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"A new motto:
What has been done to you, poor child?"
letter to Wilhelm Fliess, Dec.22, 1897,
citing Goethe, after relating his patient's memory
of having been raped by her father at age two.
Ever since the Greek historians first wrote about the customs of other nations, scholars have compared the habits of different cultures, hoping to discover meaningful regularities in human behavior.
Yet the only universal trait that Contemporary social scientists and historians agree has been found in every known culture is the prohibition of incest. As one standard text puts it, "The taboo on incest within the immediate family is one of the few known cultural universals."(1) Kroeber stated, "If ten anthropologists were asked to designate one universal institution, nine would likely name the incest prohibition; some have expressly named it as the only universal one."(2) That "no known tribe has ever permitted incest"(3) has been a truism for cross-cultural studies ever since Durkheim and Westermarck's early books on the subject.(4)
Furthermore, the same authors go on to state that the universal prohibitions on incest are virtually always effective, so that incest itself is rarely found in any society. Even when societies are found that approve of incest, they only "serve rather to emphasize than to disprove the universality of intra-family incest taboos," according to George Murdock.(5) Incestuous societies simply cannot exist, since, according to Talcott Parscins, the effective prohibition of incest is "linked with the functioning of every society."(6) The abolition of incest was accomplished at the beginning of human culture, Leslie White says, since without it "social evolution could have gone no further on the human level than among the anthropoids."(7) As Levi-Strauss concluded, "the prohibition of incest can be found at the dawn of culture... [It] is culture itself." (8)
The certainty with which the effective prohibition of incest has been declared leads one to look for the evidence these authors might have for their assertions. Yet such a search soon proves quite fruitless. Most of them cite no evidence at all, or at most refer to a single cross cultural survey by Murdock in his book, Social Structure. Murdock's study, however, turns out not to be about incest at all, if by incest one means actual sexual relations between family members other than spouses. What Murdock studied was marriage rules. Yet authors continue to assume Murdock proved that a universal prohibition on incest itself exists, not just a prohibition on intra-farnily marriage.(9)
Indeed, rather than examining the actual occurrence of incest in either historical or contemporary groups, the voluminous literature on the subject instead speculates on why incest supposedly doesn't occur. Many explanations have been proposed: the biological impairments attendant upon inbreeding, the utility of social alliances, the collapse of the family if sexual rivalry is allowed, even boredom with family members. When exceptions have been acknowledged-royal incest in dozens of societies,(10) sibling incest among the general population in others,(11) widespread pederasty in still others,(12) - discussion has continued to focus on why incest is supposedly rare, not on whether it really is.
One begins to realize how odd this is when it is compared, say, with the study of other deviant acts, such as homicide. Although effective laws against murder long preceded laws against incest - and were far more often enforced rather than winked at - no one thinks of writing hundreds of studies on why mankind has a "universal homicide taboo."(13)
This essay is intended to consider the evidence for the opposite hypothesis: That it is incest itself - and not the absence of incest - that has been universal for most people in most places at most times. Further-more, the earlier in history one searches, the more evidence there is of universal incest, just as there is more evidence of other forms of child abuse."(14)
Two kinds of incest will be considered: direct incest, overt sexual ac-tivity between family members other than spouses; and indirect incest, the providing of children by their parents to others in order for them to be sexually molested.
There are two reasons why I believe indirect incest must be included in any definition of incestuous activity. First of all, arranging for children to have sex with other household members or neighbors is usually motivated by the incestuous wishes of the parent; and, in any case, it is usually perceived by the child to be similar to direct incest. Secondly, clinical studies show that contemporary sexual abuse usually involves a parent or guardian, who, if not the direct perpetrator, covertly brings about the incident in order to satisfy their own incestuous wishes.(15)
When Sigmund Freud discovered that eighteen of his hysterical pa-tients had conscious memories of childhood sexual seductions, mostly by family members, he faced a theoretical impasse.(16) Since he believed only repressed memories could produce hysterical symptoms, the easily accessible detailed memories of his patients could not be the real cause of their hysteria. He therefore concluded that there must in each case have been an earlier seduction, the memory of which was repressed, generally occurring between the ages of two and five and never later than eight. These early scenes had to be reconstructed from fantasies and dreams, and even when Freud pieced them together for the patient, he admitted, "they have no feeling of remembering the scenes."(17)
These earlier infantile reconstructions, Freud quite correctly decided in 1897, were "scenes of seduction [that] had never taken place. ..they were only phantasies which my patients had made up or which I myself had perhaps forced on them."(18) But the clear memories of seduction in later childhood and adolescence that his patients had spontaneously reported to him and about which they had strong reality feelings, he never doubted - contrary to the assertions of critics like Masson and Miller, who claim Freud lost his courage and denied that any incest had actually taken place.(19) The particular theory of hysteria which he admitted "broke down under the weight of its own improbability" (20) was the infantile seduction theory and did not imply any doubting of his patients' memories of real incest.
