From Healing the Incest Wound: Adult Survivors in Therapy – by Christine A. Courtois
Chapter3, Dynamics of Abuse and the Incestuous Family
The “normal-appearing” family, as the name implies, is just that. From the outside, the family appears to be solid and well-functioning. The parents are usually established in a long-term marriage, are socially and financially stable, and seem well-integrated in the community. Typically, the family follows the traditional model of the husband as “head of the household” and the wife as subordinate, although in some families this structure is a facade to cover the reality that the wife is the dominant partner and the husband dependent.
The family is not as stable internally as it appears on the outside. The parents often lack the emotional energy to adequately nurture one another, much less their children. Both are affectionally needy as a result of their own emotionally impoverished and/or abusive upbringings. Over time, they become estranged from one another, emotionally and sexually. Not infrequently, they have developed work and social schedules which allow them to avoid interacting with one another on much more than a superficial level. Alcoholism or other shame-based problems are often in evidence and contribute to the barren emotional family climate. Children are left to cope as they can and over time both parents engage them in caretaking functions. The mother turns to her daughter for help in running the household and the father turns to her for emotional and sexual sustenance. Children often turn to one another to meet emotional or other needs and, not infrequently, their relationship becomes sexual. Another sibling variation is the brother who becomes sexually predatory towards his sister in direct modeling of his father’s incestuous behavior.
When and if incest in this family comes to light, it is greeted with disbelief and incredulity and treated as no more than a temporary aberration on the part of the father/family. Abusers have the resources to hire a competent (and often aggressive) legal team which attacks the child’s credibility while emphasizing the father’s community and professional status. These men are rarely found guilty and in almost all cases are free to return home—most often to abuse again.
In Chapter 2, we mentioned that incest can be limited to one perpetrator and one victim as a rather self-contained phenomenon but that multiple incest in one family may be the norm. It appears that in many families, the breakdown of the incest taboo allows for its continuance either within one generation (horizontally) and/or across generations (vertically). This has led to the investigation of the family process in the development of incest, specifically the roles and interactions of family members and mechanisms of transmission.
Incest is now believed to be transmitted from one generation to the next through several such mechanisms. Calof (1987) discusses incest as a symptom of a transgenerational family process with both intrapsychic and inter-personal components. He believes that the intrapsychic process is the “mechanism of incest promulgation.” As such, it is the mechanism in need of intervention to stop the abuse cycle. Denial and dissociation are primary aspects of this intrapsychic process. These are explained in more detail below.
Cooper and Cormier (1982) documented several patterns of intergenerational transmission of incest. In incestuous families, it is not unusual for both parents to have been emotionally deprived and/or sexually or physically abused during their childhoods. The mother with an unresolved history of incest with her own father (and possibly with a brother as well) may be unable to prevent an incestuous relationship between her husband and daughter. The research of Goodwin and DiVasto (1979) substantiated this pattern. They found that such an incest history impedes some women from adequately functioning as a mother at all. These women are so needy that a role reversal is established with their children from a very early age. In another pattern, the father witnessed sexual abuse of sisters or was himself sexually abused by his father or another family member or non-relative. Pelto (1981) found evidence of this pattern in his study of incestuous fathers.
According to Rist (1979), children in these families are involved in destructive triangulation—they meet the needs of their parents while their needs go unheeded and their development unattended. Triangulation occurs because child protection and caretaking functions in a particular family are weak and the children are used both to shore up the parents’ self-esteem and to compensate for their marital estrangement. Krugman (1987) discussed the concept of triangulation across generations as the basic pattern in the organization and transmission of family violence. He noted:
In effect, it means that adults take it out on children when they cannot manage tension and conflict among themselves…. In one pattern, the classic scapegoating sequence, parents maintain their alliance and stabilize the family system by blaming and punishing the child. In another pattern commonly associated with sexual abuse, the child is elevated into the parental hierarchy and the system stabilized through role reversal. The child may thus be either covertly allied with one parent against the other, or parentified and obliged to care for a parent suffering from alcoholism, depression, or another disability. The child may also be assigned the role of surrogate parent for other children or, in the case of father-daughter incest, the role of surrogate wife. (p. 139)
In a similar vein, Fossum and Mason (1986) have noted intergenerational patterns of shame in families suffering from single or multiple dysfunctions such as addictions or compulsions in addition to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. They concluded that shame was the organizing intrapsychic principle in these families’ dynamics, “masked by a myriad of well-developed, sophisticated defense systems” (p. xi). Like Calof (1987) and other researchers, they noted that denial was a primary defense mechanism, further supported by intense family reliance and loyalty, in turn fostered by the insecure family atmosphere. Denial leads to forced silence and causes a selective restructuring of reality. Children in these circumstances must contend with the obvious manifestation of the family dysfunction, be it alcoholism or abuse or a combination, yet are not free to identify it as such because it carries such shame and to do so would be considered disloyal. Instead, the child is forced to distort reality to something it is not and then to distort her own feelings in reaction.
The dysfunction and its associated denial contribute to an unstable atmosphere supported by inconsistencies of response on the part of the parents. What brings praise and affection one day results in abuse and rejection on another. Children cope with this inconsistency by learning to be mistrustful and wary and by responding in ways that help them avoid further conflict, criticism or punishment. In extreme cases and when children have high dissociative potential, they begin to split off these different experiences of reality, a process which ultimately develops a fragmented rather than integrated sense of self. Children from abusive homes often complain of not feeling whole and of having holes in their sense of themselves. Thus, they very adequately convey the consequences of having grown up in an environment which fosters fragmentation rather than intactness.
A child’s splitting off of reality corresponds to and reinforces the adult’s own denial of reality in much the same way as the co-dependent family member’s support of the alcoholic enables his continued denying and distorting. Without outside intervention to break the cycle, it becomes self-perpetuating. It contorts and distorts the individual personality of family members and the relational patterns among them.
Traits and Characteristics of Incestuous Families
We see that these families are characterized by a shifting reality used to maintain family integrity and to avoid dissolution. Calof (1987) has provided a summary of the traits most often used by incestuous families to maintain the integrity and homeostasis of the family unit:
- Collective denial and shared secrets about a multitude of problems, not just the incest. These include problems such as alcoholism and other addictions, major illnesses, family illegitimacies, previous marriages, etc.
- Duplicity and deceit between family members. The family goes to great lengths to protect itself and develops protective myths as defense mechanisms.
- Social isolation, which is generally enforced by the parents.
- Parents who are expert at manipulating the context of a situation and shifting reality. As an example, abuse, alcoholism, or other family problems are denied while their reality is, in fact, obvious.
- Role confusion and boundary diffusion both within and outside of the family.
- A child who is triangulated into the parents’ marriage, which is often characterized by a failed sexual relationship. The child is used to defuse the situation and to keep the family intact.
- Poor tolerance for differences from the family norm and for anger and conflict.
