The Incest Continuum—
From Patriarchal Incest to Daddy's Girl
It is possible that there has been fairly prevalent in the past in the United States a kind of father-daughter incest that was considered more or less the legitimate right of the patriarch. The father simply saw himself as the owner of the children—not their caretaker but their owner. Both mother and father might agree that for a child "to service the old man" sexually was not all that out of line with his rights. Social workers are familiar with this view. A social worker once described to me how a female client had become quite exasperated with her for saying that the client's husband was "guilty of incest" with his daughter. The client said somewhat defensively, "Well, so what? He's had sex with his daughter; she's his'n, ain't she?"
These attitudes are more likely to prevail in isolated rural areas than in urban areas because they reflect an earlier definition of the parent-child relationship and the meaning of family life in general. After industrialization the family became a smaller and more emotionally intense unit. This process of making the family into a sentimental unit, responsible for molding personalities rather than training workers, was well on its way in Freud's time. Although modern families may be somewhat less authoritarian than the families Freud's patients came from, the basic family type was similar. Within a family of this type, sexual relations between parents and children would distinctly not be acceptable because of the idea that children are innocents and definitely different from (not just smaller and less competent than) adults. The emotional closeness that is enjoined in the unit might, however, increase the potential for sexualizing relationships within the family. Thus the "modern family" makes sexual relations between parents and children more abhorrent and at the same time more tempting.
At the time Freud was writing, there was a great deal of sexual repression in general and especially with regard to adult-child relationships. This was undoubtedly related to the new definition of children as precious individuals whose innocence must be protected. At the same time, however, there was a great deal of sexual preoccupation, as Foucault has shown. Freud's theories, of course, which made sex and sexuality central, were both the result of and a reinforcement to that preoccupation. In this atmosphere of repression, fathers indeed may have used children as sexual objects furtively and with great guilt. In this atmosphere it is also likely that fathers may have responded to their children sexually but communicated their desires to their children covertly, subliminally, stimulating the child and also forbidding the child.
Although Freud's suppression of overt father-daughter incest is culpable, it need not mean that feminists can now ignore the Oedipus complex. Both the real sexual trauma theory and the theory of the Oedipus complex can be "true" if we view the oedipal situation as revealing the underlying structure of the nuclear family that makes father-daughter incest more likely than mother-son incest. In Freud's most general account of the Oedipus complex, all families are potentially incestuous, and, as I argued earlier, his implicit belief in male dominance lies behind his emphasis on the mother-son prohibition. Significantly enough, when Freud stopped emphasizing real father-daughter incest, he started emphasizing the prohibition on incest between mothers and sons.
As we have seen, in Freud's scenario the father enforces the mother-son incest taboo on the son. But who enforces the father-daughter taboo? There is no avenging father to prevent father-daughter incest and there is no avenging mother to enforce it either, because mother as wife to father does not have power equal to that of her husband. In Freud's account, the daughter turns away from the mother in resentment over not having a penis and turns toward her father. Freud leaves the girl in a semi-sexualized relationship with her father. The daughter never quite gives up the father and the father never gives her up until he "gives her away" in marriage to another man.
If all this sounds abstract, consider who it is that traditionally gives the bride away at marriage. Also consider the following story told me by an incest victim. She married a man to escape her in-
cestuous father and found herself to be totally sexually unresponsive with him. When she finally told her husband about the incest, he confronted the father, whose response was to apologize to the husband for having spoiled his pleasure ("I didn't mean to ruin her for you, ol' buddy"). He was not disturbed by the harm he had done to his daughter but by the harm he had done to his fellow male.
Freud's account, then, in which the girl does not give up the father but instead turns her active strivings into passive femininity toward him is a fairly accurate description of the way things are with daughters. Freud did not think active mothering had much to do with being feminine; what made a woman feminine was being her father's daughter, or in the modern, less authoritarian context, her "daddy's girl." These women are not exactly incest victims, but father-daughter incest is less prohibited than mother-son incest, and being daddy's girl is considered cute and "feminine." No male was ever considered masculine because he was a "mamas boy."
