Incest; Namibia’s insane society
N their article in Confidente of 20 August 2020, ‘Namibia’s insane fathers. 800 children raped’, Maria Kandjungu and Shallot Mohutege write that of the 800 children that were reported to have been raped in the last 18 months, 27 were raped by their own biological fathers. Insane. The article title reads. Insane. And we do have to ask ourselves what else but insanity could be the reason that a father would sexually abuse their own biological child and why is it so rife in our society that we keep reading headline after headline about fathers inflicting such almost incomprehensible sexual violence on their own blood and those they are meant to care for and protect the most.
Intuitively, it feels that it has to do with a power imbalance between those who cannot protect themselves and those who seek to impose power on the vulnerable.
As the adage goes, rape is not about sex. It is about the power. Or rather, it is about the abuse of power. There is a significant imbalance of power between adults and children, which is exactly why parents are charged with the responsibility of those in their care. But it also seems that, too often, this power rather plays out as the objectification of those most vulnerable and the entitlement to having sexual needs met by somebody else, regardless if that body is of age or has the capacity to consent to the sexual act. And while this article does acknowledge that mother- son incest also does occur, the research indicates that by far most incest is committed by fathers. And as much as there is resistance to always pinning the power imbalance on patriarchy, the gender disparity with regards to incest rates necessitates, yet again, calling out gender imbalances in our society, if we are to address this issue at the root.
The question is whether we can call those fathers insane when they do abuse this power and, if it is so prevalent in our society, does this make our society insane? Answering these questions necessitates looking beyond intuition to the body of research relating to incest, the characteristics of incest perpetrators, and the systemic factors that could likely help explain why incest appears to be so rife, and perhaps even accepted, in our Namibian society.
In their research on ‘The Characteristics of Incestuous Fathers’ conducted by Williams and Finklehor in 1990 in the US, they found that incestuous fathers are not, in fact, a heterogeneous group and differ in many respects. Broadly, fathers who commit incest differ in their motivation and approach. The sexually oriented fathers can be described as highly sexual individuals who started expressing sexual interest in their daughters from a very young age; therefore the abuse tends to last longer and is also more likely to include penetration. Sexually oriented fathers are also more likely to have been abused and neglected themselves.
In contrast, instrumental sexual gratifiers abuse their daughters sexually, almost as a means to an end and often fantasize about other women during the sex act. Abuse in these cases tends to be short-lived and these fathers are also more likely to experience guilt and express remorse. Emotionally dependent fathers use the sexual relationship with their daughters for their own emotional comfort and tend to romanticise the relationship. In contrast, retaliators will abuse their daughters sexually
as a form of punishment to the mother of the child. Incestuous fathers therefore have varying motivations that drive their abuse of power over their daughters and we should be careful to treat them as the same.
However, Williams and Finkelhor did find that, as a group, incestuous fathers were more likely to have a history of rejection by their families and to have been physically as well as sexually abused as children themselves. As teenagers, they were more likely to have been sexually preoccupied and to have committed offences. And as adults, they are more likely to be socially isolated, anxious, violent and struggle with relationships. All of this indicates that there is a cycle of violence that drives incest and that there is likely a history of childhood trauma.
All of this does also suggest that mental illness is a likely driver behind incestuous behaviour and that we can indeed; in laymen’s terms consider incestuous behaviour by fathers as insane.
If we do accept that perpetrators of incest are also victims of a cycle of violence, we do need to consider the role that society plays in perpetuating the system. Sexual abuse might happen in the shadows, but it does not happen in a vacuum. In her research titled ‘Incest Perpetrators: Assessment and Treatment’ conducted in 1992, Cole found that the dynamics within incestuous families are dysfunctional with power imbalances and control struggles, inappropriate coalitions among family members, little intimacy and poor communication. Also, while most victims of incest do try to report what has happened to them, usually to the mother, they are ignored. Mostly the mother herself is also powerless to effect change and is dependent on the incestuous father as breadwinner or is also silenced by a coalition of family members, often elders, because acknowledging the rape poses a threat to the family structure. Finally, considering the ‘Systems Theory of Incest’ proposed by Alexander (1985) this pathological dynamic of the incestuous families often becomes their model of normal, their homeostasis, with this secret being guarded by all the members. This increasingly makes the family closed off to any feedback from the outside society that threatens this ‘order’ that is created. Again, in laymen’s terms, this pathological system can be considered quite insane.
It would be easiest and certainly less uncomfortable to just leave the story at this point and leave the burden of responsibility for the insane cycle of violence that drives incest to the perpetrators of violence and the family systems that maintain the dynamic. We do not wash our dirty underwear in public. Let family stories be sorted out by the families. But Alexander’s systems theory emphatically emphasises that no matter how dysfunctional they are, systems only serve to maintain themselves and their ‘norms’. If this incestuous system is to be addressed and the cycle of violence to be broken, it is unlikely to happen from within. Internal systemic norms can only be perturbed to change if they are opened up and accept feedback from beyond the system.
As neighbours and community members, we cannot stand idly by and remain quiet when we know what is happening in our society. It is our duty to educate ourselves about the drivers of incest, from the perpetrators themselves and how they become perpetrators in the first place to how incestuous family dynamics play out. But an academic exercise alone will simply not bring about change. It is our duty to open these systems up to corrective feedback. To speak up and speak out and collectively make our voices and stance against incest known until incestuous fathers (and incestuous mothers) and families no longer can enact such a sick dynamic for yet another generation. As a society, anything less would be insanity.
Iani de Kock – clinical psychologist