- Overly moralistic. In some families, religious beliefs are quite rigid and intolerant and are used to cover transgressions. For example, the child is often faced with strong moral injunctions about sex outside of marriage and the evils of sexual temptation even while she is being sexually used and stimulated.
- No touch except for bad touch. Being abused comes to be equated with love.
- Inadequate parenting. Children grow up too quickly by having to attend to their parents’ needs. Their own needs are unmet and their development compromised.
- Low humor and high sarcasm. Emotional abuse may characterize the interactions in these families. Children may be consistently criticized and belittled, with little or no encouragement. Praise or reward is lacking. These families are said to be “character and initiative-assassinating.”
- Dead, missing or part-time parent(s). The job of parenting may be abandoned in favor of other activities (work, drinking, etc.).
- Children may be unwanted and treated that way. Herman (1981) documented enforced pregnancies among mothers of incest survivors. It stands to reason that children conceived under such circumstances will be emotionally neglected or worse.
- Unpredictability and intermittent reinforcement. Like physically abusive families, many incestuous families are inconsistent towards children, who may be loved one day and abused the next for the same behavior. The child learns to “expect the unexpected” and thus is deprived of basic security. These families may also be inconstant in other ways. Family life may be chaotic and characterized by interchangeable family members (sequential live-in lovers and their families, stepsiblings, or members of the extended family who move in and out), and frequent geographic moves (as in military families or evicted families).
- Violence and the threat of violence. The threat of violence may be always present even if violence is not exercised. In some families, actual violence is the norm and in the most extreme cases reaches the level of being torturous
- No time for recovery and no one to turn to. The child may be so isolated and the abuse so pervasive that she has no opportunity to process it. Consequently, she contains it and copes as best she can. The most extreme form of such non-integration is multiple personality disorder, where experiences are split off into various personalities.
Family Rules and Injunctions
The family process is maintained by a system of family rules and injunctions. These intrapsychic components must be identified during therapy in order for the survivor to become consciously aware of them and to be able to develop apart from them. A number of authorities on child abuse and incest have identified that double binds are most characteristic of these families. Wooley and Vigilanti (1984) provided an account of the double bind in incestuous families, a description quoted here at length because of its completeness:
The double bind in incestuous families is defined as a no-win situation in which the person who is sexually abused received conflictual messages from the system (i.e., the family) in a manner that does not allow escape. The most salient feature of the double-bind process is a failure to achieve separation/individuation. Separation/individuation is … a process by which the individual forms a sense of self, differentiated from that of the parents, by separating one’s own identity from that of the parents and thus beginning the development of one’s own individuality….
The double-bind process may be conceptualized as follows:
The Participants. The double bind is a recurrent process which includes two or more persons. In this case, the participants are: the perpetrator of sexual advances (generally, but not always, a father figure); the recipient of sexual advances; and other involved family members (oftentimes the mother figure).
The Primary Negative Injunction. The recipient of sexual advances is repeatedly exposed to a primary negative injunction which comes from the abuser and can take the form of “If you do not submit to my sexual advances, I will punish, ignore, or reject you!” The mother figure may also play a part by communicating helplessness, or an inability to recognize or change the situation. …
The Secondary Negative Injunction. A secondary negative injunction is imposed on the recipient by the abuser to the effect of “Do not see me as making sexual advances, because this is not really sex” or “This is really good for you and I am not abusing you” or, “This is your fault for turning me on.” Again, the mother figure, or others, may collude in the paradox by implying that “Good girls don’t do such things.”
The Tertiary Negative Injunction. A tertiary negative injunction is involved which prevents the victim from leaving the situation emotionally, often even after she has left home and has a family of her own. If the incest begins early in childhood, escape is, of course, impossible. However, later, the tertiary injunction may involve promises of love, material goods, etc. Often, the abuser is the only person in the family to whom the recipient feels close. There is commonly a clear love bond between the victim and the abuser. The victim may consciously choose to continue or encourage the relationship if she feels her emotional survival is threatened, or if she learns other family members escaped punishment as long as they were sexually compliant. Others acquired special goods that were denied other family members.
The Failure of Separation/Individuation. The end result of the double-bind pattern is that the recipient is unable to undergo the normal process of separation/individuation and continues in a no-win cycle of love/hate and fear/dependency, both in the family of origin as well as other significant relationships. After a period of time, symptoms, including low self-esteem, poor interpersonal relationships, dissociative states, depression, and phobias, which result from a paradoxical situation, can be triggered by only one component of the system and not the entire process (p. 348).
Speigel (1986) discussed one other important aspect of the double bind—an enforced rule that the paradox not be openly discussed. In this way, the victim is placed in a position of forced silence, which intensifies traumatic reaction (Lister, 1982). Furthermore, according to Speigel, not only is dissociation the defense against the trauma of the impossible situation but
… it may also represent a dramatic symbolic expression of the patient’s response to the parent’s demand that the patient be two contradictory people at the same time. That is indeed what the patients become…. their response to the double bind imposed on them by their parents is to become the paradox, to become two or more discontinuous and conflicting people, and thus become all good, all bad, all cooperation, all defiance at the same time. (p. 69)
The family develops a series of messages or rules for members to follow to protect the family. Many of these overlap with messages found in the alcoholic family. The most predominant of these messages are:
- Don’t feel. Keep your feelings in check. Do not show your feelings, especially anger.
- Be in control at all times. Do not show weakness. Do not ask for help.
- Deny what is really happening. Disbelieve your own senses/perceptions. Lie to yourself and to others.
- Don’t trust yourself or anyone else. No one is trustworthy.
- Keep the secret. If you tell you will not be believed and it will not get help.
- Be ashamed of yourself. You are to blame for everything.
Families also develop their own, more idiosyncratic rules which the therapist should seek to discover with the survivor.
To recapitulate, incest is a manifestation of family dysfunction which is supported by intergenerational family process. The family functions in such a way that its reality is distorted, the distortion treated as the reality. Although incest occurs, it is largely denied and unacknowledged by all family members. This disconfirmation allows for its continuance while communicating to the victim that it is something that is not to be discussed. Victims are placed in a double bind made all the more intolerable because it cannot be escaped and cannot be discussed. In order to contend with the paradox inherent in the bind, they transform their reality and ultimately themselves to suit the family rules and injunctions.
IN THIS CHAPTER, we examine incest between parent and child. Father/stepfather and daughter incest is by far the most frequently occurring of this type. It has been the most extensively investigated and is therefore the type of incest about which the most is known. In contrast, other forms of parental incest are less prevalent and less studied to date. The discrepancy between the different types is reflected in the information presented below.
Parent-child incest has the greatest potential for harm because it involves the betrayal of the parent’s role as nurturer and protector of the immature child. The child’s development is compromised in a number of significant ways when a parent meets his/her own needs through sexual contact with the child. Furthermore, the child’s accessibility and dependency allow parent-child incest to continue over long periods of time and contribute to the child’s entrapment and powerlessness.
