Sexual Trauma

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The term sexual trauma refers to a sexual situation that causes intense fear because the subject, a child, is exposed to it in a state of passivity and unpreparedness.

Classical psychiatry was already interested in traumas when Freud was developing his ideas. He borrowed the term, but replaced the psychiatric notion of a shock from a serious accident causing a fear of death with that of the impact of sexual aggressions against children. In a letter of October 15, 1895, he wrote to Wilhelm Fliess: "Have I revealed the great clinical secret to you? . . . Hysteria is the consequence of a presexual sexual shock " (1954a [1887-1902], p. 127). The notion of sexual trauma was here implicitly evoked for the first time; it would play a fundamental role in the history of psychoanalysis.

In the early days of his practice, Freud concluded from the frequency with which his patients recounted sexual scenes that such adult seductions of children were real, and that psychical traumas were always sexual in nature. Based on these clinical observations, Freud developed a theory, in 1895-1897, of the two-step effect of the trauma. According to this view, an initial event left traces that would be awakened a later time, usually at puberty, and lead to a flooding of the psyche with libidinal energy and a corresponding generation of anxiety.

With the discovery of infantile sexuality (1905d), Freud realized that scenes of seduction were often fantasy reconstructions; nevertheless, despite the abandonment of what he called his "neurotica," he never stopped worrying about the question of just how fictitious and how real such scenes were. What was traumatizing in Freud's view was not the event per se but the affects and representations, including fantasies, to which it gave rise. Its impact was a function of the time it occurred relative to the child's ego development and ability to metabolize the excitation thus initiated and relative to the effects it had on the child's fantasy organization. For a trauma to be represented on an inner stage, and in more than one phaseand so to "offer by far the more favorable field for analysis" (Freud, 1937c, p. 220)it must be neither premature nor too strong.

Sexual trauma, as defined by Freud in his first topography, cannot be understood independently of the notions of seduction, repression, deferred action, and internal versus external reality. At this phase of his thinking Freud did not yet consider the narcissistic injury caused by such traumas. And in his concern to locate scenes of seduction at an ever earlier date and to study their much later pathological effectsa concern that necessarily put the spotlight on the mechanism of deferred actionhe paid scant attention to sexual aggressions suffered in adulthood or to their traumatic effects.

FranÇoise Brette

See also: "Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child"; "Heredity and the Etiology of the Neuroses"; Hysteria; Memories; Neurotica; Seduction scenes; Trauma.


Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 209-253.

. (1939a). Moses and monotheism. SE, 23: 1-137.

. (1954a [1887-1902]). The origins of psycho-analysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, drafts and notes, 1887-1902 (Marie Bonaparte et al., Eds.; Eric Mosbacher and James Strachey, Trans.). London: Imago.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

Further Reading

Levine, Howard (Ed.). (1990). Adult analysis and childhood sexual abuse. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Scharff, Jill S., and Scharff, David E. (1994). Object relations therapy of physical and sexual trauma. Northvale, NJ: Aronson, Inc.

Shengold, Leonard. (1989). Soul murder: The effects of childhood abuse and deprivation. New Haven: Yale University Press.