Doctoral defence: Simone Eelmaa "The social categorization of sexual abuse"

On 23 April at 14:15 Simone Eelmaa will defend her doctoral thesis "The social categorization of sexual abuse" for obtaining the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (in Sociology).

Supervisors
Associate Professor Judit Strömpl, University of Tartu
Associate Professor Maria Murumaa-Mengel, Univertsity of Tartu

Opponent
Professor Corinne May-Chahal, Lancaster University (United Kingdom)

Summary
In our minds, what exactly counts as child sexual abuse? Who do we consider as people who commit such acts? What do we associate with the risk of sexual abuse? Who do we consider dangerous? Who do we blame? Are all sexual abuse victims seen as deserving of help, or are some victims seen as less deserving? Is there a hierarchy of victims? Does it matter whether we believe them? How does our behavior toward victims impact them? These are all questions explored in this thesis. Aiming to conceptualize and explain public perceptions of child sexual abuse and the observable implications of these perceptions, this thesis drew on three qualitative studies focusing on victims, parents, and the general public.

This thesis introduces novel perspectives on how society views and reacts to sexual abuse, blending insights from sociology, law, victimology, criminology, and psychology. It reveals that abuse is more likely recognized when it visibly resembles a crime, like when there is evident violence or injury. Most importantly, the social “understanding” of what constitutes sexual abuse is far more limiting than what the law describes as such. Offenders are typically portrayed as somehow different from the rest of the population and victims are judged against the “ideal victim” stereotype – i.e., young, innocent, visibly traumatized children. Teenagers or those seen as risk-takers are often viewed as less harmed, a notion rooted in conditional harmfulness, inaccurately judging abuse impact based on victim attributes. Overall, in people’s perceptions, the “child” in child sexual abuse rarely includes teenagers.

These perceptions deeply affect responses to abuse, influencing the support and belief extended to victims. Those fitting the “ideal victim” mold receive empathy and are urged to report abuse, while those who do not, are usually shamed and discouraged from seeking help. Ultimately, the thesis reveals how societal “stories” about sexual abuse create a framework that influences everything from social categorization of sexual abuse to victims’ self-perceptions and post-abuse behavior. It highlights the challenges victims face, not just in dealing with the abuse but also in navigating the societal expectations and judgments that come with it. The thesis concludes with practical recommendations and suggestions for future research.

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