A substantial minority of fathers sexually abuse their children, abusing daughters in far greater numbers than sons. This disparity was found by Finkelhor (1984) in his analysis of the American Humane Association (AHA) National Reporting Study of Child Abuse and Neglect of 1978 (1981). Boys were sexually abused within the family much less often than girls, but like girls they were more likely to have been abused by the father when a parent was the perpetrator. Those boys abused within the home were more often subject to physical as well as sexual abuse than their sisters. Additionally, if the boys were not sexually abused themselves, they often witnessed abuse of sisters.
Incest between fathers and daughters seems to be the most prevalent of any type (although a surprising finding of Russell’s study was that father-daughter incest was slightly exceeded in prevalence by uncle-niece incest; this finding is in need of replication). Russell (1986) also found that stepfathers abused daughters in much higher percentages than did biological fathers and in disproportionate prevalence to their actual numbers.
Researchers have found incestuous fathers to be quite diverse. Characteristics which appear repeatedly in descriptions of these fathers include: poor impulse control, overdependency and desertion anxiety, low self-esteem, insensitivity to the needs of others, an endogamous family orientation, and a history of having witnessed abuse or having been physically and/or sexually abused as well as emotionally deprived and rejected in their families. A bipolar personality pattern has been observed: at one extreme, fathers who are passive, meek, and rather ineffectual; at the other, fathers who are dominant, tyrannical, and controlling. Some of these fathers have stable employment histories yet others are chronically unemployed. Some are professional men—”pillars of the community”— who lead private lives far different from their public personae. Others have public and private lives that are less at odds—they may be known for explosive tempers and aggressive behavior. Gross psychopathology has been found in only a small percentage of these fathers. By and large, since they do not seem to differ significantly from the profile of the average man who is generally in good psychological health, their pathology has been termed “restricted” (Wells, 1981). However, as is the case in incest research in general, the research on abusers is seriously flawed both conceptually and methodologically (Finkelhor, 1986), making this information preliminary.
Incest between father and daughter has been the most documented type because of its prevalence, its violation of the taboo against sex between parent and child, and its potential for wreaking havoc in the nuclear family. The father’s traditional family role of provider and protector is grossly betrayed when he perpetrates incest. Instead of protecting, he violates. Instead of nurturing, he uses. Family roles are violated and generational boundaries are blurred. The parents’ relationship is triangulated, resulting in conflicted roles. The mother loses her status and authority in the family and becomes a rival of her daughter. The daughter is removed from her role as a child as she is made her father’s lover.
Let us begin this discussion of father-daughter incest by looking at the members of the family triangle.
The Father. The available data on incestuous fathers have been derived mostly from clinical studies. Despite this limitation, they provide quite detailed and largely consistent information about these men. They have been found to be a rather heterogeneous group, and for this reason researchers have found it useful to organize them by type. The comprehensive typology of Justice and Justice (1979) is representative of several different typologies. These authors described four types of men who engage in father-daughter incest: (1) symbiotic, (2) psychopathic-sociopathic, (3) pedophiliac, and (4)”other.” The symbiotic category is the largest, accounting for 80-85% of all perpetrators.
(1) The symbiotic father came from a nonnurturing family and so was emotionally deprived as a child. He has strong unmet needs for closeness and affection, which he has learned to satisfy in sexual ways since he does not know how to establish a close relationship in a nonphysical or nonsexual way. Symbiotic incestuous fathers have been organized into four subtypes according to the ways they use to achieve closeness through sex: introverted, rationalizing, tyrannical, and alcoholic.
The symbiotic introvert is the prototype of the isolated, distant incestuous father. Even if he appears outgoing, this man is unable to reach out to others and to be genuinely close. He may appear strong, competent, and capable of intimacy, but beneath this facade he is starved for affection and craves someone to nurture and comfort him. From the outside, this father appears to be the “good husband and father.” He typically spends his nonworking hours with his family (endogamous family orientation) and has few, if any, outside social or professional contacts or sources of support. He may feel highly stressed by his work and family responsibilities and cope by withdrawing and expecting solace and safety from his family. In part, his withdrawal, isolation, mistrust of anyone outside of the family, and inability to ask for or seek help are explained by depression. However, his coping strategies only exacerbate his dysphoria. Although his wife may initially provide for him and serve as his link to the world, over time she may tire, withdraw, and seek outside activities. Sexual estrangement, which is usually part of this withdrawal, leaves the father without his main method of achieving closeness. In this context, he turns to his daughter, whom he may view as “belonging” to him, substituting her for his wife.
The symbiotic rationalizer finds ways to justify his incestuous behavior with his daughter. Most often he rationalizes it both to himself and to the child as a special love game; as special sex education preparing her for the future; as protection from other men who are characterized as corrupt and lascivious; as protection of the purity of the family bloodline (unlike most other incestuous fathers, this one would like the incest to result in pregnancy, enabling him to have a dynasty); as his right, since he views his child as his exclusive property to do with as he pleases; and finally, as harmless and healthy sexual liberation and recreation.
The symbiotic tyrant dominates his family, issuing orders and demanding total loyalty and obedience. He tolerates no opposition and uses force, including physical abuse if necessary, to get his way. Family members fear him and avoid upsetting him. This father may also play the part of the proud patriarch who views his family as his property subject to his wishes. He goes to great lengths to give the impression that everything is under control at home, when in reality he and his wife are estranged and he has turned to his daughter for sex and affection.
Approximately 20% of symbiotic fathers are tyrants. They are often macho in their attitudes towards sex. Sex is an expression not of closeness but of manliness, of “being a real man.” Women are “made to be laid.” The tyrant’s daughter is appealing in her weakness and vulnerability because he can dominate her and show affection without appearing weak. He communicates his sexual attitudes to his sons, with whom he does not have a close relationship; rather, he is authoritarian and exacting and may get them to comply with his wishes by physically abusing them. His brutish exterior may camouflage tender feelings for his daughter, which she welcomes because she is starved for affection and attention. His daughter’s adolescence usually is a time of crisis for the tyrant. He can be quite jealous, paranoid, judgmental, and even violent when his daughter begins to date. Her dating and other attempts at independence feel like a betrayal and reinforce his feeling that no one can be trusted.
At least 10-50% of men who commit incest are alcoholic or psychologically dependent on alcohol. These symbiotic fathers use alcohol to “loosen up” their anxiety about getting close to other people and to deal with their guilt about the incest. Alcohol serves mainly to disinhibit incestuous behavior. After the fact, it provides an excuse and a rationalization. Many unrecovered alcoholics have high unmet dependency needs and fear abandonment. They use alcohol to hide these from themselves and those close to them, thereby contributing to the alcoholic cycle. The alcoholic family has been found to have seriously dysfunctional interactions, characterized by denial and enabling of the alcoholic. Over time, as alcoholism escalates, a common pattern is for the wife to tire of providing care and to rely on her oldest daughter to take her place. The daughter comes to believe that if she provides sufficient care and comfort her father’s drinking will stop. The father, in his drunken state, may begin to see his daughter as a substitute wife and be disinhibited enough to act on his sexual urges. If no intervention takes place, a pattern develops which may continue for years — drinking, acting out, feeling guilty, and then drinking more to diminish the guilt (Crigler, 1984).
