For Female Survivors, Students, Workers
This article is written for women and assumes a male offender, however SECASA acknowledges that both men and women can be survivors of sexual abuse and that offenders can be male and female.
This Chapter appeared in Womens encounters with violence: Australian experiences. Edited by Sandy Cook and Judith Bessant, 1997. Sage Publications. This work is reproduced here for the purposes of the SECASA website only. No unauthorised copying is permitted without the permission of the Author.
This information is reproduced here with the authors kind permission.
This chapter seeks to name the unspeakable within the mainstream feminist discourses on sexual violence. Specifically, it addresses the experiences of women who are victims/survivors of child sexual assault perpetrated by their mothers. The vast majority of perpetrators of sexual violence are men (1), and it is legitimate that the mainstream feminist community has focused attention on women's experiences of sexual violence perpetrated by men. However, by focusing solely on the issue of male violence, there has been a resounding silence on the issue of women as perpetrators of sexual violence, and as a result there is a notable absence of the experiences of these other victims/survivors (2). I encountered this silence in 1991 while counseling victims/survivors of child sexual abuse perpetrated by their mothers. Their stories of isolation, denial, and exclusion from the mainstream sexual assault discourses combined with the broader theoretical and practice implications of such a silence led me to engage in the research that has informed this chapter.
In placing women's different experiences in the public domain, I will endeavor to raise questions for the dominant feminist narratives on sexual violence. The first section of the chapter focuses on the impact of the sexual assault on the body of the victim/survivor. In reflecting on the experiences of survivors, I would suggest that issues of the body are very different when the victim has been born from the body of the perpetrator compared to the well documented impacts of father/daughter rape. The second section explores some tentative ideas as to how this very specific form of sexual violence may or may not fit within the current feminist analysis of sexual violence. In listening to the different experiences of survivors, I came to question the category of an essential masculinity within current theorisations. In exploring the constructed nature of gendered categories of man and woman, I identified the need for a different way of understanding sexual violence perpetrated by women. Such explorations led me to ask three questions: Is mother/daughter rape yet another form of domination and abuse of power, similar to how we currently analyse father/daughter rape? Or does feminist psychoanalysis have something to offer the feminist discourses on sexual violence in assisting us to explore the blurred boundaries between mother-perpetrator and daughter-victim? In addition, could such discussions encourage us to ask more complex and thoughtful questions about the possible impact of a misogynist culture on men's and women's choices (3) to perpetrate sexual violence against their children.
In reflecting on these questions, I will draw on the experiences of five women who met with me to speak of their childhood experiences of sexual assault perpetrated by either their biological or adoptive mothers. These conversations, which took place during 1993, occurred within the context of research I completed for a master's degree in women's studies. I have included verbatim comments from different women. To maintain the confidentiality of three of the participants, I have used random names Abby, Pauline, and Joan to denote different speakers. One participant, Jen, chose to use her own name throughout the research. For legal reasons, however, her family name was removed for this publication, Jen made the following comment in relation to her decision to use her name:
I want to use my real name. It's like being true to myself. It's keeping good faith with myself. I don't have to hide any more. Every time that I'm up front about being a survivor, it strengthens [me]; it deals with a bit more of that fear and shame.
Phoenix also chose to be identified by name, but for the same legal reasons her family name has been removed.
I incorporated feminist research principles and techniques throughout the research methodology. I advertised the project through four metropolitan Centers Against Sexual Assault, and survivors chose to initiate contact with me. All the women spoke English as their first language; however, two participants were second generation Australians. The comments presented in this chapter emerged through a series of open ended interviews that were taped, transcribed, and verified by individual women. One participant who lives interstate (out of state) communicated with me through a letter and numerous telephone calls. Throughout the interviews, I used feminist counseling methods (Centre Against Sexual Assault, 1995; Herman, 1992) as a means of creating a safe space in which women could tell their individual stories (Lee & Renzetti, 1990). This created a tension as I sought to provide safety and support for women while acknowledging that we were not engaged in a counseling relationship (4).
