Father-Daughter Incest and the Politics of Disgust

Grace Argo, University of Michigan

Of all the sex crimes reported in the United States each year, 66 percent are perpetrated against children. One in four sexual assaults reported annually involve child rape perpetrated by a family member. The scope of the problem of child sexual abuse, and especially incest, was unknown until recently because the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system--the nation’s primary source of information about crime since 1929--did not collect information or report crimes by age of victim. Now that this information is available a new picture of sexual violence emerges, one that calls for an expansion of feminist sexual violence studies' focus on adults' experiences and survival of sexual violence to include and prioritize children. This paper discusses the implications for our understanding of incest as "taboo" given that ninety-nine percent of appeals for incest convictions in the U.S. historically involved the abuse of a female child by a male relative, most frequently her father. Using over 200 appellate court records representing twelve states from 1870 to 1940, I show that fewer than one percent of debates about incest in U.S. law have raged over whether first cousins should be permitted to marry. Instead, the law has been a site of intense conflict and confrontation between abused girls, their abusers, and the state. I argue that our collective understanding of incest as patriarchal violence has been distorted and suppressed by the politicized deployment of disgust against the victims and perpetrators of patriarchal sex abuse. Ultimately, I conclude that incest victims have served as the ground upon which patriarchal power in the U.S. has been continually contested, re-articulated, and retrenched.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 217. Gender and Law