Identification with the aggressor: A defense of female incest victims

Marcia Tibbetts Turner (1990)

Psychodynamic theory largely ignored the reality of sexual abuse until the mid 1970's when the women's movement drew attention to this issue. Treatment frameworks for sexual abuse victims address the effects of guilt, shame, anxiety, rage, pain, silence, and dissociation that victims of sexual abuse experience. These treatment frameworks, however, pay little attention to this study's hypothesis that these symptoms often point towards an identification with the aggressor. This dissertation proposes an eclectic definition of identification with the aggressor in incest/sexual abuse victims: It is a mechanism by which a victim of sexual abuse not only takes upon herself the supposed and experienced guilt and shame of the perpetrator but also experiences a certain fragmentation or splitting of the self as a result of the abuse. This fragmented self may either turn the aggression of the sexual perpetration against herself or against others. Clinicians who ignore the fears of this population may force them to hide their impulses toward replicating the abuse they suffered. This can lead to greater acting out of these tendencies against themselves or others. Treatment which recognizes identification with the aggressor and accepts these concerns and impulses as legitimate can help prevent further sexual abuse. Through the descriptive discussion of five women who were sexually abused, a checklist of symptoms and behaviors pointing toward the use of identification with the aggressor is developed. The purpose of this study is to widen the understanding of the presentations of sexual abuse clients and thereby lead to a more inclusive treatment approach. It is argued that non-consideration of this identification discourages complete recovery from the effects of incest.