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Bringing Back Incestuous Abuse into the Social Realm

Text by Marie Paquignon (Freie Universität Berlin)

Art by Lena Rorschach


“To describe and to voice violence is a step towards peace” (Dussy 2021, 29, translated from French by the author).

In 1949, Claude Lévi-Strauss famously stipulated that the prohibition of incest is the foundation of human civilization. Following the logic of this theory, if incest does occur, it is outside the realm of society. Indeed, when we hear about public accounts of cases of incest, it is only to hear about the most abject type of atrocities committed by the most inhumane types of perverts (Waldram 2009, 220-222). Why should then anthropology, the science of human social worlds, bother studying a topic that only concerns some a-social creeps?

French anthropologist Dorothée Dussy radically calls into question this conception of incest.[1] If you take into account surveys that estimate that hundreds of thousands of people are victimized by incestuous abuse in North American societies, and if you add those who committed the incest, plus the victims’ relatives, you are talking about millions of people who are impacted by incest. Dussy thus asks how one could still possibly talk of it in terms of a fundamental prohibition (Dussy 2005, 13). In Germany, too, official estimates suggest that every seventh or eighth adult has experienced sexual violence in their childhood and adolescence. About 25% of abusers are part of the nuclear family, 50% are relatives from wider kinship networks or close acquaintances such as neighbours and friends (Unabhängiger Beauftragter für Fragen des sexuellen Kindesmissbrauchs 2020, 1).[2]

Even more, as previously shown by feminist writers (see for example Armstrong 1978) Dussy points out out that incestuous abusers are otherwise perfectly ‘normal’ people, that, in other instances, respect the law as well as social mores (Dussy 2021, 97; 113). In her groundbreaking book on incest, Dussy (2021[2013])[3] demonstrates that, when the incest is revealed, abusers generally remain very well integrated within their family. Hence, breaking the incest taboo seems to represent no great threat to the general social order. Despite severe laws in theory, the immense majority of trials for intrafamilial sexual abuse leave abusers free of any legal sanction. Most commonly, denouncing a case of incest instead comes at the expense of the person revealing it - that is the survivors themselves. They often have to face great animosity from their relatives who accuse them of lying, madness or may even exclude them from the family. Hence, Dussy argues, the actual prohibition not so much concerns committing incest, but rather talking about it (Dussy 2005, 13; 25-26). Denouncing the act of it means disrupting a system whose very foundation is the silencing of the victims’ voices. Consequently, by negating its social embeddedness, anthropology has participated in maintaining the system of incest (Dussy 2021, 377-386).

As Indian sociologist Pratiksha Baxi argues, the way academic research addresses abuse (or omits to do so) is closely related to broader political contexts:

“The stories about how sexual violence comes to be constituted as an object of research offer complex commentaries about the operations of public secrecy in the realm of law, kinship, nation, and the state” (Baxi 2014, 149).

After feminists have shown the gender and power dimensions of incest in the 1970s and 1980s (Dussy 2021, 95-97), the #MeeToo movement, under the hashtag “#MeTooInceste”, has recently brought the issue into the French public arena (Deutsche Welle 2021, n.p.), and anthropologists have started to reflect on the survivors’ perspectives (see McChesney 2010; Haney 2010), it is now time to “resocializ[e]” (Farmer 2004, 311) incestuous abuse.

Framing Incestuous Abuse

If sexual violence has largely been neglected as an object of inquiry within anthropology (McChesney & Singleton 2010, 5), this holds even more true for the sexual abuse of children (Lamphere 2010, 38). Especially, incest has only been treated as a negative by the discipline’s classics who based their theories on the assumption of its non-existence, thereby systematically overlooking empirical evidence. Malinowski (1930) for example, denied its existence by relying on a masculine public discourse. When confronted with accounts of sexual relationships between children and their relatives, he would simply dismiss them as fantasies or exaggerations (Dussy 2005, 5-6).

