New Internationalist

Kiss Daddy Goodnight

Issue 138

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ADOLESCENCE [image, unknown] Abusing parent power

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Kiss daddy goodnight
People prefer to think of incest as rare. But in every fourth family,
a girl is sexually abused by a trusted adult. Debbie Taylor uncovers
the dangerous truth behind the ‘safe’ family facade.

‘I think it started when I was seven or eight, and it kept going until I was 17 or so. So it was always there. My father would get me on his knee and start feeling my breasts. Then it was when I was going to bed. He would come and fondle me in bed. The worst part was the guilt and the feeling of powerlessness. I’d just lie there absolutely petrified. How can you repulse someone you’re reliant upon?

From Father Daughter Rape by Elizabeth Ward

‘I was only five years old, but somehow I realised what my grandfather was doing was wrong. When he heard my mother calling he would hastily draw away his hand and I would run to my mother who would ask "Where were you?" But she would feel relaxed and secure the moment she learnt that I had been with my grandfather in the garden. She used to caution me against going down into the garden alone.

From The Hidden Face of Eve by Nawal El Saddawi

Two little girls: one in Egypt, one in Australia. And one experience: incest. Secrecy, fear, guilt, the experience is the same the world over. And it’s a truly world-wide phenomenon. An estimated one in four families is incestuous.

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Illustration: Clive Offley

In case you can’t believe your eyes, I’ll repeat that statistic: one in four. Everywhere studies have been done the evidence is the same. And in the overwhelming majority of cases (80 - 90 per cent) it is girl-children that are the victims: sexually abused by fathers, uncles, grandfathers, brothers, fathers-in-law, neighbours, family friends.* In Cairo a survey in 1973 found between 33 and 45 per cent of families contained daughters who had been raped, molested, ‘interfered with’ by a relative or close family friend. Kinsey’s 1953 study in the US found incest in 24 per cent of families. And the figures are similar in the UK and Australia.

Other research shows that the abuse can - and does - begin as soon as the girl-child is born. Two-thirds of Israeli victims were less than ten years old and one in sixteen of victims in an Indian survey were aged between six months and six years. Research from Denver in the US found that half the victims were under ten; and half of those were less than five years of age. Again, it takes a while for statistics like this to sink in. They indicate that as many as one in 16 families may contain a girl toddler being sexually abused by an adult male.

Perhaps, on reading this, you will be tempted to dismiss the evidence as being too shocking to be true. Please don’t. One in four families means millions of young girls. And their voices have been ignored for far too long - with terrible consequences.

Two-thirds of anorexic patients (neurotic slimmers who end up trying to starve themselves to death) in a UK study were incest victims, as are a major proportion of young prostitutes in Melbourne, Australia. Investigations into the family lives of mentally disturbed or delinquent young women find a preponderance with a history of incest. And it is common knowledge among social workers that the ‘inexplicable’ family murders in the West - where father slaughters wife and children and then commits suicide - are almost invariably due to his shame when incest is discovered.

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Illustration: Clive Offley

In the case of the ‘delinquent’ incest victim, or the girl who goes on the streets to earn a living, it is a question of her having nowhere else to go. With all the usual sources of love and security undermined, the horrors of home are simply intolerable and the only alternative is escape. To suggest - as Freud did - that their secret desire is to have sex with their fathers is to be totally blind to the evidence.

Freud, in fact, has a great deal to answer for. Nearly every one of his female patients - who were suffering from all kinds of crippling emotional and psychosomatic symptoms - reported that they had been sexually assaulted -as children.

Initially Freud believed them and attempted to stretch his mind to encompass what he called ‘this astonishing thing’: that a substantial proportion of refined, educated Viennese men were systematically raping their daughters, nieces, granddaughters. But the medical community howled him down and he eventually decided his patients had simply imagined the events, a ‘discovery’ that he later went on to develop into his now-famous theory of the Oedipus Complex. It was easier for Freud to believe the girls were making it up than to believe in his own evidence, such is the fear of facing incest: the outrageous secret.

For outrage it is. No amount of argument or explanation can, or should, disguise the fact that around 100 million young girls are being raped by adult men, often day after day, week after week, year in year out.

Enough of statistics. We need an explanation. And the experts have been very forthcoming. In a major portion of the literature, mothers are blamed - because they went out to work, or were ill in hospital, or allowed themselves to become fat and unattractive, or were cold and unloving. With no outlets for his sexual impulses, they claim, the father ‘naturally’ turns to his daughter. Mothers are also blamed for not putting a stop to the incest once it is discovered.

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Illustration: Clive Offley

Some theorists point the finger of accusation at the daughter-victims too - because they were pretty, seductive, doted on their father or made themselves available. How could a father resist his little darling? - the argument goes.

Perhaps it is not so surprising that the fathers escape the blame. Research into what kind of man commits incest has been unable to discover any important differences between them and any other men. So a tendency to incest can’t be located within a particular type of man. On the contrary, the danger of incest is a logical consequence of a social system that puts an excess of power in male hands - reinforced by a family structure that puts power in the father’s hands over his children.

Not that a father should have no power - a powerless parent cannot protect his child as he should. But parental power used correctly is ‘taking responsibility’. Power abused by a parent is a double irresponsibility. Not only is an incestuous father betraying the child’s trust and taking advantage of her vulnerability and dependence - that is betrayal enough. But also he is placing on her an impossible burden. How can she ‘tell on father’ without betraying her own sense of loyalty and her need for her father’s protection’? The very person to whom she would run as her protector, if she were assaulted by some other man, has become the person from whom she must run. Small wonder that the internal conflict produces deep and lasting emotional damage.

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Illustration: Clive Offley

The imbalance of power between men and women means that it is overwhelmingly men who commit rape, whose uncontrolled expression of sexual urges is expected, forgiven or condoned to an extent that could never occur in a world where women and men shared equal rights. And women are expected to comply or prove to a jury their wish to refuse by physically resisting their assailant. A simple ‘no’ is not considered sufficient resistance precisely because women’s position in society is defined in terms of them meeting the needs of men.

Of course women who risk resisting are vastly outnumbered by the millions who would never dream of upsetting a member of the dominant caste, a person who holds the keys to their security and survival. A man denied his sexual ‘rights’ may leave altogether. So many women dare not even say ‘no’.

The same is true of children - though to a much greater extent.

A child’s ‘no’ is seen as an expression of ungratefulness and disrespect rather than as an assertion of human rights. And as long as parents assert arbitrary power over less powerful children, and men exert arbitrary power over less powerful women, father-daughter rape will continue to affect millions of women around the world.

Debbie Taylor

* Following the Incest Survivors’ support organisation in the UK, I have used the term incest to include all cases of sexual assault by a trusted adult familiar to the victim.


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