Incest Essay, Research Paper

Until very recently around early part of 1970’s, the sexual assault of children within their families was rarely openly discussed until the emergence of the second wave of feminism. Incest has been variously defined. The definition that will be used here is a wide one, which includes sexual assault of a female child by a male member of her immediate family ( father or stepfather) or extended family (brother, grandfathers and uncles) and/or trusted family friends. These men are in generally in a relationship with the child which involves trust and respect to an authority on the side of child, and family, social and economic power on the side of the perpetrator. Children are vulnerable and dependent on adults for their very survival.

As with other crimes of sexual assault, the sexual abuse of children is a crime which is characterized by a high incidence of under- reporting. The reasons for this include the fact that the abuse is taking place within the privacy of the family. The victims are children of all ages some of whom are so young they cannot talk and do not have the knowledge to know that anything is wrong. The perpetrators are men whose authority children are told to obey. Often the child is also threatened to keep what is happening a secret between the victim and the perpetrator and victim.

Until quite recently, with the rise of feminist base analysis on subject of child sexual abuse, interpretations about child sexual abuse tried to it pinpoint the cause of this crime anywhere but with its perpetrator. In this paper I will explore two different explanations that try to explain child sexual abuse, the psychoanalytical theory as propose by Freud ( I will not analysis farther interpretations of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory for it is too broad for the length of this paper nor will I discuss mother blame in this theory because we will take it up in the dysfunctional family model ) and the dysfunctional family model. I will give a feminist critic of the limitations of both these theories and finally I will explore how feminist understand child sexual abuse and explore some limitations inherent within the theory. I have decided to give a feminist critic on these two models because Freud’s psychoanalytical theory is the earliest attempt to explain child sexual abuse and the dysfunctional family model because it is an outgrowth of the psychoanalytic model.

The earliest proposed explanation for the occurrence of sexual abuse, more specifically incest (although he never called it incest) was Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. He developed this theory from his clinical work with female clients who disclosed childhood sexual abuse, often at the hands of their fathers. Initially he believed these women, he was the first to believe that the trauma of child sexual abuse resulted in later psychic damage or what he termed ?hysteria’. He presented his finding in a paper called ?The Aetiology of Hysteria’ to his colleagues. After much criticism by his colleagues Freud began to second guess himself and retracted his original theory on the basis that child sexual abuse could not be as common as his patients led him to believe. He began to disbelieve women when they came to him claiming to be sexually abused and proposed that his patients were merely fantasying the sexual relationship with their fathers. Based on this he developed a second theory called infantile fantasy of seduction which included the ideas of the ?Oedipus complex’ and ?penis envy’.

The Oedipus theory holds that little girls initial sees their mother as their love object because of her early care and attention, but once the child sees the penis of another male and “recognizes it as superior counterpart of their own small organ and from that time forward fall victim to envy for the penis”(Freud, 1977, p. 335). As a result of ?penis envy’ the child shifts her object of love from her mother to her father. Little girls desire their fathers, behaving seductively towards them, and hate their mothers, behaving competitively towards them. (Ward 1984, p.102). To explain Incest, Freud’s Oedipus Complex casts the daughter as the active desiring agent who wants her father to be her lover. The child is seen as the seducer while the father is seen as the seduced. In this view the father is seen as innocent and passive while the child is seen as the aggressor.

Many psychiatrists and psychoanalysts have adopted the psychoanalytic theory as founded by Freud which has had a huge influence on our understanding of sexual abuse. More important, throughout my research I found that many myths surrounding child sexual abuse that are common in our culture can be traced back to this theory. There are several limitations of this approach and the validity has been seriously discredited. First research has revealed that childhood sexual assault and incest does exist and are quite prevalent. For example Liz Kelly et al (1991) surveyed 1244 young people between the ages of 16 and 21. She found 59% of young women and 27% of young men reported at least one sexually disturbing incident before the age of 18, and she estimates that one in two girls and one in four boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before their eighteenth birthday. As a result the infantile fantasy of seduction theory developed by Freud has been seriously undermined. Another question that feminist ask which undermines Freud’s theory is how can an infant actively seduce her father?

