The following is the first of a three-part series of articles:
It was in a high school literature class that I was first introduced to the Oedipus Complex, defined as “a boy’s unresolved desire for sexual gratification through the parent of the opposite sex, especially the desire of a son for his mother”. It was in a college film class that I was shown a famous French film entitled “Murmur of the Heart” which took the Oedipal theme and played it out in a contemporary middle class setting. In this film, the sensitive youngest son of a beautiful, tempestuous Italian woman is ushered into manhood by her as he recovers from a heart murmur at a countryside sanitarium. The film would have you believe that although mother and son both realized that they had crossed a forbidden line, neither was scarred by the experience, and that in fact the son was now able to go on and become a man. At the time, I never questioned the implications of this theme.
Mothers have been idealized for thousands of years. So the notion that the most trusted figure in our lives – the Madonna - could betray and abuse us sexually is particularly hard to fathom. And I would contend that that is the primary reason that this particular form of abuse has not been properly identified and addressed in our culture. Statistics, however, begin to set the record straight: A July 2000 Justice Department report found that “women account for 4 percent of those who sexually abuse children under 18 years of age, and about 12 percent of those who molest children younger than six years of age.” Mind you, these types of studies look at a prescribed definition of abuse – one that more readily fits the notion of the male as aggressor - and does not address other questionable (and damaging) behaviors such as parents (mothers) sleeping with children; bathing, fondling and massaging them; dressing and undressing in front of them; engaging in sexualized talk and making them touch them in inappropriate ways. And it is believed that abuse by mothers is so grossly under-identified and under-reported that these statistics only reveal a fraction of the problem.
Why is abuse by mothers so much more under-reported than abuse by fathers?
Because of the very nature of the relationship. Professionals consider mothers more trusted figures than fathers. And even if there is suspicion of abuse, there is likely not to be any physical evidence. Additionally, a mother’s actions can be more confusing because of her traditional role as the primary physical caretaker and nurturer. In many cases, the child’s family includes only the mother. What child would risk losing his/her only family? She may be the only one available for love and support?
In many instances of mother/son incest the abuse occurs because the son becomes a substitute for the non-existent father. His sense of protecting and taking care of her and being the “man” she needs becomes enmeshed in the abuse. And the type of abuse that takes place between a mother and son doesn’t always fit into social stereotypes. Society views sexual abuse as something violent or coercive and aggressive – and something that usually involves intercourse. But whether coercion is used or not, “if a child is introduced to a sexually stimulating behavior- which is inappropriate to his (or her) psychosexual and psychosocial developmental maturity – by a parent, it is incest and it is abusive” (C.A. Courtois, 1988).
For male victims the situation becomes even more complicated. Boys are less likely to feel victimized and/or to report sexual abuse, especially mother-son incest, because they either see the abuse as something positive (mother love) or they believe that it is either consensual or they are to blame. Especially, if they became stimulated and ejaculated, they believe that they wanted it. Furthermore, boys are more likely to internalize and not tell - in fact disclosure during childhood was the only sexual abuse variable that differentiated the genders in a study by Roesler & McKenzie (1994) – 31% vs. 61%. But the most significant finding in this study was that the long-term symptomological response to childhood abuse among adult male and adult female victims was similar – in other words – abuse has profound negative long-term effects for both sexes. This shatters another myth - that boys can handle incest or childhood sex and may even welcome it as a right of passage.
The psychological consequences of mother/son incest are significant.
Because boys don’t tell, they can experience a greater degree of shame, stigma and self-blame than girls. Especially in our current environment, where girls are encouraged to speak up, boys are left to hide something that cuts to the very core of their male hood. In his study on the Psychological Impact of Male Sexual Abuse, David Lisak says one of the most crucial aspects of the experience of male sexual abuse is “a fundamental loss of control: over one’s physical being, one’s sense of self, one’s sense of agency and self-efficacy, and one’s fate”. And yet, as one boy put it, “the thought of losing her was more frightening than her abuse of me.” Lisak refers to the helplessness, isolation and alienation boys experience as they grow up hiding their secret and “seeding the potential for a lifelong struggle with alienation from other people.”
In order to compensate for the feelings of victimization and helplessness that permeated their childhood, adult males abused as boys deal with their masculinity in one of two ways, they either become hyper-masculine and exhibit a lot of anger, especially in relationships with women, or they become passive caretaker types putting everyone else’s needs before their own and exhibiting little or no male ego. Either way they are fighting deeply ingrained feelings of masculine inadequacy. But possibly the most destructive long-term consequence of the abuse is the victim’s inability to trust and therefore to connect with other people. If you have been betrayed by the first and most important figure in your life, how can you ever trust anyone else?
Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT 2009