South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

The family dysfunction approach

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In contrast to the psychoanalytic model which focuses on the individual psyche as the cause of sexual assault, this approach focuses on the family unit as dysfunctional. The notion of the dysfunctional family was first proposed in the 1940's as an outgrowth of family psychiatry and the influence of classic Freudian theory on this approach cannot be ignored. It is a notion that has been popular in explaining the aetiology of a number of disorders with the basic premise that disorders arise from pathological family dynamics.

Family dysfunction theory has become one of the most widely held explanations for the manifestation of incest and together with its treatment methods has been adopted by many government and statutory authorities in Australia, the U.S and the U.K. In this view, incest is seen as an overall symptom of family maladjustment and it proposes that all members of the family are responsible for causing it to occur even though apparently uninvolved, in particular, the mother. Underpinning this approach is a system of family norms which are used as a yardstick for measuring differing degrees of family pathology. A family in which incest is occurring is seen to be dysfunctional as it does not conform to socially approved goals or values and normal family hierarchies based on age and sex have been destroyed. In a dysfunctional family incest is utilized to reduce tension and maintain balance within the family while ensuring that the family's pathology is kept a secret.

In this view the mother is seen to have failed fundamentally. Firstly, she is seen as a dysfunctional wife who does not fulfill her assigned role as sexual provider for the husband, or her nurturing role as mother and protector of her child. She does this by absenting herself either emotionally or physically from her children by working outside of the home, pursuing outside interests and activities, or through illness, hospitalization, escaping into depression, or by being emotionally and/or sexually frigid.

Secondly, this view assumes that the mother's failure to provide adequate nurturing means the love-starved and seductive child turns to and accepts the sexual advances of the sex-starved father as a substitute for the mother's love.

Thirdly, both the mother and father are seen as dysfunctional adults who seek a role reversal and disintegration between generational boundaries with the child cast in the role of satisfying the sexual needs of the father while assuming a protective role towards the mother. The mother supposedly engineers the incestuous relationship by placing enormous responsibilities on the child such as housework, child-care and wifely duties towards her father.

What we see in this formulation is, once again, the collusive mother and it is this collusion which is seen to be the cornerstone of family pathology. In fact, it is argued by many family dysfunction theorists that the mother knows consciously or unconsciously that incest is taking place but chooses to deny it even when confronted by her daughter, by failing to take any preventative action or by blaming the daughter for the incest. Thus, in this view, the real abuser in an incestuous family is the mother.


Despite its wide acceptance, the family dysfunction model suffers severe limitations. Firstly, like the psychoanalytic model, it has little explanatory power for other forms of intra or extra-familial sexual abuse, and therefore fails to account for two thirds of all child sexual abuse.

Secondly, as this approach regards incest merely as a symptom of pathological family relationships which serves as a functional system to keep the family together, it detracts from the painful and often devastating effects incest has on the child. This has implications for treatment intervention as the child's experiencing is not only minimised but more alarmingly, denied. The therapeutic focus is on restoring 'normal' family relationships and the abusive sexual activity is seen as secondary.

Thirdly, this approach displaces responsibility from the abuser to at best, the whole family, and at worst but most frequently, to the mother. This denies who the abuser actually is and ignores that the abuser chose to respond to family dynamics by sexually abusing his child. This view also proposes that fathers have the right to be sexually serviced by females. It is argued that the husband gets confused when a daughter contributes to household duties because he is used to imposing his sexual demands on whomever does the housework and he doesn't really notice who it is.

Fourthly, in there is no evidence for the collusive mother who chooses to ignore incest. On the contrary, research has shown that 73% of mothers do act when incest is disclosed and 60% take immediate preventative action. This is in direct contrast to what family dysfunction theory proposes to be the case.

In addition, family dysfunction theory, with its postulation that mothers know, either consciously or unconsciously, that incest is occurring invests her with almost magical, omniscient qualities. This unfairly contributes to the sense of betrayal many survivors feel towards their mothers even though there has been no knowledge of or collusion in the abuse.

The family dysfunction approach also shows little recognition of the dynamics and circumstances that may prevent a mother from reporting abuse. Researchers have found that in 78% of incest families known to social workers the mother is also a victim of domestic violence. There are other barriers to disclosure such as financial and emotional dependence, lack of outside support and fear of retribution.

In summary, this approach has contributed little to our understanding of why sexual abuse occurs and not much in terms of prevention other than the importance of appropriate age and inter-generational boundaries. It does serve to reinforce some of the myths we have already seen and with its assumption that men have the right to sexual service adds the idea that:


  • Incest only takes place in dysfunctional families.

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