For the rest of his fife, in fact, Freud reiterated his belief that these clear memories of incestuous attacks were real. In 1905 he wrote, "I can-not admit that in my paper on 'The Aetiology of Hysteria' I exaggerated the frequency or importance of.. the effects of seduction, which treats a child as a sexual object prematurely..." (21) Later, he repeatedly wrote such statements as that "the sexual abuse of children is found with uncanny frequency among school teachers and child attendants.. and phantasies of being seduced are of particular interest, because so often they are not phantasies but real memories." (22) Furthermore, he considered the incestuous memories of such patients as Katharina, Rosalia H., Elisabeth von R. and the Wolf Man as reality, not fantasy, saying of such traumatic child abuse "You must not suppose.. that sexual abuse of a child by its nearest male relatives belongs entirely to the realm of phan-tasy. Most analysts will have treated cases in which such events were real and could be unimpeachably established..."(23) He even called his own memories "genuine" of having been sexually molested as a little boy by his nurse, who had not only forced him to perform sexually and, he reported, "complained because I was clumsy," but also, he said, washed him in water that contained her own menstrual blood. (24)
Therefore, regardless of all that has been written about the subject, an unbiased reading of Freud's works shows that whenever he confronted clear evidence of sexual molestation, he called it seduction, not fantasy. There was no "great reversal," no "suppression of seduction," no "betrayal of the child," no "assault on truth."
Freud's courage in acknowledging the extent of childhood sexual molestation was not shared by the majority of his colleagues. Most, like Jung, simply avoided the topic. Others, who noted that large numbers of their patients had clear memories of incestuous rape, blamed the victim, saying, like Abraham, that the molestation "was desired by the child unconsciously [because of an] abnormal psycho-sexual constitution..." (25)
Analysts since Freud have routinely reported memories of seduction as unconscious wishes, while analysts of children regularly neglected to ask their patients whether their reports were real or not.(26) Psychoanalytic in-stitutes have often taught that all memories of incest were wishes. One analyst recalls, "I was taught in my... early years in psychiatry, as most of us were, to look very skeptically upon the incestuous sexual material described by my patients.. Any inclination on my part, or that of my colleagues in the training situation, to look upon these productions of the patient as having some reality basis was scoffed at and was seen as evidence of our naivete... "(27)
Even when analysts were presented with evidence of childhood sexual and physical abuse so overwhelming they could not disbelieve it, they usually paid little attention to it in their case histories. For instance, Otto Kemberg rarely reports on child abuse in his extensive studies on his borderline patients. When he was personally told by a researcher that many recent studies of borderlines showed extremely high rates of sexual and physical abuse as children, he admitted that while this was true of his borderline patients as well, "it is hard to know what to make of it."(28)
Freud's view of the reality of childhood seduction was not, however, wholly missing from earlier psychoanalytic literature. Ferenczi not only found that many of his patients had clear memories of late childhood seduction but also described how many of his adult patients confessed to having sexual relations with children, concluding: "The real rape of girls who have hardly grown out of the age of infants, similar sexual acts of mature women with boys, and also enforced homosexual acts, are more frequent occurrences than has hitherto been assumed."(29) Many women analysts, such as Bonaparte, Jacobson, Greenacre and Reich, (30) were able to empathize with their female patients and admit the reality of their memories of incestuous abuse. Rheingold reported encountering surprisingly frequent cases of real incest in his patients, including a great deal of overt maternal masturbation of young children, fathers orgastically flagellating their daughters, parents forcing children to handle the parents' genitals, mothers encouraging uncles to rape their children, and so on, wondering why "scant attention" had been given to such material by others.(31) Robert Fliess, after a lifetime of psychoanalytic experience in the removal of amnesia from early memories, regularly found real sexual molestation of his patients at the core of their problems, and concluded that "no one is ever made sick by his fantasies. Only traumatic memories in repression can cause the neurosis."(32)
