Incest Victims: Social Action Can Be As Or More Healing Than Individual Therapy

We are again indebted to Dr. Diana Russell for permission to reprint this selection from her essay, “Politicizing Sexual Violence: A Voice in the Wildnerness”. A version of this essay appears in Feminist Foremothers in Women’s Studies, Psychology, and Mental Health (1995).

Dr. Russell argues that mental health practitioners who treat incest victims and survivors need to go beyond caring for individuals and devote more attention to deep-seated social and cultural issues. Our society as a whole needs healing.

…I certainly believe in the importance of trying to help incest survivors to heal (I will focus here on this form of sexual violence). I’m a particularly enthusiastic advocate of self-help survivor groups like those developed in Norway that are free, therapist-less, and run according to principles that have been worked out over several years. However, I get extremely disturbed when therapists ignore the political context of
incestuous abuse and other problems that they treat.

Mental health professionals must take responsibility for their
shameful history of victim-blaming. Despite being privileged to learn about sexual abuse directly from the mouths of victims and survivors, most of them remained trapped in the sexist myopia of their victim-blaming predecessors, of whom Sigmund Freud is the most notorious example. Although many women therapists, particularly feminist therapists, finally learned to see incest victims/survivors in a new way, they learned their new perspective from the feminist movement–not their clients. It took survivors speaking out about their experiences inside and outside the feminist movement to start to revolutionize our understanding of incestuous abuse. Women in the mental health profession must learn from this failure, not repeat it.

As long as therapists confine themselves to treating the relative
handful of casualties of the patriarchal system who can afford therapy, they will contribute little or nothing to changing the male-dominated family structure and other social institutions that place so many female children at risk of sexual violence. As long as they work within a narrow
psychopathological framework–even though it may be a revised one–they
may succeed in enjoying an affluent life-style, but they won’t succeed in
diminishing the prevalence of incestuous abuse.

Individualizing sexual victimization depoliticizes it. It also
disempowers survivors by encouraging them to focus on their problems rather than their strengths, and motivating them to seek solutions within
themselves. Many therapists of the family dynamics persuasion even insist
on “helping” their clients to see the role they played in becoming victims. This is victim-blaming in modern dress.

The widespread overemphasis on the importance of personal healing–the excessive “therapizing” of sexual assault–has also deflected many survivors from being at the forefront of the struggle to change the
conditions that caused or contributed to their victimization in the first

The psychological health of many women was greatly improved when the feminist theory that accompanied the rise of the second wave of feminism in the United States provided us with an understanding of how sexism had contributed to our personal problems. Many middle-class women walked out of their therapists’ offices and into the feminist movement. The often modest achievements of therapy were greatly surpassed for many of these women by the healing that occurred from their involvement in this movement.

Similarly, survivors are likely to benefit greatly from understanding incest as a socio-political issue, not merely a problem that
existed in their own family and a few other equally unfortunate families.
Some may also benefit from understanding that they can empower themselves by taking action to combat incestuous abuse. Becoming an activist can be
therapeutic in a very different way than having individual sessions with a
therapist, as well as contributing to the social healing of this traumatic

While there are movements against rape and woman battery in the
United States, there is no comparable movement against incestuous abuse. I believe the responsibility for this fact falls squarely on the shoulders of the mental health profession–for individualizing, pathologizing and
“therapizing” the widespread problem of incestuous abuse. Unless therapists spend time on prevention efforts, they must face the fact that they are financial beneficiaries of incestuous abuse. The more incest there is, the more in demand they will be, and the higher they can set their fees. Effective prevention requires understanding the social and cultural causes and context of incestuous abuse and getting beyond a tunnel-vision preoccupation with how best to treat victims and survivors.

After delivering two speeches to mental health professionals, most
of whom were treating adult incest survivors, a therapist and I were asked
to answer any questions the audience wished to ask us. The next hour went
by without a single question being directed to me. It appeared that my
ideas were of no interest to these women compared to the opportunity to get tips from a therapist on how to improve their survivor-treatment skills. When I told them why I deplored their narrow-mindedness and launched into some version of the critique explicated above, the angry organizers reprimanded me for being rude (echoes of “manners maketh man”).

I’ll end with an offer: I’m willing to accept being labelled a
disagreeable rude foremother if the indictment of the mental health
profession that I have articulated here will help to bring about some of the much-needed changes in this profession.

See also:

Exposure to Pornography as a Cause of Child Sexual Victimization
The incest started at the age of eight. I did not understand any of it
and did not feel that it was right. My dad would try to convince me
that it was ok. He would find magazines, articles or pictures that
would show fathers and daughters or mothers, brothers and sisters
having sexual intercourse. (Mostly fathers and daughters.) He would say
that if it was published in magazines that it had to be all right
because magazines could not publish lies… He would say, “See it’s
okay to do because it’s published in magazines…”

Free Book Download: Diana Russell’s Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm (explicit)
A particularly important feature of my definition of pornography is the requirement that it appears to endorse, condone, or encourage abusive sexual desires or behaviors.
These attributes differentiate pornography from materials that include
abusive or degrading sexual behavior for educational purposes. Movies
such as “The Accused” and “The Rape of Love”, for example, present
realistic representations of rape with the apparent intention of
helping viewers to understand the reprehensible nature of rape, and the
agony experienced by rape victims.

Some Porn Hard to Distinguish from Training for Pedophiles (explicit language)
He told her how fun it was but reminded her not to tell her sister. He treated her as if she was his special friend, yet also spit in her mouth at one point. These are the standard strategies of a pedophile: alternating affection and abuse to leave the child confused, and telling the child that the sex is special but must be kept a secret from others.

