Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Annie Huntington (1999) 'A Critical Response to Sara Scott's 'Here be Dragons: Researching the Unbelievable, Hearing the Unthinkable. A Feminist Sociologist in Uncharted Territory' '
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 1, <>

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Received: 20/11/98      Accepted: 16/03/99      Published: 31/3/99


This paper offers a critique of Sara Scott's recent work, which provided an account of the research process as the author documents and analyses the experiences of survivors of organised sadistic abuse.[1] More specifically, it responds to Scott's assertion that acceptance of a 'subtle' realist epistemological stance offers an adequate base from which to make 'truth' claims. The difficulties around defining and defending the truth status of individuals' accounts, in an emotionally charged context, are truncated within this framework. The ongoing struggle to work with the complexity of academic discourses, without denying the lived experiences of individuals, requires us to struggle with the tensions and contradictions even as we seek to make judgements about 'truth' claims that are inevitably socially constructed, situated and specific.

Academic Accounts; Organised Sexual Abuse; Truth Claims


This short paper offers a response to the recent discussion of issues focused on the research process and research object provided by Sara Scott (1998). In her article, Scott asserts that an acceptance of 'subtle realism' as an epistemological stance provides a defensible basis for the justification of her truth claims (e.g. 4.1), despite discussion of the situated, partial and specific nature of all knowledge production (e.g. 8.2).

In addition, although Scott discusses the importance of her data as topic and resource, she ultimately treats her interviewees' as her focus is the 'discourse of disbelief' around 'ritual sexual abuse' and not the experiences and testimonies of survivors per se (e.g. 5.3; 7.6). On this basis she attempts to offer a definitive answer to what she believes is the core question when discussing ritual sexual abuse; 'does it really happen?' (e.g. 6.4 and throughout the article more generally). Her belief that the discourse of disbelief and denial can be used to account for challenges to the 'truthfulness' and therefore legitimacy of accounts of ritual sexual abuse appears to provide a useful, but problematic, defence against any potential criticisms of her research. The implication appears to be that criticisms of her analysis can be understood as arising from, or reflective of, the discourse of disbelief that structures or frames thinking around this emotive topic. This response offers an alternative approach, proposing that counter-claims to Scott's arguments are not necessarily the result of the discourse of disbelief and it is problematic to impute those reasons to all critics, and that Scott's approach can be read as an expression of the modernist assumption about access to the one 'truth' that Scott, quite rightly, takes issue with. It also seems to me that Scott's acceptance of a 'subtle realist' position truncates debates about the nature of knowledge production, the mechanisms through which we might judge competing knowledge claims, and the inevitable complexity of research when highly emotive and contentious phenomenon are the substantive focus.

The Researcher and the Research

In general, and as Sara Scott (1998) states (1.8), situating the researcher in the production process is important when working to feminist tenets. I would also argue that it is important when responding to accounts of other people's research, as I am here, as it allows the original author, in this case Sara Scott, some sense of the person behind the critique. Transparency can then be seen as a route to dialogue and debate. In this way, a response can be made without working to a 'win or lose' approach to the production of academic work which relies on unhelpful dualist thinking (Banks 1979; Dey 1993; Reinharz 1992; Smith 1987; Bryman 1988). In addition, some acknowledgement and discussion of personal, as well as academic, concerns are important when working with emotive and contested social phenomenon. Discussion of any form of child sexual abuse takes place in contentious terrain. As Hechler (1988) states in commenting on the American experience, the 'battle and backlash' rage on, and this can also be seen in the UK context, for example around the recent debates that focus on the repression of memories and so-called false memory syndrome (Carroll 1998). Ultimately whenever and wherever we speak about the sexual assault of children, in whatever form, by adults we enter difficult territory.

It is has been argued that the presentation of personal details, when producing knowledge about the world, is neither self- indulgent nor a peripheral concern (e.g. Smith 1987; Harding 1986, 1987, 1990; Haraway 1991). However, the delivery of this material in a meaningful way is not easy as it rests on our selection of what it is pertinent for others to know about us. We inevitably edit particular aspects of our complex social identities as worthy of note, and in academic terms this clearly links to the way in which we want others to 'read' our analysis.

