For several months, women from Aegis and the D. C feminist community met to discuss incest. Some women in the group had been victimized as children. Others had escaped sexual assault. Our tall’s affected both our political analysis of incest and our perceptions of personal experiences. The following statement of our views on child sexual assault in the family emerged from these discussions.
However, we are not satisfied with this limited analysis of the problem. We are frustrated by the lack of reliable facts about child sexual assault and by the scarcity of feminist theory capable of trans-forming facts into understanding. Those who survived incest and those who offer support and counsel to child and adult survivors are uniquely suited to remedy these deficiencies. In particular , we would like to publish discussions of alternatives for victims and strategies for ending incest. We also encourage people to assess the needs of male victims of incest.
Child sexual assault in the family is a widespread phenomenon that appears from most indications to be perpetrated primarily against young girls by their fathers or male guardians. No national statistics indicate the true extent of this crime. Even the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report fails to classify crimes by the age of the victims. Those working in social service agencies who have tried to compile reliable statistics generally agree that reported cases represent merely the tip of the iceberg. Yet the extent of child sexual assault in the family is rarely acknowledged and its occurrence barely touched on as an issue of concern. Children are warned only of strangers lurking in dark corners of the playground. Informing girls of the potential for sexual abuse by their fathers, uncles, grandfathers or older brothers is a neglected responsibility. People act as if the taboo is so strong and the crime so repugnant that only society’s most perverse members can be considered suspect. Just as with wife and child abuse, society chooses to remain ignorant of sexual assault of children within families for as long as possible, thereby avoiding the responsibility for stopping it. Who is protected by the blinders society has donned? Certainly not the female victims.
As women, and through a political analysis as feminists, we are highly sensitized to the power men hold, the relative powerlessness of women, and the rather unrestricted liberty men have to abuse their power as they see fit. The relationship of father to daughter perhaps epitomizes this dynamic of our patriarchal society as well as any. For what woman is as powerless in relationship to a man as a daughter is to her father? Thus when a father eroticizes the relationship and molests his daughter, he is acting out the extreme on a continuum of men’s abuse of power in this society.
For these reasons, child sexual assault in the family is a feminist issue. Even if some of us escaped sexual victimization by our fathers, it is, like rape, not because we made a choice to avoid victimization, but rather because the men who were our fathers or guardians chose not to abuse their power.
Therefore, we were at one time, and our younger sisters are now, all potential victims.
Even though many of us are no longer in a position where sexual assault by our fathers is a threat, we must claim this issue much as we have identified with the problem of battered women. While some of us (who have had the opportunity to do so) have designed our lives to avoid the possibility of ever being a battered wife, we realize our connectedness and responsibility to women who are. To make the struggle against child sexual assault in the family our struggle is to fight the source of the same oppression, the same violence that begets rape and battering. The magnitude of this crime further insures that many of us and many of the women we work with, live with, and meet daily have suffered the agony of sexual molestation by fathers. The insights gained in fighting rape, sexual harassment and women abuse show clearly the inadequacy of leaving the problem for individual victims to cope with alone.
None of this is to say that child sexual assault in the family is the same as sexual harassment or rape or battering. Each of these are unique and complex forms of oppression which require their own analyses and separate strategies to fight them. But all are ways of controlling women through violence and should be part of what we fight as feminists.
This article attempts to show the ways our society misperceives and fails to deal with child sexual assault in the family (much the same way it has failed in the areas of rape and woman abuse), and to point out some of the unique horrors associated with this form of abuse.
Child sexual assault can encompass various sexual acts ranging from “exhibitionism to fondling to cunnilingus, fellatio, sodomy and intercourse. The type of activity itself is not as important as the manner and atrnosphere in which it is conducted.
We are focusing primarily on child sexual assault committed by fathers although the term “father” as used here includes father, stepfather, guardian, a mother’s live-in boyfriend, or any other man playing a similar role in a girl’s family.
The article emphasizes the father role, although we nonetheless recognize that the same power relations, abuse of authority, and subsequent emotional damage to a girl may exist when the abuse is committed by a grandfather, uncle, or older brother. The important factors remain; a girl suffers victimization by a man who has significant power and authority over her in a physical, emotional and economic sense; he has the power to destroy her self- concept, her sense of well-being and to redefine the essence of her life.