Daddy's girls generally interact with men in a very "feminine" way. Mama's boys do not interact with women in a very masculine way, almost by definition. Playing up to men is easy for Daddy's girls and is rewarded by men and by the society, but it works against gender equality and women's autonomy. Just as incest is not good for the daughter, if she is to see herself as an equal to men, neither is being a daddy's girl, to the extent that it means looking up to men and depending on "feminine" wiles to influence them.
This may well be the situation that lies behind "hysteria," which Juliet Mitchell has called "the daughter's neurosis." Although women are less subject today than they were in Freud's time to literal paralyses with no organic cause, women are still evincing conflict between being seduced by fathers and resisting that seduction because it means being "taken over" by a powerful male. Whether hysteria is manifested in the directly sexual dysfunctions often characterizing incest victims or in the approach-avoidance dance of women who behave seductively and then run, or in any number of other ways, hysteria can be interpreted as conflict concerning fathers and male dominance.
Judith Herman suggests the idea of an incest continuum, saying that "incest represents a common pattern of traditional female socialization carried to a pathological extreme." Victims of overt in-
cest are described by Herman as often growing up "to become archetypally feminine women: very male-oriented, sexy without enjoying sex, repeatedly victimized yet repeatedly seeking to lose themselves in the love of an overpowering man, contemptuous of themselves and other women, hard-working, giving and self-sacrificing." Herman sees these women as being extreme cases of loss of autonomy and of seeking fulfillment through males (p. 108). Most of those working with incest victims corroborate that female incest victims are often far less upset with their fathers than with their mothers.
In addition to studying women from overtly incestuous families, Herman also studied women from what she called "seductive families" (pp. 109–125). In these families, father-daughter relationships stop short of overt sexual interaction and therefore do not require secrecy, but the relationships have highly sexual overtones. For example, the fathers might have spied on their daughters, interrogated them about sexual matters or their boyfriends, or acted out a romantic relationship with them. Herman found the daughters in seductive families to be psychologically better off than victims of overt incest, but they were caught in a dilemma. "They could remain their Daddy's good little girls, bound in a flirtatious relationship whose sexual aspect was ever present but never acknowledged, or they could attempt to become independent women, usually without any assistance from their mothers, and in the process risk their fathers' anger or rejection" (p. 118). Herman is quite clear about differentiating achievement from autonomy. The daughters of seductive fathers had little autonomy in the sense of self-respect and self-direction but might achieve in order to please their fathers.
In discussing the self-attitudes of incest victims, Denise Gelinas notes that at least those who seek treatment have no psychotic tendencies or basic gender confusion, but they are likely to be chronically depressed and possibly experience moments of dissociation and confusion. They are likely to feel they have no rights or even needs of their own and assume their mission is to meet the needs of those who demand that their needs be met. This, in my view, is not so much "mothering" as it is "wifing." Mothers help define what others' needs are and to sort out legitimate and illegitimate needs. Incest victims as mothers do not do this but instead become
slaves to the needs of others as those others define them. This description is related to the picture of "normal" women: pleasing daddy and keeping the world going for him.
From a psychosocial point of view, the consequence of the parentchild incest taboo within the isolated nuclear family is that it allows children to grow up into autonomous human beings. The limits set by the incest taboo on eroticism within the nuclear family protect the child from being overwhelmed by the eroticism of the parent. The phrase "owning one's own sexuality" is a way of expressing the individual's need for erotic autonomy so that he or she may be psychologically free to establish erotic bonds with others outside the family he or she grew up in. As mentioned earlier, relationships between parents and children in middle-class families are often characterized by emotional intensity, which could increase the like-lihood of eroticizing those relationships. Two psychiatrists describe such families as being "emotional hothouses which constitute a hightemperature incubator of eroticized interactions" in which
The father may become so enamored of his little daughter's flirtation that he finds himself, a grown man, feeling pridefully puffed up by the daughter's attentiveness to him, to his genitals, to his body. He may imagine more than is actually there and see her very kiss or proposal of marriage as a seductive move. In short, he is narcissistic; he is also exhibitionistic, calling it natural nudity; he is seductive, calling it freedom; he is using projective identification—attributing 'evil' adult motives to a three- or four-year-old girl. With all these rationalizations and distortions, he may take the step to outright molestation of his daughter.