I would like to acknowledge the courage and insight of the women with whom I spoke and thank them for participating in this research. I would specifically like to acknowledge Jen. This chapter is in memory of her strength, clarity, and wisdom.
In recent feminist texts on sexual violence (Bass & Davis, 1995; Hall & Lloyd, 1989), women's experiences of sexual violence perpetrated by women have made brief and tenuous appearances. When these other survivors appear, they are often situated in the now familiar hierarchical order whereby survivors of male violence are constructed and positioned as the norm and women survivors of violence perpetrated by women are marginalized. In writing this chapter and situating such experiences as central to the narrative of child sexual abuse, I am able to situate survivors' stories as transgressing the constructed boundaries that currently constrain the feminist analysis of sexual violence (Alcoff & Gray, 1993). Colocating the words mother and rapist is one example of the transgressive potential of "other" survivors "talking back" (Hooks, 1990). Through the process of naming and validating these other experiences, survivors are re-inscribing private and individual stories as real. This point is illustrated by Abby:
For my whole life I had never named what had happened in my family, because it would make it real.
Feminism offers us a useful theoretical beginning from which to understand the perpetration of sexual violence against a girl by her mother. However, we need to move beyond the essentialist categories of woman in feminist discourses and explore in a more comprehensive manner the intersecting issues of woman as agent and the impact of phallocentric constructions of woman. Centrally, we need to challenge a fundamental and essentialist assumption: that sexual violence emerges out of a "homogeneous masculinity" (Smart, 1994, p. 28).
Authors such as Judith Butler (1993) and Carol Smart (1994) challenge the existing metanarratives and dichotomous categorizations of man and woman and, in particular, the dichotomous categories of an aggressive homogeneous masculinity and a passive homogeneous femininity. By questioning the conceptual boundaries of established "truths," these new narratives are creating space for the articulation of a different reading of sexual assault. Smart (1994) explores the boundaries of gender identity in relation to rape and sadomasochistic sexual practices. Reflecting on rape, Smart makes the following observation:
The problem with formulating sexual abuse as an outcome of masculine sexuality has been the denial of sexual abuse by women. The location of "bad" sexuality with the homogeneous masculine has meant that women have been denied any responsibility for their own harmful behaviour. Women's (sexual) violence has perhaps been feminism's "best kept secret" and we need to develop further the means of analysing it rather than denying it (p. 28).
As Smart has identified, a logical but problematic outcome of locating sexual violence solely within the masculine is that feminism is effectively prevented from identifying the issue of sexual violence perpetrated by women, and more specifically, by mothers. The position taken by Smart poses a challenge to the feminist sexual assault field and one that encourages feminism to address the silences and absences within the mainstream discourse on sexual violence.
The construction of mother as "nurturer," "safe person," and primary caregiver suggests that a mother cannot enact sexual violence against her child. As a consequence, it is very difficult for survivors to define this form of sexual assault as abusive and legally actionable (5). However, as evidenced in the stories of survivors, women can and do commit sexual violence, which is a crime. In exploring the reality of women as agents, we can acknowledge that women are constructed in a hierarchical social order. This order includes specific cultural and political categories whereby some women exercise social, economic, political, and cultural power over other women and men. Of these women, some will perpetrate abuses of power that are crimes against the individual and the State. These abuses occur across cultural, geographic, class, age, and sexuality boundaries.
It is naive and essentialist to assume that sexual violence as an extreme form of humiliation and degradation could not be enacted by a woman against another woman or a child. From another point of view, it may not be considered politically expedient for feminists to acknowledge the reality of women's agency, especially as women may suffer a further backlash (Bass & Davis, 1995; Herman, 1992) within the context of an increasingly conservative political and cultural climate. However, the experiences of women survivors of sexual violence perpetrated by women ought to be heard within the public sphere, and feminism has a responsibility both to respond appropriately to such survivors and to incorporate such experiences within a feminist analysis of women's experiences in contemporary society.