In addition, as May (1996) states, the current academic context can be seen as one within which the use of oppositional terms are common. This can facilitate objectifying practices which legitimate viewing the other as not just different but inferior to ourselves. For example, as Silverman (1993) suggests, 'tourism', when undertaking research, is problematic in practice as it can lead us to focus only on the new and different within social scenes. This can then blind us to the similarities that often exist between different social/cultural groups.

A concern with both the differences and similarities that structure the relationships I have with others is for me a fundamentally important concern when selecting aspects of my identity to offer for public scrutiny. I have to juggle aspects of my identity if I am to reconcile my allegiance with my brothers, working class men, whilst also aligning myself with my sisters, women generally, given that agendas and solutions for differing social groups often seem to stand in opposition. Finding ways to enter into a dialogue with people, for example other women, who are very different to me without us having to retreat to entrenched and confrontational positions constitutes an explicit challenge to the oppressive hierarchies which shape contemporary social relations. To do this I have to consider with whom I identify, and/or distance myself from, in terms of the selection of aspects of my identity as worthy of note at any particular time.

In this context there are a number of personal concerns that may be worthy of note. At the personal level I identified as a survivor, after reading 'The Courage to Heal' by Bass and Davies (1988) at a time in my life when I had few choices and little to live for. Although I had a good understanding of the impact of other abusive formative experiences, for example physical abuse and growing up in relative poverty with a father who abused alcohol, these didn't seem to offer me an adequate explanation for my sense of hopelessness and helplessness. This was partly due to the sense of personal failure that followed recognition that many children I grew up with experienced similar things and yet they seemed to have managed to establish healthy adult sexual relationships and a place in the world. However, after years of working to understand my experiences, I have come to a place where radical doubt is my only certainty, I don't know whether I was sexually abused or not. In addition it is on some level irrelevant whether I ever 'recover memories' - my childhood is full of black holes that will probably never be filled. The important thing is how to live with myself in the here and now in a personally acceptable way. This is also true for many friends, male and female, who identify as survivors of sexual abuse or who have had sexually abusive formative experience but don't identify as survivors. In addition to these personal experiences, I worked as a children and families social worker for a number of years. During this time I investigated, assessed and worked with individuals and families where sexual abuse was a key issue, including therapeutic work with child, adult and adolescent survivors, and non-abusing carers, in individual sessions and groups. This work has continued following my training as a psychotherapist, through my work with people that have long term mental health problems and/or problematic alcohol/drug use. In these contexts I have worked with people on their experiences of abuse and struggled with knowledge of generalities and trends whilst working with individuals around their particular experience. Finally, I have a life long commitment to my feminist identity,[2] women's issues and concerns about all forms of oppression are of central importance to me at the personal, professional and theoretical level.

My Response to Sara Scott's Work

I agree with Sara Scott that the dominant societal response to any allegation of sexual abuse, and particularly to allegations of organised sadistic abuse is one of disbelief and/or denial. However there are also a number of issues raised by this analysis that are problematic. I do not want to undermine Scott's assertion that children, girls and boys, are sexually assaulted in ways that often result in incredulous responses by adults, whether in their immediate world or wider society (Rush 1980). As Cook and Kelly (1997) argue, those who engage in organised sadistic abuse would want to ensure victims' accounts were 'unbelievable' - to minimise the chances that they are taken as credible. However, I think that in such contested and contentious territory, we have to be particularly vigilant about the ways in which we deal with our own responses to accounts of abuse. As academics, this is particularly true in terms of how we present 'the results' of our work.

