Sexual abuse and violence within the
home are driving their women victims
crazy, and some women are finally
talking about it and getting angry. Angry
is healthier than crazy.
This is the message mental health
speakers presented at a two-day symposium on "Sexual Exploitation and
Craziness," last month at the University
of Houston Clear Lake City (UH/CLC)
Dr. Phyllis Chesler, psychologist and
author, and Dr. Nanette Bruckner,
Associate Professor of Women's Studies,
UH/CLC, expressed their anger and rage
at a society dominated by men who use
sexual exploitation to maintain power
over women. They said rape, sexual abuse
and violence in the home are used to
control women and keep them dependent.
Susan Forward, psychiatric social
worker and author from California,
shocked her audience with statistics
showing a high rate of previous incestuous experiences among adult women
and men. Incest occurs in one out of
10 families. The American Humane
Society estimates one out of every four
children will have some negative sexual
experiences before the age of 18, and that
40 percent of these will be incestuous.
Two out of every five women and one
out of every 20 men have experienced
incest. She said these experiences cause
extreme guilt and a sense of worthless-
ness in all victims and lead many to drug
and alcohol abuse, suicide attempts,
prostitution, child and wife abuse, and
problems with their own sexual gratification.
Over 400 persons—mental health professionals, child welfare workers,
teachers, police and probation officers-
attended the conference to learn about
the relationship between sexual exploitation and related emotional disturbances.
The conference was co-sponsored by
the Adult Mental Health Advisory
Council of the Mental Health and Mental
Retardation Authority of Harris County
and the School of Human Sciences and
Humanities at UH/CLC.
"Patriarchal society is what accounts
for passivity, masochism, low self-esteem,
self-denigration and what we might
call craziness among women," Chesler
charged in her opening address.
"Women are primed to commit incest,
to be raped without fighting back or killing, to be sexually abused from a young
age and all their lives, and to have a total
lack of sexual pleasure. This is what
creates depression and passivity among
Chesler, the author of several books including Women and Madness and All
About Men: A Psychosexual Meditation
and numerous journal articles, has done
research in the field of mental illness
Her research and that of other women
psychologists shows that being depressed,
passive, overly dependent and masochistic
is not healthy mentally. Society,
however, forces women into these behaviors and considers them to be "crazy"
if they do not conform to these "feminine" roles and try to break out.
In 1972, Chesler wrote, "What we
consider madness, whether it appears
in women or men, is the acting out of the
devalued female role or the total or
partial rejection of one's sex-role stereotype."
Chesler also said that the more women
learn to put up with being overtly devalued, the weaker they become. "We
become weaker through sexual exploitation and socialization as a child. This
by Hildegard Warner
"Madness is the acting out of the devalued
female role or the rejection of one's sex role
leaves us with less defenses against problems we encounter in our lives because
we are women."
One of the ways men also dominate
and devalue women is through rape,
Bruckner noted. "Rape is a political, not
a sexual act, designed to instill fear and
distrust in women," Bruckner charged.
"Rape is terrorism which limits the
freedom of women and makes them more
dependent on men. It is not an act of
uncontrollable lust, but an act of possession designed to create fear."
Although men use fear of rape ana
assault on the streets to keep women
within the home, statistics show that
46.1 percent of all major crimes against
women are committed in the home,
Bruckner added. Most murders occur in
the home-wives and husbands killing
each other. Police calls about domestic
disturbances and violence in the home
exceed the total number of other calls for
murder and other violent crimes. Giving
statistics from major cities throughout
the nation, Bruckner said wife abuse is
one of the most under-reported crimes
in the country.
In many cases of rape and violence
against women, society has put the blame
on the woman by saying she asked for it.
Bruckner said this is what is causing
mental and behavioral problems for
"When I listen to a client I do not always look into that client for her behaviors, but look into the society and the
world we live in for the social values
which are causing her craziness,'''
Incest is another form of sexual exploitation within the home which causes
an extreme sense of guilt. This is one of
the least known and most misunderstood
experiences, because society has yet to
openly speak about it and recognize its
"Incest is unquestionably the most
secretive and most misunderstood human
experience," psychiatric social worker
Susan Forward said to the conference
"The universal result of incest is guilt.
The victims feel dirty, freaky, worthless,
and that they are totally, 100 percent
responsible for the incest.
"Because of these feelings, they often
get into self-punitive behaviors—drug
abuse, alcoholism, male and female
prostitution or other promiscuous behavior, child or wife abuse, rape, inability
to achieve orgasm or performing incest
upon their own children."
Forward sees many of these individuals at a sexual abuse treatment center of
which she is co-director in Van Nuys,
California. From her experiences in working with adults who have had mental
problems resulting from childhood incestuous situations, she has written a
highly acclaimed book, Betrayal of
Forward cited statistics illustrating the
high incidence of mental and social problems resulting from incest.
• At treatment houses for alcoholism,
battered women and rape victims, well
over one-half of the women had been
abused as children.
•A study of convicted rapists in New
Jersey showed 70 percent were incest
victims (abused by their fathers) as
•A Masters and Johnson study revealed that 80 percent of non-orgasmic
women were incest victims.
•Over one-half of the teenage runaways
in Los Angeles are victims of incest,
according to one report.
•During a rape workshop at Houston's
Branard House, a residential treatment
center for adults with severe psychiatric disturbances, every client present
admitted to having incestuous experiences as a child.
Many of Forward's incest clients come
into therapy initially because they are
depressed, suicidal, or have alcohol or
marriage problems. "These individuals
are programmed to be victims," Forward
said. "They set themselves up to fail at
their jobs, in their marriages or whatever
roles they are in.
"They will not volunteer information
about their previous incestuous experiences; the therapist must ask. Most of the
people will reply, 'How did you know?' "
Mental health workers should not be
afraid to ask clients about this. "You are
doing the client a service to get her to say
this for herself," Forward said.
Most of the people who receive proper
psychiatric therapy for this problem can
be helped. "There is an enormous amount
of hope in dealing with these people,
no matter what their ages are. You cannot believe what can happen with a little
therapy, once this comes out of the person," Forward said. But she warned,
"Incest is a wound that never disappears.
Scar tissue forms to cover it."
Bringing incest out into the open is the
only way to stop it and to alleviate the
tremendous guilt shared by the aggressors
and their victims, Forward said.
"Society's incest taboo is more effective in preventing the disclosure of incest
than in preventing the act itself,"
Forward charged. "Because of the emphasis on the taboo, both victims and
aggressors are often too intimida.ted by
the possibility of exposure to seek help.
So incest symptoms fester and create
problems with wide-ranging social impact."
"We must make rape and incest speak-
able crimes as we have done here," Bruckner challenged the audience at the end of
her talk. "Women are coming forward;
statistics are coming out."
Susan Forward, Phyllis Chesler and
Nanette Bruckner are talking about the
unspeakable and misunderstood subjects
of incest and mental health for women.
They are being heard and they are making
Hildegard Warner is a UH journalism
student and an intern at Breakthrough.
HOUSTON BREAKTHROUGH APRIL 1979