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Offending mothers: theorising in a feminist minefield

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Female 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.

Department of Social Work, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Australia
April 1998

(Some of the ideas articulated in this chapter were presented in a paper to the AASW National Conference in Canberra, September 1997.)

Reproduced here with the authors kind permission. No part of this work may be reproduced in any way without the authors permission.


The sexual assault of a daughter by her mother is a rare but still serious indictable crime. It has been estimated that 97-98 % of sex offenders are men (Finkelhor 1986, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 1994, ABS 1996). These texts do not identify the statistical occurrence of women as offenders. Therefore, we can assume that women form the remaining 2-3 % of sex offenders. This form of sexual violence has largely been denied or minimalised within feminist theorisations of sexual assault (Hall & Lloyd 1988, Kelly 1988, Bass & Davis 1995). Feminist theory has understandably focused on the sexual violence perpetrated by men, however this has led to an absence in the feminist discourse on the sexual violence perpetrated by women. I would suggest that there are a number of pertinent reasons why this form of violence should be addressed by the feminist discourse. Initially there is a legitimate requirement for feminist theory and the sexual assault field to actively engage with and validate the experiences of those women and girls who have experienced sexual violence perpetrated by women. As my research has focused upon the experiences of women survivors, I feel unable to comment upon the experiences of men or boys who may have been sexually assaulted by their mothers or other female care-givers. (See Elliot (ed) 1993 and Saradjian 1996 for further discussion.) Although these victim/survivors are few in number, their experiences have generally been defined as marginal to the experiences of victim/survivors of male violence. Through acknowledgement and research, feminist theory could name and legitimatise the experiences of 'different' victims of violence and further explore the issues related to offending women.

The second reason is that the existence of this form of sexual violence leads us to examine more closely the consequences of a patriarchical ideology upon the lives of women as an oppressed group. Examining the difficult issue of sexual violence perpetrated by women against the bodies of their daughters, forces us to confront complex questions about power, the use of sexual violence, the construction of femininity and masculinity and the place of children within our families and communities.

In this chapter I will explore the links between a patriarchical ideology and the offending behaviour of women. I will argue that women's sexual offences emerge as a direct manifestation and reflection of the hierarchical and misogynist society in which women, men and children are constructed. Within this discursive social reality, a very specific form of gender power relationships inform women's experiences of both individual and social oppression and consequently how they choose to enact or exercise power. Within this discussion I will posit the tentative argument that the reality of a small percentage of mothers who choose to sexually assault their child, is a reflection of these dominant power relationships and the ways in which our society constructs 'mothering' and the 'other'. Sexual violence perpetrated by a woman against her child, is a difficult issue for the feminist movement to acknowledge, confront and explain. In seeking to offer some way of making sense of this complex form of violence, I will present a theoretical framework which incorporates aspects of feminist and postmodern theory. I am most interested in the questions raised by postmodernism as to the construction of gender identity and the nature of power. A number of theorists have argued that sexual violence has been constructed as emerging solely out of an essentialised and homogeneous masculinity (Kelly, 1991, Liddell 1993, Smart 1994, Connell 1995 and Featherstone & Trinder 1997). This analysis is useful when unpacking the issue of sexual violence perpetrated by women. Because of the controversy which surrounds such views or in other words the 'feminist minefield' one enters when acknowledging the phenomenon of offending mothers, I would like to briefly discuss some personal and professional dilemmas which emerged during this research.

Reflections on my experience of the feminist minefield

I have incorporated a feminist analysis into my personal life and professional work for many years and the majority of my work has been with victim/survivors of male violence. Whilst working in the sexual assault field, I met and worked with two women who disclosed their experiences of child sexual assault perpetrated by their mothers. Due to the absence of such experiences within the mainstream sexual assault literature, I sought to undertake my own research into the phenomenon.

This research lead me to a number of theoretical questions as to women's sexual offending behaviour, however such questions were compounded by personal and professional dilemmas. To briefly summarise, I had serious personal doubts about committing time, energy and resources to a project which focused upon a very small number of women who perpetrated sexual violence. Given the horrific litany of crimes perpetrated by men against women and children, I feared that my work would be misused to further oppress or blame women. However, in amidst lingering doubts, I return to my commitment to the rights of women and children and my feminist analysis of power. This commitment leads me to questions as to the effects of the traditional power hierarchies upon women and their relationships with 'other' women, children and men. Consequently, I would suggest that my work can be understood as a contribution to a critical body of knowledge which seeks to name and understand other experiences of oppression.