Sara Scott's presentation of 'the facts' of her research reads as a foundational argument that does not adequately acknowledge the ways in which her political commitment to a partisan political stance or discourse influences the construction of her account. It is really almost impossible to know whether the accounts people present to us, whether as researchers or professionals working in this arena, are 'true'. In relation to sexual assaults this is not because those who have suffered assault are telling tales or incapable of knowing the truth, but because all accounts are partial, situated and specific narratives. As Mishler (1986) and Silverman (1993) propose, research narratives are always co-constructed in the particularity of interactions between individuals specifically located in time and space. In a similar way therapeutic narratives are co-constructed in the relationship between client and therapist. In this context exploration of the subjective representations of reality, not precise demonstrations of facts, is the province of 'good' therapists (Marineau 1989; Williams 1991; Yalom 1974). Memories recovered in therapy need to be treated with respect as part of the individual's narrative truth, but this does not mean we can, or should, accept them as unproblematically factually accurate (Goodyear et al 1998). For one thing, complex processes are at work when individuals are engaged in exploring their experiences and responses to organised abuse. For example, as Hill and Goodwin (1993) demonstrate when discussing work with a woman who used therapy and exorcism to deal with the results of her experiences, we may construct our internalised abusers as 'demons' to manage the terror of our traumatic experiences. In general, it seems as if any expression of doubt or discussion that doesn't unconditionally accept the 'truth' of these narratives is constructed as a direct attack on victims and/or indicative of a lack of understanding of gender politics and issues of violence to women and children. However, even if we clearly align ourselves (e.g. Cook and Kelly 1997) with those who traditionally have not had their voices heard and spend our time listening to claims of 'ritualistic' abuse, rather than ignore or deny them, we have to take great care not to present our work as if it contains unproblematic 'evidence' as I think Sara Scott does. Overstating such claims may offer ammunition to the 'other side' rather than support to those who have been victimised.

In general, a range of discourses are available to us when discussing child sexual abuse. Bell (1992) identifies four distinct discourses she labels as medical (and associated psychological), professional, political and legal. Sara Scott operates within the political as she is adopting a partisan stance as a feminist academic (Scott 1998: 3.1; 4.1). This is clearly a legitimate stance, as feminists, and others who are concerned with the political nature of knowledge production, have a commitment to 'speak out for' rather than 'speak for' others. However, when we work within other discourses, for example the legal, we operate with different standards of 'proof' than are adopted in a political framework. Problems can then arise if we work across, or move between, discourses without clearly acknowledging the shift. This can lead to immense problems when we focus on phenomena like organised sadistic abuse, and again exploration of issues in the therapeutic arena can illuminate some key issues here. For example, the recent debate about the therapist's role in uncovering 'repressed' memories clearly highlights the sorts of problems that can arise when we work across discourses. As stated earlier, 'good' therapy does not rely on the discovery of a truth. Rather it rests on the structured and supportive exploration of personal truths in a containing environment (Orbach 1998). However if therapists are asked to give definitive accounts of the truth, to meet standards of proof in other arenas, problems arise. If we are providing information to criminal injuries compensation boards or courts, we are required to meet particular standards, not least because money is involved. A child who has been repeatedly sexually abused is awarded anything between 2,000 and 17,500, depending on the degree of the crime (CICA 1996). We may question whether legal standards of proof are appropriate when working with child sexual abuse (e.g. Woodcraft 1988), yet in practice this is what applies and has to be engaged with.

Issues of legitimacy, truth and proof are clearly important in the research, as in the therapeutic, arena. However, solutions proffered and accepted to the conundrums posed differ significantly. Despite her assertions about the importance of hearing and honouring individual survivors accounts it seems to me that Sara Scott become engaged in deciding who is a convincing witness and excluding those who do not offer her as researcher the best sort of 'data'. As she states in paragraph 5.3, she selected those interviewees who were likely to provide 'more convincing accounts'. The criteria of 'convincing' are not made explicit, but this may be connected to trying to ensure the academic 'credibility' of her account (Scott 1998: 4.2; 4.4). However, if research is concerned with finding ways to articulate the experiences of silent people as a challenge to the dominance of 'academic' voices (Cook and Kelly 1997), then such selection is suspect. Even if we want to articulate a partisan account, (Mienczakowski 1996), we need to take great care to act in inclusive ways that do not replicate old hierarchies and ideas about who can speak. How can we know what someone is going to say until we have heard them? On what basis were potential interviewees selected out, other than in terms of appropriate ethical concerns that Sara Scott touches on? What other fears or dilemmas might influence us in not engaging in a research interview with these others?

