, whereas previous investigators determined the amnesia without the subject necessarily being aware of it themselves. This distinction poses a limitation and point for further exploration in the Briere et al.
findings, which is what caused a victim to, after their 18th birthday, come to remember their CSA once again. A few possibilities for this could be the emergence of such memories in therapy, physical reactions in the body that indicate past trauma, or recurring themes found in dreams that instigate previously suppressed memories (Terr, 1991). If one thing is clear regarding CSA, it’s that lines of research contradict each other on numerous accounts, and more often than not, there is no clear answer reached as to what factors most influence the memory or accuracy of traumatic childhood events. For children recalling CSA during childhood, age is the most contradictory of such factors, with research by Bidrose, Goodman, and Terr mostly proving that even young children can have accurate recall, but that external factors could have far more significant impact. Such externalities would include prolonged reflection, such as in the context of a court trial, the presence or lack thereof of a mother or parental figure, and the nature and reaction of the assault while it occurs. When extending the research to include work regarding adult memories of CSA, research across the board supports the hypothesis that adults can and do forget traumatic childhood experiences for at least some portion of their lives.
The original hypothesis for this research suggested that memories of CSA during childhood evolve and change into adulthood, which the aforementioned studies clearly support. What remains unclear is which factors, whether they be age at the time of abuse, familial support, or regularly occurring instances of adult amnesia, play the greatest role in shaping our memories from childhood.