Carnes (1983) has written about multi-addictive patterns, that is, compulsive gambling or sexual behavior, for example, along with alcohol or drug addiction. Among the most serious sex addicts are those individuals who compulsively perpetrate incest. Very often, their alcoholism serves to mask and excuse their sexual addiction. According to Carnes, treatment of the alcoholism alone is not sufficient to treat the sexual addiction; each needs separate, focused treatment.
(2) The psychopathic-sociopathic personality type is quite different from the symbiotic type. Fortunately, psychopaths make up only a small percentage of incestuous fathers. Instead of using sex with the daughter as a way to get closeness and nurturing, these fathers use it for stimulation and novelty and as a channel for excitement and hostility. They quite often use violence to achieve their ends and show little capacity for guilt, remorse, and empathy with others, although at times they may be charming and rationalize their behavior in such a way that they resemble the symbiotic rationalizer. Although a minority of these men are also psychotic, the chaotic and disorganized quality of their families and relationships is due largely to their inability to form stable or lasting attachments and their constant seeking of thrills and sexual gratification. These men were so deprived and/or abused in their childhoods that they are driven as adults by hostility and a need for excitement and stimulation. They are unable to love or develop emotional attachments and trust no one. Sex is used as an expression of intimacy but strictly as physical stimulation—the psychopath is indiscriminate in whether he is sexual with men, women, and children, including his own, although not all psychopaths are incestuous.
(3) Pedophiliac incest offenders are attracted to their daughters when they are young and nonthreatening and when they have not yet developed secondary sex characteristics. They may lose interest as a daughter ages and turn to her younger sisters for their gratification. These men are themselves immature and inadequate in their ability to maintain an adult relationship. When rejected by their wives or otherwise under stress, they turn to their children for comfort. Often they do not engage in intercourse, confining the sexual activity to kissing, genital fondling, and observation. Only rarely does the pedophile also have psychopathic and psychotic characteristics, a combination which is extremely dangerous for the child victim.
(4) Among “other” types, Justice and Justice (1979) included psychotic and culture-permissive incestuous fathers. Three percent of all incestuous fathers are believed to be psychotic, that is, hallucinatory and delusional. Another 3% are pedophiles with psychopathic or psychotic tendencies. These men, along with the psychopaths, most often use force in the perpetration of incest.
The culture-permissive incestuous father comes from a cultural group or family background which allows sexualized contact with children. Meiselman (1978) noted that the father from a rural or isolated cultural group constitutes a type of endogamous father whose orientation is characteristic of the culture rather than of his personality type. The modern sexually liberalized family, where children are encouraged to explore their sexuality with other family members or to observe family members in sexual activities, is a contemporary version of the culture-permissive family
While Justice and Justice’s four groups— symbiotic, psychopathic, pedophilic, and other—are quite distinct, overlap exists and fathers in one group may show characteristics of another. Meiselman (1978) included two other types not mentioned by Justice and Justice—mental defectives and situational abusers. Mental defectives, as the name implies, are those men whose low intelligence has contributed to reduced ego controls concerning incestuous impulses and behavior. Situational incest occurs when life stresses, life events, and circumstantial opportunities break down the defenses, inhibitions, or resistances in a man who otherwise would not be incestuous. Incest of this type occurs only once or is of short duration.
Two recent investigations of incestuous fathers shed additional light on their characteristics. Pelto (1981) found that incest offenders suffered more trauma in their childhoods regarding sexual experiences and exposure to incest than did non-offenders. Over half of his sample were incestuously victimized; in many cases, they were subjected to more than one type of sexual activity and were victimized by both male and female perpetrators. Half of the incestuous sex offenders in his sample had witnessed incest between their fathers and sisters in their families of origin. Significantly more incest offenders than non-offenders had been sexually victimized in childhood through bribes, pressure, and assault. This research suggests that incest exposure or modeling and the sexual abuse of boys (whether incestuous or not) constitute risk factors for sexual abuse in the next generation and possibly that more boys have been abused than has yet come to light.
Parker and Parker (1986) documented additional antecedents of father-daughter incest. They found that inadequate bonding of the father with his own parents and lack of early physical contact and involvement with his child were the two best predictors of incest. These authors were careful to note that these predictors do not in themselves constitute a sufficient cause of incest and that family relationships, personality characteristics, and even subcultural differences in the strength of the incest taboo are also relevant. Nevertheless, both biological and stepfathers who were deeply involved with their infant daughters were unlikely to abuse them, while those who were physically and emotionally distant were more likely to become incestuous. The authors recommended that fathers become more involved in caring for and nurturing their young children to strengthen later incest avoidance. Herman (1981) made a similar recommendation after analyzing the characteristics of the typical incestuous family and the roles engaged in by all family members.
The Stepfather. Russell (1986) found that stepfathers abuse their daughters at much higher rates than do biological fathers and that they abuse at a more severe level. It is now clear that some men seek to marry women who are mothers in order to gain sexual access to the children. These men are possibly pedophiliac in orientation, but choose a family setting and thus behave as incestuous pedophiles. It is not uncommon to find that they abuse children inside and outside of the family and that they have been involved in serial relationships/marriages with women having children of their preferred age range.
Applying Parker and Parker’s findings to stepfathers, it is plausible that many of these men would be disinhibited from abusing their stepdaughters because their bonding with them is weaker or because they were not involved in nurturing them in their formative years. Further, the incest taboo is weaker and thus less restraining in stepfamilies (Finkelhor, 1979).
The dynamics and characteristics of stepfamilies increase the risk of stepfather-daughter incest in many ways. Children who have been the products of a failed marriage or of serial live-in relationships may be quite needy and therefore vulnerable to the advances and attention of their stepfather. They may also feel displaced by him and rivalrous with him for their mother’s attention. They may behave seductively or seek their stepfather’s attention due to their neediness or as a gesture of revenge or hostility against their mother. (This does not mean that the child/adolescent is responsible for any incestuous contact which occurs; it is clearly the stepfather’s responsibility to discourage and prevent any sexual activity with his stepdaughter.) Stepfathers may also marry into a family when the adolescent children are sexually developed. If the age difference between stepfather and daughter is less than that between biological father and daughter, blurred generational boundaries and role slippage may facilitate the development of a sexual relationship between stepfather and daughter.