The survivors who participated in the research reflected on the need for women as a population to acknowledge the different levels of emotional, cultural, economic, physical, sexual, and social power they embody and exercise compared to some other women and children. Abby commented, "I've thrown out a whole lot of feminist thought and theory. It doesn't have a place in my life, and it's not the reality. If there was a matriarch, there would still be a gross abuse of power. In my experience, women can be just as abusive as men, sometimes more abusive. Women can rape. There is a lot of power given to penile penetration, as if that is the be-all and end-all. That's giving a lot of power to a bit of skin."
Women have to acknowledge that we are as capable of hurting people as anyone else. That we have to be aware of the potential and take responsibility.
The women in my study spoke of their isolation within the general community and specifically among survivors of sexual assault perpetrated by men. This isolation had arisen in response to the social and discursive silence on the issue of child sexual assault perpetrated by mothers. Joan and Phoenix described their sense of isolation:
We accept men abusing men, but we hear nothing, absolutely nothing about women abusing little girls. It leaves you feeling very, very isolated. (Joan)
I think abuse from females is still pretty taboo in a sense.... [It] really hits most people's nerves, you know. Mothers are the backbone of society, and if the mother is capable of such abuse then it really rocks the foundations. (Phoenix)
Bodies and the blurring of boundaries
I have chosen to focus on the body of the victim, because this issue draws together a number of significant themes that came up during my conversations with survivors. They include the intersecting themes of ownership and possession, blurring boundaries, identity, defense mechanisms, birth, and sexual intimacy.
An important issue for all the women was the experience of themselves as a bodily extension of their mother, the perpetrator. They experienced themselves not only as a possession of their mother but in a more complex way as a biological and psychological extension of her body. This is a very different reality for survivors of mother/daughter rape from the current feminist understandings of father/daughter rape. One might speculate that the biological reality of birth (and for Jen, the social reality of adoption), resulted in the child's being viewed as a bodily extension of the mother. Phoenix and Abby made the following comments:
I was her property. To do what she wanted [with] and in a sense for her, her daughter must have been an extension. Because I was basically a part of her that she controlled and manipulated. Just an extension of her. (Phoenix)
I think it comes down to birth and being a part of her, a product of her body, therefore, I am her. (Phoenix)
"The feeling is one of ownership. This is still my body. Finding out about me, I can explore, experiment, punish." The abuse is so punitive. (Abby)
Survivors discussed how they had no sense of their own self-identity or any sense of where their mother's body ended and their own body began. This issue is often referred to as blurred boundaries (6). Women identified that they had no sense of themselves as a separate physical, emotional, and sexual being. The blurred boundaries between mother/perpetrator and daughter/victim may emerge from the process of birth, breastfeeding, and shared biological and gendered identity. These blurred boundaries, in situations in which sexual abuse did not occur, would normally be resolved over time, resulting in the development of a separate self and clear distinctions between the mother and daughter. However, due to the sexual assault, such distinctions were perhaps entangled, which resulted in the child's having no sense of self or difference between herself and her mother. The difficulty survivors had in separating the self from the mother persisted throughout childhood and adulthood. Pauline discussed this issue:
Is this a case of blurry boundaries? I don't know. All I know is [that] I had no sense of self.
Joan described her sense of being consumed:
I used to feel that I was always just being consumed. Based on fear I guess. I would feel sick in the stomach and dizzy. Just all the fear. I used to feel like I was drowning. I was powerless. I felt that she could get into my mind and felt that she totally controlled my body.
Survivors also identified issues that related to their identity as a woman and the constructed categories of mother, daughter, offender, victim. As Phoenix described,
I don't feel like a woman. What am I, as a woman. Because you know, your mother is the first person, woman, that you come into contact with.
In discussing identity, all the survivors I spoke with commented on the irreconcilable view of their mothers as both the source of life and the cause of extreme pain and potential death. Phoenix made this comment:
I think the mother is the final betrayal. You know we come from our mother, the mother being the source, where you come from. How do you connect that the source was so abusive. Betrayed you so much.
