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Freud was right about childhood sexual abuse… until he was disastrously wrong about it.

Freud's journey from listening to women to fully dismissing them
Content Warning

This story discusses CSA and repressed memories but does not describe any abuse

I am very excited to share with you what I recently learned about the father of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, and his findings about childhood sexual abuse. As the title suggests, there is a bit of a spoiler here: Freud was super duper right about childhood sexual abuse…until he became as wrong as possible about it. But his process and why he was so wrong about it is endlessly interesting to me and shows just how political our understanding of CSA really is.

Everything I am sharing comes from Trauma and Recovery, Dr. Judith Herman’s groundbreaking 1992 book that offers a political, scientific, and social understanding of sexual trauma. She is someone who was so right on memory and CSA so long ago and this book is an extraordinary resource for me and my work.

We start by looking at Hysteria, the wildest of all diagnoses

In Trauma and Recovery, Dr. Herman explains that around the mid-1890s Freud was studying hysteria, a diagnosis given to women for hundreds of years to describe loads of psychological symptoms they couldn’t really explain. It was a diagnosis given to women found to be “disagreeable.” Hysteria comes from the Greek hystera which means “uterus”, as the condition was believed during ancient times to be caused by having a “wandering uterus.” Sure.

It wasn’t until the 1600s that doctors began to believe hysteria came from the brain, not the uterus. Hysteria was a diagnosis exclusively given to women and it wasn’t removed from the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980 (!!!). Women were diagnosed with hysteria for a whole host of wild reasons, including her husband telling her doctor that she refuses to have sex with him, as well women having blindness, emotional outbursts, behaving “dramatically,” loss of sensation, hallucinations, paralysis, amnesia, having seizures and increased pain sensations.

A man sitting at the weekend update desk saying

Freud getting it right about childhood sexual abuse and memory

In the mid-1890s, the famed neurologist Sigmund Freud (as well as his rival, Pierre Janet) found that hysteria was caused by psychological trauma. He found that women with hysteria suffered “mainly from reminiscences” and that hysterical symptoms were alleviated when the patients recovered and talked about their traumatic memories. Dr. Herman explains that this realization led to the technique of psycho-analysis, of which Freud is credited with creating.

In developing this new technique, Freud decided to do something no one had previously done before with the patient population of hysteria: he asked women about their lives, especially their sex lives, and actually listened to what they had to say. What a novel concept!

Once Freud started listening to his women patients (again, wild), all he heard was story after story of childhood sexual abuse. Dr. Herman explains, “Freud and his patients uncovered major traumatic events of childhood concealed beneath the more recent, often relatively trivial experiences that had actually triggered the onset of hysterical systems.” This, to me, sounds exactly like how I’ve seen CSA show up in so many of us as adults. We experience some trigger as adults, and as we dig deeper we discover childhood trauma that had been repressed in some way.

In 1896, Freud decides to publish his findings about the root of hysteria being repressed sexual abuse in a report he calls The Aetiology of Hysteria. In it he makes the claim that, at the root of every case of hysteria, there is “one or more occurrences of premature sexual experiences.”

This is when Freud gets CSA super duper right. I love the way Dr. Herman explains how The Aetiology of Hysteria was so spot-on about sexual abuse. She says, “A century later, this paper stil rivals contemporary clinical descriptions of the effects of childhood sexual abuse. It is a brilliant, compassionate, eloquently argued, closely reasoned document.” Well damn, Freud, I guess you did great.

Freud discrediting his own work and going against his own science, because of his own political and social interests

BUT THEN! Only a year after publishing said report, Freud took it all back! ALL. OF. IT.

A woman turning around looking shocked and the text below her reads

His letters from that time show that Freud was really worried that if hysteria was caused by CSA, then it meant that CSA was literally everywhere, and that was too much for him to wrap his head around as true.

“Hysteria was so common among women that if his patients’ stories were true, and if his theory were correct, he would be forced to conclude that what he called ‘perverted acts against children’ were endemic, not only among the proletariat of Paris, where he had first studied hysteria, but also among the respectable bourgeois families of Vienna, where he had established his practice. This idea was simply unacceptable,” explains Dr. Herman.

OKAY, SO LISTEN. Freud decided it couldn’t be that all these fancy-ass families had adults sexually abusing children in them, so said that his entire theory had to be incorrect. He found it easier to deny his entire findings than to accept that CSA happened in every family, everywhere, all the time.

Here comes my favorite line from Dr. Herman, “Faced with this dilemma, Freud stopped listening to his female patients.” Written next to this in my book is my handwriting, “lololol”. Like, of course, he decides the answer is all his patients are lying over the idea that fancy people also sexually abuse children. How childish to say you’ll just stop listening to people because you don’t like what their words mean for you, personally. That’s how science works, right?

It is so wild to me to think that Freud was so right about CSA until he was the most wrong about it. He went on to publish work that literally still hurts survivors todays, legacies of interpreting CSA–related nightmares as unspoken sexual fantasies and other utter nonsense of the like. My therapist told me that some of her friends are Freud scholars and that they all wonder constantly if he himself was a survivor or had CSA in his family and that’s why he had such a vested interest in denying the reality of the epidemic.

Gif of Jenifer Lewis saying,

I know this is a lot of information. The reason I wanted to share it with you is that it shows that survivors have actually been telling their truth for ages and the reason that the epidemic of CSA has been denied has nothing to do with how many survivors did and didn’t speak up. Too often, people misplace the responsibility of ending the CSA epidemic on survivors, saying they need to tell their stories and speak their truth for things to change. But we’ve been doing that since the dawn of time! Powerful people have had all the information available to them to understand just how common CSA is, but it is an active decision to deny our realities and the magnitude of this problem.

When we look at Freud, we can see how harmful it is when people willfully choose to deny the reality of CSA because of their own personal vested interests. Yes, we need to believe survivors, but we also need to want to believe survivors, and decide what they have to say matters enough for us to challenge our own desires, interests and world-views. Freud was so right, until he made a choice to prioritize his comfort in polite society over the patients who trusted him with their truth. So for that, Freud can go fuck off.

Gif of Aidy Bryant saying,

It’s wild for me to imagine a world where one of the most influential thinkers of his time and the father of psychiatry understood both the epidemic of childhood sexual abuse and the way it can present itself in survivors in adulthood, especially through repressed or body memories. It overwhelms me to consider how different it may have been for so many of us if Freud had stuck with his findings and not cowardly dismissed his own work due to political motivations. I have found myself wondering if maybe Freud wouldn’t have become as famous and powerful if he had stayed by his initial word that families across the social stratosphere all had members in them who were sexually abusing children. There’s no way for us to know. But what I do know is science has always been on our side, because science is about the pursuit of truth, and we have been out here telling our truth since the dawn of time.