The Politics of Child Sex Abuse

Against the Current No. 19, March/April 1989

Linda Gordon

IN THE EARLY 1970s, when a radical feminist consciousness pulled incest out of the closet, we thought we were engaged in an unprecedented discovery. In fact, charity volunteers and social workers a century earlier dealt with incest cases daily, understanding them to be a standard, expected part of the caseload of a child-protective agency such as a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC).

How are we to explain this historical amnesia? Like the suppression of so much women’s history and feminist analysis, this hiatus was not created simply by the decline in feminism between 1920 and 1970, but by an active reinterpretation of child sexual abuse. I shudder when I think about what this meant: not only because of the incest victims rendered invisible and mute, but also because of its threat to us today, the threat that great achievements in consciousness-raising can be rolled back by powerful ideological tanks. My motives in writing a history of family violence were then far from disinterested.

Charity and social workers in the late nineteenth-century United States were familiar with child sexual abuse and knew that its most common form was intrafamilial — that is, incest. Ten percent of the family-violence case records of Boston child-saving agencies which I sampled, starting in1880, contained incest (Gordon, 1986; Gordon, 1984).

Moreover, in their upper-class way these child savers had a feminist analysis of the problem: they blamed male brutality and lack of sexual control. They could safely offer such explanations because they believed the problem to occur exclusively among the Catholic immigrant poor, whom they perceived as of “inferior stock,” crowded “like animals” into urban ghettos. Thus, ironically, the very upper-case base of child-rescue work at the time promoted the identification of problems unmentionable by standards of Victorian propriety.

Despite these class limitations, the sympathy for child victims entailed by this sensibility was one of the major achievements of the nineteenth-century feminist movement. The attack on male sexual and familial violence was often disguised in temperance rhetoric. American women’s historians have recently conducted a reinterpretation of temperance, acknowledging its anti-Catholic, anti-working class content, but also identifying its meanings for women contesting the evils that alcohol created for them and their families: violence, disease, impoverishment, male irresponsibility.

Moreover, the feminist anti-violence campaign had significant successes. In the course of the century wife­beating was transformed from an acceptable practice into one that, despite its continued widespread incidence, was illegal and reprehensible, a seamy behavior that men increasingly denied and tried to hide (Pieck, 1979).

Indeed, the whole movement against child abuse which began in the 1870s was a product of a feminist sensibility in several ways: first, opposition to corporal punishment and preference for gentler methods of child training; second, challenging the sanctity of the Victorian home and authority of the paterfamilias. Manuals of child raising by the last quarter of the nineteenth century recommended physical punishment only as a last resort. And women’s legal victories in child custody created a preference for maternal rights to children for a century.

Consider a few examples of incest cases from the late nineteenth century:(1)

In 1900 a thirteen-year-old girl has been placed out with a family in which the wife is absent. The SPCC worker reports that the “child’s bed not slept in but [the father’s bed is] much tumbled. The girl cries and dreads the night.” (Case #1820A)

An incest victim reports, sometime in the1890s, that her father “told her that it was all right for him to do such things and say such things to her, for all fathers did so with their daughters. Tried to force her to go to a hotel in Boston with him once. Also advised her to go with fellows to get money. Said that if she got in trouble he would help her out … ” (Case #2058A)

The presence of these stories tells us not only that incest occurred, but that child-saving agencies were aware of it and taking action against it The publicity and fundraising efforts of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children also discussed intrafamily “carnal abuse” directly, unembarrassed to include it as part of the need for SPCC intervention.

In the early twentieth century the child-savers’ view of child sexual assault changed significantly, and incest was de-emphasized. By the 1920s, although child-protective agencies continued to meet many incest cases, a three-part interpretive transformation had occurred: the locus of the problem was moved from home to streets, the culprit transformed from father or other authoritative male family member to perverted stranger, the victim transformed from innocent betrayed to sex delinquent In other words, the fact that child sex abuse is overwhelmingly a family problem was obscured; instead it was pictured as rape by strangers on the streets.(2)

This is not to say that there was no extrafamilial sex abuse; there was. But it was greatly exaggerated in both public and professional discourse compared to incest.

Several factors contributed to this reinterpretation. The professionalization of social work tended to weaken the influence of feminists and social reformers among child protectors, even as, ironically, more women entered child-welfare casework as salaried workers. After the woman-suffrage victory in 1920 the organized feminist movement fragmented and weakened.