Childhood illnesses and adult bodily trauma can be interpreted as reflections or psychosomatic manifestations of sexual, physical, and emotional trauma experienced during childhood (Bass & Davis, 1995; Elliott, 1993; Hall & Lloyd, 1989). Within this analysis, we can see that the body becomes first, the site for the experience of extreme physical and sexual trauma and, later, the container in which the memories of the bodily trauma are stored. In addition to this process, the body is often viewed by the victim/survivor as a separate entity to herself; therefore, the body may come to represent the cause of the pain and trauma a woman experienced as a child. As a result, there is the possibility that a survivor may punish her body through self-mutilative behaviors such as eating disorders or cutting herself (Bass & Davis, 1995; Herman, 1992).
Abby said that as a child she used to get sick as an effective way of ensuring time for herself away from her mother. Abby also discussed her physical reaction to the fear of meeting me for the first time to speak about the research:
I would get sick to have space [and] time to myself. I would still hurt myself. I've gone through all the eating disorders, throwing up. I always loved a good chuck. I've always had physical problems, stomach aches, lower back pain, headaches, eating disorders. I was incredibly accident prone as a child. I had no body consciousness. I would leave my body. I have been all this week, having accidents, feeling really sick, losing my wallet, your address. Really scared.
Abby also identified this issue when discussing her experiences of anger and self-harm:
The anger is inflicted against myself. I had a stomach full of ulcers at nineteen. I'm not doing that to the same degree, inflicting physical pain against myself. But sometimes, [the dog] cops a flogging that she doesn't deserve. I have an enormous amount of anger. I take it out on people inappropriately, but beating up on cushions isn't enough for me.
Joan described the self-hatred that led to self-destructive behavior and the body numbness that continued until she was more than 30 years of age:
A big thing for me has been not accepting my own body, because I never used to think that it was mine. I was scared of my own body. I used to hate my body.
Adults and children can develop a range of defense mechanisms that enable them to survive the physical and emotional trauma of assaults and present normally within the public sphere (Bass & Davis, 1995; Herman, 1992; Sgrio & Sargent, 1993). One such mechanism is commonly referred to as dissociation. Dissociation is the process whereby victims/survivors are able to separate their consciousness from what is physically occurring to their body. Pauline described how dissociation was a normal and automatic part of her life:
I didn't know what this was until I realized it was like breathing to me, something I did automatically.
This lack of body consciousness was a common thread throughout discussions with Jen and other survivors:
Sometimes I would really feel that I wasn't quite in my body. Like I would be very uncoordinated, or clumsy and it was like, my body wasn't really conscious of what was going on around me. (Jen)
Women also described the experience of splitting. Splitting is understood as an extension of dissociation and occurs when the individual is able not only to remove her consciousness from the physical reality of the abuse but also to split her consciousness into different parts to deal with the trauma of the assaults (see Bass & Davis, 1995, pp. 428435). Abby discussed the complex process of splitting that occurred in her childhood and her capacity to create other parts of herself that enabled her to deal with the abuse:
A chance for me to identify parts of me that I would be quite prepared to hide. All of these, there was one who was incredibly angry. That was her role, to be really angry. She lived in a cupboard. And she had knives. She was protective. [Would she hurt others?] She would do both [cut herself and others]. She would inflict a lot of damage on herself. But she would do both. But she could be incredibly ruthless and brutal to herself and others.
The bits are far more integrated now. It's so funny, just talking to you now, there's the voice of the one who's in the cupboard, saying, "Yeah, what a hope. Do you want to see what I can do. You just wait and see." You know. She is capable of murder. She is capable of murder. She is quite over the top. And she is the part of me that is, I guess, she is quite animal ... so, there [are] all these bits.
Jen echoed Abby's comments and was able to identify different parts of herself. Jen described two forms of splitting. One was the mind/body split, whereby her consciousness was removed from what happened to her body during the assaults. The second involved her self splitting into different parts that reflected different ages or emotional states:
I'm still dealing with that splitting that must have occurred from really early on. And I'm still fractured. I'm still bringing the parts together, although they are a lot more together than they used to be.
It would have scared me five years ago. But now I understand it and where it's coming from. Splitting at the time of really traumatic abuse. I can really understand much more how that part of yourself just gets cut off from developing any further. And it's not until you can rescue that part of yourself that you can heal and join up as a whole person. It's appalling that I had to do it to survive.