While Freud initial took a victim oriented approach by listening to the victims of childhood sexual abuse and showed tremendous empathy with victims in his first theory as seen in the paper he wrote Aetiology of hysteria. However, Once Freud retracted his original theory he went from actively listening to listening to victims to actively silencing them by redefining their situation. He did not validate that they were abused, he denied the abuse ever occurred. In his second theory instead of seeing ?hysteria’ as caused by their experience of child sexual abuse, he denied the reality of the sexual assault, and proposed that his patients were merely fantasizing the sexual relationship with their father. If the abuse did occur (which Freud believed to be very rare) it was because the child seduced her father, the child was asking for it. He placed the blame and responsibility for childhood sexual abuse and incest on the “seductive child,” not on the offender where it should have been. His infantile fantasy of seduction theory as we can see was no longer victim oriented, he did not give the victims a voice.

Another limitation to Freud’s theory is it is one dimensional, it focuses on the individual and the personality profile of the victim, i.e., a seductive child. Freud does not take into account other social issues. He does not address gender, he does not allude to the fact that victims of child sexual abuse are predominantly female while the offenders are predominately male. Nor does he address the power relationship between the child and the adult. It is not acknowledged that the fathers are powerful while the child is powerless.

In contrast to the psychoanalytic approach based on Freud which focuses on the individual as the cause of sexual abuse, the dysfunctional family model focuses on the family unit as dysfunctional. The dysfunctional family theory has become one of the most widely held explanations for the explanation for the existence of incest. The notion of the dysfunctional family was proposed in the 1940’s as an outgrowth of family psychiatry and the influence of classic Freudian theory on this approach cannot be ignored. (Waldby et al., p.93)

In this view, incest is seen as a symptom of family maladjustment and it proposes that all members of the family are responsible for causing the incest to occur, especially the mother. The dysfunctional family tries to maintain itself through the sexual abuse of its children by the father. Yet the father alone is not seen to be responsible for the abuse. Not the father but the family is defined as ?incestuous’.

The foundation of this approach is a system of family norms. A family where incest is occurring is seen to be dysfunctional because it does not conform to socially approved goals or values and normal families hierarchies based on age and sex have been destroyed. (Waldby et al, p. 93) Each family member takes on roles in the family such as wife and mother, father and husband, daughter and sister, and son and brother. Role expectations are placed on each family member within the family. For a family to be functional, fathers and mothers must have a good sense of who they are. Each parent must be healthy in order to have a healthy relationship. According to this approach the traditional gender roles for men and women must be fulfilled, i.e., the male must be the bread winner and the mother must be the care taker in order for the family to function. “If the marriage is dysfunctional, the family members are stressed and adopt dysfunctionally.” (Bradshaw, 1988, p.31) When adults cannot manage tension and conflict . . . It means that adults take it out on children . . . a pattern commonly associated with sexual abuse, the child is elevated into the parental hierarchy and the system stabilized through role reversals . . . The child may also be assigned the role of surrogate parent for the other children or, in the case of father-daughter incest, the role of surrogate wife.” (Krugman, 1987, p.139)

Incest is seen as a symptom of a deeper problem within the family unit, insect is used to reduce the tension and maintain balance within the family while ensuring that the family pathology is kept a secret. Thus each family member would be seen as having an interest in continuation of the abuse. (O’Hagan, 1989)

In this model the mother is blamed, she is seen to have failed in many ways. First, she is viewed as a dysfunctional wife who does not fulfill her assigned role as sexual provider for her husband for the husband , or her nurturing role as a mother and protector of her child. She does this by being absent either emotionally or physically from her children by working outside the home, pursuing outside interests and activities, or through illness, hospitalization, escaping into depression, or by being emotionally and/or sexually distant. (Waldby et al, pg.93)

This view also assumes that the mother’s failure to provide enough nurturing means the “seductive” child is looking for love and as a result accepts the sexual advances of the sex-starved father as a substitute for the mothers’ love. Both the mother and father are seen as dysfunctional adults who seek a role reversal between the member of the family. As a result the child has enormous responsibilities placed upon her such as house work, child care, and the role of satisfying the sexual needs of her father. (Waldby et al., pg. 93)

The assumptions of this theory are that men have sexual needs that must be met, if his wife is not available or does not want to fulfill his needs, they are then logically transferred to his daughter. The mother is blamed for not protecting and allowing the sexual abuse of her daughter to occur. Mother is also accused of knowing consciously or unconsciously that incest is occurring but chooses to deny it.

Despite its widespread acceptance the dysfunctional family theory suffers sever limitations. This approach perceives incest as a symptom of pathological family relations which serves as a functional system to keep the family together, it reduces the painful and often devastating effects that incest has on the child. This has implications for treatment intervention as they deny the child’s experience. The therapeutic focus is on restoring normal family relationships and they see the sexual abuse as secondary. Child sexual abuse is not seen as a crime but as a family problem. Thus this approach is not victim oriented, instead it focuses on the functioning of the family.