The Mother. The mother’s upbringing provides background information about her dependence and relative powerlessness within the family. Her family history has been found to be similar to the father’s, characterized by domestic instability and emotional deprivation. In all likelihood, her family followed the traditional patriarchal structure, so that as a female she was taught that her role was subservient and involved taking care of other members of the family, without attention given to her needs. She may have been placed in a position of responsibility for the family from an early age, in a role reversal with her mother or as a mother substitute. Not infrequently, she herself was incestuously abused. Her negative family experiences have left a residue of low self-esteem, unsatisfied dependency needs, and strong separation anxiety, making it likely that she would use an early marriage as a means of escaping her family of origin and as an attempt to gain the nurturance and care she previously lacked. As an adult she is vulnerable to rejection and abandonment by her husband and children. Unfortunately, she is also likely to choose a marriage partner from a similar background and whose personality style she complements. Justice and Justice (1979) identified three types of mothers — dependent, caretaking, and submissive —who complemented the various subtypes of symbiotic fathers and whose marriages were distinguished by the power imbalances and communication and sexual difficulties described earlier.
Recent research findings offer evidence that a link exists between the past incestuous victimization of mothers and the subsequent abuse of their children. In a study of the backgrounds of abusive mothers, Goodwin, McCarthy, and DiVasto (1981) found that a high percentage were incestuously abused. These women had inhibitions and fears about tenderness traceable to unresolved issues from the childhood incest. These issues impede adequate parenting and are risk factors in the development of either physical or sexual abuse in the family. Studies of family violence have documented that a disproportionate number of abused women are incest survivors and that battering husbands often sexually abuse both their wives and their children (Walker, 1984). Other investigators have discovered that many incest mothers suffer from sexual dysfunction and chronic depression, which may be aftereffects of their own incest. It is possible that these findings—previous abuse and resultant depression, parenting difficulties, learned powerlessness, and sexual difficulties—are related and contribute to the development of incest in the next generation.
Daughters also run a high risk of sexual victimization if their mothers are absent from the family or suffer from some sort of disability. Mothers are sometimes permanently absent due to death, desertion, or divorce and loss of custody. It has been noted that even temporary absences during times of family transitions or stress (such as childbirth or a mother’s attending to elderly, sick, or dying family members) or due to her work schedule can render a daughter vulnerable. Studies of mothers in incest families have found that some have serious, incapacitating physical illnesses and disabilities. Some also suffer debilitating psychiatric illnesses, including major depressive disorders, personality disorders, psychotic disturbances, and alcoholism (Herman & Hirschman, 1981).
Estrangement between mother and daughter leaves the daughter emotionally vulnerable and without adequate support and protection. It is a sad but unfortunately true commentary that, as Herman stated, “it appears that only a strong alliance with a healthy mother offers a girl a modicum of protection from sexual abuse” (1981, p. 48).
Herman summarized her description of the mother in the incestuous family:
In short, even by patriarchal standards, the mother in the incestuous family is unusually oppressed. More than the average wife and mother, she is extremely dependent upon and subservient to her husband. She may have a physical or emotional disability which makes the prospect of independent survival quite impractical. Rather than provoke her husband’s anger or risk his desertion, she will capitulate. If the price of maintaining the marriage includes the sexual sacrifice of her daughter, she will raise no effective objections. Her first loyalty is to her husband, regardless of his behavior. She sees no other choice. Maternal collusion in incest, when it occurs, is a measure of maternal powerlessness.
As for the question of the mother’s responsibility, maternal absence, literal or psychological, does seem to be a reality in many families where incest develops. The lack of a strong, competent, and protective mother does seem to render girls more vulnerable to sexual abuse. Maternal disability of any sort represents a significant family stress and is perceived by all family members as a deprivation.
But no degree of maternal absence or neglect constitutes an excuse for paternal incest, unless one accepts the idea that fathers are entitled to female services within their families, no matter what the circumstances. (1981, p. 49)
It must be recognized that the majority of mothers do not collude in incest, nor are they offenders or even participants in its occurrence. And many mothers, who as a group go largely unacknowledged, are outraged by their daughters’ victimization and attempt to provide them with protection. Russell (1986) found that mothers may not even know about severe abuse because their daughters go to great lengths to keep them from knowing. Nevertheless, it is clear that some mothers are not entirely ignorant of the incest when it occurs and even knowingly tolerate or participate in it. And some deny or discount signs or signals that indicate that a sexual relationship between father and daughter is about to or has developed. Russell also found that, when incest occurs with the biological father and is of the long-term endogamous type, the mother may be less able to offer her daughter any protection. Specifically, Herman (1981) and others have argued that the powerless position that many women hold in these families accounts for their inability to effectively deter incest or support their daughters when they disclose its occurrence. These mothers are often so emotionally and/or economically bound to their relationships that believing their daughters and taking effective action would mean giving up their own base of security, no matter how unhealthy.
The Daughter. Daughters are a heterogeneous group in terms of personality style. Although certain personality traits and physical characteristics may make them more susceptible to incest, these are not its cause. Daughters become vulnerable due to the dynamics at play in the family which distort their development, undermine their security, and condition them into roles of passivity and/or pseudo-maturity. Since emotional support is lacking in many of these families, children feel abandoned and insecure from a young age, not uncommonly predating the incest.
The oldest daughter in the family is the most likely to be incestuously victimized, but younger sisters may follow as the father “progresses” through the family. When the daughter is abused as a preschooler, it is due almost exclusively to her accessibility and dependence on the father.
Abuse of the preschooler usually involves kissing, fondling, masturbation, and oral sex; less often it progresses to intercourse and other types of penetration. The child failing to understand the nature of the activity, may feel little shame or guilt. Instead she may be eroticized by the incest and conditioned to the special relationship and special games. Another scenario involves the young child who is traumatized or who learns that the activity is wrong. She is apt to utilize strong defenses such as repression to cope. Although not all of these youngsters are “parentified” in the family, some of them clearly are. Children as young as four and five have been known to function as caretakers of their parents and their siblings in severely dysfunctional families.
When the unabused but parentified daughter reaches latency age or older, she may be vulnerable to incestuous abuse not only due to her accessibility but also due to her functioning as an adult in the household. She may have had to assume family responsibilities, such as household chores, family budgeting, and childcare, well beyond the responsibilities associated with her chronological age, caring for both her parents and her siblings. Her family role may substitute a sense of importance and power for the nurturance that she is lacking. Physically or sexually comforting the father may initially be perceived as part of this caretaking role. But since the daughter herself is emotionally needy, the contact may be gratifying, at least at first. It may later put her in a totally untenable position with each parent.
The continuation and intensification of the incest fuel these difficulties. The daughter becomes burdened with the necessity of keeping the activity a secret. The family’s intense dependency and insecurity, her father’s warnings about the dire consequences of disclosure, and her own perceptions about the consequences all function to keep her silent. She may also be quite protective of both parents and keep the secret in an attempt to guard them and to keep the family together. The entrapment and “forced silence” often cause an incorporation of feelings of anxiety, guilt, shame, helplessness, and responsibility for the incest. Although victims have been found to employ a variety of resistance strategies, many develop a stance of passive and fearful compliance, either until their adolescence or until they are able to leave home, usually by running away or marrying prematurely.