Memories of the assaults may emerge in the form of bodily sensations or feelings. These body memories are sometimes accompanied by flashbacks or visual memories. Joan described the following:
The memories got triggered off when a friend bought me a vibrator. I was practicing with it one night, and I got a really strong memory. I started screaming out, it was my mother. I had always felt there was something that someone had done, something in my childhood, but I never knew it was my mother. It triggered off body sensations, felt like it was happening again. Like I was reliving the abuse. I still don't know anything before I was eight years of age. I think something might have happened, but I don't have any memories.
Jen described experiencing waves of feelings and receiving visual images of a child being sexually abused by a woman. As more memories emerged, she came to the painful realisation that the child she saw in the visual memories was actually herself as a baby and that the perpetrator was her adoptive mother:
That's when I started getting memories about, well, pictures from the ceiling of a woman with a baby between her legs. And that's when I started to realise that there was some, that there was sexual abuse from her.
It has been well documented elsewhere that childhood sexual assault has a significant impact on relationships and sexual intimacy (Bass & Davis, 1995; Evert & Bijkerk, 1987; Hall & Lloyd, 1989; Herman, 1992). Even though the women I spoke with did not discuss this issue in great detail, both Joan and Jen commented on the bodily and emotional pain of the assault juxtaposed with the experience of bodily pleasure within consenting sexual contact:
I can't ever remember climaxing with my mother, but since the memories came back with a climax, there must be some link. I feel disgusted with myself. But you can't control your body's responses. However, that's what I did afterwards. I wouldn't let my body climax in most of my relationships, after what happened as a child. (Joan)
Jen identified her own capacity to dissociate from her body during sexual contact with her partner:
I just became really numb, really numb in the genitals. I couldn't feel anything. If I've got stuff, memory stuff coming up, I go numb again.
All the participants touched on the issue of birth. A primary point is that the majority of participants are the biological daughters of the perpetrators. Therefore, they were conceived, gestated within the offenders' wombs, born through their vaginas (8), and fed at their breasts. Phoenix commented on her fear of childbirth:
I'm scared stiff of childbirth. I've often thought about having kids and I've just got this huge fear, really cold, cold sinking feeling when I think about giving birth.
Linked to the biological reality of birth is the fact that often the sexual violence against the daughter involved vaginal penetration with objects and fingers, cunnilingus, and other forms of genital touching of the child by the perpetrator or the child's being forced to touch the perpetrator. For the adult survivor, the sexualised nature of the assaults themselves is interwoven with the issue of being born of the perpetrator. Given the complex nature of this issue feminist theory may have useful insights to offer the feminist discourse when seeking to analyse and understand this specific form of sexual violence.
The blurry boundaries between mother/offender and daughter/victim are worthy of further exploration, and as a beginning point, I suggest that feminism explore two intersecting issues. The first is the possibility that the perpetrator may view the daughter as a physical extension of her own body. The second issue is the possibility that some women may learn to internalize the social misogyny enacted in the external social world. In internalizing such hatred, women may learn to hate, distrust, or despise not only their female bodies but also their "selves" as women (9). In linking the possible viewing of the daughter as an extension of the body of the mother, I would tentatively suggest that some women may choose to enact their own self-hatred on the bodies of their daughters. In this way, we could view the sexual assault of a young girlchild by her mother as a possible form of self-mutilation by the perpetrator herself.
In suggesting that the choice of a mother to perpetrate sexual assault against her daughter could be theorised as a manifestation of internalised misogyny, I am not seeking to deny an individual woman's agency or excuse a woman's choice to abuse. This hypothesis could be seen as running parallel to the fundamental proposition that women, like men, learn to enact oppression and violence against the "other." I would suggest that for some women, the other is themselves or a bodily extension of themselves, their daughter. One might speculate therefore that this form of sexual violence could be viewed as a possible manifestation of cultural misogyny that is internalized and then enacted by some women in a very different form that is, the sexual assault of the daughter. In this possible scenario, the sexual violence could still be viewed as an extreme form of violence and degradation with the victim objectified and dehumanised as the other. However, the other exists as both part of the mother/perpetrator and as the daughter/other. In positing this as a tentative possibility, I suggest that this issue requires further discussion, research, and analysis.