In the past decade, with the growing realization by the public of how widespread childhood sexual abuse is in contemporary society, psychoanalysts have begun to report on the therapeutic necessity of acknowledging early sexual seduction, They have even wondered if the analyst's denial might have prevented cure in those cases where reanalysis discovered incestuous abuse that the first analyst had denied. (33) In a recent study connecting borderline personality disorders and childhood sexual abuse, Herman and her colleagues report that "such patients may show remarkable improvement when the connection between symptom and trauma is recognized."(34)
In recent years, psychoanalysts have begun to report uncovering considerable early sexual abuse that had gone previously unrecognized. One analyst described the analysis of a woman who had been raped at four years of age, saying "it took eighteen years of weekly sessions before there was a complete remission of symptoms...Would not an earlier recognition of the actual childhood rape have saved us many hours of analysis?" (35) Even the conservative Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association recently concluded a review of the question of the reality of incest by asking "Have thousands of analyses and clinical studies not yet resolved the question of whether adult hysterics had been assaulted or seduced in infancy and childhood? The answer is that they have not."(36)
In determining the actual incidence of childhood sexual abuse in modern societies, the main problem is that one must rely upon witnesses who have enormous emotional difficulties in reporting what they find - far more so than with any other psychohistorical subject I have encountered.
For one thing, most writers on the subject have themselves usually been advocates of pedophilia. Ever since the early studies of such sexologists as Symonds and Eglinton,(37) most writing on incest has been by scholars hoping to justify sexual relations with children by showing how widespread the practice has been. Many openly state, as do Allen Edwardes and R. E. L. Masters, that "there is no shame in being a ... pederast or a rapist if one is satisfied," (38) or claim that incest can be a positive, healthy experience," as does social worker LeRoy Schultz, who writes extensively on childhood sexuality. (39) Even Kinsey wrote: "It is difficult to understand why a child, except for its cultural conditioning, should be disturbed at having its genitalia touched," (40) while his coauthor in the Kinsey studies, Wardell Pomeroy, wrote that "incest between adults and younger children can.. be a satisfying and enriching experience..."(41)
One must use the research of such scholars with extreme caution, since their main motive is to deny the coercion involved when adults seduce lonely, unloved children. Yet the task of digging through the truly staggering amount of literature on sexuality in past and present societies (42) (there are over sixty journals alone with regular articles on the subject) is so overwhelming that, in order to locate the rare primary sources that are available, the researcher cannot avoid consulting the life work of pedophilia advocates.
Statistical studies on the incidence of child sexual molestation in the United States go back to 1929,(43) but these early works were generally ignored by a public accustomed to disbelieving children's accusations and to the lack of punishment for the occasional molesters who were apprehended. The official incidence figures from the American Humane Association, working from reports from child protective agencies, estimated only 7,000 incidents in the U.S. for 1976. Although the AMA estimates rose steadily to 113,000 incidents for 1985,(44) even these larger figures represented under one percent of American children. Kinsey was surprised to find that 24 percent of his female subjects easily recalled sexual advances by adult males when they were children, but he downplayed their importance since most, he said, were non-contact approaches that he thought unimportant. (45) Except for a single study by Landis in 1956 reporting a third of his sample of 1,800 college students recalling childhood sexual molestation, (46) it was not until the late 197Os and early 1980s that careful studies began to be reported with samples large enough to warrant careful statistical analysis.
Although these two dozen studies have had somewhat differing definitions of sexual molestation and of the age criteria, their results can be made comparable (47) by eliminating noncontact abuse (such as exhibitionism) from the definition and by requiring either evidence of force or an age discrepancy of at least five years when the victim is over 12. When these adjustments are made, the studies report childhood memories of contact sexual molestation at rates ranging from 6 to 45 percent for women and from 3 to 30 percent for men.