During World War I venereal disease became a major problem for the armed forces (it was for this rea­ son that condoms became widely available at this time, first issued by the Navy to sailors); servicemen were presented as victims of disease-ridden prostitutes. After the war, fears of Bolshevism, sexual freedom and feminism combined to create a “pro-family” backlash.

The implications of this reinterpretation of child sexual abuse were pernicious for women and girls. The existence of sexual abuse became evidence requiring the constriction and domestication of girls, and their mothers were blamed for inadequate supervision if the girls were molested or even played on the streets. What was once categorized as carnal abuse, the perpetrators virtually all male, was often now categorized as moral neglect-meaning that the mother was the culprit. And the behavior of the victim was implicated.

Some of the “sex abuse” was relatively noncoercive teenage sexuality. Female juvenile sex delinquency was constructed as a major social problem early in the twentieth century United States, and it was a vague, victimless crime. Girls who smoked or drank, dressed or spoke immodestly, or simply loitered on the streets were convicted of sex delinquency in substantial numbers and sent to reformatories (Schlossman and Wallach, 1978). During World War I, near armed-forces bases, it was the servicemen who were the innocents, their girl partners the sources of pollution. Even girls who had been raped were no longer victims but temptresses.

I do not mean to deny that some girls behaved in socially dangerous and self-destructive ways, nor that they sought out sexual adventure. But, as many students of sex delinquents and other runaways today have observed, high proportions, quite possibly a majority of these girls, were first victims of sexual assault, typically familial. They were, so to speak, squeezed out onto the streets in search of safety and/or self-esteem from homes that were even more destructive than the street boys or men who exploited them.

Above all this reinterpretation of child sexual abuse removed scrutiny from family and home, restoring the curtain of impunity that surrounded those sacred institutions. This was the period of the discovery of the “dirty old man,” the “sex fiend,” and the “pervert,” the stereotypical culprit in child sex abuse cases in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

As before, I do not wish to deny that such figures existed. Child protection agencies uncovered child prostitution, pornography rings and sex criminals who molested literally scores of children. The victims were not always brutalized; the children of the very poor — not only in the Depression but in earlier decades, too — could be bribed into acquiescence and silence with a nickel, an orange, a pail of coal. But even these nonfamilial molesters were rarely “strangers.” They were often recognized, accepted members of neighborhoods, often small businessmen or janitors who had access to private space.

There were two peak periods of hysteria about sex crimes: 1937-40 and 1949-55. The panic had official government sponsorship, led by none less than J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. In 1937 he called for a “War on the Sex Criminal.” Hoover’s rantings about “degenerates” threatening “American childhood and womanhood” assimilated these sexual anxieties into nationalism, racism and anti-communism. It bears notice that, in contrast to earlier periods of public agitation against sex crimes — as in campaigns to raise the age of consent in the Progressive era — women’s organizations played no role in this campaign. (Freedman, 1987)

Meanwhile social workers became less likely to investigate girls’ typically euphemistic accusations of their fathers. In 1935 a mother turned her daughter in for sex delinquency. Investigation reveals that the daughter, fleeing from an abusive father, who also beat his wife severely, had spent most of her time for four or five years with her maternal uncle and aunt. She accused her maternal uncle of molesting her steadily. However, the MSPCC physical exam indicated that she was a virgin, so no action was taken. (#3555A)(3)

A battered woman, terrified of her husband, is told by their daughter, who has become a “sex delinquent,” behaving “vulgarly,” that her father has criminally assaulted her: The mother says “she would speak to him.” At court the police chief says he is doubtful about taking up the case as the girl’s word is the only evidence the government could produce; he would not question the father “as it would be asking [him] to incriminate himself.” The daughter was committed to an institution. (#2057A)

In 1920 a mother is so fearful that her new husband will abuse her daughter (from a previous marriage) that every time she goes out she hires a baby-sitter to chaperone them. Yet when the daughter, now eleven, says she has been raped by a “stranger” whom she refuses to name, the social workers not only fail to question whether she might be shielding her stepfather, but decide that her accusation is not credible and brand her a delinquent-a liar, immoral and uncontrollable. She is boarded out as a domestic. (#3085A)

In 1930 a 14-year-old girl alleges sexual abuse by her widowed father and begs to be taken out of his home. No action is taken until the father brings her to court on stubborn-child charges and she, as well as her younger sister whom she has been trying to protect, are sentenced, separately, to institutions. (#3585)

In addition to references like these, in which the agencies did not investigate or prosecute, there were many others in which agency workers simply did not pick up the broad hints that girls threw out, hoping to draw attention to their plight. Social workers ignored statements like, “I asked my mother for a lock on my door.”