This approach also displaces the responsibility of abuse from the abuser to the whole family , and most frequently to the mother. The dysfunctional family model looks at every one in the family as equal , but there is no equality between parents and children . Like the psychoanalytical model, this theory ignores the age difference and the power relationships between the father and daughter. This theory also ignore the gender variable of child sexual abuse, it does not acknowledge the fact that abusers are predominantly male and the victims are predominately female.

Another limitation to the dysfunctional family model is that the theory argues that males needs must be met one way or another . If his needs are not meet then he has to go somewhere else. The mother has to make sure she performs her ?wifely duties’ because if she fails to do so he will then have to get his sexual needs met by someone else, Mom must fulfill her traditional feminine role. This reinforces mother blame, and takes responsibility away from dad, thus according to this model mom is to be dads sexual gatekeeper. Mom is suppose to be home in the house doing the house work and making sure sex is readily available to her husband but moms needs are ignored. Mom is inadequate and absent and is therefore blamed for dads actions. In a prevalence study by Diana Russell(1986) found that when mothers work outside the home it does not create an increase risk of a child being sexually abused. Studies have also found that often times the mother withdraws from sex with the father as a consequence of finding out about the incest and the majority of mothers who find out about the sexual abuse of their daughter leave their husbands (ward, 1984, p.169) This goes against the notion of the collusive mother as assumed in the dysfunctional family model.

This theory is not starting on the micro level but instead starts on the macro level. It reinforces the status quo (the patriarchal norm) or in other words the hierarchal , patriarchal family as the norm. What is really dysfunctional in these families is not that members of the family fail to conform to their traditional role but that family members are fulfilling their traditional role. All this theory does is support stereotypical traditional gender roles where men hold to right to sexual service, power and women and children remain powerless and objectified by men.

Feminism presents a different explanatory framework, This explanation understands sexual assault to be a violent way in which men choose to impose their power over women. This framework understands incest as an abuse of power that is gender specific and age oriented (It is fathers (men) who hold power that sexually abuse their children). Unlike the theories discussed above , the feminist theory begins from the victim of this crime, and locates its causes within society rather than biology or in the mind of individual perpetrator. Feminists have listened to the women and children who have broken the silence around this crime and spoken of their experiences. By taking a victim oriented approach feminist have contributed a great deal to understanding child sexual abuse. They have placed the blame of child sexual abuse where it belongs – on the offender not the victim. Feminist today have challenged the limited definition of what constitute sexual violence and broadened the definition of sexual abuse such as the continuum of sexual abuse.(Liz Kelly, 1988)

This theory also focuses on the wider picture, of women living in a society which is dominated by men. We live in a patriarchal society where men hold the most powerful positions in the social , political, economic, legal, educational, religious and family institutions. Men have held their position of power through rules and laws which have come to appear natural and which places women in an inferior position

Men have economic, legal, political, physical, medical and social power over women, but at the root of all these is sexual power. Sexual power is exercised at the most intimate level, the most personal level. Male sexual power over women is expressed in public and private. It is applied to women individually and collectively. It attempts to determine how women dress, how they walk, how they sit; it maintains that every woman is good or evil; and that no matter which she is, ?all she really wants is a good *censored*’. With his ramrod he will tame her, brand her, possess her. Father-Daughter rape is the paradigm par excellence of this social structuring of heterosexual relations. In Father-Daughter rape we find the most powerless females being sexually used by the most powerful males. Male adult to female child.(Ward 1984, p.195)

Women and children hold little status in society. Women are seen by society as subordinate and inferior to men. For example Women are discriminated against in the workplace. A woman earns approximately 70 cents for every dollar a man makes. Jobs that are available to women are often low-paying and dead-end. when explaining why men hold the power in society feminist use the word ?gender’ rather than sex. Gender is the social construction of masculinity and femininity. Men are socialized by society to be aggressive, emotionless, dominating, to objectify and conquer women. Gender is a social construction and a social fact not a biological fact. To call gender a social fact means that the division between the sexes is based on the way society is arranged. Images and attributes of femininity and masculinity have been constructed, they are not natural. And they have been constructed as a ?hierarchy of power’.

