by Louise Armstrong
IN 1978, WHEN PEOPLE ASKED WHAT I’D WRITTEN ABOUT, I’d say “incest.” And they would then most often ask, “Oh? Are you a feminist?”
Now, when I say (with some reticence) that I have written about incest, people ask, “Oh? Are you a psychologist?”
Incest, the sexualization of children cast in Procrustean form, has been transmogrified—hijacked. From a political issue framed by feminists as one of male violence against women and children—a sexual offense on the part of men, for which we demanded accountability, and censure—incest
has, in these years, been coopted and re-formulated by the therapeutic ideology, as an illness in women, to be treated. In children, it is a prediction of illness to be treated.
In 1971, we spoke of what caused child sexual abuse and its role in socializing women, and training them for sexual submission.
By now, you will hear few speak of what causes incest. Most speak only of what incest causes: sleeplessness, lack of trust, sexual acting-out, timidity, aggression, destiny itself. Children, raped by fathers and stepfathers, are said to be doomed—to become depressed, dissociated, drug-addicted, suicidal…
The issue of incest is now one of illness.
It is not social, but medical.
The response is not a call for change, but a call for “treatment.”
It is not that we were wrong. Far from it. We identified incest as something fathers and stepfathers had done throughout history and continued to do, not in spite of the fact that they knew it was wrong, but because they believed it was their right: justifiable.
And this is what the offenders said as well. (“It’s natural; it’s perfectly normal.”) By 1980, men were helping our understanding still more, as academics and other professionals spoke to us as the “pro-incest lobby” of “positive incest.” They told us that” children have the right to express themselves sexually, even with members of their own family.” They told us that, in any case, “the rate of incidence is so high as to make prohibition absurd.” They told us that incest could be beneficial.
Well, we knew it could be, too. And we knew who benefitted.
We knew that incest was not only the grotesque absurdity of men turning the full power of adult male sexuality against infants, toddlers and pre-teens. It was also a form of violence against women. Our fathers had helped us out here as well. (“This would kill your mother if she found out.” “She’s not good for anything anyway, the bitch.”)
During the 1980’s, we had further corroboration that incest was not confined to the rape of children, but among the many male violences against women. Children, we learned, were now being abused by fathers in retaliation for divorce. And they were being abused with far less finesse.
Yet by then what we knew, what could be seen from the evidence, had already been overridden, suppressed by maleprotective forces. From the moment of our first speaking out newfound experts on the rape of children had full-blown from the sea, pronouncing with the authority of mental health professionals, knowledge. The oddest thing was that even they knew that the rape of daughters was also violence against women. They said so. In their own language, of course, their own sort of way.
The mothers of incest victims, they pronounced, simply did not put out enough, weren’t attractive enough, weren’t nice enough to their men, they were rejecting or frigid (or sexually rapacious). This, they said, is what drives men to the beds of their five-year-olds, this “incest mother.”
Well, this was not exactly the way we would have put it. But it meant these new experts saw what we did: That when men sexually assault their children, it is often driven by rage at women.
There was a subtle but serious distinction between the “pro-incest” folks and the new experts. The “pro-incesters” wanted incest legalized, where the new experts wanted it “de-criminalized.” Legalized had the virtue of candor. But decriminalized won. That meant that as a matter of policy incest was subject to state intervention: civil, not criminal. An intervention that would target—not rapist fathers, but “incest families.” Civil statutes were now written that faulted the mother who “knew or should have known.” Well, looked at generously, even that message was not so very different from ours: women should know that men feel at liberty to rape children.
One problem with their way of putting things was that in order to have “intra-familial child sexual abuse” for which the woman was equally (or more) culpable, you absolutely had to have this “incest mother” hanging around, in the picture, choosing her husband over her child, denying what the kid said… You had to have her, alive or dead (“sometimes the incest mother is absent from the home, or terminally ill”).
So women who, discovering the abuse, left and tried to protect the child were simply not playing their role in the drama as now scripted. For this outrageous failure to read their lines as written (in a script essential to defraying male accountability), the mothers had to be viciously punished. And so these women, “vindictive, hysterical,” lost custody of their children—to the alleged abusers. They were that dangerous. They threatened to expose the whole conceptual fraud. War on children and their mothers had been declared.
Another problem with the new experts’ way of putting things was that in practice a policy of de-criminalization not only resulted in punishing women and children, it also diminished the import of adult survivors’ testimony. It rendered individual survivors vulnerable to the newly emerging specialists in problem management—those in the therapeutic arena who, alone, assured survivors that what had happened to them mattered.
Alas, in this medicalized world, survivors’ experience mattered in direct proportion to the degree of manifest illness. How sick you were proved how bad it was. Checklists offered expanding lists of expected symptoms, the display of which was said to be evidence of your past abuse.
Within this individualized universe, some individual survivors sought personal, rather than united political, action: they did battle against statutes of limitation and instigated lawsuits against alleged perpetrators. Making incest a pocketbook issue for offenders, of course, galvanized a spirited, quickly organized, political response. The oxymoronic False Memory Syndrome was born. War on adult survivors’ credibility had been declared.
On both fronts of this war against children and mothers and against adult survivors—it was the other side that had the army and the medics. Individualization, medicalization had precluded political organization.
By now, friends-in-this-struggle would say, “Things are not going well.”
To which I replied, “Things are going very well. Just not for us.”
We have been re-silenced. Within the larger world. And within a world that is labeled feminist as well.