The Siblings. The siblings in the incestuous family have been largely ignored by researchers and clinicians, although there can be little doubt that either they are profoundly affected consciously or unconsciously. Incest is often perpetrated on more than one of the sibling group, especially the daughters; brothers may witness incest, resulting in their sexually victimizing others, often their sisters and later their own daughters (Pelto, 1981). The rescue of a younger sibling from suspected or threatened abuse is a common reason for disclosure. Victims may be unable to break the silence to stop their own abuse but may do so when they learn of the abuse of their siblings.
Cohen (1983) had the following to say about the siblings:
There is no clear information as to the siblings’ level of knowledge and awareness about the incest itself, but one wonders about their coping with the emotional and structural family pattern which allowed the incest to take place. The siblings, younger or older, might develop rivalry and intense resentment toward their sister, because she is perceived to be father’s favorite offspring, sometimes to their total exclusion. Also, given the low level of the mother’s functioning and the many times strict authoritarian attitude of the father, it would be safe to assume that siblings, especially males, would feel rejected by both parents. In addition, in many families, the incestuous daughter is the only one who assumes parental responsibility toward the siblings, thus no appropriate limits are set for them. One can speculate therefore that given this family constellation, the potential is strong for the siblings to develop behavior difficulties. …
It seems that siblings within the incestuous family are the “undetected victims” and deserve more attention from a theoretical dynamic point of view as well as in relation to therapeutic intervention. (p. 157-158)
Berry (1975) described another sibling variation, which she labeled “incest envy.” She reported that serious psychological disturbances might be experienced by the “unchosen” daughter, who was aware and envious of the special relationship between her father and sister. Of course, brothers could be similarly affected. DeYoung (1981b) further described this phenomenon:
An overwhelming feeling of rejection often overcomes the siblings. Although they certainly may not crave the sexual victimization, they do desire the attention and physical contact that often accompany it. That they were not ‘chosen’ by the incestuous father creates a strong feeling of worthlessness, which may be so pervasive and persistent that it can produce emotional problems. (p. 566)
Dynamics. In Chapter 3, I described the dynamics and progression of behaviors known as the child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome (Summit, 1983) and the family dynamics characteristic of “classic father-daughter incest” The discussion below offers more specifics concerning the development of father-daughter incest. Keep in mind, however, that there are many variations. The clinician must be open to each survivor’s unique story.
Father-daughter incest is usually a symptom of family dysfunction; however, one characteristic of the endogamous incestuous family is that it appears normal and well-adjusted. A closer look reveals that the family’s inner reality does not match its external appearance. A great deal of stress, strain, and turmoil underlies the facade. Furthermore, the family alternates between overly rigid or overly loose rules and relationships within and outside of the family.
A troubled marital relationship is almost always in evidence in families where father-daughter incest develops. Sexual dysfunction and power imbalances are characteristic of these marriages (Waterman, 1986), and the mother is often described as being absent, incapacitated, or unavailable physically, psychologically or both. In the typical case, the couple is sexually estranged—the most commonly reported pattern is for the wife to be sexually disinterested, unresponsive, unavailable, and/or rejecting, and the husband consequently to be sexually frustrated. Cases have been reported where the husband suffers from some sort of sexual dysfunction, such as hypersexuality, which causes the couple sexual distress. In other cases, the couple has a seemingly active and satisfying sex life.
Various causes may underlie the sexual problems in these marriages. The following have been noted most frequently: The couple may have been sexually incompatible right from the start of the relationship, or the husband may be overly demanding, selfish, or otherwise sexually unattractive. Further, the wife may avoid sex because of fear of pregnancy. Herman (1981) noted that enforced childbearing is the norm in some patriarchal incest families. The wife may be unavailable due to illness, depression, exhaustion, or disability, or she may suffer a disorder of sexual desire or response due to her own unresolved sexual abuse experience.
An imbalance of power between the partners is also common. One pattern involves a tyrannical, authoritarian father who dominates his family, who has little or no regard for others’ feelings, and who maintains control through violence or other types of coercion. His controlling behavior masks profound feelings of inadequacy. The wife is usually passive and acquiescent, with strong emotional and financial dependence on her husband. She may also be “beaten down” or “worn out” by the demands placed on her by her family of origin, her husband, and her children. To relieve her the daughter takes over many aspects of the mother’s role.
A second pattern involves a father who is shy, introverted, and rather inept both socially and occupationally, who marries a controlling or care-taking woman on whom he relies emotionally and often financially. Like the tyrannical father, he may feel a sense of inadequacy in his male role and harbor a great deal of anger towards women; instead of bullying his family, he is demanding, needy, and passive-aggressive. Over time, excessive caretaking needs, as well as the needs of other family members, overwhelm his wife to such a degree that she withdraws emotionally, sexually, and physically. This woman may have initially functioned rather adequately as a parent, but with increased demands she turns to her daughter as a helpmate. The daughter provides her with much-needed emotional support and assistance with the housework, other family responsibilities, and caring for father. The mother may directly or indirectly encourage her daughter to take care of the father, even to the extent of meeting his sexual needs.
Whatever the case, when the mother withdraws or is otherwise absent, a vacuum is left within which father-daughter incest can develop, other conditions being conducive to it. The father, who feels abandoned, frustrated, emasculated and angry, turns to the daughter and sexualizes the relationship, in effect making the daughter both mother and wife in the family. Most frequently, the daughter continues in her conditioned role as family caretaker, her father’s sexual well-being becoming one more thing for which she is responsible. Since her caretaking role has required that she forego nurturance in the family, she may be starved for attention and affection. She may welcome the attention she receives, even if she does not like the sexual contact itself. Later she may be confused by her mixed emotions and take her need for attention to mean that she wanted the sexual contact.
There seem to be three developmental patterns in father-daughter incest, one involving incest with a preschooler, the second involving the latency or preadolescent child, and the third involving the postpubertal adolescent. The daughter’s average age at the onset of incest has long been found to be age eight, but the range is from infancy to adulthood.
According to Waterman (1986), the social factors conducive to incest seem similar for families with preschool children and those with older children; these include the presence of stress in the family, social isolation, opportunity for sexual contact, and a sexualized climate in the home. Similarly, the two major characteristics of the marital relationship— little communication and intimacy and an imbalance of power—are often in evidence in families of abused preschoolers. The dominant mother/dependent father variant may be more common in the development of incest with the preschool child than in the development of incest with the preadolescent or adolescent.
