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Inside Incest

Father-Daughter Incest by Judith Lewis Herman Harvard University Press: $15.95; 282 pp.

By Errol T. Louis

ALMOST immediately, the word "incest" brings to mind the word "taboo." American society, like most others, has strong cultural and legal prohibitions against sex between members of the nuclear family. No one likes to talk about incest, but the ugly truth is that men sexually abuse their own daughters far more commonly than most people would guess. Mother-son incest is nearly non-existent by comparison. By writing Father-Daughter Incest. Judith Lewis Herman proposes a solution. In effect, she says for the crimes to end, the facts must be known.

Herman begins by identifying the brutality as widespread. Five surveys since 1940 have asked about sexual encounters between female children and adults (including the famous Kinsey report). Two of them show 15.8 percent and 14.4 percent of the women surveyed to have been involved in a sexual encounter involving physical contact with an adult. One estimate based on the five surveys conservatively concludes "that somewhere in the neighborhood of one million American women have been involved in incestuous relations with their fathers, and that some 16,000 new cases occur each year." Herman stresses that reports of sexual aggression by father exceed those of mothers 30-fold.

Herman's feminist perspective suits her subject matter perfectly. The major biological, psychological and social theories of incest (she deals with them one by one) fail to account for the vast contrast between the sexually abusive behavior of fathers and mothers. According to Herman, father-daughter incest ultimately finds its best explanation in the male-dominated structure of society:

The sexual division of labor, in which women nature children and men do not, produces fathers who are predisposed to use their powers exploitatively. The rearing of children by subordinate women ensures the reproduction in each generation of the psychology of male supremacy. It produces sexually aggressive men with little capacity to nurture, nurturant women with undeveloped sexual capacities, and children of both sexes who stand in awe of the power of fathers. Wherever these conditions obtain, father daughter incest is likely to be a common occurrence

Male dominated culture not only results in predatory sexual behavior by fathers, it also lays blame on the victims, or on an outdated morality. Herman recounts how Freud, when faced with claims by women of paternal sexual abuse during their childhood at first falsified his cases by attributing the role played by fathers to "uncles" He later dismissed the women's accounts altogether as their own incestuous fantasies, with the explanation that "it was hardly credible that perverted acts against children were so general."

It is difficult to understand why a child, except for cultural conditioning, should be disturbed at having its genetalia touched or disturbed at seeing the genetalia of other persons, or disturbed at even move specific sexual contacts

A similar attitude in a more bizarre form came from sociologist Warren Farell in 1976 "Homosexuality, wife swapping, open marriage, bisexuality, S & M. and kiddie porn have already had their seasons...After centuries of restraint, incest is finally a hit."

FATHER DAUGHTER INCEST documents the impact of incest on the female victims Excerpts from the conversations of 40 women who talked with Dr. Herman and her associates piece together the shared experience of brutality. Ten percent of the women had father who began imposing sexual demands before the girls were five years old. The legacy of their abuse--inevitably remaining with them for life, includes suicidal tendencies, depression promiscuity, alcohol and drug abuse, the utter debasement of self-image, and a host of other pathologies.

Herman suggests changing the way incest is perceived as the first step towards making many needed reforms. Incest laws should alter the rules of procedure, she says, since eyewitness are obviously rare. Abused children usually remain under their father's roof (and power) while the father is being tried. Mothers and daughters, estranged in incestuous families, must be re-united. Therapists must recognize the cultural taboos surrounding incest and develop new methods of treating victims.

When child abuse and neglect were first exposed as widespread in America agencies and education programs were set up to begin dealing with an overlooked tragedy. From 1976 to 1977, the number of cases reported to the National Study of Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting went up 23 percent, from 412.927 to 507.494. Herman proposes that we again educate ourselves and prepare to cope with-the horror of incest. Her book is the first step in the process.

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