Child Sexual Abuse in the Family by Dr Ruth Beecher
This article was originally published on History Workshop Online.
This is a contribution for the (Un)Silenced: Institutional Sexual Violence feature, which explores how sexual violence relates to various societal institutions. The series provides a historical understanding of the ways in which sexual violence is produced through different institutional cultures of harm.
Content warning: This article discusses child sexual abuse and trauma.
The UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has exposed institutional child sexual abuse on an unprecedented scale. Not only did abuse happen within institutions intended to protect children, but people in authority ‘turned a blind eye to it’ and instead protected the powerful men who raped children, including politicians, church and civic leaders. But what happens if we step away from these public sites of abuse – the noise of school, sports field, playground; walk away from the racket of the children’s home, hostel or young offenders’ institute; and move instead into the quieter space of the family?
Young victims and survivors believe that the media ‘makes people think that child sexual abuse mostly happens outside of the family.’ In fact, this is not the case. For boys, it appears that abuse by authority figures is more common but for girls, it is by a family member. Even though IICSA set out to investigate institutional abuse, survivors of abuse by a family member represented nearly half of those who shared their experiences. Out of the nearly six thousand survivors of sexual abuse in childhood who contacted IICSA to tell their stories via the Truth Project, 41% said the abuse took place in the family home. This can be compared to the next most common site of abuse which was schools (at only 15%) and much smaller percentages in other settings.
Supposedly a place of emotional security, warmth and care, the family is where children should be protected and educated for a fulfilling life ahead. But as socialist feminists Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh pointed out in 1982 in The Anti-Social Family: ‘the little enclosed group can also be a trap, a prison whose walls and bars are constructed of the ideas of domestic privacy and autonomy.’ The idea that the family offered ‘security and protection’ was what made women (and children) so vulnerable to victimisation within it, and ‘so deprived of any recourse or plausible appeal to anyone outside its walls.’
Although only a third of families fitted the pattern of male breadwinner, female ‘housewife’ and dependent children by the 1980s, the image of the family was still that of a private ‘haven,’ presided over by a male protector. This meant it was also a space where police and neighbours were reluctant to intervene when violence or abuse occurred.
Child sexual abuse in the family began to garner significant media attention in the 1980s. ‘Incest’ featured on the radio, in novels, newspapers and women’s magazines. It was often sensationalised. V. C. Andrews’ 1979 novel Flowers in the Attic told the gothic and convoluted tale of siblings hidden in a locked attic by their mother. Eventually the brother, Christopher, rapes his sister, Cathy. Rape myths abound in Andrews’ descriptions of Cathy’s attempts to comfort her guilt-ridden brother:
You didn’t rape me. I could have stopped you if I’d really wanted to …I shouldn’t have worn skimpy little see-through garments around a brother who had all a man’s strong physical needs … I had played upon his needs, testing my femininity, having my own burning yearnings for fulfilment.
Flowers in the Attic sold millions of copies on both sides of the Atlantic. But the US influence in relation to incest went beyond trashy novels, and rape myths were not confined to the fictional. American paediatricians Ruth and Henry Kempe visited London in 1978. Henry was well-known in British medical circles for publicising the fate of the ‘battered baby’ in the 1960s, but on this occasion he spoke to an audience of doctors, social workers and lawyers about the lifelong impact of incest on children. In a book they published the same year, the Kempes conceptualised child sexual abuse as a family problem; a mother who was perhaps ‘frigid, rejected sexually, or herself promiscuous’ might see her daughter’s rape as a tactic to ‘hold on to her man.’
Incest was seen by US and British medics and psychiatrists as a problem in which each family member was potentially contributing to the dysfunction. These practitioners were frequently in contact with the media to ‘explain’ incest and how it should be tackled, so their views had a far-reaching influence.
American feminists had been at the forefront of raising awareness and campaigning against child sexual abuse in the 1970s. As articles on incest began to appear in British magazines and newspapers in the 1980s, survivors and feminists resisted what the called the ‘family therapy’ explanatory model espoused by the ‘experts.’ When the press treated the phenomenon sensitively, survivors responded with a profound sense of relief. For example, readers of ‘Cosmopolitan’ thanked Anna Raeburn for her January 1980 article on incest because it validated their own experiences:
when I was nine my friend’s brother assaulted me. My father found out and threatened to put me in the lunatic asylum unless he (my father) could carry on where my friend’s brother had left off;
I often thought as a child that I was the only one who had such a father;
I was a battered child, so when my brother started “messing about” with me I probably enjoyed the close feeling.
But all too often, media features used words such as ‘affair’ to describe abuse, or editors removed sentences that linked incest to rape. Like American feminists such as Judith Herman and Florence Rush, their British counterparts challenged ideas of absent or colluding mothers and children as seducers of adult men. In 1981, the Incest Survivors’ Campaign discussed a recent ‘Problem Page’ letter in ‘Company’ magazine (you may hear the echoes of Cathy in Flowers in the Attic):
a mother was told by ‘Experts’ that ‘Young girls often want to test their budding sexuality on the nearest male, and some men are just too weak to resist their advances.’ (The mother had glimpsed her 17-year-old daughter being abused in bondage gear).
In the decades since, survivor activists have worked tirelessly to change the public narrative about child sexual abuse within the family. Today there is increased reporting in the mainstream media and the myths about ‘colluding’ mothers, ‘seductive’ teenagers and the ‘weak’ male relatives who cannot resist them appear less frequently. Reporting more often acknowledges that boys are also subjected to sexual abuse within the family than it did in the 1980s, when the media associated the abuse of boys with sexual deviance outside the family and the spectre of the paedophile.
However, in relation to the family, there is perhaps less awareness of abuse now than there was in the 1980s. Current reporting gives the impression that child sexual abuse only happens in institutions or on the streets, or that the perpetrators are usually well-known celebrities or those in high positions in society. Young victims and survivors speaking to IICSA said the media reported on perpetrators in this way because ‘they thought it would increase audience figures, and that people view it as entertainment.’
In print, television or social media, the British seem now to be more comfortable to speak out about abuses of power in the institutions of church and state, to take aim at class and celebrity. However, silence persists regarding the family, as it remains for the most part a private institution. Survivors say ‘why did no one ask me?’ But as a society, we are afraid to ask. Instead we delegate our own moral responsibilities to speak to, listen to and care for children in our communities to a small number of over-worked and under-resourced professionals in health, social work and the police. They are criticised when they intervene in family life and pilloried when they miss harm or fail to act with sufficient urgency. The result is that children are vulnerable to sexual harm at home.
All too often, we who should be allies to children stand on the side-lines, afraid of being labelled as moralists or meddlers in that most private of institutions.