This research has demanded that I, as a middle class, educated, white, academic woman, acknowledge the position of power from which I speak (Spivak 1987) and the abuses of power that I have implicitly and explicitly enacted over others (Flax 1990). Whilst researching women's offending behaviour it has been important to reflect upon my own investment in an idealised view of myself as the perfect woman, feminist worker, daughter and potential mother (Maynes & Best 1997). In addition, the process of unpacking a dominant feminist discourse on women, power and violence has also challenged my investment in 'innocent knowledge' (Flax 1990), which was the assumption that I would discover an essential 'truth' about women's use and abuse of power. I am aware that I was hoping for a 'truth' which would exonerate women of responsibility for their actions. Along with these challenges, I have had to engage with my fantasy of the 'perfect mother' (Chodorow & Contratto 1989) which highlighted the difference between my response to child sexual assault committed by mothers as compared to sexual violence perpetrated by fathers. In thinking about the actions of a mother/offender, I found myself locating the mother as victim, which reflected the traditional feminist view of women as acting from a place of oppression. The contextualisation of woman as 'victim' and how that impacts upon our view and understanding of her offending behaviour will be briefly discussed in a later section of the chapter.

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Social context

Aside from my personal response, is my awareness of the political and ideological context within which this research is located. I fear that any public discussion of women's offending behaviour may negatively affect the gains of the feminist movement. The gains I am referring to include the social and political acknowledgement that sexual violence is a gendered crime whereby 98% of perpetrators are men and that this violence against women and children emerges explicitly from a phallocentric social context. My concern about a possible backlash against women's services, is also linked to my awareness of the current conservative political and economic context, where direct services for victims of violence are increasingly being mainstreamed, outsourced and privatised (Hughes 1996, Wilson 1996). I am concerned that any research which addresses women's offending behaviour may be used by a neo-conservative government to further marginalise women's services. However, I would suggest that a number of workers are currently grappling with the issue of women's violence, consequently this research can be understood as contributing to a more complex understanding of the consequences of a phallocentric social reality on the lives of women.

Feminist analysis

Second wave feminism has offered us a broad body of knowledge which demonstrates the oppressive nature of the social, political, economic, historical and discursive context within which women live. Clearly this context is one which severely curtails the power exercised by, women, thus affecting their opportunities for 'real' choice, as distinct from constructed or socially defined choices. Therefore, when we use a mainstream feminist analysis, we can very clearly see the position of oppression and powerlessness within which a woman offender is located and which may inform her choice to offend. The resulting difficulties which arise through the use of such a contextualisation process will be explored shortly.

An additional element within our understanding of the choices made by individual women, is the real possibility that the majority of women sex offenders are also victim/survivors of child sexual assault, adult rape and/or domestic violence (McCarty 1986, Saradjian 1996). The theoretical and practical issues raised by this conclusion are very complex and I do not wish to suggest that a cycle of violence theory is an appropriate theoretical framework to assist us in making sense of women's offending behaviour. As evident in the broad body of feminist literature on child sexual assault, we know that the vast majority of women who are sexually assaulted as children do not enact sexual violence against their own children. However, it does remind us to ask more complex questions about the impact of oppression upon the oppressed and how these experiences are manifested and enacted in the lives of the victim. This leads us to the issue of women as 'victim'. The difficulty in viewing women solely as oppressed, is that we are not able to view the actions of the woman/offender as arising out of an individual choice to assault the other person. Consequently the woman as offender, her intention, ability and choice to 'act', the crime and the victim herself is rendered invisible (Wolfers 1992). This is an extremely problematic outcome for victim/survivors, workers and feminist theory. As survivors have informed us, some mothers do make choices to enact sexual violence against their daughters and although we can contextualise the position from which women make this choice, their choice to enact a crime still exists. As Smart commented "choice" is, of course, an inadequate term, but it does allow for agency' (1994, p. 28). In seeking to make sense of women's choices, I have found the work of Featherstone (1997) and Parker (1995, 1997) very useful. In reflecting upon the child protection field, Featherstone (1997) draws upon Parker's (1995) analysis of the ambivalent relationship mothers have with their children. Parker posits that some mothers share a love/hate relationship with their children, however, due to social taboo's about mother hate, this ambivalence and possibly the hatred is repressed. Such repression may result in the mother physically, emotionally or sexually assaulting the child (Parker 1995, 1997 and Saradjian 1996).