A clue about possible reasons for selecting out some potential interviewees comes in Scott's ¶5.4. In discussing possible strategies to deal with interviewees' distress, including the likelihood that they might disassociate and/or speak from more than one identity, Sara Scott links her concerns to the discourse of disbelief she identifies as structuring her research practice. An alternative source of anxiety and concern might be around Scott's ability to deal with issues in ways that were cognitively and emotionally acceptable, for her as researcher and any interviewee. I do not know what training and experience she has as a counsellor or researcher, as she doesn't make this clear, but anxieties about the nature of the material that clients or interviewees may disclose to us clearly changes over the time we work in either role. As Yalom (1989) states, people only tell us what they feel we can hear and this is clearly important when discussing organised sadistic abuse (Cook and Kelly 1997) as well as sexual abuse more generally (Lew 1986). As previously stated, the research narrative is co-constructed in the interface of the researcher with the 'other', the interviewee. I am left unclear, when reading Scott's article, whether some accounts couldn't be heard due to personal concerns or academic ones. The decision to interview her foster daughter is interesting in this respect, as it is clear that this interview, although revealing aspects of experience hitherto unknown to Sara Scott, was 'safe', they had been through a lot of the material before, there was an established relationship and Sinead actively wanted the interview to take place (Scott 1998: 4.5).

In addition, I was also interested in Scott's discussion of the climate of disbelief with reference to media reporting of organised sadistic abuse. Sara Scott uses direct quotations to illustrate the nature of the discourse of disbelief. What she doesn't do is provide counter examples that challenge that discourse, and this simplifies and truncates the debate in ways that I would argue undercut her presentation because this omission allows a space that the sceptic can use to offer her, and therefore her subjects, another challenge or even dismissal.

Although Sara Scott clearly struggles with the issues of belief, disbelief and the construction of her account, I find her approach to interpretation and the truth claims she makes problematic. Certainly I agree that the impact of 'hearing' traumatic narratives can be fundamentally disturbing to those of us with 'ears to hear', however, I do not share her need to answer the question 'does it really happen?' in what I consider to be such a definitive way. This is not least because this disallows people the space to change their minds. By this I mean the space to reconstruct their accounts as they access differing layers of knowledge and meaning about their and other peoples' experiences. Who we are affects the ways in which we co-construct research narratives. If we are interested in speaking out for, not speaking for, other people, then we need to be able and willing to acknowledge that our understanding, like those who offer their narratives to us for scrutiny, is inevitably partial. The researcher's role should be a sense-making and not a truth-asserting role - and the sense made is inevitably historically, socially and culturally contingent.

Concluding Thoughts

Ultimately, it is the truth claiming status of Sara Scott's analysis which is problematic for me. We cannot be sceptical of other people's truth claims and then use the same tools to legitimate our accounts that we have employed to dismantle these others. We may want to align ourselves with those who have been rendered voiceless, but in my view, advancing a definitive, absolute account of 'the truth' is not the way to do so. However, researchers may be seduced into producing such claims when wanting to undermine dominant social/cultural responses as a political mission or goal.

It is clearly important that researchers work with people who have had experiences that often lead to their accounts not being taken seriously. However, I am able to work with my 'dragons' as well as those of other people without resorting to collusion, minimisation or denial to preserve my sense of equilibrium (Driver 1989), and this is true of many professionals, who work with people in liberating and empowering ways. The ways we approach the issues at times inevitably leads to very different, sometimes even oppositional, approaches that need to be honoured not edited out of the process and products of research.


1I use the term organised sadistic abuse, rather than ritual or satanistic abuse, as a label for a particular form of sexual abuse. This follows work by the New South Wales Sexual Assault Committee who opted for this label in an attempt to shift the debate away from perpetrators potential motives to children's experiences of the abuse (NSW Sexual Assault Committee 1995).

2As many writers have made clear there is no homogenous feminist approach, political or academic (e.g. Banks 1981; Jaggar 1983; Walby 1986; Ramazanoglu 1989; May 1996). However, there are continuities across feminist approaches. For example, Reinharz (1992), when discussing feminist research methods, clearly asserts that there is no one way of doing feminist research and identifies core themes that are important to, or for, those who undertake research and define themselves as feminists. Core concerns might be documenting women's specific experiences (e.g. Spender 1988), or challenging gender-blind theorising and creating new visions (e.g. Gilligan 1982).


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999