At least three major differences between the preschool, the latency-aged and the adolescent victim have been noted (MacFarlane et al., 1986). First, the preschooler bears less resemblance to an appropriate adult sexual object than the preadolescent or adolescent. Second, the preschooler generally has little knowledge about sexual functioning and is usually unaware of the stigma and taboo associated with incest. She may, therefore, feel less shame and guilt than the older child; however, because of her stage of cognitive development she may suffer more trauma if told she is bad or that bad things will happen if she tells anyone. The third difference concerns the developmental tasks and levels of the different age groups. Preschool children going through the oedipal phase are often curious about the anatomic differences between the sexes. This normal development curiosity may be misinterpreted by the needy father and lead to his sexual abuse of his child.
Finally, differential parental dynamics have been observed.
Those who abuse preschoolers may be relatively more concerned about the issues of nurturance, abandonment, and separation, while the prime concerns of those who abuse older children may center more frequently on power and dominance. Additionally, those who abuse very young children may be more likely to view children as their primary sexual objects than those who abuse older children who more closely resemble adult sexual objects. There are certain characteristics of the fathers that seem common to a majority of incestuous families regardless of the age of the children; these include poor impulse control (at least in certain situations), sexual concerns, and alcohol or drug use.
There also may be significant differences between the mothers. Two major possible differences are these: (1) Mothers of preschoolers may tend to be less threatened at a deep self-esteem level by the incestuous behavior than mothers of older children; and (2) mothers of preschoolers may tend to be less dependent in their marital relationships than those with older children. (Waterman, 1986, p. 216)
Mothers of preschoolers may be more willing to separate or divorce when incest is disclosed than mothers of older children, largely because they are less emotionally dependent on the father and less locked in to the marriage, even though they may be financially dependent. Additionally, these women may be less likely to be personally threatened or to see the child as a rival. They will be more outraged and driven to action when the victim is a toddler or young child.
Suzi’s stepfather began molesting her when she was two and still sleeping in a crib. He would masturbate her and digitally penetrate her, abuse he continued until she was five and he was caught in the act by Suzi’s mother.
If the incest goes undiscovered or attempts at intervention are ineffective, the incest begun in the child’s toddler years may well continue into adolescence. Similarly, incest begun during latency usually continues to the teen years. The preadolescent girl may be approached because of her availability and innocence. She may be conditioned in a fashion similar to the younger child but she may feel more guilt, shame, and conflict because she is more aware of prohibitions and the reasons for the injunction to secrecy.
When Julie was about four, her father began to abuse her while bathing her or tucking her in for the night. At first he rubbed and massaged her to help her go to sleep. Then he began to lie next to her and kiss and fondle her. Over a period of years, his behavior progressed to the point where he would masturbate her and perform oral sex on her. At times he would enter her room at night, come close to the bed, masturbate and ejaculate.
In a third developmental pattern, incest begins at about the time of puberty, when the girl is developing secondary sexual characteristics. From the available research evidence sexual activity commonly progresses to intercourse when the incest begins at or continues into adolescence. The father is no longer inhibited by the child’s physical immaturity and is often quite infatuated with his daughter’s sexual development. He may be much less gradual and more forceful and threatening in his introduction of intercourse with his postpubesccnt daughter, since she is more likely to resist his attempts than her prepubescent counterpart. The older daughter is less likely to be as conditioned or entrapped, but she may feel more embarrassment and shame than the younger child, and thus may also have difficulty disclosing its occurrence.
Lila’s father began to abuse her when she was eight. He planned times when they could be alone to play special games. These began in a nonsexual way but gradually became sexual. When Lila protested, her father first sought to bribe her; when that failed he coerced her by telling her no one would believe her and saying that she must have liked it because she never told before. Lila later realized that her inability to disclose emboldened her father. As his alcoholism worsened so did the abuse and the level of force and threat. He forced intercourse on her when she was 12 and continued this abuse several times a week until at age 14 she finally confided the abuse to a school counselor.
As the daughter gets older, her striving for independence and peer involvement is usually enough to terminate the incest, despite her father’s attempts to continue it. As her social life develops, and particularly as she begins to date, the father may play the part of jealous suitor and behave in a paranoid and persecutory way in an attempt to restrict her activities. The daughter often rebels at his increased pressure and becomes more willing to break away from the relationship. In fact, it is not unusual for an unprepared disclosure of the incest to take place during an argument with parents concerning more independence or privileges. Unfortunately, a disclosure only sometimes precipitates effective action to end the incest. Most often, even when the daughter is initially believed, her revelation does not result in intervention strong enough to effect a cessation of the incest (See Chapter 3).
Teenage girls who are still entrapped in the incest must often resort to extreme measures to put a stop to it. Most frequently, they marry at an early age (sometimes due to a deliberate pregnancy) or they run away from home. Substance abuse, promiscuity, self-destructiveness, rebellion, and defiance of authority figures are also used by many adolescents to dull or escape from the pain of the incest. Occasionally, the incest will terminate when the daughter emphatically and assertively refuses to submit to it any longer. Or she may become so desperate as the sexual demands intensify that she reports it to her mother, to another adult, or to authorities. Unfortunately, as Summit (1983) has noted, the teenage girl is less likely than a younger girl to be believed or to receive appropriate intervention, especially if she is angry, rebellious, defiant, or promiscuous, on one hand, or a model child, on the other. Instead, she is likely to be blamed for being unmanageable or seductive and her report thus discounted. Her report will also be discounted if she has been too “good” and has never shown symptoms or aftereffects.
Walsh (1986a) identified another aspect of the early versus late development of father-daughter incest that has gone largely unrecognized—the younger the age at onset, the more likely that the child will be multiply molested either within or outside of the family. Girls who were multiply molested reported that their experiences of incest occurred more frequently, lasted longer, included the most sexually deviant acts, and were traumatic.
Controversy has long existed about the age of onset of incest and whether it is a factor predictive of more severe aftereffects. Some authorities have maintained that younger age at onset is related to less serious consequences. Their line of reasoning is that less serious sexual behavior is likely to be involved and that the child’s physical and emotional immaturity shield her from fully experiencing its impact. As an extension of this reasoning, the latency-aged child is thought to suffer more because the sexual behavior is usually more intrusive and she has more awareness of its inappropriateness. Other authorities take just the opposite view—that younger age at onset is more predictive of trauma. They point to the child’s increased developmental vulnerability and use of repression as a coping mechanism. Walsh’s findings offer a different perspective, since they suggest that even if the child did not fully react to her early sexual experience, such an early experience somehow put her at greater risk for revictimization in childhood or adolescence.
Father-daughter incest has been found to be highly traumatic due to the betrayal of the father’s role, the convoluted relationships which develop between parents and daughter, and the entrapment inherent in the nuclear family. As we will see in Chapter 5, this type of incest profoundly affects the daughter’s ego development and sense of self-worth, as well as her sexual and interpersonal functioning, including her capacity to adequately parent and protect her own children.