These types of families were found among middle-class families in Vienna in Freud's day but are hardly confined to this setting. Incest that occurs within this hothouse situation may be more psychologically dangerous to children than patriarchal incest in that the parent (and hence the child) is more emotionally involved and when emotional involvement is coupled with sexuality and the parent's own guilt, it produces a combination that is emotionally overwhelming to the child. Even in so-called normal families, the father-daughter relationship reinforces "femininity" of the pleasing- and looking-up-to-men variety. A daughter in an oedipal family may indeed "seduce" her father in the sense of wrapping him around her little finger, manipulating him to get what she wants, and so forth, but this sort of seduction, precisely because of the father's greater
power by virtue of the generational difference, is the seduction of the stronger by the weaker and acts in the end to validate the fundamental inequality of the relationship.
I would suggest that oedipal families, that is, "normal" male-dominant families, constitute a third, and the largest, category on the incest continuum. The incest involved here is psychological, not overtly sexual. The father takes his daughter over. She looks up to him because he is her father. He is the king and she is the princess. It is all OK because the male is dominant in "normal" adult heterosexual relations.
Whereas the father helps the son escape from the mother, who helps the daughter escape from the father? It could be the mother. The logic of my argument is that the more egalitarian the relationship between mother and father is and the more autonomous or less financially and otherwise dependent on the father the mother can feel, the better position the mother would be in not only to prevent actual incest but also to help her daughter free herself from childhood dependencies and grow into an autonomous adult.
Mothers are often blamed for letting incest happen, for letting it continue, or for doing something to cause it (such as not being a proper wife to the father). But the larger point is that so long as wives do in fact have less power than their husbands, then whatever weakens what power they do have may make it more difficult to prevent father-daughter incest. Actual father-daughter incest has been found to be more likely to occur if the mother is ill, dead, or has simply resigned. Linda Gordon and Paul O'Keefe, in a study of case records of incest in Boston families from 1880 to 1960, report that the one pattern most consistently associated with incest was father dominance by virtue of the weakness or absence of the mother, "her death, her illness, or disability." Gordon and O'Keefe also report that male-headed single-parent households were overrepresented among incest cases (p. 30). Being the sole parent leaves the father in an even more powerful position vis-à-vis the daughter. Thus, it seems more reasonable to blame the husband dominance that the culture allows and expects than the mother's failings as an individual for both physical and psychological father-daughter incest. Fortunately, those who work with incest victims and their families now usually place the responsibility for incest on the father.
The therapeutic community's earlier tendency to blame the mother came after an initial tendency to blame the child. Blaming the child seems to have been caused by a literal interpretation of Freud's having placed the oedipal initiative in the mind of the child rather than in the mind of the parent. It also may have come from incest victims often feeling "guilty" that the incest was somehow their fault. From a practical standpoint, however, no matter how seductively a child might behave or be perceived to behave, a child is "incapable of giving consent," given the obviously greater power that parents have over children. This father power is not so much the authoritarian power of the Biblical patriarch as the psychological power that results from the isolation of the nuclear family and its having become almost totally an emotional enclave as opposed to a work unit. In other words, parents, especially in the middle class, have a great deal of psychological power and seem to carry an overload of psychological meaning for their children. In this context, perhaps even more than in a context of formal authority, the child is at least relatively powerless vis-à-vis the father because of his emotional significance for her.
One reason that Freud places the oedipal initiative in the mind of the child instead of in the mind of the parent is related to his view that "civilization," represented by the parents, imposed renunciations on the biological organism, represented by the child. That is, Freud sees each stage of development as involving the child's giving up certain biological impulses for the sake of "civilization" or society. From this societal perspective parents do in most cases impose the taboo on the child. So then why is mother-son incest more taboo than father-daughter incest?
If we focus on the taboo rather than on the taboo breaker, we see that because of male dominance the real taboo is on mother-son incest. If one reads Freud as a socialization theorist, the renunciation is imposed on the male child, who must renounce his tie to the mother. The daughter does not have to renounce the father so clearly; since after all she is to become a wife and accept her husbands control, the taboo is less strong. Freud assumes the father-daughter taboo is less strong and so deals with it less. The father-daughter taboo is also broken far more frequently than the mother-son taboo, and this itself partially reflects the weakness of the taboo.