February 24, 1998

Structures of innocence: Sexual abuse, psychotherapy, and the construction of moral meanings.

Abstract: "Over the past three decades, social movements have become engaged in the deconstruction and reconstruction of psychological knowledge, and the adaptation of therapeutic practice to movement claims for recognition. Structures of Innocence is a study of this consequential process. The first section explores the psychiatric and legal typifications of sexual offenses and incest, victim and offender that prevailed until the 1970s. In that decade, these older approaches were rejected and new typifications forged by the family therapy, child protection, and feminist movements. For the latter two movements, building respectively on preexisting models of physical child abuse and rape, new claims were centered on the person-category of the victim, including child and adult former victims. In contrast with the older approaches, the victim person-type was typified as innocent of any moral blame or cooperation, and all responsibility for harm assigned to the victimizer. The second section explores the incorporation, by mental health professionals associated with these movements, of this "structure of innocence" into a trauma/dissociation model of victim harm. The new model located the onus of pathology outside of the victim and on the victimizer, so preserving the innocence of the diagnosed and extending innocence to a large number of adult problems tied to the trauma. This model, in turn, became the foundation for psychotherapeutic rationales that identified "adult survivors" and interpreted their suffering past and present. The third section outlines a cultural model of therapeutic persuasion, and analyzes the treatment sequence and narrative prototype by which survivor therapy clients are led to recast their self-identity. The final section explores the controversy over recovered memories that erupted in the early 1990s with the formation of a countermovement organization of accused parents and allied professionals, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. To resist status challenges, personal and professional, arising from claims of recovered memories and subsequent abuse allegations, the countermovement constructed its own structure of innocence ("false memory syndrome") to turn these challenges back on those making them. In conclusion, unintended consequences of structures of innocence are examined, and the role of psychotherapy in claims for recognition."
Joseph Eugene Davis
University of Virginia
Department of Sociology
Date Added November 10, 2016
Date Modifed October 17, 2017
Collection UVA scholarship on sexual violence, 1974-

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