I was reading an article by a feminist researcher and author, Tracey Peter, that really caught my attention and caused me to find and read more of her materials. I wish to applaud her for the work she has and continues to do in this area. While reading through the article I wanted to pull select pieces out and comment on them. The complete article is:
Violence Against Women, Vol. 14, No. 9, 1033-1053 (2008)
Speaking About the Unspeakable
Exploring the Impact of Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse
Findings suggest that the impact of mother-daughter sexual abuse on survivors is particularly profound and experiences of maternal violence are often fraught with disbelief.
I have said this before on here and obviously agree with this statement. I think that mother-daughter sexual abuse are the most under-reported sexual abuse crimes followed closely by mother-son. I also think that maternal violence in general is very much under-reported.
Within this newly emerging field of feminist scholarship, feminists primarily concentrated on child abuse and spousal assault within the context of “male offenders” and “female victims.” As such, under the rubric of “violence against women,” not all gendered harms were criminalized. Eventually, however, male survivors of child sexual abuse began to come forward, as well as male victims of intimate spousal abuse from their female partners. Despite the shift from the rigid binary of male only offender and female-only victim, sexual abuse of a female child by an adult female was—and still remains—largely neglected in the literature.
Again I agree. This is a new area that is just now beginning to be explored and discussed among some people. It is still met with a huge amount of resistance, disbelief, and anger by some as well. These kind of acts are not “gender” issues. They are people issues.
Ignoring women’s capacity for sexual violence only succeeds in ostracizing survivors of female-perpetrated sexual abuse.
I can not agree more. In the film “When Girls Do It” there is a scene where they mention 1,000 men who disclosed being sexually abused by women. Only 4 of them ever reported it. Just tonight I was reading about a case where a teacher had sexually abused a student and one of the first comments made on the story was “there ain’t no such thing as sexual abuse of a fully functioning hardy male”. Both men and women have talked to me and described how incredibly painful it is to even admit to themselves they were abused by their mother and almost unthinkable that they would tell anyone else. They can often speak of being abused by a male, because its expected that a male would it, but not a woman.
Because the goal was to listen carefully to a small group of women, 29 interviews were conducted with 8 women from a Canadian city. These interviews not only enable survivors to have a voice, which until now has been mostly silenced, but their first-hand accounts also help foster our understanding of what happens when experiences of being mothered do not match societal expectations of motherhood (Elliott, 1993).
When experiences of being mothered do not match societal expectations of motherhood. Every single survivor I have spoken with touches on this point in some way during our discussions. Always in the context that it is worse because it was “mom” who did it and “mom’s” are not supposed to be like that.
Of the eight women who participated, six were sexually abused by their biological mother, one woman was sexually abused by her maternal grandmother (her biological mother died shortly after birth), and one woman was sexually abused by her stepmother (whom she self-identified as her mother).
On average, the age of onset of the maternal sexual abuse was 6 years old and the abuse ended at 13, giving a mean duration of 7 years.
6 years old. A defenseless child. I fear that as time goes by and it becomes safer for survivors to step forward we will see that this happens much more frequently than was once thought and we will all find out that, as a society, we have added to these survivors pain by not looking at these issues sooner.
Contrary to some of the literature, which suggests that mother-daughter sexual abuse occurs in the presence of a male co-offender who is usually the mother’s partner (Davin, 1999; Faller, 1987), in the current study there were no father/stepfather co-offenders. The absence of a male partner is consistent with findings from Myriam Denov’s (2004) study, in which all 15 of her male and female participants reported being abused by a lone female.
I think this will be another example of where, as time goes on, we will find that is more common than many people think or wish to believe and these studies are beginning to show this. If you have been sexually abused by a woman how many resources are there for you? How many specialists are there for you? Very few to none depending on where you live. For most people it is none. The next part speaks to this in part:
Although most of the women were in, or had received, counseling of some kind, not all had positive experiences when they disclosed the maternal sexual abuse. This was the case for Robin and Chris:
I told her [the therapist] about my mom and she said nothing . . . so I said nothing . . . I only talked about men. (Robin)
It’s been a hell of a journey since the first day I opened my mouth about anything. Whoever said it was better or easier if you broke the silence! It’s a real mixed bag. Mostly opening my mouth over the last 20 years has not been a great experience. It’s actually, most of the way, been really horrific. (Chris)
These experiences seem to be similar to findings from analysts studying the effects of lesbian domestic violence (Girshick, 2002; Renzetti, 1998; Ristock, 2002; Taylor & Chandler, 1995), who report that many women do not seek community resources, such as individual counseling or group therapy. They believe these services are either not “for them” or the facilities do not have adequate training and written material to deal with same-sex abuse. Similar opinions were voiced by survivors of mother-daughter sexual abuse.