Father/stepfather-son incest is less clearly documented than incest between fathers and daughters because of the small number of case reports in the literature. In their 1978 article on father-son incest, Dixon, Arnold, and Calestro speculated about the lack of discussion of this type of same-sex parent-child incest: “It is unclear whether this conspicuous dearth of information reflects a very low incidence of homosexual incest; … a tendency to label this behavior pattern as simply homosexual rather than incestuous; … clinicians’ failure to recognize the problem; or a combination of all three factors” (p. 835). It is likely that all three factors have played a part and that the prevalence of father-son incest, like that of other forms, has been underestimated and underreported, resulting in its being under-investigated. The 1978 American Humane Association National Reporting Study of Child Abuse and Neglect contained 199 cases of father-son incest, the largest cohort reported to date. Of the father-son cases reported in the AHA study, the median age of the sons (at reporting) was 9.36 years, 49% were oldest children, and 14% were only children (Finkelhor, 1984). Stepfather-stepson incest is even less well documented and awaits research attention.
The available case descriptions suggest that father-son incest may result from intrapsychic conflict or a psychological breakdown of some sort in the father, family difficulties, or some combination of the two. The father’s conflicts about latent homosexuality, feelings of inadequacy, anger or revenge, a distant, powerless, or sexualized relationship with his own mother, alcoholism, unresolved past sexual abuse, sociopathy and violence towards family members all are mentioned as causes, as are marital strain and distress. Mrazek (1981) offers perhaps the most comprehensive description of the father to date:
The father frequently has had severe problems with his own mother, being rejected and deprived during his formative years. His problems with women continued with inhibited relationships with girls during his teens and severe marital problems, sometimes including sexual estrangement, with his wife. Latent or conscious struggles with homosexual impulses usually have been a major determinant for some of the father’s long-term behavior and character style. Frequently, there have been other homosexual incestuous experiences with brothers, uncles, cousins or even fathers during childhood and adulthood. Homosexual relationships outside the family are less common. The homosexual incest is a living out of the father’s own adolescent conflicts. The father often is intelligent, successfully employed, and without a history of severe psychological disorder. Often he is under the influence of alcohol during the incestuous episodes. Half of the cases in the literature report simultaneous physical and sexual abuse of the child. The father may also foster other incestuous relationships, such as between siblings, or a son and an uncle, or engage in additional sexual activities himself with his other children, both male and female. (p. 102)
Mrazek’s description is consistent with the data from the American Humane Association study. In other studies, the role of past sexual abuse as a precursor to father-son incest, whether inside or outside of the family and most frequently same-sex, is receiving more emphasis.
The mother’s role in father-son incest has been less clearly articulated than her role in father-daughter. As in other forms of incest, mothers may be aware of the abuse but unable to directly acknowledge it and/or protect the child. Disclosure of same-sex incest between father and son or multiple incest with children of both sexes may have two quite opposite consequences. It could be more outrageous to the mother, making it more difficult to deny and easier to report, or its very outrageousness may lead her to disbelieve and/or repress what she has seen or heard.
Besides the general effects associated with incest, some are mentioned as specific to father-son abuse. Intense anger and homicidal feelings towards the father have been noted. The popular press has recently carried stories of sons who (like some daughters) have killed or attempted to kill their fathers to prevent them from further physically or sexually assaulting their mothers, siblings, and themselves. Negative feelings can alternately be directed towards the self in suicidal, self-mutilating, and other self-destructive behavior. A devalued sense of self may be displayed through self-degradation and self-punishment, such as prostitution. Several authors mention psychosis as an outcome in a number of father-son cases, especially when the boy reaches adolescence and his conflict and anxiety intensify.
Sexual identity problems may result from being homosexually assaulted. The boy may question whether he is homosexual and be confused about his role in the abuse and about any sexual arousal he experienced. He may have suffered an acute threat to his masculinity due to the stress of finding himself in a role reversal of the expected male role—helpless rather than in control. As a consequence, he may feel extremely shamed and uncertain about his masculinity and be ineffective in his attempted relationships. Even when sexual identity is not in question, father-son incest is harmful. Simari and Baskins (1982) found that among the homosexual men they studied who had had incestuous experiences, incest with the father was reported as negative and as causing significant problems.
For some victims, the effects may not be discernible until they turn to children (their own or others) in an attempt to meet their needs or to master or reenact their victimization experience. Prior to this, there may have been simultaneous or subsequent incestuous experiences with brothers, male cousins, uncles, or peers.
John, diagnosed as emotionally disturbed, was placed in a state hospital from ages 8 to 13. He began to have sex with other boys his age in his dormitory; generally they performed fellatio on him. From his description it is unclear whether he was molested or participated voluntarily. Whatever the case, he subsequently came to identify himself as gay.
When he returned home he told his parents about his sexual orientation. From age 13 until he left home at 18, his father abused him about once a month. His father would complain about being hot and hard for John, usually after he had been drinking and had primed himself with pornographic pictures. He and John would engage in mutual fellatio and anal sex. John felt that he had no choice but to engage in the sex because he felt his father used “psychological warfare” on him; moreover, his father was physically violent when displeased.
Until recently reports of mother-child incest have been quite rare, leading to the widespread belief that its occurrence is similarly rare; however, new research and clinical evidence indicates that mothers, in larger numbers than previously estimated, may be accomplices or co-offenders in father-child incest or may be sole perpetrators with children of either sex (McCarty, 1986). Finkelhor and Russell (as reported in Russell, 1986) have concluded that adult females who abuse do so in much smaller percentages than do males; approximately 5% of all sexual abuse of girls and 20% of all sexual abuse of boys involve women. The relative percentage of mothers who abuse their own children is unknown at this time.
In his analysis of the AHA study for 1978, Finkelhor (1984) found significant differences between mothers and fathers who abuse and the sexual abuse they perpetrate. Mothers who abused were more likely to be poor, black, and single and to combine physical and sexual abuse. They tended to abuse children younger than those abused by fathers, yet like fathers they usually chose the oldest child. These findings are tentative and in need of replication. The characteristics of these mothers may be accurate or may be artifacts of reporting and detection, since poor families make use of social service agencies in greater numbers than do more well-to-do families.
The literature on mother-child incest has almost universally ascribed the incestuous behavior to gross pathology on the part of the mother. The routine assumption has been that severe psychological disturbance or psychosis is necessary for a mother to violate the societal proscriptions against incest with her child. Meiselman (1978), Ward (1985), and other feminist authors have commented upon the fact that no such routine assumptions or predictions are made when the perpetrator is the father. Ward’s term, the “asymmetrical incest taboo:’ was coined to call attention to the double standard that incest by a male/father is more “normal” and acceptable than similar behavior perpetrated by female/mother. Groth (1982) described mothers who incestuously abuse their children from a less pathological orientation:
Typically such women are described as retarded or psychotic, but in fact our clinical research would suggest that incest offenses by mothers may be more frequent than one would be led to believe from a review of the few cases documented in the literature. . . .