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist activists catapulted incestuous abuse into the public domain. They pointed out both the fact that incest is a widespread phenomenon and that it is almost entirely the doing of men (Dussy 2021, 95-97). Indeed, in Germany, 80% to 90% of cases of child abuse were committed by men from all socioeconomic backgrounds (Unabhängiger Beauftragter für Fragen des sexuellen Kindesmissbrauchs 2020, 2). As Louise Armstrong, one of the movement’s leading voices, puts it, feminists realized that abusers committed their acts not out of deviance, but much rather as a paroxysmal expression of male domination. She recalls how, by sharing their experiences, survivors realized that:

“[…] different though our individual stories may have been, our fathers had all done this to us not in spite of the fact that they knew it was wrong, but because they believed it was their right, or at least justifiable. What we discovered was that incest was among the male violences against women and children long-permitted through history - sometimes tacitly, sometimes explicitly” (Armstrong 1995, 26, emphasis in the original).

Accordingly, the prevalence of intrafamilial child abuse was explained with a general “sense of male entitlement” (ibid., 29) and the fact that children can be “most easily subordinated” to satisfy their sexual lust (Summit 1982, 25, in Armstrong 1981, 23).

However, in the 1980s-1990s, the attention feminists brought to the issue of incest was appropriated by mental health practitioners who framed it in primarily psychiatric terms. The acts of incestors were interpreted as pathological and incest survivors were sent to receive treatment in psychiatric institutions (Armstrong 1995, 28-29). The focus of research was now directed at so-called “family dysfunction” (ibid., 29) and the “cycle of violence” within the family (ibid., 30). By leaving out the gender and power dimension inherent to incest, this discourse de-politicized and individualized the issue (ibid., 28-30).

Dussy rebukes some explanations that are commonly offered to make sense of incestuous abuse. Concerning the argument that it is the result of a role and generational confusion within the family system, she retorts that, in fact, everyone is well aware of their position. As we will see, incestuous abuse can only work because of power asymmetries inherent in family structures. Perpetrators use those asymmetries. Moreover, it can also take place between people of the same generation. Another powerful connection that is often made is that of incest and an alleged specific sexuality of incestors. However, she criticizes, they do not necessarily have specific sexual preferences (i.e. pedophilia) nor do their sexual lives otherwise differ from the norm (i.e. the assumption that they are sexually frustrated). In many cases, the intrafamilial abuse was but a parenthesis in their lives. Further, the anthropologist shows that explanations relying on the alleged passivity and complaisance of the abused child’s mother are purely based on gender stereotypes. Those theories take the mother’s subordination to her husband for granted and assume that letting abuse happen serve wives to avoid their alleged duty to sexually satisfy their husband. Further, while a portion of incests are committed by a parent, in some cases the abuser actually is the mother (Dussy 2005, 23-24).

Generally speaking, Dussy deplores that both victimology and criminology focus solely on the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator. However, incestuous abuse concerns all relatives who share their daily lives (ibid., 24-25). Countering the idea that it results from disorder, either in the form of intrapsychic or of interpersonal ruptures, she states that, in reality, “incest is an order, not a disorder” (ibid., 24, translated by the author).

Incest as a Social Order

Dussy powerfully shows how the perpetuation of incestuous abuse works through and as a form of socialization into relations of domination. The modalities of this system are integrated in a pedagogy of silence: Relatives teach children through words, gestures (including physical violence) and omissions what can be said and what cannot, thus systematically silencing the victim’s efforts to express the harm that is being done to them. This order is sustained by values such as the rule of decency that forbids overtly speaking of sexuality, respect for authoritative figures in the family, and kinship loyalty. Not less importantly, affective states of fear, confusion, shame, guilt, hatred, love and general ambivalence are created to monitor behaviors (Dussy 2021, 25, 163-199). The deployment of sexual pleasure and lust (ibid., 245) reinforces the “erotization of domination” (ibid., 191, translated from French by the author).