I have argued that contemporary feminism has failed to believe, support, acknowledge, and appropriately respond to women who disclose their experiences of child sexual assault perpetrated by their mothers. As a consequence, such experiences are absent from feminist theorisations of sexual violence. This brief piece of research offers feminist theory, and the sexual assault field, a beginning point for discussions of difference and otherness. In analysing and broadening out the discursive and theoretical boundaries that define sexual violence per se, we can explore essentialist and homogeneous categories of man and woman. In forming a new conceptual space to enable such discussions, we may begin to grapple with the difficult issue of women as perpetrators and respond ethically to children and women who are their victims. In naming women's stories of childhood sexual violence in this text, I have identified some questions and tentative hypotheses for feminism to begin to explore. Specifically, can we theorise women's experience of sexual violence perpetrated by women using the existing theoretical framework in which we locate women's experiences of violence perpetrated by men? I would suggest that current frameworks are inadequate because they focus attention primarily on an essentially "bad" masculinity. As an alternative, I suggest that feminism needs to move outside old conceptual boundaries and incorporate more complex theorisations of gendered identity and boundaries of the body to assist us in making sense of the unspeakable. Through this process, we could reconsider the different ways in which misogyny may be inscribed within the bodies and psyches of women and how such inscriptions could construct individual choices to abuse power that are currently unspeakable within the existing feminist discourse. In exploring such choices, we are able to view individual victim's different experiences of sexual violence. These other choices and realities pose a challenge for feminism's current theoretical analysis of sexual violence.
1. Ninety-seven to ninety-eight percent of perpetrators of sexual assault are men (Easteal 1993; Finkelhor, 1984; Real Rape Law Coalition, 1992; Russell, 1984; Sydney Rape Crisis Unit, 19 83; Victorian Community Council Against Violence, 199 1).
2. Two to three percent of sex offenders are women. The percentage of women offenders who sexually assault their daughters is as yet unknown (Crisp, 1991; Elliot, 1993; Finkelhor, 1984).
3. I have deliberately used the term choice and refer to Smart's (1994) comment that " 'Choice' is, of course an inadequate term but it does allow for agency" (p. 28).
4. I did this by clearly defining the purpose of the research process and distinguishing this process from counseling (see Cotterill, 1995).
5. Wolfers (1992) notes that "there was a tendency within the Crown Prosecution service to decriminalise sexual offences committed by women" (p. 18).
6. Feminist psychoanalysis has explored the intersecting issues of women's experience of the body and blurred boundaries between mothers and daughters (Herman, 1992, pp. 96, 114).
7. Very briefly, the difference between body memories and visual memories is the different medium through which the memory is expressed (see Herman, 1992, pp. 97,114).
8. I am not aware that any of the women were born through a cesarean delivery.
9. The links between internalised misogyny and self-mutilative behaviors enacted by women has been the subject of more recent theoretical exploration (see Bass & Davis, 1995; Herman, 1992).
Sage Series on Violence Against Women:
Series Editors: Claire M. Renzetti, St. Joseph's University, Jeffrey L. Edleson, University of Minnesota.
In this series.
I AM NOT YOUR VICTIM: Anatomy of Domestic Violence by Beth Sipe and Evelyn J. Hay.
WIFE RAPE: Understanding the Response of Survivors and Service Providers by Raquel Kennedy Bergen.
FUTURE INTERVENTIONS WITH BATTERED WOMEN AND THEIR FAMILIES edited by Jeffrey L. Edleson and Zvi C. Eisikovits.
WOMEN'S ENCOUNTERS WITH VIOLENCE: Australian Experiences edited by Sandy Cook and Judith Bessant.
WOMAN ABUSE ON CAMPUS: Results From the Canadian National Survey by Walter DeKeseredy and Martin D. Schwartz.
Women ENCOUNTERS with VIOLENCE Australian Experiences. Sandy Cook, Judith Bessant; (editors) International Educational and Professional Publisher Thousand Oaks London New Delhi.