The lower incidence figures in these studies turn out to be due to the method used in compiling them, As one moves from the lower to the higher figures, one discovers that the interview techniques begin to acknowledge the resistances of the respondents to such emotional questions. The lower figures are in response to written questionnaires or brief telephone calls, contacts that were considered intrusive by the respondent, while the higher figures, such as those of Wyatt and Russell (48) were the result of carefully structured face-to-face interviews lasting from one to eight hours.(49) Obviously it takes a good bit of trust before respondents begin to relate memories of childhood seduction to strangers. Using these two studies, then, as the most accurate we have to date, one finds that either 38 percent (Russell) or 45 percent (Wyatt) of women interviewed reported memories of familial and/or extrafamilial sexual abuse during their childhood, almost half of which was directly incestuous.
Figures as accurate as these for men's memories of seduction are more difficult to obtain. The highest figure reported to date, that of Landis, is 30 percent. Other studies report lower figures because they are from brief questionnaires. Although most comparisons of male and female victimization show molestation of boys only about a third the rate of girls, (50) there is evidence that males are far more reluctant to reveal their molestation, partly because it usually occurs earlier for boys than for girls and partly because victimization may be even more difficult for boys to recall and report than for girls. Because it was conducted by interviews, the 30 percent rate of Landis' study undoubtedly is the most reliable we have for boys. Therefore, the best estimates for memories of childhood sexual abuse we now have for the United States are 40 percent for girls and 30 percent for boys, almost half directly incestuous for girls and about a quarter directly incestuous for boys. (51)
Yet even these astonishingly high figures are only a portion of the hid-den true incidence rates. Four additional factors raise the actual rates even higher:
It is possible to correct the incidence rates statistically for these factors, Although only 11 percent of Russell's respondents recalled being victimized before the age of five, another study shows the most common age of sexual abuse reported to authorities is four years, while other studies report that from 21 to 50 percent of reported sexual abuse victims involve children under five.(54) Since few people consciously recall traumatic events of any kind before the age of five, and since the graph for sexual abuse distribution by age runs roughly level from ages two to sixteen,(55) the incidence figures stated above should be increased by at least an additional 50 percent(56) to account for these three factors, Therefore, the corrected incidence rates are at least 60 percent for Girls and 45 percent for boys. Until someone is courageous enough to directly question the children themselves whether they have been molested - a simple procedure that has never been done in any published study to date - 60 and 45 percent should be considered as the most reliable national incidence rates we now have available for the U.S.
These reports of childhood seduction are considered by researchers to be real memories, not fantasies. Not only do most researchers conclude, like Russell, that "underdisciosure was a significant problem... not fabrication of experiences," (57) but another study of 53 women that attempted to independently confirm memories of childhood incest found 74 percent could be positively confirmed plus another 9 percent indirectly supported, while none were discovered to be just fantasies.(58)
Because of such reliability studies, reports of memories of childhood seduction need not be as distrusted as they were in Freud's time. The memories reported to these investigators were not vague images reconstructed in psychotherapy, nor were any incidents counted if they involved just exhibition of genitals to the child or other non-contact sexual approaches. Nor did any of these studies inquire about such common sexualized traumas as the constant giving of enemas or regular sexualized beating, both of which are often equivalents for the child to genital seduction.(59) These figures were limited to clear memories of oven con-tact experiences such as intercourse, fellatio, cunnilingus, mutual masturbation, anal intercourse and the kissing or sucking of the child's breasts or genitals.