This pedagogy of domination is constitutive for the family and impacts the way every member of the family’s sociability is formed. This clearly shows in the typical transgenerational repetition of certain incest configurations (e.g. between father and son or uncle and niece) (ibid., 217-247). Beyond the family, Dussy also argues that everyone who knows someone, even unknowingly, who has been incested, or who has incested someone, is impacted by this system. We are witness to their uncommon behaviour (e.g. of a turbulent child), as, in many cases, to their tendency to eroticize relationships or to compulsively reject any erotization, while the cause (the experience of incestuous abuse) is kept unvoiced by everyone around them (ibid., 27). What is very striking in Dussy’s book is how well all expressions of the abuse are integrated in the ordinariness of daily lives. It seems that, all too often, sexual abuse is treated as bad, but not bad enough to interrupt the flow of life. Only when officially sanctioned by a court does it become ‘criminal’. But even Dussy’s convicted interlocutors were unsettled for having been emprisoned for what they still played down as ‘slip-ups’. The life long impact their acts may have on the survivors stands in dazzling contrast with the general sense of banality with which the perpetrators talk about it (ibid., 104-119).

The justice system, too, supports the silence surrounding cases of intrafamilial abuse and is highly unsupportive of those trying to break from it. Hence, in France, close relatives are exempted from the legal duty to report crimes they are aware of. Laws concerning consent, age and the relations between perpetrator and victim are decoupled from empirical realities. They tend to systematically overlook power asymmetries inherent in those relationships. Moreover, the assessment of penalty is centred on the abuser’s perspective on the victim’s consent and it is indexed on a masculinist scale of the perpetrator’s pleasure (ibid., 341-350; for Germany see StGB § 176a and § 176c in Bundesamt für Justiz n.d., n.p.). Non-penetrative forms of sexual abuse entail less severe sentences than penetration, although there is no necessary correspondence between the nature of the sexual abuse and the victim’s experience of it. Furthermore, verdicts oftentimes are most severe when the victim is a boy, reflecting sexist differentiations of children’s bodies and subjectivities (Dussy 2021, 348-350). Generally speaking, rape trials follow an inverted logic compared to other criminal trials. Indeed, the accuser’s accounts are met with general disbelief (Baxi 2014, 142-143). Ultimately, since material proof for the abuse can hardly ever be provided because trials take place years, if not decades, after the abuse has been committed, the court ruling often ends up relying on the accuser’s confession. The difficulty of seeking formal justice after incestuous abuse is further aggravated by the barrier posed by the statute of limitation. It ignores the tremendous efforts and strength it costs incest survivors to sue the perpetrator, as well as the possible impact of amnesia (Dussy 2021, 351-352; see Nabors 1990).

As all these aspects and dimensions of the system sustaining the silent perpetuation of incestuous abuse show, there is much to be studied. We are clearly not talking about a collapse of the social and humane, but rather about social practices, ideas, beliefs, values, norms, institutions, and structures - that is, exactly what social sciences are about.


[1] Here, incest is understood as the intrafamilial abuse of children and teenagers. Dussy argues that incestuous sexual relationships are always forms of abuse, and that they always start when the victim is underage (Dussy 2021, 75-80; 345).

[2] Incest is also ubiquitous and highly eroticized on mainstream porn webstites, which calls into question the assumption that it is radically rejected.

[3] Dussy’s book Le Berceau des Dominations [“The Cradle of Dominations”, translated from French by the author] is based on 15 years of anthropological research on incest, starting in 2004. She has conducted interviews with incest survivors as well as with sentenced incestuous abusers in French prisons, she has talked with their relatives when possible, attended incest trials and studied investigation files, participated in support groups for incest survivors in France as well as in Québec, and examined reactions to her research (Dussy 2021, 32).


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Armstrong, Louise. 1995. “Incest: A Journey to Hullabaloo.” In Feminist foremothers in women's studies, psychology, and mental health edited by Chesler, Esther D. Rothblum, Ellen Cole, 25-32. New York: Haworth Press.

Baxi, Pratiksha. 2014. “Sexual Violence and Its Discontents.” Annual Review of Anthropoly 43: 139–54.

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