by Roni Weisberg-Ross
"There is no other closeness in human life like the closeness between a mother and her child. Chronologically, physically and spiritually, they are just a few heartbeats away from being the same person" *
This is the darkest secret of them all. It challenges societal expectations and myths more than any other form of sexual abuse. It infers sex between a mother and a daughter as well as homosexuality. It is the most difficult type of abuse to identify from the outside and the most under-reported. We are a society in denial. It happens much more than anyone would believe. And while it can be very subtle, most of the time it is not subtle at all, it co-occurs with physical abuse. It challenges our notions of how you define sexual abuse. But to the victim, it is very clear that something terribly wrong is occurring and that there is nowhere to turn for help.
In her seminal book, "Mother-Daughter Incest", Beverly Ogilvie eloquently describes the societal view of the mother-daughter relationship:
"The mother-child bond has been called the essential human connection, one that teaches us how to love and without which we cannot be whole human beings. A mother's love provides basic security, stability, nurturing admiration, cuddling, holding and kissing, caring, and acceptance. We receive courage, sense of self, the ability to believe we have value as human beings, and the ability to love others as well as ourselves, from the strength of our mother's love for us when we are infants. As our first mirror of life, mother functions as protector, guide and interpreter.
A unique tie exists between a mother and daughter in our society, which is encouraged and supported through societal values. A young girl's identification with her mother continues throughout life, thereby maintaining the mother-daughter relationship while establishing her identity. As women, society encourages us to carry our mothers with us in every breath, every decision, every success, and every failure. Our sense of self as a daughter is entwined with a sense of mother. We look to our mothers in terms of how we define ourselves, in terms of what it is to be a woman and what it is to be a daughter. In essence, there is a shared social role, a shared prescription for life, and shared philosophy. The inevitable modeling relationship between mother and daughter forges her image of herself as a woman, with a sense of basic trust that her mother gave her."
One cannot, therefore, overstress the significance of the mother-daughter bond and how its betrayal decimates the victim.
Mother-daughter incest is the least understood of all types of sexual abuse. The mother-daughter relationship is characterized by boundaries that are less clearly defined than for mothers and sons and certainly than for fathers and daughters and fathers and sons. A mother's physical and emotional control over her daughter is viewed tolerantly in our society; and displays of physical intimacy and emotional acting out are so acceptable, that it makes the identification of mother-daughter sexual abuse that much harder. But for those girls living through it, the devastation is unequivocal.
Since mothers usually are the primary caretakers and source of nurture for their children - and especially their daughters - mixing these functions with sexual abuse leaves the survivor sickened, confused, full of self-loathing and with no sense of her own identity. While boys may have a male figure to turn to, these girls become fused with their mothers in a dark secret that turns their world upside down. In these abusive situations the focus of the relationship is the mother's needs, including her sexual needs, with no consideration for the daughter as anything more than an extension of herself. The sex isn't necessarily about sex; more often it is a generational handing down of abusive/incestuous relationships. But contrary to common belief that only mentally insane women are predators; just like with men, some of the most "respectable" appearing women (to the outside world) are preying on their children behind closed doors.
And with daughters it goes deeper than with sons. From birth a daughter models herself after her mother, and so she may not be allowed to discover where her mother ends and she begins. To be so enmeshed with ones perpetrator can be annihilating. For the mother daughter incest survivor, her core relational self, her self-structure has been denied because there is no safe, loving other to model. Essentially, the daughter has experienced the most extreme disconnection and violation because she has been physically, emotionally and sexually violated by the one person in her world who was supposed to protect, nurture and guide her. This is representative of a most severe form of psychological trauma, and in many cases it causes disassociation, detachment and freezing of emotions in the survivor.
"Many daughters possess aspects of their mother's personalities, physical appearance, or interests. Some sexually abused daughters, however, may feel that their mothers have poisoned their potential to become healthy women. They may feel that parts of their mothers now live within them. Just as the daughters may come to loathe and mistrust their mothers, they come to loathe and mistrust anything in themselves that they believe comes from their mothers. These feelings can be profoundly disturbing. A daughter may feel that just as her mother was abusive to her from outside, the mother can now be abusive and destructive from inside her as well." **
We need to bring this form of abuse out of the shadows. It is long overdue. We have to recognize that a problem exists, give it a face and find an avenue for these young girls to be able to reach out for help. The abuse itself takes many forms - from inappropriate touching or licking to masturbation to sodomy to enemas to pornography and/or making a daughter perform or watch others (i.e. her mother) perform sex with a third party. The list goes on. Dr. David Finkelhor, a noted researcher conceived of the following criteria to define child sexual abuse: it includes traumatic sexualization - premature and inappropriate sexual learning; betrayal - a violation of trust and dependency through activities and events; powerlessness - coerced by force, threats or deceit to submit to boundary violations and stigma - the secrecy causes the child to fear blame for the adult's actions.
Because this type of abuse has been so minimized and marginalized, there is a dearth of reliable statistical research. But when surveys have been conducted, the results always point in the same direction. In 1996, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect investigated more than two million reports alleging maltreatment of more than three million children. More than one million of these children were identified as victims of abuse. Of these one million, 12% were sexually abused and of those sexually abused, mothers constituted 25% (approx. 36,000 children) of the perpetrators of the sexually abused victims. Furthermore, this statistic was considered to be underestimated due to the tendency of non-disclosure by victims.
We need to get past our preconceived notions of motherhood and recognize the full spectrum of female sexuality, behavior and emotions. We need to reach out and give the young victims as well as adult survivors of mother/daughter incest a clear voice and a way back to healing.
*Cheever as quoted by Lanese - "Mothers Are Like Miracles"
**Rosencrans - "The Last Secret"
I am a private practice psychotherapist at the Family Resource Counseling Center where I specialize in the treatment of sexual abuse, emotional abuse, major depression and social anxiety. I see individuals, couples and families and work on issues as varied as relationships/communication; self-esteem; anger/violence; soci...
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