Porn’s “Verbatim” Accounts of the Pleasures of Child Sexual Abuse Don’t Square with Reality
The novelized accounts of incest are fantasy, but the promotion of lies
about women and incest, the propaganda, is no fantasy, but a form of
action that serves to justify incest and insensitivity to survivors of
incest. And, of course, incest itself is not fantasy. All the fallacies
held by the public at large about incest are given legitimacy by these

  1. Incest is harmless.
  2. Incest is instigated by daughters, fathers simply respond; that is, daughters seduce their fathers.
  3. Daughters who are willing victims are insane.
  4. Coercion plays no role in incest.
  5. Any physical harm is so temporary that it is like a fantasy.
  6. Fathers have incest with their daughters out of love.
  7. Incest is a natural act.

These fallacies/fantasies (lies) have a distinguished lineage. For when
Freud decided that the accounts of incest (which he first believed)
were in fact nothing but the overheated fantasies of adolescent girls,
he shifted the onus of responsibility from adults to children. Incest
then became a question of wishes, fantasies, and impulses on the part
of children toward their parent, not acts engaged in by adults.

Certified Sex Therapist Marty Klein Wants You to Believe Porn Is Harmless
We are concerned that victims of abuse could hesitate to seek help for
fear of encountering people like Dr. Klein, who would cheerfully throw
them back into the lion’s den, with the admonition that they should
enjoy being devoured. It’s no wonder that sex crimes and domestic
violence are heavily underreported.

7 thoughts on “Incest Victims: Social Action Can Be As Or More Healing Than Individual Therapy

  1. I don’t agree with Russell on this. Therapists are SUPPOSED to treat their patients as individuals, and address their needs as such. No one should imply that therapy would not be helpful to an incest victim. There would be bound to be other problems such as depression, possibly eating disorders, substance abuse etc. related to incest survivors that would need to be addressed in therapy.

    I do agree that the therapists and their patience would benefit from recognizing that incest is partially the result of societal problems, and encouragement to take some form of social action to help combat the problem, and also have support from others who have lived it. There is strength in numbers.
    I don’t think a theraputic setting is a place to politicize an issue that has such a personal, intimate impact on the patient, not until they had reached a certain level of understanding.

  2. My take on it is that therapy in the abstract is a good thing, but some therapies and therapists are better than others. In some cases, the therapist can make things worse, even with the best of intentions.

    If Dr. Russell is finding that social action is therapeutic for some, or that some individual therapies are making things worse, these observations should be followed up with further inquiry. Frustrations arise when some or most of the therapeutic community appears to be hostile to criticism, self-examination, and feedback from their clients.

    Child molestion is such an enormous problem in America (25% of girls sexually abused at least once) that there simply aren’t enough therapists to go around. The triage of individuals must be accompanied by social reform.

  3. I actually enjoyed reading some information from these websites because every issue and concern that the people had on NoPornNorthampton was very thought out and made sense. I understood and could see where each argument was coming from the possibility of hurting the children to the stripper who might possibly be scarred for life.These websites are educational in that they allow a number of people in the community to express their views and let the rest of the community view their opinions and ideas. Some people find it much easier to express themselves through writing and posting comments. In that sense these websites are educational because they let people express their opinions and share with people who have their same views.

    However, people do have a Constitutional right to have freedom of speech and expression. People have a right to show their distaste for the porn industry, while others have a right express the opposition. My concern is when either side tries to push their views and ideas. Not everyone is going to like the same thing. Some people do not eat meat and others do. The meat eaters state their views on why meat is good for you and non-meat eaters will tell you why meat is bad for you. That is the same thing that is happing on these websites. NoPornNorthampton is explaining why pornography is bad for you and the other websites are stating why porn is not that bad and saying that people have a right.

    My censorship concerns come about when the website discusses secondary effects that have no real statistics to back it up. For example, when one comment discussed that a stripper will be scarred for life. I feel that each person has a right to make a living doing any job that is legal. A stripper could be providing for her family and put food on the table or paying for an education to help better her life. I would agree that some strippers may end up as prostitutes and be scarred for life, but that could be true for anyone. Each person holds his/her own destiny and chooses the life he/she lives.

    These websites are education when it comes to the feelings, thoughts, ideas, and expressions of the people who post comments. Letting the world know what they believe is what the drafters of the constitution had in mind. Being able to oppose something and letting people know of the possible harms is educational. These websites are advocating censorship when they are trying to tell people that they should not be able to do something is wrong. People have a right to do what they choose. When you cross over from stating that you disagree with something compared to you should not be able to do something is different. Trying to ban something is censorship and limits our individual freedoms one at a time until all of our rights are gone. Expressing your opposition to something is educating people to your views.

    Josh Gropp

  4. We agree that censorship is fraught with grave risk. We do not support extending the bounds of state censorship in America beyond its current limits. We would appreciate if members of the opposition would concede that this is indeed our position. I have the impression that many are visiting our site with the fixed notion that to oppose porn is to support censorship, and are not looking at our materials as they actually are.

    The First Amendment actually has many carve-outs already, expressing the reality that free speech must compete with other important values. Do you oppose all these carve-outs?

    Your claim that the available secondary effects studies have “no real statistics” to support them is unsupported and without merit. They easily meet a “preponderance of the evidence” standard and most courts find them sufficient to justify adult-use zoning. These secondary effects are not speech, they are physical impacts on people and neighborhoods that can and should be mitigated through reasonable measures like zoning and health regulations.

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