I do not know of anyone or any agency near where I live that has specialized training, experience and written materials that deal with mother-daughter sexual abuse/mother-son sexual abuse. I have only found one website so far that is dedicated to Mother-Daughter sexual abuse and that is Making Daughters Safe Again (MDSA). Dr. Christine Hatchard runs the site and states “However, recent research consistently reveals that females account for about one in four offenders”.
Below are narratives from Chris and Nicky about how they felt excluded from mainstream counseling services and popular healing literature on sexual abuse.
I have tried incest groups, but they are all dealing with the guy. . . . Where was the place for me? And when I would try to talk about it, everyone would look down and fumble! And the books didn’t work. Courage to Heal and all of the others . . . Self-help books —I can’t use them. I found them totally useless. (Chris)
I have never, in all my reading have I ever come across stuff about mother-daughter sexual abuse. . . . So I hid that part. . . . It’s like it is a big dark secret and I held that secret for 30 something years! (Nicky)
There needs to be more of every resource available for people who have been abused by anyone. These comments demonstrate a tragic side effect of focusing only on males as offender’s and females as victims of males. By ignoring or minimizing the experience we victimize these survivors by not being there for them, by not making sure we have at least some services available for them.
Another strategy for resistance is telling someone about the abuse. For many of the women interviewed, resistance in the form of disclosing that it was their mother who was the abuser was often met with disbelief. As a result, most women grew up thinking that no one would believe them, even if they found the courage to speak.
This goes back to my belief that mother-daughter/mother-son sexual abuse is the most under-reported sexual abuse crime there is. I have also been told this exact thing from survivors both male and female.
Most research on mother-daughter sexual abuse acknowledges the tremendous fear survivors have of not being believed (Longdon, 1993; Ogilvie & Daniluk, 1995; Rosencrans, 1997; Saradjian, 1996). Consistent with this literature, the majority of women interviewed for this study were adamant that no one would ever believe them. Even though most disclosed their male-perpetrated sexual victimization (all but one woman reported also being sexually abused by a male at some point in their lives), several women reported that they rarely, if ever, told family, friends, and even therapists about the maternal abuse.
I am happy that Ms. Peter put this part in here. This goes beyond official reporting and shows that it is not disclosed to anyone. Ever even though they do often disclose to someone about being sexually abused by a male (which we all know is under-reported itself).
Unfortunately for Pat, when she did tell, her fears were founded.
I tried [to talk to a teacher at 6 years old] but they went running to my mom and asked her about my accusations and of course she denied it. . . . I guess they thought I was lying. . . . They really didn’t believe what I was trying to tell them that my mother was doing. . . . I learned not to say anything to anybody, just to keep it inside me. . . . This is only the second time I’m talking about this in my lifetime. (Pat)
Much like Pat’s account, Lee was also someone who rarely spoke about her mother’s sexual abuse. She comments
I never told anyone. Even my current partner does not know. She knows about everything else, but that’s the one thing . . . I’ve always wondered why I never said anything. . . .
[S]ome of me thinks that maybe it’s because I am afraid to admit that a woman would do something like that . . . because society looks on it as men do it and women don’t.
Men do it and women don’t. Or when women do it, it is often seen as something other than sexual abuse or there are excuses made for why the woman was doing it. Many people are willing to believe a woman was mentally ill if she does it but a male is seen in a different light even if he was mentally ill as well.
Even professionals are not safe from their own sexists views. Calling one category of female offenders Teacher/Lover is accepted by many but I doubt it would be acceptable if we called male offenders a Teacher/Lover category of sex offender. The label for the category is misguided not because of the offenders. It is misguided because of the researchers own bias views. Not to mention how it must feel to be a victim and hear that your offender was a “teacher/lover” offender. While the reasons for the category may be valid I would say that they equally apply to both genders but because of the “men do it and women don’t” view ingrained in many people we overlook this fact.
Lee’s silence was due, at least in part, to compulsory heterosexuality (Rich, 1980), which discursively produces a social disbelief over the potential for woman on-woman sexual abuse (Elliott, 1993; Rosencrans, 1997).
Nicky also spoke about how assumptions of exclusive intersexual violence were a definite barrier to disclosing maternal sexual abuse. For Nicky, part of her reluctance was a fear that others would assume she was a lesbian, which would somehow imply that she was responsible for her mother’s sexual abuse.
I think I kept it in for so long and why I didn’t tell anyone about it is because I thought people were going to think I was gay. . . . I don’t think people think that it’s so bad if it is a man who sexually abuses you, but if it is a woman, then they say, “What is that all about? Did you have something to do with it?”