As Maynes & Best commented:

Perhaps being witness to the inner worlds of those mothers who act out their fantasies and abuse their children falls into the category of the 'unthinkable'. What Welldon terms 'society's glorification of motherhood and its refusal even to consider that it may have a darker side' (1988, p. 79) contributes to the continuing imprisonment of women within a sometimes impossible role. Women experience motherhood in a myriad different ways, and we need to recognise that motherhood can provide a unique opportunity for a woman to act on her desire for domination or ridding herself of unbearable feelings (1997, p. 134).

I will return to the importance of maternal ambivalence later in the chapter.

As identified briefly previously, the dichotomised construction of woman and consequently 'mother' as either victim or offender, but never both, exists as an inherently problematic point for traditional feminism. Within a traditional analysis of gender, the view that masculinity is the primary problem has meant that mainstream feminism has been unable to critically engage with the relationships of power and domination that exist between women and their children or 'other' women. To assist us in moving forward from this point, is the theoretical legacy of feminism, juxtaposed with a post-mortem analysis of the construction of gendered identity. This body of knowledge tells us that women are constructed within a fundamentally patriarchal and ethnocentric historical and social context. Therefore we can acknowledge that women, like men are socialised within a hierarchical social order, where they learn to categorise other members of society into oppositional dichotomies and enact forms of oppression against these 'others'. I am not suggesting that these forms of abuse are always overt or violent in action, merely that some women participate in, benefit from and perpetuate power relationships which maintain the dominant capitalist and patriarchal order. Therefore as Kelly commented 'taking social construction seriously, including the fact that women do not live outside patriarchal ideologies and practices, means we can locate women as abusers within feminist analysis - but it is complicated' (1991, p. 15). Through the use of a critical feminist and post-mortem perspective, we can clearly locate women's offending behaviour within an analysis of the 'relations of domination' (Flax, 1990, p. 182). Using this theoretical framework, such violence is a logical outcome of a social and historical context which legitimatises the abuse of those defined as inferior others and which condones the use of sexual violence as a weapon to dehumanise and degrade this other. In acknowledging the construction of women within a phallocentric discourse, it is not a difficult step to recognise that women learn to abuse power in the private realm of the family. In reality, the family may be the primary place where many women can feel both a sense of power and have the opportunity to enact power against an 'other'- a child (Kelly 1991). Feminist theorists have developed a detailed body of knowledge which contextualises the enacting of physical violence and infanticide by mothers against their children (Parton 1990, Wise 1991, Featherstone 1996 and Riley 1996).

However, feminist workers have major ideological and practice difficulties when it is suggested that women should take responsibility for their choice to enact sexual violence against a child. In relation to sexual violence, much anecdotal evidence leads me to the conclusion that women are rarely charged with sex offences within the criminal justice system. However, if a woman is charged and found guilty of sexual offences against her child, she is more likely to be pathologised as a 'monster' within the public discourse and receive a far more severe sentence as compared to male sex offenders., This obviously relates to the 'madonna/whore' (Welldon 1988) or 'victims/villains' (Featherstone 1996) dichotomy, whereby women, once they breach the boundaries of traditional motherhood, are punished far more severely than male offenders.