Child sexual assault traumatizes children regardless of their sex;* however, in this article, we choose to focus on the abuse of girls because we believe that the effects of the abuse are qualitatively different for boys and girls. The distinction springs in part, from the differing ways girls and boys are taught to view their roles and sexuality. The threat of sexual assault and victimization pervades the experience of women — so much so that many women consider it their inherent burden as women rather than the gross injustice it is. Furthermore, this article deals with the sexual assault of girls because we need to bear witness to the crime as we know it best. However, clearly much of what is said here regarding the dynamics and injustice of child sexual assault in the family applies equally to boys as well as girls.
Finally, since the assault occurs within the family setting, the victims of this assault, like some battered wives, cannot escape and receive support and security from what is often considered our final refuge. It is in the family where she is most endangered, but because society refuses to take responsibility for what goes on in families, the most likely response to a child who says she is being abused by a member of her family is disbelief. Since the family is the primary unit of society, her alternatives to staying in the family are few and, for reasons discussed later, can be as tortuous as the sexual assault.
Like the problems of battered women and rape, society has too long derived comfort from stereo-typing the perpetrator of this crime by class, race, etc. Seeing the crime as one committed by perverted, alcoholic or poor men in isolated, rural communities is safer because it avoids the radical analysis necessary to discover real causes and recognize the implications or that discovery. The Child Sexual Abuse Treatment Center in Santa Clara, California reports that fathers seen there are mostly white professionals, semi- professional or skilled blue collar workers from middle or upper-middle class families. Fathers who commit child sexual assault are members of all classes and races. Stereo-types of offenders shield most men from suspicion no matter how loudly the signs of it scream. They also serve to sacrifice girls and women in the process.
* Controlled by a certain class of males.
** Statistics indicate that abuse of girls by fathers is the most prevalent form of sexual assault in the family. However, Statistics often mislead and some credible sources speculate that the sexual abuse of boys may be greatly underreported.
While most stereotypes and generalizations promote myths about the perpetrators of this abuse, one generalization promotes the truth. It is virtually only men who sexually assault children. Elaborate theories and extensive studies acknowledge that fact, but few attempt to draw conclusions from it-This rather obvious failing of the current analysis should come as no surprise to feminists. We have witnessed similar failings in the analyses of rape and woman abuse in the past. Feminists, on the other hand, argue that it is the power and position of men that is the source of rape, woman abuse and child sexual assault in the family.
The still dominant view of the family holds that within his own home, a man has the right to do as he pleases. The decisions he makes regarding his property, his house, his wife and children, are his concern and any input from society is seen as an Illegitimate intrusion. Men often regard their children as extensions of themselves, not as individuals with feelings, needs and rights of their own.
The male notion that women and children be-long to their men and exist to affirm and fulfill their emotional and sexual needs is validated and protected in our male-defined society. Men beat and rape their wives and molest their children, often with impunity. Although many would argue that laws, norms and taboos evidence society’s condemnation of such behavior, our legal and criminal justice systems operate to allow men to continue their abuse.
Credible research exists to show that rape laws were initially designed to protect: the property rights of men with regard to “their women” rather than protect women and their right to control their bodies. Similarly, the laws surrounding wife abuse and child sexual assault in the family protect the rights of men at the expense of women and children. The criminal justice system continues to view women who are raped or battered, and children who are sexually abused as participants rather than victims. Most criminal law, for instance, denies that a husband can rape his wife. When a husband beats his wife or molests his child, the authorities are reluctant to believe the victims and intervene, and when they do, their assistance functions to force guilt upon victims and banish them from their homes, rather than provide them with assurance and safe refuge.
Psychiatrists back to Freud and more recently, psychologists, social workers, family service workers, courts and others dealing with the family, shift responsibility for child sexual assault to the daughter, the mother, the family, society, alcohol, anyone or anything but the man who commits the act. Daughters “seduce” their fathers, wives neglect their familial and “wifely” responsibilities thus forcing their husbands to turn to the child for emotional and sexual gratification, etc. Experts also focus on particular offenders’ character deviations and deficiencies to explain their behavior rather than requiring men to confront their abuse of power. These men are seen as suffering from poor impulse control, an inability to deal with adult women, sexual dysfunction, feelings of inferiority or insecurity, etc. However, a feeling of deja vu surfaces as we realize the similarities between these explanations of child sexual assault and the myths and rationalizations we have fought regarding rape and woman abuse.