Nicky’s fear of being perceived as a lesbian, I believe, speaks to the dominance of heterosexism in our society. For instance, I am not aware of female survivors of male-perpetrated sexual abuse “worrying” about their perceived heterosexuality. If there is no connection between heterosexuality and childhood trauma among female survivors of male-perpetrated sexual abuse, why is it assumed that there may be a connection between mother-daughter sexual abuse and homosexuality?
And this is another area that I really have not spoke about on here at all I am happy that Ms. Peters looked at this issue. Add in a religious piece and it gets even worse.
Consistent with many of the women to whom I spoke, Robin refrained from telling others about her mother’s sexual abuse because, based on her past experience, she was convinced no one would believe her.
One woman laughed at me when I told her that my mom used to molest me when I was a kid. . . . She said, “As if your mom would do that.” . . . After that, I wouldn’t tell anybody anything . . . until recently I have started to tell people again.
[How has it been now?]
It’s still, a lot of people don’t believe it, because it is not something that is really openly talked about. Like other than the fathers and stuff that’s been going on for a long time.
[How does that make you feel?]
It makes me mad because they don’t understand. Like when I saw the paper talking about the study that you are doing, I was like, “Oh yes, finally people are going to know how bad it really is and how it impacts people.” I thought, “Right on, it’s actually going to be out there now.”
She was laughed at when she told another woman. It should never be acceptable for a child to say they are being hurt and have someone laugh at them. “As if your mom would do that”. That sums up the belief for many people. People often have a hard time believing it when a father or a man does it but for a mother to do this? No way she could. Is it any wonder that they keep their silence and take it to the grave with them?
Like Robin, Nicky elected to remain silent because she was convinced that no one would believe her.
I think in society who would think your own mother would do that to you? Who would believe you? And when I first disclosed my abuse, I told everybody. . . . I wanted everyone to know that I was an abuse survivor. . . . But I never told them about my mom, just all the others.
[Why didn’t you say anything about your mother earlier?]
[I] was ashamed. It was like it was my sin. . . . Like I touched my mother and I let her touch me. . . . It was the most shameful thing because it was my own mother. Yeah, and everywhere you get these things that tell you that it can’t be true. So every time I get a memory, my mind would say that cannot be true.
A theme that repeatedly pops up throughout Ms. Peter’s paper and in every survivor I have spoken with. They never tell anyone about their mother sexually abusing them and intense feelings of shame about it.
Ironically, Child and Family Services (CFS) had a regular presence in Nicky’s home, and yet she never disclosed the abuse because they were convinced that her father was the one perpetrating the sexual abuse. No one thought to ask Nicky about her mother.
Because men do it and women don’t mindsets. This is just another example of someone having to suffer because the thought never even crossed any one’s mind that a mother might be sexually abusing her children. This kind of subtle sexism is rampant. For example if you go to your doctor for an ob/gyn exam and he is male and you are female there will usually be a female present. But if the doctor is female there is often no one but the doctor and you. Think about it.
Physically, Nicky’s father did sometimes strike her, but she refused to disclose his violence to CFS workers because she did not want her father removed from the home. For Nicky, then, resisting meant remaining silent because she was too afraid to be left alone with her mother, who violated her much more than her father did. Thus, in the mind’s eye of a small child, it came down to choosing the lesser of two evils.
What a terrible position for a young child to be forced into. I highly doubt that anyone would have believed Nicky if she had told them the truth anyway. No way a mother can be violating her children more than a father would. And if they did the mother would have been labeled “male co-offender” category. If you can speak to survivors you will find that “female co-offender” category would apply equally to some though it is not used.
Sadly, Nicky’s experience with CFS was not unique. In speaking with survivors, it was deeply concerning how many women came into contact with doctors, nurses, teachers, CFS, the police, and the courts for matters related to probable sexual abuse.
I agree. How many doctors, nurses, counselors, social workers, etc will go in to talk to a girl (or boy) about being sexually abused and they have the mother sitting right there in the room? The next part shows an example of this:
For example, when Chris was prepubescent, she went to the doctor with her mother. On examining her vaginal area (for reasons unknown), he simply informed Chris’s mother that her hymen had been broken. Implicit in his actions were the assumptions that first, no sexual abuse had even taken place, and second, that Chris’s mother could not possibly be involved in breaking her daughter’s hymen, perhaps because of the absence of a penis (Girshick, 2002). Unfortunately, the doctor was wrong on both counts.
The story of inaction by Chris’s physician offers a vivid illustration of the outcome of mainstream assumptions, produced through discursive constructions of both mothers and violence—in a sense how one is an oxymoron for the other. This enforces a tautological form of logic. Social constructions of mothers and violence act as barriers to recognizing a mother’s potential to sexually abuse her child, which silences survivors and leaves them with little social voice from which to speak. However, some children find a way to resist and either speak out or position themselves among presumably safe authorities. Yet, they are not heard precisely because social constructions of mothers and violence operate to silence their experiences. If such circular reasoning is confusing to follow, try imagining how difficult it would be within the mind of a 7-year-old, which is the age at which many of the women interviewed would have had to grapple with this tautological confusion.