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Postmodern analysis

As briefly identified in the introduction, postmodernism offers us a critical analysis of both the nature of power and the 'truth' of the notion that masculinity and femininity are fixed essential categories. (See Flax 1990, Nicholson ed. 1990, Sawicki 1991, Butler 1993, Everingham 1994 and Featherstone & Trinder 1997). These analyses offer a challenge to the traditional assumptions of what or who is a 'man' or 'woman'. Of particular interest for myself is the manner in which postmodernism also challenges the essentialised notion that masculinity is homogeneously 'aggressive' which exists in oppositional terms to a 'passive' femininity. These critical questions assist us in identifying that there are specific discursive or language based practices which construct a very particular form of gender identity. These practices also attribute the enacting of sexual violence to an essentialist view of a hegemonic or dominant masculinity. As we can see, this dominant view fails to acknowledge the possibility that women can enact sexual violence against others. Smart (1994) made the following observation.

The, location of "bad" sexuality with the homogenous 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 (1994, p. 28).

Therefore postmodernism, in a similar manner to feminism, offers us a critical analysis of the political and historical construction of masculinity and femininity. However postmodernism, as distinct from a traditional feminist analysis, also creates a new theoretical space in which we can explore the acts of sexual violence by adults-both men and women. Postmodernism rejects the strict binary opposites such as man/woman, public/private, subject/object. Instead postmodernism argues that women take up contradictory positions and roles within a variety of public and private spaces. For example: a working class woman from a Judao-Christian background may experience discrimination within the employment market however within her own community, she may enact a form of structural or personal racism against another working class woman who is a practicing Hindu. In this new conceptual space we are able to see that women, as individual agents, take up and enact contradictory, dynamic and fluid roles within their community and families.

Although feminism has sought to validate the differences amongst women, it has been bound by the hierarchical and binary opposites inherited from modernity. This theoretical legacy has disallowed feminism the opportunity to explore the contradictory position of a woman who may be both a victim of male oppression and who has chosen to enact oppression against an 'other'. A feminist post-mortem analysis would argue that instead of a fixed view of women as either victim or villain, that women's subject position should be viewed as fluid, contradictory and dynamic. Using this analysis we can see that women may be located in conflicting and contradictory positions within multiple discourses (Hollway 1989). Featherstone & Trimble (1997) comment that: This approach is deeply critical of theories of socialisation that assume that societal norms about masculinity and femininity are transmitted in a straightforward way (1997, p. 152).

Postmodernism extends our current understanding of the mechanisms of power which construct gender identity. In addition, it enables us to ask complex questions about the impact of such constructions upon the lives and choices of women. If we accept a feminist analysis of the historical and social power relations, then we can also identify, that women, as a result of shifting positions of power and vulnerability, may also exercise or abuse power.

Making sense of this form of sexual violence

I would like to begin this section with the most common explanation offered by survivors. Survivors discussed how they experienced themselves not only as a possession of their mother, but in a more complex way, as a biological extension of their mother's body. Feminist psychoanalysis has previously identified this issue within the relationships between mothers and daughters (Flax, 1990, Hollway 1997, Parker 1997). These blurry boundaries meant that survivors had no bodily sense as to where their mother's body ended and their own body began (Evert & Bijkerk 1987). As Phoenix, a survivor, commented

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 (quoted in FitzRoy 1997, p. 46).

The blurred boundaries between mother/perpetrator and daughter/victim may result from the process of gestation, birth, breast feeding and in a shared biological and gendered identity. The intersecting issues of both the possession of the daughter as a part-object of the mother (Welldon, 1988) and the resulting blurry boundaries between mother and daughter leads us to examine their possible role in a mother's choice to sexually assault her daughter.

Saradjian (1996) posits a speculative theoretical model which is based on the assumption that women who sexually assault children do so because they have 'learnt through experience that this behaviour can meet what they perceive to be their needs' (1996, p.187). The needs listed by Saradjian include: power and control, sexual and affiliation needs (1996, p. 194). The issue of sexual needs which are met by sexual violence is a difficult one for feminist theory to engage with due to the traditional feminist analysis which has de-emphasised the sexual nature of male violence. This issue along with the role of 'desire' within sexual violence perpetrated by men and women, remains unresolved in feminist theorising and would benefit from further investigation.

