As part of the preparatory work for the forthcoming Study Days of the School* I remembered a text by Karl Abraham, which I had read a long time ago. It is an audacious and provocative text whose main thesis is contained in the title: “The Experiencing of Sexual Trauma as a Form of Sexual Activity” . To this writing dating from 1907, the author saw fit to add in 1920 a note at the end of his text in which he specifies that this text “contains many errors on Freud’s concepts” (he doesn’t specify which ones) and that he “had only recently begun to interest [him]self in the psychoanalytic method of thought” [1].

The question raised by the text is that of the responsibility of the victims of the sexual assault in what happens to them. He builds his argument on several points. First, he draws the analogy with certain depressed patients who have thoughts of death without passing to the suicidal act and who in a situation of danger, are rather slow to find shelter. He gives the example of a young woman who moves out of the way a little too late from a galloping horse that she probably could have avoided.

Abraham then quotes an anecdote that Freud drew from Don Quixote and which he took up in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life:

“A woman dragged a man before the judge and alleging he had robbed her of her honour by violence. In compensation Sancho gave her a full purse of money which he took from the accused; but after the woman’s departure he gave him permission to pursue her and snatch his purse back again from her. The two returned struggling, the woman priding herself on the fact that the villain had not been able to seize the purse from her. Thereupon Sancho declared: ‘If you had you defended your honour with half the determination with which you have defended this purse, the man could not have robbed you of it’.”

Abraham wonders if the apparent cause, the accident or the assault, does not sometimes allow a drive to be satisfied in a hidden way, to conceal an unconscious complacency. He takes precautions and of course indicates that it is not a question of considering that all accidents or all assaults are of this nature.

There are situations where the abuser takes advantage of a surprise situation and where the victim has no way of escaping. But on another note, a certain number of assaults are preceded by a situation of seduction. He evokes cases where a victim consents to follow its future abuser or adopts a passive attitude towards them. He also makes a distinction between children who after the assault talk to their parents immediately and those who say nothing. He has the idea that the victims for whom the consequences are the most deleterious are perhaps those who let themselves be seduced, were passive and did not say anything. He then becomes interested in the guilt that victims feel, sometimes against the evidence. He wonders if this guilt is not precisely linked to an unconscious attraction to the sexual question, which has them, just like suicidal persons who expose themselves to danger, exposed to sexual assault, or at least that this obscure attraction did not hinder, delay, inhibit them in their resistance or in their flight. Abraham makes yet another argument: a number of victims of sexual assaults are repeatedly assaulted, he is surprised by that.

So this text by Karl Abraham is explosive because it lends itself to easy amalgamations. There is a very clear line that needs to be clarified. In no way is this about holding the victims of sexual assault to blame for what happens to them. This is not what it is about, but the fact that a number of them are blaming themselves; they feel guilty. Why ?

In a text of the same period (“The Etiology of Hysteria”, 1896), Freud speaks of the fact that sexual assaults expose the young child to an experience about which it has no knowledge which would enable it to interpret it. And that “infantile scenes” of this sort behave in the same way as an unconscious representation: the ego cannot integrate them. This is why the assaults have pathogenic effects at a second time, often years later, when a new knowledge allows another reading of what happened, or when a similar situation awakens this trace of the initial assault.

So is the victim guilty? No. She is not guilty, but we are going to propose to her to be responsible. Treating with words the symptoms which result from the assault produces a subject who will take on his or her history. This subject which is constituted once it speaks, because of its symbolic status, will have the retroactive impression that it has always been there. It will represent the scene of the assault as a scene where it was in passive or silent form. This is forgetting, through the illusion of the après-coup, that at the time of the trauma it was not there yet, or that it was no longer there. The assault petrifies, freezes, reduces the victim to its body, to the object of the abuser’s pleasure. A young child does not have the psychic means to respond adequately.

In contrast, in an analysis it will be a matter of taking responsibility for what we had to deal with, the responsibility to understand in the first sense: to answer for that, to say something about it. This is what allows a subject to differentiate her or herself from it. Talking about what happened, already is to no longer be the silent or passive victim of the assault, it is to differentiate yourself from the position of victim which can otherwise freeze a subject in their suffering and prevent them from overcoming it. Replace sterile guilt with response-ability. Taking responsibility is a way to assume responsibility for what happened, what had to be dealt with, what took place, even if we did not choose it, in order to examine how we can manage to minimize the nuisance. Psychoanalysis does not provide a recipe for getting out of it, but a device that allows a subject to process the real to which it was exposed.

Translated by Peggy Papada

* The Study Days of the École de la Cause freudienne, take place on 14 &15 November 2020, online, in French.

Republished with author’s permission. Originally published:

[1] Abraham, K., (1907): “The experiencing of sexual traumas as a form of sexual activity” Selected Papers of Karl Abraham, Hogarth, London, 1950, p. 63.

[2] Freud, S.,  “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” (1901), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. VI, pp. 151-318. n.181