Fathers justify their assault using many of the same excuses put forth by society at large. They accuse their daughters of seduction. The very term “seduction” rings meaningless when used to describe a child’s behavior. At a young age, she has little idea what “sex” means, or if she knows vaguely the mechanics of the reproductive act, she lacks the sophistication to understand its adult implications. Therefore, when she snuggles up to her father, she expresses a need for warmth, security and affection – not an expectation of sexual play.
The signals a chilld sends out require a different interpretation than those same signals require when given by an adult. The responsibility to discern the difference lies with the adult father because seduction is an inherently adult phenomenon. In no other area of a child’s life does the father allow his daughter the prerogatives of an adult. Thus, applying adult standards in this situation is at least in-consistent and discredible and clearly serves only the interests of the molesting father.
A father has no more right to the claim that his daughter seduced him than a rapist has to the claim that a woman enticed him. There are no signals, no expressions of interest that either a woman or a child can convey that justify rape or child sexual assault. Both of these crimes, by definition, lack the element of consent.
Fathers often excuse their assault by convincing themselves that the molestation causes no irreparable damage and may involve certain benefits. There exists a small but growing number of sex researchers who agree with these fathers and theorize that the eroticization of the father-daughter relationship is not nearly as damaging as we might suspect. However, all the evidence suggests the opp~ site. The Minnesota
Program for Victims of Sexual Assault in their publication entitled, Incest: Confrontingthe Silent Crime states, “clinical experience with these children and others reveals a number of common personality characteristics . . low self-esteem . . . a reservoir of shame and guilt.
Their poor self concepts may be manifested as depression, withdrawal and/or self-destructive acting out”. (p.10)
According to Ms. Magazine, a family therapist found that 70% of drug-dependent children had experienced some form of family sexual abuse.
1. Runaway Newsletter reported that one of the three primary reasons children run away is to escape sexual abuse.
2. A Twin Cities’ study of juvenile prostitution (Enablers, l978) found that 75% of the male and female children involved had been sexually abused in their farnilies.
The point of these statistics is not to imply that child sexual assault alone causes children to suffer depression, run away or become prostitutes. Nor is our intention here to imply that all sexually abused children act out in these ways. Rather, we hope to clarify, for those who might think otherwise, that child sexual assault in the family provides no benefits and causes real suffering for its victims.
The sexually abusive father often rationalizes his assault by claiming to involve his daughter in sex education so she won’t have to “learn it on the streets.” Or he claims to be training her for womanhood. And indeed, the training she receives bears close resemblance to the role our society holds for her. She learns that affection from men comes only by providing sexual favors, that men view her primarily as an object for sexual gratification, that men cannot be expected to control their sexual impulses, and that she must protect him, the adult, from discovery. That training is like preparing someone to be a good slave.
Nothing forces any man to sexually abuse his daughter. However, society forces its continuation by teaching men that the affirmation of their masculinity flows from the use of their penis. Men are also encouraged by the sanctity and isolation of the family. Parents retain all the power and for most of a child’s young life, they define the child’s entire reality, the way she sees herself and the world. This situation allows parents to transmit their misconceptions, prejudices and ignorance to their children, who are in no position to discern the truth.
Thus, if a father tells his daughter that sexual activity between them is normal and beneficial, or will make “her father happy,” although she may sense its inappropriateness, she cannot understand the ambivalence she feels. The sexual abuse often begins before the child understands its significance. She can not distinguish between the love and affection she seeks and needs, and adult sex. The father need not use force to extract a daughter’s submission because he represents authority and truth and she knows that “good children” obey their fathers because “fathers know best.”
Of course, while forcing the child is often not necessary, the parent, by definition, has the power to use force if the child disobeys or refuses the parent’s wishes. The only country which recognizes this fact in its laws is Sweden, which recently made it a crime for parents to use corporal punishment on their children. Also, new research is beginning to show that the use of force is much n”ore prevalent than previously believed.