Sexual assault is a brutal way of reinforcing the message that men are dominate over women. Feminist see child sexual abuse as a continuum of violence against women. “The ?something’ or ?object’ that the girl child becomes in the eyes of the father is a sexual ?aid’ to his own expression of sexual power. The stimulus, in the being of the girl-child, consists of her powerlessness and her femaleness” (Ward, 1984, p.142). Men assert their power over women and children thought the use of violence. In a family were incest is occurring it is men who hold the power, women and children are powerless. Women and child are financially dependant on the father, children are also emotionally dependant on their father , the father dictate the rules and it is women and children who obey these rules. Leni

Dominelli (1989) call these families patriarchal nuclear families. Within these patriarchal families there is a sever power imbalance between women , children and men. This power imbalance is shaped by two variables 1) inequality of women + children and men 2) inequality of age. The power imbalance between fathers and daughters is sever when incest is occurring . When fathers rape their daughters they are abusing their power, The child complies with the abuse because her father is the head of the household and a adult authority.

To sum up, if we use the feminist framework through which to view sexual assault, we use the concepts of power, patriarchy and gender. We are then able to explain in a very much more detailed way the high incidence of sexual assault in our society. Sexual assault, rape and child sexual abuse are degrading enactments by men who choose to assert and reinforce their power through violence, of a social system which is filled with the view that men are superior to women.

While the Feminist theory did break the silence around Incest, and is effective in helping to understanding incest, like all theories it also has some limitations. Firstly, the initial Feminist theory (as does Freud’s psychoanalytical theory and dysfunctional family model) only focuses on one type of abuse – Incest. The sexual abuse of girl children by their fathers in the household. Thus, feminist theory ignored the sexual abuse of boys. This theory is limited in that it doesn’t account for the sexual abuse of males. Another downfall is that Father-Daughter Incest only accounts for 1/3 of child sexual abuse. As a result the initial feminist perspective did not account for child sexual abuse that occurs outside the family or in institutions by abusers other than fathers. This is critical since a prevalent study by Diana Russell (1986) found that 62% of abuse occurs outside the home and uncles are the number one abuser.

Secondly, the initial aim of feminism was to educate not to develop a theory on child sexual abuse and as a result feminist have understood incest as abuse of power that was gender specific and age oriented. This understanding does not give a definition of power it just tells us how power is shaped by gender and age. But in order for a concept to be a analytical tools the concept must be defined.

Thirdly, Children’s experiences are not the focal point of feminist analysis (as with dysfunctional family and Freud’s psychoanalytic theory). Thus feminist analysis is not a child centered approach. Women’s experiences have been missed historically and feminist have said that women’s experiences are being tagged on to men’s. Now the feminist analysis of child sexual abuse is missing children’s experiences, they are tagging children’s experiences on to women’s. For example sexual violence against women includes child sexual abuse. The term patriarchy is used to understand child sexual abuse. Patriarchy is defined as male dominance over women , children are invisible in this definition.

Finally, Feminism see the social construction of male sexuality as problematic but the problem is how some male sexuality is socially constructed because not all men are rapists or sexually abuse.

While feminist analysis of sexual abuse does have some limitations we have to acknowledge that it does have many strengths. Feminism has brought us closer to understanding child sexual abuse better than any other theory that I’ve read on the subject. To get an even better understanding we need to take what we know from feminist and broaden it out and develop it into a child centered approach that focuses on the experiences of children not only on the experiences of adult survivors . We also need to compare men who abuse and men who don’t abuse and see what are the differences are. Maybe then we can get an even better understanding of child sexual abuse.


Armstrong, Louise.1994. Rocking The Cradle Of Sexual Politics. Addison

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Dominelli, Lena. 1989. “Betrayal of Trust: A Feminist Analysis of Power Relationships in Incest Abuse and its Relevance for Social Work Practice.” British Journal of Social Work. 19:291-307.

Kelly, Liz. 1988. “What’s in a Name?: Defining Child Sexual Abuse.” Feminist Review. 28:65-73.

Kelly, Liz et al., 1991. An Exploratory Study of the Prevalence of Sexual Abuse in a sample of 16-21 year Olds. London: University of North London.

MacLeod, Mary and Ester Saraga. 1988. “Challenging the Orthodoxy: Towards a Feminist Theory and Practise.” Feminist Review 28:16-55.

O’Hagan , K. 1989. Working With Child Sexual Abuse: A Post- Cleveland Guide Effective Principles and Practice. Milton-Keynes.

Russell, Dianna. 1986. The Secret Trauma.

Sigmund, Freud. 1977. “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes” in Sigmund Freud on Sexuality. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Waldby, C. et al. “Theoretical Perspectives on father-daughter incest.” in Child Sexual Abuse (eds) E. Driver and AS. Droisen. London: Macmillan.

Ward, Elizabeth. 1984. Father-Daughter Rape. London: the Women’s Press.

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