Thank you Ms. Peters for that last part. I agree and think you expressed it perfectly.
Consistent with other research, all the women interviewed expressed a deep distrust of others. With specific reference to maternal sexual abuse, most women reported having a poignant distrust of other women. For Jackie, this meant having few female friends, but it also led her to distrust female physicians.
It has kept me from having female friends. I still don’t have that many female friends. It is hard for me to trust people, especially females. Even doctors, I would prefer a male doctor.
Like Jackie, Robin and Nicky expressed an intense distrust of female doctors and dentists; as a result, each specifically requests to see a male health practitioner.
When I was younger, I couldn’t go to the dentist because we had a female dentist and I used to think that she’d put me to sleep and be touching me. (Robin)
I went to a female physician once for a pap test and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stop crying and I was shaking. (Nicky)
Yet this is often not even considered by some. A Director of a Domestic Violence shelter made this comment:
If you look at the survivors themselves, whether they are male or female, they would rather talk to a woman than a man. People always say that men would rather talk to a man, which is a common misconception. They would rather talk to a woman because they are more understanding.
It is pretty obvious that she had not even considered female offenders and their survivors. So when these survivors call a shelter for help they are often, if they want help anyway, forced to deal with other women because of thinking along these lines. This kind of thinking just makes things worse for the survivors AND for the offenders when they/if they finally seek help.
Given the horrific violence suffered from multiple men in her life, Nicky realizes that her greater distrust in women is not “rational.” This “irrationality,” I believe, speaks to the power of dominant social constructions of motherhood (FitzRoy, 1997; Rosencrans, 1997), whereby a mother’s abusive behavior toward a child shatters a trust that is not easily restored and which, therefore, get transferred to all women. It is this shattered trust that caused most women to define the maternal sexual abuse as more damaging. Such a distinction was made by Pat.
It was worse from my mom because my mom was the one I trusted. She was my mother
and I was supposed to trust her. . . . But she didn’t give me the kind of love that she
should have. She gave me something else.
Chris also spoke about how surviving maternal sexual abuse has been more pronounced
compared to men.
Having experienced both male- and female-perpetrated sexual abuse, I would say it is different. The male is very out-front. Ostentatiously the power trip is really obvious. . . . It is there in the smell, like men who are aggressive smell like burning metal. . . . They know they are violating power. They know they are using their power, whether it is muscle strength, age, dominance, societal, whatever. For women, like my mother, it is more passive aggressive. It is more manipulative because it is put under the banner of love and nurture, which it isn’t.
Every single survivor I have spoke with has stated (those that have been abused by men and women) basically the same things. They have all talked about how much worse it was, many times worse for some.
Many women described feeling betrayed by their mother’s abuse. This was the case for Robin.
The betrayal is more. I think it would have been easier to be abused by my father than my mother because it is more seen in everyone’s eyes that a father would do something like that and not the mother.
And we see again the societal view that a father would do something like that but not a mother and because of this belief how much more damage it causes when a mother does do it.
It seems that the greater sense of betrayal stems, at least in part, from a belief that a shared gender ought to result in more empathic care (Ogilvie & Daniluk, 1995). In this regard, there does seem to be an assumption of an implicit unity of women, especially within the family (Riley, 1988). Given this assumption, and the powerful effects of motherhood and femininity discourses, it makes sense that survivors would perceive a greater betrayal from sexually abusive mothers (Diduck, 1998; Douglas & Michaels, 2004; Eyer, 1996; Thurer, 1994).
To many, the rhetoric of violence is nothing new. We know it exists. We know the damage. And we know that the impact is often a wound that even time cannot heal. Such is the case for mother-daughter sexual abuse. Yet, by making such a claim, I am not suggesting that mother-daughter sexual abuse is somehow worse than male-perpetrated sexual violence. Rather, my aim is to highlight the ways in which popular stereotypes of motherhood and violence work to further exacerbate survivors’ struggles to make sense of the abuse.
Where do we go from here? As a beginning, mother-daughter sexual abuse needs to be recognized. Maternal sexual abuse needs to be framed within a larger discursive context to challenge some of the mainstream assumptions about mothers and sexual violence. As a society, we need to stop denying the possibility of mother-daughter sexual abuse. Until then, survivors will continue to have few linguistic resources to make sense of the violence.
Ms. Peter’s said “my aim is to highlight the ways in which popular stereotypes of motherhood and violence work to further exacerbate survivors’ struggles to make sense of the abuse.” and that is my aim for doing this entire blog.