To explore further the notion of unmet needs, we can ask questions about the intense 'relief and 'calm' that is described by perpetrators after the act of violence (Saradjian, 1996). This description is similar to that of women when they have talked about self mutilation (Solomon & Farrand, 1996). Through a common understanding of self mutilation as a manifestation of self' hate (Welldon 1988) the sexual violence perpetrated against the child, could be hypothesized as a form of self mutilation by the mother - against her 'own' body. Welldon (I988) commented that:

Whereas in men, the act is aimed at an outside part-object, in women it is usually against themselves, either against their bodies or against objects they see as their own creations: their babies (1988, p. 8).

To extend Weldon's observation, we can acknowledge that this form of self mutilation could be a manifestation of, or response to experiences of extreme physical, sexual or emotional abuse combined with the social misogyny enacted in the public arena. In other words, there is a possibility that some women may intrnalise their own personal experiences of both child abuse and misogyny and in internalising such hatred, women may learn to hate, distrust or despise not only their female bodies, but also their 'selves' as women. In addition, Saradjian (1996) suggests that if women have had childhood experiences of rejection and abuse by their primary caretaker, this may lead to intense repressed rage. This rage may be directed against the self or a 'substitute self-object' (Wolf 1988, p. 80), the child. In view of the possibility discussed previously, that the mother may look upon the daughter as an extension of her own body, I would tentatively suggest that some women may choose to enact their own self-hatred and repressed rage upon the body of their daughter.

If we can accept this hypothesis as a possibility, we are then left with the question as to why the violence is sexualised. One way of analysing the sexual nature of the violence is to suggest that if the perpetrator is also a victim/survivor of child sexual abuse, then to sexually abuse the self/other, could be understood as an attempt to create a sense of adult self and to exert power and control through the abuse of an 'other'. Although this analysis appears to run counter to the hypothesis of the child as 'part-object' of the mother, I would suggest that for some women, this could be seen as a parallel possibility. That is, for the victim/offender, her only way of creating a sense of power and 'self' is contingent upon the abuse of an 'other' and that the other is both part of and separate from the mother/offender.

The sexualised nature of the violence could be understood as a very specific form of punishment which explicitly relates to the act of penetration. To penetrate the body of the child, with objects or fingers, is the most invasive form of violence the perpetrator can enact. This act fundamentally reflects the hierarchised nature of the dominant society order. In using a feminist analysis of the act of rape, the one who penetrates, invades the body of the 'other', is to be powerful within our social order. The victim is annihilated and therefore denied a separate identity. For the mother to maintain her own sense of power or self identity in a world in which her earlier experiences were as the victim, her sense of adult self is contingent upon the child being objectified, dehumanised and annihilated (Welldon 1988, Saradjian 1996). Welldon (1988) commented that:

From being victims, such people become the victimiser. In their actions they are the perpetrators of the victimisations and humiliation previously inflicted on them (1988, p. 9).

In suggesting that the choice of a mother to perpetrate sexual assault against her daughter could be theorised as a manifestation of both previous experiences of child sexual assault and internalised misogyny, I am not seeking to deny an individual woman's agency or excuse a woman's choice to abuse. What I am suggesting is that 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 have suggested 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 the cultural misogyny which is internalised and then enacted by some women in a very different form, ie. 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 de-humanised as the 'other'. However the 'other' exists as both part of the mother/perpetrator and as the daughter/victim.

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This chapter has sought to offer a tentative theoretical framework which may assist in the exploration of the complex issue of mothers as sex offenders. There are a number of issues raised throughout this chapter which are significant for our understanding of women's use of sexual violence against their daughters. First is the reality that women/mothers are constructed within a phallocentric and misogynist social reality where they have learned to oppress and abuse those defined as the 'other'. Second, within this context, exists the ambivalent love/hate relationship some mothers may have with their children. Third, for some women, their own experiences of either child or adult sexual assault perpetrated by men or women, may have resulted in a number of psychological needs which are met through the sexual abuse of their own child. Fourth, the sexualised nature of the violence could be understood as emerging from the offenders need to construct a sense of adult self, which is contingent on the penetration and therefore annihilation of the subject reality of the child.

These are complex issues that would benefit from further discussion and research. I believe this chapter is a small contribution to such debates amongst workers who are concerned with the impact of our hierarchical social reality on the health of all members of our community.


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The South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault acknowledges the traditional Aboriginal owners of country throughout Victoria. We pay our respects to them, their culture and their Elders past, present and future.