A Painful Topic

by Kali Munro, M.Ed., Psychotherapist, 2000


Sexual abuse perpetrated by mothers on their daughters is an uncomfortable subject for many people. It defies everything we believe, or want to believe, about women and mothers. Most people don't want to believe that female perpetrators of sexual abuse exist, and certainly don't want to believe that a mother could sexually abuse her own children. While mothers sexually abuse their sons as well, in this article I focus on the impact on daughters.


Sexist Views About Women and Mothers


Most of us are raised to view women as being very different than men - to view them almost as opposites. Some people can't even imagine women doing the same things that men do, or being anything like men. Even when cultures view women to be strong, capable, and competent most continue to view women as inherently different than men because of their child-bearing abilities. Many character traits are presumed to be true about women because of their ability to bear children - women are believed to be more caring, sensitive, nurturing, and maternal than men. The reality that there are female perpetrators of sexual abuse, particularly mothers, is a fact that many people are not willing to believe. This view of mothers, and even of all women, runs very deep in most cultures, and is linked with another assumption - that all women (and particularly mothers) are naturally heterosexual.


Heterosexism and Homophobia


Sexual abuse has nothing to do with the perpetrator's sexuality or sexual identity; many same-sex abusers identify as heterosexual. Many people confuse sexual abuse with sex, but sexual abuse is not sex. Yet because of homophobia, same-sex sexual abuse is linked, in many people's minds, with lesbian or gay sex. How often do we see in the newspapers exclaiming "lesbian sex abuser" but not "heterosexual sex abuser?" It is an ingrained association -- same-sex abuse equals same-sex sexual orientation.


This mistaken association is important to examine for many reasons. That the perpetrator is perceived to be lesbian fuels many people's denial. Mothers can't be lesbian, the thinking goes, therefore the abuse couldn't have happened. On the other hand, some people may be more likely to believe that the abuse happened, precisely because they perceive the perpetrator to be lesbian. It confirms their belief that lesbians are child molestors. When this occurs people are far more outraged than they are with father-daughter sexual abuse because a female perpetrator of incest has violated the social expectations of women and mothers. Sadly, this reaction also points to how little we expect of fathers.


How People View Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse


People tend to feel far more conflicted and confused about mother-daughter sexual abuse - or female perpetrators generally - than they are about father-daughter sexual abuse (or male perpetrators). People respond with outright denial: "A mother wouldn't do that sort of thing." Others minimize the abuse: "How bad could it be? The abuser was a woman; she was probably gentle." And still others vilify female perpetrators, viewing them as worse than male perpetrators because they are women or mothers.

Some people try to explain away the behavior of female perpetrators by pointing to the history of sexual abuse that they have undergone. Having been sexual abused is one factor that can contribute to a mother abusing her own daughter (although there are plenty of survivors who do not sexually abuse children) - and it is possibly one of the more important factors that might lead female perpetrators to sexually abuse their children because they, unlike men, aren't socially conditioned to be sexually aggressive, or to sexualize children. However, this argument should not be used to minimize the responsibility of female perpetrators nor the devastating effects of this form of abuse.


It is not uncommon when female perpetrators are discussed, the tone is often distinctly softer and more sympathetic than when male perpetrators are discussed. This misplaced sexist sympathy for female perpetrators minimizes the effects of the abuse that a survivor went through and denies a survivor's reality of the trauma. In addition, when survivors are aware of this attitude, and many are, it can make it even harder for them to take their own abuse, and the effects of that abuse seriously.


Survivors of Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse


Imagine how a survivor of mother-daughter sexual abuse feels, when the general population who has not undergone this trauma feels this confused and conflicted about it. Survivors tend to be very confused and conflicted about the abuse and their mothers, especially when, as usually is the case, their mothers were their primary care givers. They may have a lot invested in not acknowledging that the abuse happened - both because of their own beliefs about mothers (never mind the emotional trauma of acknowledging the abuse), and because of the often rigid assumptions made by others about mothers.


When survivors of mother-daughter incest are able to acknowledge the abuse they experienced, they often believe that there must be something terribly wrong or bad about them. "How could my own mother sexually abuse me?" This belief that they are bad comes from the myth that mothers are intrinsically caring and loving. If all mothers are loving to their children, the thinking goes, then there must be something really bad about the child whose mother abused them. It makes sense that a child would think this way, especially in a context loaded with societal myths about mothers. It's easier for a child to believe that the abuse is her fault than to admit that the person who was supposed to love and protect her actually harmed her. Sadly, this way of thinking is carried into adulthood by many survivors, and it hurts them a great deal.



That Which Has No Name


It is very difficult for even survivors themselves to acknowledge that they were abused by their mothers because of the sexist beliefs many of us hold about women, and particularly mothers. It can be a great struggle to label their experience as abuse. Survivors may not have words to describe what happened; they may not know what to call it. They may fear that the incest was lesbian sex; something "dirty" - not to be talked about or admitted. They may be afraid of being perceived as lesbian, or afraid that the abuse makes them lesbian. Survivors who are lesbian may fear that their sexuality was caused by the abuse.


It is also difficult for survivors to acknowledge their abuse because there are very few places that survivors can hear or read about mother-daughter incest, or even about female perpetrators. Sexual abuse and incest have become almost synonymous with male sexual abuse of females and father-daughter incest. It is within this vacuum that survivors of mother-daughter incest struggle to make sense of and understand their experience.


Homophobic Beliefs - One Effect of The Abuse


Many people confuse same-sex sexual abuse with lesbian sex, thinking that the perpetrator and even the victim is lesbian, or was made lesbian by the abuse. None of this is true. Yet these myths continue to exist, and they confuse and haunt many survivors who live in fear and shame that they really are lesbian when they aren't, or that their lesbian sexuality was caused by the abuse.


