According to author Lynn Sacco, incest received quite a bit of unbiased press prior to the Civil War. She located 500 reports of father-daughter incest in 900 newspapers from 1817 to 1899. And, surprisingly, these reports often identified the perpetrators as respectable or prominent men. Also surprisingly, the public did not respond with disbelief. In fact, they responded with outrage. Juries would pass verdict without leaving their seats. Lynch mobs were formed. Courtrooms were packed to suffocation with people wanting to see the trials.
Then something happened. Sacco reports she could only locate 136 cases reported between 1900 and 1940, and half of those were crowded into the first decade. Few of these were upper or middle class families. Courtrooms were closed. Details were kept out of the press. What happened?
Two things. After the Civil War the waves of immigration began and former captives were freed. The belief took hold that it was these foreign and/or so-called "primitive" races who had proclivities toward sexual depravity. Some European immigrant populations did believe that having sex with a virgin would cure venereal disease. Much was made of this in the medical community… and then there was the issue of hygiene.
The doctors, faced with an epidemic of girls with gonorrhea, first declared that what they were seeing was not a venereal disease. There was no way to dispute this prior to the development of a lab test for identifying the gonococcus bacterium. After that, the doctors developed a theory that these girls were becoming infected from toilet seats and washcloths. That theory, for which there was no proof, was treated as a scientific fact for nearly fifty years. This lent itself to xenophobia and racism. The stereotype of the filthy immigrant dovetailed nicely with this theory of transmission of gonorrhea. Mothers were advised that their immigrant servants were the source of contamination, or public toilets.
And then there was Kinsey, whose protection and enabling of pedophiles has begun to come to light. His position was that the harm from pedophilia was not from the assault itself, but from the puritanical attitudes of the culture toward the perpetrator.* The inmates running the asylum. (And yes, I'm linking this to the Reisman research on this... with the caveat that her agenda lumps lesbians and gays in with pedophiles. But her work on Kinsey is nonetheless illuminating.)
And then everything changed. Forever. And women changed it. And how did we do that? We recovered our language. We started to talk to each other, and when we did that, we began to trust each other, and when we did that we began to trust ourselves. And that is when all hell broke loose. We began to say we had been raped, and that it was not a fantasy; it was not a bad date; it was not what we were wearing. It was not our fault; it was not our mother’s fault. In the inimitable words of one of the greatest truth-tellers of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Andrea Dworkin, “It’s the perpetrator, stupid.” (And if you have never been to the Dworkin website, take a tour...)
The truth about rape was inconvenient for everyone. Rape, it turns out, was not a rare occurrence in a dark alley. It was a common occurrence, and the perpetrators were most often known to the victims, and the home was the most common site. In fact, one out of three women were survivors of sexual assault.
On the heels of these revelations, came the discovery that incest was more than the subject of stereotyped jokes about Appalachian mountain people. Incest was epidemic and occurred as frequently in middle-class homes as it did in low-income homes. Finally, the unspeakable was being spoken.
And then there was Judith Herman. Judith Herman, the anti-Freud. Judith Herman, the light-bringer, the torch-bearer of truth. All hail, Judith Herman! Herman came down from the mountain with the revelation of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Thousands of women who had toiled and suffered under the stigma and torture of labels like “hysteria” and “borderline personality” were finally given a diagnosis, an explanation for what they were experiencing. Our unique behaviors, perceptions and experiences were natural for the experiences we had undergone. Herman gave us back our dignity, and she gave us our hope. We would live, we would heal, we would someday, perhaps, blog the history of incest denial, of which our years of being misdiagnosed was a piece. We had been caught up in a history larger than ourselves in a conspiracy that went way beyond our family reunions. Judith Herman. Unto Her people the Goddess has sent a great light.
Herman began her clinical practice in 1975, and, as usual, began to hear from a high percentage of her patients about father-daughter rape. She began to consult with her colleagues about how to respond. This is what she found: “In every case the veracity of the patient’s history was officially questioned. We were reminded by our supervisors, as if this was something everyone knew, that women often fantasize or lie about childhood sexual encounters with adults, especially their fathers.”
But Herman went her own way and she published her findings in Signs, which was one of the first academic feminist journals. And let me pause for a minute here. That decision is one of those moments in a woman’s career that will determine the rest of her life. It is as if Herman had been standing on a peak on the Continental Divide. If she turned her head to the right and spit, her spittle would eventually make its way (okay, in theory) to the Atlantic. If she turned her head to the left and spit, it would be the Pacific.
It was a moment in time when a seemingly small gesture, a minor rotation of position would determine an outcome that would end up being thousands of miles away from the originally anticipated outcome.
She published in an academic feminist publication. “Academic” and “feminist” have been considered strange bedfellows, and this weird disconnect in the popular mind has persisted for nearly fifty years. Herman planted her flag in a new world, and that has made all the difference. She planted her flag on this declaration, “to be sexually exploited by a known and trusted adult is a central and formative experience in the lives of countless women.” All hail Judith Herman.
And because I owe such a huge personal debt to Herman for her Bible of incest, Trauma and Recovery, I am going to indulge in quoting the author, the savior of my tribe:
“Female children are regularly subjected to sexual assaults by adult males who are part of their intimate social world. The aggressors are… neighbors, family friends, uncles, cousins, stepfathers, and fathers… Any serious investigation of the emotional and sexual lives of women leads eventually to the discovery of the incest secret.”
Yeah. “ANY investigation”… “of WOMEN”… not just certain women, but “WOMEN.” “leads EVENTUALLY”… which means “leads inevitably” to the incest secret. Love the lack of qualifiers. Not necessary. Any. Women. Eventually.
And here is my most favorite:
“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering."
The 1980’s saw a flood of publications of books about incest—academic texts, therapeutic self-help books, and personal memoirs. Films dealing with the subject included The Color Purple, Something about Amelia, Nuts, and Delores Claiborne. Wow. Whoopie Goldberg, Steven Spielberg, Ted Danson (which was genius casting… because Danson had such healthy, all-American branding from Cheers), Barbara Streisand (stepping up to make the connection between prostitution and child sexual abuse… go Babs!), Stephen King, and Kathy Bates. It was a golden age of truth-telling.
Any coverage of this era would be incomplete without mention of The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. It was the Our Bodies, Ourselves of incest. And then there was the 1991 cover story in People Magazine about former Miss America, Marilyn Van Derbur Atler. As I said, it was a golden age.
And then came the backlash, and that is the subject of Part Four of this series. Keep listening.
Click here to read "Incest Denial Part 1"
Click here to read "Incest Denial Part 2"
Click here to read "Incest Denial Part 4"
*Footnote: Sadly, as late as the 1990’s these attitudes were still being propagated in some gay male communities, where the North American Man-Boy Love [sic] Association was invited to participate in events, coalitions, and parades representing the community.