Dissatisfied Reader

Friday, March 28, 2008

Question

I am writing to argue with you about your perception of people who "commit" incest as victims and perpetrators. My little sister and I had a sexual relationship when we were children. She initiated it by fondling me. We routinely masturbated each other to help us fall asleep until our family moved into a bigger house and we were put in separate rooms—and beds. I don't know if she even remembers what happened. But we continue to have a good relationship today. She even lived with me for a while when she moved to my home city and needed to find a job, get her own place, etc. I love her dearly, and we continue to be close since there is only a year's difference in our ages. There is no awkwardness between us, and I know she isn't afraid of me or angry. Your position is a stereotype. Please update yourself.

Answer

Hoo-boy! What a can of worms you have opened up here. You are talking about sexual experiences that do not fit the typical script of traumatic incest. If an adult molests a child, there is a physical difference that is intimidating. The sex is introduced by the adult to meet his or her own needs, not the needs of the child. It is often developmentally inappropriate, introducing a young person to sensations that their body is not ready to process. And it is forced.

You are talking about two children, close to the same age, who are mutually interested and consenting. If you weren't siblings, I could call this age-appropriate exploration and see it as a good thing. But there is another aspect of incest that is as problematic as the potential for physical and psychological harm. That is the issue of boundaries around social identities. Being the sex partner of a child interferes with parental duties. There is a conflict of interest. How can the parent support the child in having outside interests and developing socially with peers? Jealousy intrudes, which is not in the child's best interest. Every action of a parent ought to be judged by that standard.

I believe the same thing applies to siblings. There are built-in conflicts of interest between the role of brother or sister and the role of lover. Siblings who are sexually involved may be suffering from parental neglect, loneliness, and inadequate relationships with peers outside the family. A sexual encounter doesn't have to be forced to be a bad idea.

It would be interesting to hear this from your sister's point of view. Sounds like it's never come up, and you don't even know if she remembers it. Why would she forget an experience that was healthy and happy?

I'll change hats now and become a bit of the devil's advocate and admit that there is a huge taboo on research in this area. We know very little about brother/sister sexual experiences. Of course, there can still be power inequities between siblings, but it is not the same as the parent/child dynamic. The only story we are supposed to tell about incest is the story of trauma and wrong-doing. But if your sister really did initiate the sexual activity with you, you are hardly a perpetrator. And I have interviewed one woman who was very clear that the sexual experiences she had with her brother were not harmful. They were as neutral as other age-appropriate exploration she engaged in as a child and teenager. She was a high-functioning, articulate, intelligent person; I have no rational reason to doubt her conclusion.

Reality becomes very slippery in this area. Pedophiles often believe that their victims wanted to be the objects of their assaults. Like rapists, they can convince themselves quite easily that the victim deserved to be violated, and in fact signaled her or his availability. But I've also seen cases where unethical therapists persuaded clients that incest had taken place and collaborated with them in creating false memories and genuine suffering. A child's mind is immature. Who knows which of our memories are real or based on a dream or a story we heard? Even adult memory is notoriously unreliable and vulnerable to manipulation.

I hope that you are able to maintain good boundaries with your sister today. Any excuse that might have prevailed when you were children is no longer valid.