UW News

June 22, 1998

Remembering and forgetting childhood sexual abuse: it’s how events are encoded in memory and how people view themselves, not repression

Researchers probing people’s memories of sexual abuse report two ordinary mechanisms may be responsible for temporarily forgetting and later remembering genuine instances of childhood sexual abuse. Their findings suggest that it is possible to explain such forgetting without repression.

In a new study, University of Washington psychologists Susan Joslyn and Elizabeth Loftus say that events which are not well understood when they occur are not fully integrated into a person’s memory, are not thought about often and thus are more difficult to retrieve.

In addition, Joslyn and Loftus report that people are reluctant to assume a negative label such as “sex abuse victim” when that label is inconsistent with their present self-view. The majority of people, they say, fail to acknowledge having been abused even though they report specific abuse events. This may be because they are reluctant to regard themselves as ‘abuse victims.’ That label doesn’t fit with their self-image. This fact further hinders recall because events are not classified as abuse in memory, leaving people without an appropriate category in their memory. These kinds of memories are difficult, but not impossible, to retrieve. “Obviously, some sexual abuse events are too memorable to be forgotten in this manner because they were too violent or occurred multiple times,” says Loftus, a UW professor of psychology

“Our study suggests people can forget some instances of childhood abuse by normal means and we don’t have to rely on something as dramatic as repression and so-called ‘recovered memories’ to explain the process,” adds Joslyn, a lecturer in psychology at the UW and lead investigator on the project.

Repression and recovered memories are controversial ideas involving early traumatic events that are so painful that some people push memories of the experiences into inaccessible corners of the unconscious. There they remain hidden for years, or decades.

To explore people’s memories of childhood sexual abuse, the researchers used questionnaires to ask 800 male and female college students if they had experienced any of seven events that are commonly considered to be sexual abuse when they were age 15 or younger. The events ranged from being exposed to someone’s sexual private parts to rape.

Follow-up questions measured subsequent memory for the event and whether the participant considered the event to be sexual abuse now and at the time it occurred. In a totally separate question, participants were asked if they had ever been sexually abused.
Of the participants, 176 or 22 percent said they had experienced one or more of the sexual events. In all, they reported 384 sexual events. Surprisingly, only 42 of these people said they had been sexually abused when answering the generic abuse question. Also, nearly a third of the people who said they had experienced an abusive event reported they wouldn’t have remembered the event if they had been asked about it.

“When you don’t understand an event totally, you remember it less and recall it less,” says Joslyn. “It’s not that you can’t recall it, it’s just that you don’t. This explains how people might forget sexual abuse in some cases.”

Even more surprising were the responses of the 120 people who answered “no” to the generic abuse question. Of them, 108 or 90 percent contradicted their own definitions of abuse in denying that they were abused. While these people said a particular event they experienced — such as being touched — was abuse, they then turned around and answered “no” when asked if they’d ever been abused.

Why do so many people who reported a sexual event in their childhood not classify themselves as victims of sexual abuse?

Loftus and Joslyn believe it may have to do in part with the number and types of sexual abuse events they experienced. The people who classified themselves as “abused” reported an average of 3.3 sexual events while the “not abused” group reported an average of 1.4 events. Physical contact or the lack of contact also played a role in people’s perception. Only one of 40 people who said they experienced a non-contact sexual event, such as having another person expose him or herself, said they had been abused. However, 41 people or 24 percent of those who said were touched identified themselves as abused.

People’s views of themselves can be a powerful barrier against recalling something that is contradictory to that self-portrait, according to Loftus. “The group we studied was made up of college freshman who are young and healthy and don’t want the victim label put on them,” she says.

“Either of these mechanisms is a plausible explanation for temporary forgetting of events such as childhood sexual abuse,” conclude the researchers.

The study, which was co-authored by Linda Carlin, a UW doctoral graduate in psychology, was published in the journal Memory.

For more information, contact Joslyn at (206) 616-7183 or susanj@u.washington.edu or Loftus at (206) 543-7184 or eloftus@u.washington.edu