In a society where fathers are supposed to protect children and men are deemed the protectors of women, non-intervention in the family functions to throw the lamb in with the lion. The power that puts men in the position of protector provides the power to oppress. Child sexual assault in the family is the ultimate exploitation of male power.
The sexual hang-ups of parents and others come to plicate the problem of the sexually abused child. Children recognize early on that certain parts of their bodies should neither be touched nor discussed. That message is stressed even more clearly and regularly where girls are concerned. A daughter learns as she grows older, that by virtue of her gender, her role in sex dictates passivity silence and service to men.
Expressing her sexuality or discussing her feelings about it becomes unnatural in the young girl’s mind. In this repressive atmosphere, the sexual abuse from her father further isolates her in a prison sealed by the disquieting silence of society. The father’s crime becomes safe with her. In order to survive, she learns to submerge her feelings and distrust her perceptions of the situation. At a later age, she develops a growing sense of betrayal by her father, but her father’s power presents her with the feeling that no options exist for her to protect herself and still maintain the security of the family. By this time, she feels far too guilty and implicated to expose her father. The child’s only options are to run away and lose the security of her family or accept her fate silently.
In those rare instances where the abuse does come to light (usually when the signs are too obvious to be ignored), the options society provides to victims cause even more pain. Reporting the crime to teachers, mothers or to the authorities often forces even more guilt, shame and isolation upon the victim. Mothers may be angry that the truth could destroy the family unit, they may feel panicked and afraid not knowing what to do, and thus may refuse to believe their daughters. Teachers, professionals and authorities do not consider children credible, especially when the issue is sexual assault. It offends sensibilities and creates discomfort so that these people often deny its reality and accuse the child of fantasizing or of being vindicative. If the victim is believed, the usual response is to place her in protective custody at a time when security and familiarity are especially important to her. Fathers are not required to leave until after charges are filed. This reinforces the daughter’s sense of guilt and shame as the assault becomes public knowledge. Next the child confronts the police, investigators, district attorneys, social workers and, if the case goes to court, a jury and the public at large. In each of these predominantly male settings, the young girl is further traumatized by the requirement that she recount the embarrassing details of the sexual abuse. Feminists know how that same system traumatizes adult women who have been raped so that the lack of reporting of child sexual assault comes as no surprise to us.
1. Eileen Weber, Ms., April 1977. On the Road: The Runaway Newsletter (Los Angeles: Institute of Scientific Analysis), Summer 1975.
2. lt should be noted however, that prostitution may be a matter of economic necessity when a child runs away rather than a result of the sexual abuse.
Very few family child sexual assault cases ever come to trial. Mothers and families often pressure the victim not to testify in order to shield them all from public scrutiny. If the child does testify, she is expected to perform that task like an adult. As Lucy Berliner and Doris Stevens report in their article “Special Techniques For Child Witnesses,”
The child is also expected to provide to a series of strange adults, additional accurate information on dates, times, sequences, and a description of the suspect. Usually it is not possible for a parent or advocate to be with the child during these interrogations.
There may be a preliminary hearing, during which the child again recounts details of the sexual abuse. If the suspect does not plead guilty, there will be a trial in which the child will testify again and also be subject to cross-examination in an open court room while facing the accused. The above process takes place over many months. – – – Obviously the child cannot be a witness unless she has acquired verbal skills. – . – The preschool child does not understand metaphors, analogies, or irony. – – -Children in the preschool-age group engage in intuitive thought; they can accept connections between events but do not understand causality. . . The activities of the criminal justice system will usually exacerbate the child’s distress. Perpetual discussion of the sexual assault in repeated interviews over many months discourages rapid resolution of the assault related trauma. Children are generally required to testify while sitting alone on the witness stand; the child must speak into a microphone while facing the alleged assailant in an open courtroom. Questioning may go on for hours. When cross examination occurs, it is usually unsympathetic despite the victim’s youth. Prosecutors are often reluctant to object for fear of appearing too protective of the witness; judges hesitate to interject for fear of swaying the jury. Thus the child is abandoned to a set of abstract beliefs in justice.