These girls were not usually bribed or intimidated into silence. Some of the recent discussion of incest emphasizes victims’ fearful silence, but this evidence is based on the work of therapists, counseling incest victims years later, who have often by then reconstructed their stories on the basis of their guilt. My evidence, contemporaneous with the abuse, showed that these children were usually active in trying to get help, more so, for example, than victims of nonsexual child abuse. (Gordon, 1986)

Not only did social workers de-emphasize incest, but academic experts dismissed it as an extremely rare, one-in-a-million occurrence (Weinberg, 1955). Psychoanalytic and anthropological interpretations, associated respectively with Freud and Levi-Strauss, attributed to incest taboos a vital role in the development of civilization; this logic brought with it the assumption that these taboos were effective and that incest was in fact rare.

But in terms of impact on treatment of actual cases, Freudian thought did not so much cause social workers to deny children’s complaints and hints about sexual mistreatment as it offered categories with which to explain away these complaints. As Boston psychiatrist Eleanor Pavenstedt commented in 1954, “Most of us have trained ourselves to skepticism toward the claims of young girls who maintain they have been seduced by their fathers …. We must ask ourselves whether our tendency to disbelief is perhaps the strongest support of our cultural family structure, and we may well shrink from the thought of its being threatened.” (Pavenstedt, 1954)

So did the dominant sociology of the family, which inverted Levi-Strauss’ functionalism to prove that the incest taboo was operative because it had to be. For example, “No known human society could tolerate much incest without ruinous disruption” (Gebhard, Gagnon, Pomeroy and Christenson, 1965; 208; Davis, 1949; Bell and Bogel, 1963). The few nonfeminist historians to study incest replicated that error by studying public beliefs about incest, not behavior. (Wohl, 1978; Strong, 1973)

The rediscovery of incest in the 1970s was, then, merely a reinterpretation. And it did not come quickly. Nonsexual child abuse was resurrected as a social problem in the 1960s in a movement led by physicians but stimulated by the influence of the New Left, with its sympathy for youth and critique of authority and the family.

Without pressure from feminists, incest first reappeared as gender-neutral. Indeed, the very classification of all forms of intrafamily sexual activity as incest obscures the meanings of these behaviors. For example, sibling sexual activity, or sex between other relatives of approximately the same age is extremely common, difficult to identify, and not necessarily abusive. Mother-child incest is extremely rare and, in my findings, more often than father-child incest, associated with adult mental illness; by contrast incestuous fathers have extremely “normal” profiles. (Gordon,1984; Herman,1981)

Yet many child abuse experts throughout the 1970s ignored these gender differences (Kempe, 1980; Money, 1980). Others found ingenious ways of explaining away actuality with speculation about possibility. Thus social worker Kate Rist argued that “society has created a stronger prohibition against mother-son incest” because “it is most likely to occur.” This has led to the intriguing situation in which father-daughter incest appears to have a lower natural probability of occurrence, is therefore less strongly prohibited, and in practice occurs more often.” (Rist, 1979; 682)

Historians do not usually like to speak of the “lessons of history,” as if she were some objective, finally definitive schoolteacher. But in many years of work at the craft, I have never come across a story that so directly yields a moral. The moral is, that the presence or absence of a strong feminist movement makes the difference between better and worse solutions to the social problem of child sexual abuse; more, that the very same evidence of sexual abuse will be differently defined in the presence or absence of that movement.

Without a feminist analysis, evidence of child sexual abuse means that danger lies in sex perverts, in public spaces, in unsupervised girls, in sexually assertive girls. There are few ironies more bitter than the fact that rape of children — that most heinous of crimes — has also been the crime most drenched in victim-blaming. As with adult rape, child sexual abuse without feminist interpretation supplies evidence and arguments for constricting and disempowering children.