Being abused by her mother does not make a survivor a lesbian. Even if the survivor's body physiologically responded to the sexual stimulation, this has nothing to do with sexuality. It is the body's natural physiological response to stimulation, and has nothing to do with the survivor's own sexual desires, or even consent. Sexual abuse effects a survivor's comfort level with and responses to being a sexual person, but it does not cause her sexuality.


Identifying With Mother Perpetrators


Even when survivors acknowledge that they were sexually abused by their mothers, they often strongly identify with their mothers. Just both of them being female in a sexist society can lead to identification with the mother. This identification with the perpetrator can make it more difficult for survivors to separate themselves, emotionally and otherwise, from their abuser.

Many daughters look to their mothers as a mirror for their future lives. Survivors of mother-daughter sexual abuse often see their future as a woman and mother as dismal. Many adult survivors painfully worry that they will sexually abuse children, that they are unsafe around children, or that they are potential perpetrators - just like their mothers. This may lead survivors to feel that they are untrustworthy, thus many survivors are reluctant to have children of their own (although the choice to not have children can be a perfectly healthy choice on its own.)


Are They Victims Or Are They Abusers?


Daughters, and thus many survivors, often look to their mother's experiences (in the home and with their fathers) as their future, and identify with their mother's situation. If their mother is in an upsetting situation, survivors will often feel empathy for their mothers, and want to help them. This is heightened for survivors whose mothers turn to them for support.

If the perpetrator views herself as a victim of circumstances, or is a victim of her husband, the survivor often feels sorry for her and fears losing her. This dynamic makes it very hard for the daughter to see her mother as an abuser. Many of us tend to see people in extreme categories - either victim or abuser. For children, this either-or-thinking is the norm, but for survivors it often remains with them and becomes entrenched. The truth is that people can be both - victims in one context, and abusers in another.


"I Feel Like I Am My Mother"


The more a survivor identifies with her mother, the harder it is to separate her identity from her abuser - a crucial step in healing. Many survivors of mother-daughter incest report looking in the mirror and seeing their mothers, and hating themselves for it. When they see their own body naked (which they may avoid doing), many survivors see their mother's body, and as a result feel deeply ashamed of and angry at their bodies. Some survivors respond to these feelings by not wanting to be women, or lesbian (as they may perceive their mother to be), or anything associated with women or lesbians.


The feelings of shame and self-hatred that survivors can have may lead to their feeling uncomfortable with and/or hatred toward women and lesbians; inadequate and bad about themselves; confused and ashamed about being women; uncomfortable with their sexuality; engaging in self-injurious behavior (particularly in the genital and breast area); developing an eating disorder; experiencing body shame; and having difficulties in relationships, particularly with other women.


It is crucial for survivors of mother-daughter sexual abuse to create boundaries with their mothers (physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual); to re-claim their bodies as their own, and to truly know the differences between themselves and their mothers.


Longing for a Mother's Love


Mother-daughter sexual abuse wounds survivors' hearts and souls. Their mothers were often their only care-givers and the only source of much-needed care. When this care is mixed with sexual abuse, the effects are devastating. This mixture of nurturance (if there was any) and sexual abuse may have been all the parenting a survivor received. Often the father was absent or simply did not take an active role in parenting. This mixture of caring and sexual abuse leaves survivors with an unpleasant, and often sickening or repulsive feeling. On the one hand, the survivor desperately needed to be loved, held, kissed, and nurtured, but when that nurturance comes with such a high price, it is devastating to the child's psyche. Even nurturance that is offered separate from the sexual abuse becomes hard to trust or to take in freely and openly. This leaves many survivors feeling a desperate need for love, and at the same time, highly conflicted about that need, and wary of those, particularly women who offer support. The grief connected to not receiving safe love from a mother or primary caregiver is profound.


Summary of the Effects of Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse


While survivors of mother-daughter sexual abuse experience many of the same effects as other incest and sexual abuse survivors, they tend to have heightened difficulties with:


Naming their experience as abuse.

This is particularly true in light of the myth that women do not sexually abuse children.


Many survivors have difficulty knowing that they are separate from and different than their perpetrators.


Many survivors have difficulty maintaining their boundaries, especially with other women. They may be overly flexible or overly rigid.


This is particularly true in light of the fact that they were abused by their mothers who are mythologized as all loving and caring.

Gender identity.

Many survivors do not want to be a woman, have trouble identifying as women, or do not like what they perceive women to be, because the abuser was a woman.

Gender shame.

Many survivors feel great shame about being a woman because of their identification with the perpetrator.

Body shame.

Survivors often feel great shame about their bodies, particularly their bodies' womanliness, because the perpetrator had a woman's body.

Homophobic fears about one's actual or perceived sexuality.

Survivors are often very confused about the differences between sexual abuse and lesbian sexuality, and may believe the myth that abuse causes a survivor's sexuality.

Longing to be loved.

Survivors frequently have a profound need to be loved in the way that they were not as a child, and they may fear or be unable to accept it, particularly from other women.

Final Thoughts

Abuse is never pleasant. However, mother-daughter sexual abuse seems to provoke particularly strong reactions in people, even those working in the area of trauma. Sometimes, when mother-daughter sexual abuse is acknowledged, people feel the need to say that it doesn't happen as frequently as father-daughter sexual abuse, or that women aren't as violent as men. Even if those things are true, it is not helpful information when listening to and understanding women who have been sexually abused by their mothers (or other women). If we want to create a safe environment for women to speak about their experiences, we need to talk and write about the fact that women and mothers do sexually abuse children. Only in that environment will survivors be truly free to tell their stories and heal themselves.

© Kali Munro, 2000.

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