The circumstances of these seductions have been documented in the large clinical literature on molestation, only a portion of which can be summarized here. Russell found that "most perpetrators lived under the same roof as their victims."(60) Most (85 percent) of the perpetrators were at least five years older than their victims.(61) Of incest cases with females, uncles accounted for 25 percent of the perpetrators, followed in frequency by fathers (15 percent), brothers (12 percent) and stepfathers (8 per-cent).(62) Women commit incest more rarely - at least in America - although the number may be larger than realized since studies of boys in early childhood are so sketchy (studies have found many mothers quite seductive toward their children even when they were being observed in a laboratory situation).(63)
Even when the actual perpetrator isn't a relation, the parent or guardian is somehow implicated in at least 80 percent of the cases.(64) The other 20 percent contain many cases where parents invite neighbors to sleep with their children, or do nothing about older brothers who molest younger siblings, or leave children with babysitters after they discover evidence of molestation, or continue to allow boyfriends to be alone with children after molestation. One must therefore conclude that the majority of cases of childhood molestation are either perpetuated by caretakers or are consciously or unconsciously set up by them.(65)
Recent studies have destroyed many myths about sexual abuse. Abuse is experienced at far younger ages than once thought - 81 percent occurring before puberty and 42 percent under age 7(66) - and involves far less mild forms than has been assumed-even for infants the majority of seductions involve oral, anal or genital penetration.(67) Seduction of younger children by teens, often previously labeled "experimentation," has now been found to be a quite serious problem, often the result of an earlier seduction of the teenager or another comparably severe traumatic experience,(68) In fact, some studies show that half of all reported cases of child molestation and 20 percent of all rapes are committed by persons under the age of 18.(69)
Contrary to the earlier notion that sexual abuse occurred mainly among the poor, there actually is no correlation between economic class and rates of abuse.(70) Most pedophiles are male, although recent research is beginning to discover more female seduction of little children than previously reported, particularly since, as Lew has pointed out, "sexual activity between older women and young boys is rarely treated as abusive." (71) In all, only about 2 percent of total incestuous abuse is ever reported, and only a tiny portion of these few are ever convicted, even today,(72) putting the notion to rest that society is as yet really much interested in stopping the practice. Finally, the number of molestation incidents per child may be fairly high; while in Russell's study 43 percent of the cases of incestuous abuse are remembered as occurring only once, another study of reported incidents found that the average duration of abuse is five years.(73)
The best evidence for the cause of pedophilia is provided by the clinical reports of the psychotherapists who have written extensively on the subject.(74) The pedophile, similar to other perverts, suffers from severe lack of love and fears of individuation in his or her early childhood, and both desires and dreads merging with the mother because of an enormous need to reinstate mother child unity. Earlier childhood abuse of pedophiles is commonly found. As an adult, the pedophile must have sex with children in order to maintain the illusion of being loved, while at the same time dominating the children as they themselves once experienced domination, repeating actively their own caretaker's sadism. The pedophile uses the child as a breast-substitute, both in the sense of using him or her for gratification and also as an object for sadistic aggression.
The pedophile's sexual activity is extraordinarily compulsive because it wards off recurring feelings of fragmentation, depression and death. This helps explain why the pedophile's sexual targets are so inter-changeable and why an active pedophile often seduces hundreds of children in his or her life. The seduction of children is a desperate defense against fears of personal disintegration. It should not be thought of - as it usually is by historians and anthropologists - as "an outbreak of instinctual sexuality." or as being due to "a lack of impulse controls" or "a weak superego." Adults who molest children have extremely powerful punitive superegos and are often highly religious. They are driven to their acts not by their sexual instincts but by their overwhelming intrapsychic anxieties. Given the seriousness of the perversion, it is not surprising that successful therapeutic methods have only recently become available.(75)
The time when one could deny that sexual seduction is extremely traumatic for children appears to have ended. The more studies that come out on the effects of childhood sexual abuse, the more severe the damage is found to be. The flood of books and articles documenting the emotional problems of victims both in childhood and in later life has to be read in detail to appreciate the profound sense of betrayal and the terrifying fears felt by the child, so that even single incidents have the power to permanently ravage their lives. Severe somatic reactions, depersonalization, self-hatred, hysterical seizures, depression, borderline personality formation, promiscuity, sexual dysfunctions, suicide, self-mutilation, night terrors and flashbacks, multiple personalities, post-traumatic stress disorders, delinquency, bulemia, and the overall stunting of feelings and capacities have all been documented - the earlier and the more often the abuse, the worse the damage.(76)
