The taboo surrounding incest has existed for thousands of years, but its social impact has shifted over time, reflecting changing notions of children, law, SEXUALITY, and the family. The historian must exercise caution in interpreting the role of incest in the United States because rhetoric does not always reflect reality. People rarely spoke about child sexual abuse prior to the 1970s; nevertheless incest clearly occurred. Society's responses to allegations of incest reflect the changing and often ambiguous role of children in society and are shaped by notions of gender, race, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity.

Colonial America through the Nineteenth Century

In the colonial period, children were economic assets to the family and essentially under paternal control. Their economic function was eclipsed as Victorian concepts of middle-class domesticity emerged in the nineteenth century. Children were recast as innately innocent and malleable, and mothers replaced fathers as the moral guardians of the home. This image of innocence underscored the perception of childhood vulnerability. During the Progressive Era, CHILD-SAVING professionals increasingly intervened in the family, subtly challenging parental authority and implying that faulty and inadequate PARENTING could harm children. The twentieth century saw the emergence of CHILDREN'S RIGHTS, often at the expense of parental authority.

Although rarely mentioned, there is mounting evidence that child sexual abuse occurred frequently throughout the last two centuries. Laws about statutory rape and incest reflect awareness that child sexual abuse existed, but their erratic enforcement suggests ambiguity about sexual abuse and society's role in child protection. Between the 1880s and 1900, for example, most states increased the AGE OF CONSENT from ten to at least sixteen, reflecting a common concern of the social purity movement that girls were vulnerable to sexual harm. Although almost every state outlawed incest, sexual acts between parent and child outside of intercourse fell under less stringent legal statutes.

Historians have argued that cultural practices may have facilitated sexual abuse in the home. Sleeping arrangements that placed adults in the same bed with children–such as occurred in the crowded conditions of nineteenth-century tenements, or the limited bed space in colonial and frontier homes–gave adults easy access to children, enabled children to witness carnal acts between adults, and may have facilitated incest. Myths about VENEREAL DISEASE transmission may have contributed to sexual abuse by reshaping taboos against incest into acts of desperation. According to one myth, which still occasionally surfaces as an excuse, intercourse with a virgin will cure a man suffering from a venereal disease. During the nineteenth century, men who invoked this explanation for sexual relations with minors were considered less predatory and legally culpable.

Late Nineteen and Early Twentieth Century

During the Progressive Era the profession of social work was born; with it came increased scrutiny of the private lives of American families. When early social workers uncovered cases of incest, they frequently described the girls as seducers rather than victims. Considered sexually deviant, these girls risked incarceration in institutions for delinquent girls. Conversely, fathers who were named as perpetrators were rarely prosecuted; a promise to reform was considered sufficient. By the 1920s, children were often imbued with paradoxical qualities of being at once erotic and innocent, a tension epitomized in Nabokov's 1958 novel LOLITA.

Commonly held beliefs may have deflected suspicion away from parents. Victorian domestic literature frequently warned mothers to beware of salacious domestic workers caring for children. Accused of calming young charges by masturbating them and introducing sexual activity prematurely, domestic employees were often the first household members to be implicated when sexual abuse was suspected. Little evidence supports these accusations against nursery maids; yet the frequency with which the concern was raised reflects a simmering fear that sexual abuse could perturb the seemingly calm Victorian home. Similarly, when a child contracted gonorrhea and a parent was found to have the disease as well, infected sheets and toilet seats were blamed instead of the parent. The mistaken belief that children could catch gonorrhea from objects led sexual abuse to go unrecognized as late as the 1970s.

Historians have shown how twentieth-century rhetoric may have hidden more abuse than it exposed. The strangerperpetrator, so threateningly portrayed in mid-twentieth-century media, diverted attention from more likely perpetrators in the home. Freud's notion of children's innate sexuality and his belief that memories of sexual abuse represented unconscious wishes stressed the erotic nature of children and caused many professionals to question the validity of memories of sexual abuse. Even as concern about sexual abuse grew throughout most of the twentieth century, most experts resisted the idea that incest might be common.

CHILD ABUSE burst into American social conscience in the last three decades of the twentieth century, but there were important antecedents, though initially they were focused on physical rather than sexual abuse. Organized social response to child abuse began in 1874 when a severely beaten girl was brought to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and thus led to the founding of analogous societies to protect abused children. Her case typified nineteenth-century stereotypes: abused children came from immigrant, impoverished, intemperate, and marginalized homes. These stereotypes buttressed middle-class values, reinforced notions of middle-class domestic tranquility, and persisted for over a hundred years.

Other social movements helped set the stage for the late-twentieth-century discovery of incest. Feminism empowered women to expose domestic abuse and encouraged society to protect other victims, like abused children. The social activism of the 1960s and 1970s created a sympathetic audience for abused children. Increased sexual freedom gave society a vocabulary to discuss sexual abuse. In the early 1960s pediatricians, inspired by social activism and responding to increased professional interest in developmental and behavioral issues, began to identify and protect physically abused children. By the 1970s this medicalization of child abuse had expanded to include child sexual abuse as well, and medical evaluations became standard features of child sexual abuse cases. As society increasingly felt obliged to protect abused children, the paternal hegemony that dominated early American families had eroded and a variety of professionals gained authority in policing and protecting the family.

See also: Law, Children and the.


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Evans, Hughes. 2002. "The Discovery of Child Sexual Abuse in America." In Formative Years: Children's Health in the United States, 1880–2000, ed. Alexandra Minna Stern and Howard Markel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Freedman, Estelle B. 1989. "'Uncontrolled Desires': The Response to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920–1960." In Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, ed. Kathy Peiss and Christina Simmons. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Gordon, Linda. 1986. "Incest and Resistance: Patterns of Father-Daughter Incest, 1880–1930." Social Problems 33: 253–267.

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Pleck, Elizabeth. 1987. Domestic Tyranny: The Making of American Social Policy against Family Violence from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press.