In many cases, prosecution is unsuccessful because the child’s testimony does not meet these standards of “proper judicial procedure.” If a child is old enough to have begun acting out in socially unacceptable ways, i.e., drugs or prostitution, she is considered that much less credible. Often then, these girls remain in foster homes (where sexual abuse is not uncommon) or in institutions while the offender runs free.
These children need advocates who will fight for them with sensitivity to children’s needs and knowledge of the problem’s intricacies.
A mother is perhaps in the best position to recognize changes in her daughter’s behavior that might indicate sexual abuse, ask what is going on and be the child’s advocate/protector. Why do mothers fail to assume that role? Because acknowledging that her husband is molesting her daughter leaves a mother with painful and risky choices. The risk, and to some extent the pain, stem directly from the oppression women, and especially wives and mothers, suffer in a sexist society.
As a direct result of sexism, a woman often depends on the financial support of her husband to avoid poverty for herself and her children. Exposing his crime or forcing him to leave may mean severe economic hardship. If on the other hand, she attempts to train herself for employment or takes a job to reduce her dependence, she runs the risk of being accused by her husband, her child, the authorities and professionals of abandoning her husband and child, thereby causing the sexual assault.
Many women live under the constant emotional, physical and/or sexual tyranny of their husbands and may legitimately fear their husbands’ wrath were they to expose them.
Furthermore, society sets a mother up by holding her completely responsible for creating the perfect, all-American family. If she’s spent most of her life working for that goal, the reality of a sexually abusive husband weighs too heavily on her, especially if she has sacrificed her own dreams and fulfillment for her family. Exposing her husband means losing possibly the only security she’s known, since women are trained to rely on men for protection and guidance rather than being taught self-reliance. She faces tom loyalties between her husband and daughter; she may feel jealousy towards her daughter. Women are directed early on to see each other as competitors for men rather than natural allies.
Finally, mothers receive no support for acting to end the abuse. They face the authorities alone. At a time when professionals are not even acknowledging child sexual assault in the family, to expect mothers, whose investment in the family is great and who may risk everything in the break up, to act super-rationally and courageously to stop the abuse is unreasonable.
However, children look first to their mothers for protection and understanding, and in the child’s mind, a mother’s failing to act betrays the child. She often is the only adult member of the family who has the power to stop the abuse. Children deserve that from their mothers. But mothers d~ serve something from the rest of us.
As feminists, as women identified as the allies of women, we can play an important role in empowering mothers so they can face the loss of their bus-bands and the upheaval of the family, when that is necessary to protect children. As we’ve managed to do with rape, we can educate and demand that professionals and the authorities direct the blame at the offender, and not at mothers and victims. Professionals, authorities and society as a whole, continually claim that mothers abandon their husbands and cause the problem, or they claim that mothers collude in the crime by not intervening to stop it. If a mother is passive, she’s accused of colluding by not providing her child with the help to resist the assault; if she’s assertive, she’s accused of emasculating her husband’s sense of masculinity, thus forcing him to turn to his daughter to fulfill his emotional and sexual needs. We can act to dispel these oppressive fallacies.
We can educate mothers about the potential for sexual abuse of their daughters by fathers and help them acknowledge it when the signs appear. We can empower them by helping them to focus their anger and blame on the offender rather than on themselves and their daughters. We can empower them by providing the support they may need to leave a husband that sexually assaults his children. Our experience with battered women provides us with the necessary skills for that task. We can continue, with vigor, to demand that women be paid a living wage for their work inside and outside the home so financial dep- endence no longer ties them to abusive husbands.
We can aid victims by educating ourselves about the dimensions and dynamics of child sexual assault in the family. We can raise our consciousness to recognize its signs and take the initiative to act when we meet an abused child. We can demand that children are warned about its potential in schools, thereby equipping children with the knowledge that it’s wrong and they have a right to say no. We can demand changes in the criminal justice system tailored to the unique problems of child witnesses. Most of all, we can begin to heal the wounds it has Inflicted on our sisters by making it an issue we address with regularity and understanding.
Claudia Wayne is a member of the FAA R collective and supervises the Women’s Rights Clinic at Antioch School of Law in Washington, DC
Laureen France is a member of the FAA R collective and the D.C Area Feminist Alliance.