You cannot hear us anymore—those who spoke out early on and have spoken out since about incest as a licensed abuse of male power. Our voices have been drowned out by those who speak of incest as “gender neutral.” Drowned out by those who speak of incest-as-iOness—who would have us hear only that women survivors have been made fragile and helpless by the event in their childhood vaguely rendered by the word incest. “Women are portrayed to us, in tones of great sympathy, as damaged, suffering from diminished capacity. And signs of damage in women, signs of diminished capacity—working backwards—are taken as “indicators” that they have been wounded by incest. Incest has become a metaphor for all the oppressions that feminism named. What has happened in this brief 15 years since feminists first spoke out on incest is the explicit exoneration of fathers, the implication of mothers—and the infantilization of women as survivors.
The personal is political. You may still hear the words, but you can no longer hear the meaning behind them. You cannot hear that the point of speaking out was to identify commonalities that, once identified, could lead to political action for change. We spoke out publicly to break a silence—when there was a silence to break. But speaking out was never meant to be all there was.
We endorsed help for individual women. But that was never meant to be all there was: the building of field hospitals to tend a predictably endless supply of wounded.
You cannot hear us anymore. Even though—in the tiniest tucky-holes of this country—you cannot any longer hear silence on the prevalence of incest, you cannot anywhere hear what all this talk of incest means. You can’t hear that it is about a license that is historical. Or that, until recently, what silenced women was not reticence or shame, but intimidation. You can’t hear that, as recently as 1978, the law in Texas, for instance, held the complaining child liable as an accomplicewitness, a “participant,” an instigator. For all the loose talk of the “crime” of incest, you can’t hear that this male abuse of power continues to be quasi-semi-more-or-less legal in this country. Or that where children and their protective mothers refuse to be silent—they will be silenced by the courts, and punished. And you cannot hear that these things are all connected, all part of the same weave. That the myth of the incest “triad,” that the exclusive focus on victim pathology is all tailored to protect the male offender. You can’t hear this even within most gatherings of feminists.
Even the incest stories you now hear are selective. The stories of children yanked into the child welfare system are unheard. The stories of those children placed under psychiatric surveillance, sometimes institutionalized, presumed according to mental health ideology to be at risk of emotional disturbance because their fathers raped them—are unheard. And yet we are everywhere told that we are, at last, listening to the children.
Nor do survivor’s stories speak clearly of incest as male violence, nor of the deliberateness of that violence. Indeed, with the focus so heavily on illness, you can barely discern the fact of human agency: it is as though “incest” is on the order of a natural catastrophe—not rape by Daddy, who could just as easily have not done it.
What you can hear now is that we are, at last — 15 years after women began publicly speaking out, ten years after the televising of the breakthrough documentary, “Something About Amelia,” five years after every talk show in the nation has routinized the airing of incest stories—breaking the silence.
Women continue to speak out, but seldom in their own, authentic voices. Rather, their speech echoes that of therapists; they speak the language of mental health—of their disorders, and their path to healing. They speak of being in recovery—as though it were a geographical space. Their stories are absent context, without larger meaning.
In being framed as medical, incest has been rendered trivial. Somehow, mental health ideology infiltrated and subverted feminist rationality. Once incest was re-formulated by treaters and healers, speaking out itself was transformed. Its meaning was changed. The personal became public, but not political. It was not the abuse of male power, but individual women and their symptoms who needed to change.
What we are speaking of here is not therapy, the private event. It is the therapeutic ideology—a way of seeing the world that enlarges the personal, with no agenda for the political. It is a belief system, a way of seeing the world that subverts the goals of feminism: it promotes the personal to the paramount, sells belonging in suffering, offers consolation that what afflicts you is not politically engineered, but an individual fate. When the therapeutic ideology triumphs— feminism loses.
Alas, it has proved very seductive. The therapeutic ideology infiltrated feminism through the issue of incest. It hijacked the issue from under feminism’s nose. It pretended to feminism by hijacking feminist language.
Combining that language with mental health credo, it offered to survivors something it called empowerment. All women needed was the courage to cede their power to experts. The language promised liberation; spoke of the struggle. By the early 1990’s, you no longer distinguish what survivors were calling the survivor movement from what everyone else was calling the recovery movement. And all of this in the name of feminism.
Speaking out—lopped free from all political foundation— was bankrupt. No more than confession. It was now said to be a “stage” in healing.
But who would dare challenge such things? To speak out on this is to seem to be making rude noises on an intensive care ward. Who among us is brutal enough to speak against healing?
We have been re-silenced.
Fathers and stepfathers continue to rape children. Children pay a high price for that. Their mothers pay a high price for that. The cost benefit analysis of incest remains the same. The fact of incest, the incidence of incest—routine, banal, non-exotic incest— is the sexualization of children in everyday reality: the expression of rage at women by wounding their children, in everyday reality.
Pictures in the media of children sexualized are signifiers of the licensed act. Images of women dressed as children, of children made up and photographed as little women, are signifiers, a warning of license.
As long as the act itself remains uncensured, and the aggressors remain publicly unchallenged as a collective force, by a collective force as long as feminist analysis and energy is submerged in and overridden by mental health doctrine, images of the sexualization of children are (to use the old incest cliche) the “tip of the iceberg.”
The iceberg remains the socially tolerated act of child-rape by fathers.
Louise Armstrong is author of the groundbreaking Kiss Daddy Goodnight (Hawthorn Books 1978; Pocket Books 1919, 1987) and numerous other books on feminist issues. Her forthcoming book, Rocking the Cradle of Sexual Politics: What Happened When Women Said Incest, will be published by Addison-Wesley in October.