Outside the U.S., there has been only one comparably reliable study published: a thirteen-hundred-page report on face-to-face interviews of over 2,000 men and women done for the Canadian government by the Gallup organization, which concludes with incidence rates approximately the same as the U.S. studies.(77) In Latin America, anthropologists report a great deal of family sexual activity and widespread pederasty as part of macho masculine activity, though reliable statistics of incidence are not yet available. (78) In Puerto Rico, for instance, Oscar Lewis found "danger of seduction by stepfathers, sexual rivalry between sisters, between mother and daughters [and] male children erotically stimulated by their mothers and by other members of the family,"(79) E. N. Padilla reported parents and others regularly masturbating the infant's penis(80) and Romon Frendandez-Marina found Peurto Rican fathers often masturbating their boys to show off their maleness to friends." In Mexico, J. M. Carrier reported a large proportion of Mexican men had sexual relations with nephews, cousins or neighbors between the ages of 6 and 9. (82)
European countries are about two decades behind the U.S. in interview techniques, and since they still use written questionnaires they usually report sexual abuse rates of under one percent. (83) Most European studies do not attempt to study statistical frequency, though some - such as a series of studies on Scandinavian incest - report considerable public acceptance of incest in some rural areas. (84)
Even though there are no reliable statistics for most European countries, a recent flurry of books, articles and telephone "hotlines" has begun to reveal widespread sexual molestation. A recent BBC "ChildWatch" program asked its female listeners - a large though biased sample - if they remembered sexual molestation, and, of the 2,530 replies analyzed, 83 percent remembered someone touching their genitals, 62 percent of the full sample recalling actual intercourse.(85) Official estimates of German children sexually abused and raped each year now number over 300,000, and sexual abuse hot lines are becoming more widespread.(86) The establishment of Italian "SOS-infanzia" hotlines - initially much resented by the public - have begun to reveal widespread pedophile networks, baby prostitution and Boy Scout/Girl Guide molestation, as well as the widespread sexual abuse of children within famines, with a particular emphasis on the pederasty of boys. (87) Finally, the most careful European study to date is a recent unpublished German survey by the Iinstitut fuer Kindheit that for the first time anywhere dared to ask the children themselves about their sexual experiences. I have been told that these researchers found an 80 percent childhood sexual molestation rate among Berlin school children.(88) The exact details of this study will certainly be revealing when it is published. It may be that direct questioning of children rather than relying on retrospective memory may produce even higher real incidence rates of sexual molestation than our 60 percent and 45 percent estimates for the U.S.
However high the rates of childhood molestation may turn out to be in contemporary Western countries, the incidence in countries outside the West is likely to be much higher. Because they have only recently moved beyond what I have termed the infanticidal mode of chiidrearing, whereby as much as half of the children born were killed by their parents,(89) the use of children for the emotional needs of adults is far more accepted, an attitude that fosters widespread incestuous acts along with other child abuse. Although the evidence is scattered and much remains hidden, enough exists to indicate the dimensions of what eventual scholarship will probably uncover.
Childhood in much of India begins with the young child being regularly masturbated by the mother, "high caste or low caste, the girl 'to make her sleep well,' the boy 'to make him manly..."' This practice has been said to be widespread by many reliable observers, including Catherine Mayo - whose extensive investigations in India in the 1920s led to the first child marriage laws(90) - a physician,(91) an ethnologist,(92) a religious scholar (93) and a sociologist.(94) As is the case with virtually all non-Western cultures, the child sleeps in the family bed for several years and regularly observes sexual intercourse between the parents. The extent to which Indian parents go beyond this and overtly have sex with the child cannot be determined. Rampal, the sociologist who recently did interviews modeled on the Kinsey studies about contemporary Indian sexual practices, concludes that "there is a lot of incest...It is hidden along with other secrets of families and rarely gets a chance to come out, like seduction at the hands of trusted friends of the family... To arrive at even a passable estimate of incest cases would be to touch the hornet's nest.. no one will ever confess to such a deed, therefore, any attempt to collect statistics may prove to be futile at present."(95)
Boys as well as girls are reported as being masturbated and raped by the men in the family, including fathers, older brothers, uncles and cousins.(96) By the time children are four or five, they are usually taken to bed at night by others in the extended household. "A particular uncle may like her to sleep in his room, which is considered a great gesture of closeness."(97) As one girl describes it: "I hardly ever slept with my parents after I was four. I rotated almost every night between my various uncles and sometimes my grandmother. But it was difficult to have any space in her bed because all the grandsons slept in her bed.. So I prefer-red to sleep in [uncle's] bed, who was very nice and put his arms around me in winter."(98) This practice is similar to the customary sharing of their wives by brothers, who have free sexual access to each other's wives, an ancient practice still approved of in some areas in India.(99)