Such a reinterpretation arose again in the United States in the mid-1980s, a reinterpretation aided, of course, by the real and increasing incidence of deranged killers attacking strangers. In the school year 1984-85 my then second-grade daughter was taught three separate programs in her classroom about how to react to sexual abuse attempts, all of them emphasizing strangers, and all of them gender-neutral. The most publicized sexual abuse cases have concerned day-care centers, and often female teachers, although day-care centers remain, on the whole, among the safest environments for children. The statistics about child sexual abuse remain what they were a century ago: the most dangerous place for children is the home, the most likely assailant their father. Similarly a panic about missing children not only exaggerated their numbers a thousand-fold, but completely misstated the source of such “kidnappings”: neglecting to mention that noncustodial parents are overwhelmingly the main kidnappers; and that teenage runaways, often from abusive homes, are overwhelmingly the majority of the missing children.

What then is the best policy? My argument should not be taken as an implicit call for de-emphasizing the problem. On the contrary. The children’s educational programs and pamphlets have strengths, particularly insofar as they offer assertiveness training for children: if it feels uncomfortable, trust your judgment and say no; scream loud and run fast; tell someone. And of course it is difficult and inadvisable to sow distrust of fathers, particularly because the more intimate fathers are with children, the more responsibility they have for children, the less likely they will be to abuse them sexually.

But education for children should contain a feminist and an anti-authoritarian analysis; should discuss the relative powerlessness of women and girls, and praise assertiveness and collective resistance in girls; and should demystify the family and even discuss that ultimately tabooed subject, economic power in the family. Education for boys must be equally brave and delicate. Boys are children too, and often victimized sexually. But they are also future men, and school age is not too early to ask them to consider what’s wrong with male sexual aggression, to teach them to criticize the multiple and powerful cultural messages that endorse male sexual aggression.

Probably the most important single contribution to the prevention of incest would be the strengthening of mothers. By increasing their ability to support themselves and raising their social and psychological self-esteem, allowing them to choose independence if that is necessary to protect themselves and their daughters, men’s sexual exploitation could be checked. In the historical incest cases I sampled, one of the most consistent common denominators was the extreme helplessness of the mothers. Often the victims of wife-beating themselves, they were often ill or otherwise isolated; they were the poorest, the least self-confident and the least often employed of mothers in these case records. This is not victim-blaming; their weaknesses were not their fault, but part of the systematic way in which male supremacy gives rise to incest It was a gain that wife-beating and incest have become more criminalized, but we cannot expect women to prosecute aggressively if their prospects for single motherhood are so bleak.

Moreover, women’s very subordination often contributes to making them child abusers and neglecters. Although women do not usually abuse children sexually, in these case records they were responsible for approximately half the nonsexual child abuse (the same proportion they occupy in many contemporary studies).

Unfortunately, feminists have avoided women’s own violence toward children and analyzed family violence in terms of stereotypical male brutality and female gentleness. Women’s violence should not be regarded as a problem that will somehow weaken our feminist claims. On the contrary, these claims should not rest on assumptions of women’s superiority-those of us who behave worst may be those who need empowerment most.

Women’s mistreatment of children also needs an analysis of the damages caused by the sexual division of labor and the pattern of women’s exclusive responsibility for child-raising. In the United States, too, the rather middle-class radical feminist groups never made issues of social services a political priority, although such services are fundamental to women’s ability to resist violence, to protect their children and to parent better themselves.

This is not to say that a good feminist line will solve the problems of child sexual abuse, especially not where the abuse has already occurred. Like everyone else, feminists who deal with policy or individual cases must wobble through many contradictions. For example: the victimization is real, but the tendency to exaggerate its incidence and to produce social and moral panics needs to be resisted. The problem emerges from the powerlessness, the effective invisibility and muteness of women and children, especially girls.

But the adult anxiety has led to children’s false accusations, and children’s sufferings will not be corrected by eroding the due-process rights and civil liberties of those accused. Child sexual abuse needs a political interpretation in terms of male power. But the prosecution of culprits — however necessary — and the breaking up of families that may result do not always benefit the child victims.

Sex-abuse cases, especially if they are incestuous, have something of the tragic about them, because once they arise, tremendous human damage has already occurred, and a politically correct analysis will not ease the pain. Still, that analysis, situating the problem in the context of male supremacy in and outside the family, is the only long-term hope for prevention.


  1. These and other excerpts are from case records of Boston, Massachusetts, child-protection agencies. See Gordon, 1988.
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  2. Anna Clark has shown how a similar reinterpretation of adult rape took place. (Clark, 1986)
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  3. The standard response to a sex abuse allegation was to look at the condition of the hymen (Gordon, 1988).
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March-April 1989, ATC 19

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