Invisible by Dody Blatt
Guest Contributor and Member of the MDSA Speaker's Bureau
This paper describes pioneering research conducted on mother-daughter sexual abuse among Israeli women and the author's efforts to raise social awareness about its occurrence.
“It looks like avoidance, like real blatant avoidance, it's not that they don't know about mother-daughter sexual abuse. It’s just that… all these responses of - really?!! No way…But like, a mother is a mother, like… just don't corrupt my view of the institution of motherhood… as if you’re trying to upset the cosmic order. Therapists, friends... even those within the world of “sexual abuse victims” in which I was very much involved in the past, even in the world of "the victims" you feel strange, like an odd bird and basically…. no one talks about it. I know other women in Israel who were sexually abused by their mothers and as soon as I bring it up, all of a sudden more people start talking about it, so, where were you until now?! If we all feel like odd birds then there must be something going on, that is linked both to the surrounding environment and to the victims who refuse to speak about it and how can you possibly speak of it if no one will hear, and no one will validate it, that I am not a crazy girl, and I am not the one that made up a story about her mother?! …The absurd message that I got again and again is: "Women are amazing, men are the bad ones” and all of a sudden here I am saying that there are bad women. How dare you say something like that?! "You are reversing the world order!" (Or Ruben, pseudonym)
The struggle of the feminist movement over the last forty years has resulted in the general recognition of child sexual abuse within the family as an extensive social problem. However, in spite of this awareness, mother-daughter sexual abuse remains invisible, beyond the bounds of the social discourse on the subject of sexual abuse; to date it has received only minimal clinical and theoretical attention.
In Israel, the number of articles written about sexual abuse perpetrated by women offenders is minute. The isolated articles that do exist on the subject in Israel refer to the criminological aspects of women abusers with no reference to the victim’s experiences (Aboulafia, 2010, Etgar, 2008, Kriger and Levy, 1996).Publications that relate to the unique experiences of victims of sexual abuse at the hands of women in general, and specifically by the victim’s own mothers, did not exist in Israel until now.
The experiences of mother-daughter sexual abuse victims were absent from the training seminars for volunteers at rape crisis centers which are at the forefront of services providing assistance to sexual abuse victims in Israel. Furthermore, no specialized support services or treatments were offered at these crisis centers, or at other similar social services in the Israeli health and welfare system, for victims abused by their mothers.
The social denial of sexual aggression by women seems to create a vicious cycle in which, due to the minimal information available on the subject, professionals lack the necessary tools to identify sexual abuse perpetrated by women and are unable to create a safe, therapeutic environment that enables the victims to communicate their experiences.(Denov, 2003). Additionally, these types of sexual abuse are mislabeled as being “uncommon” which further detracts from the need to address this type of abuse, and the need to formulate strategies for both coping techniques and treatment. (Aboulafia, 2010). In such an atmosphere of opaqueness, even professionals are challenged to deal with a type of violence that simply “doesn’t exist” (Bunting, 2007).
The social idealization of motherhood contributes largely to the concealment and invisibility of sexual abuse perpetrated by mothers in all societies, (Peter 2006) but much more distinctively within the Israeli Jewish society. The reason being that many western societies, including the state of Israel, identify with pronatalism ideologies, that is, a set of beliefs, attitudes and practices that encourage natality. These social beliefs affirm the advantages of bearing children and essentially elevate the role of motherhood. Research on social and cultural discourses surrounding motherhood has revealed that these tendencies are particularly prominent within the Israeli society which identifies the myth of motherhood as a salient feature of the Israeli ethos.
Childbearing is perceived within the Jewish-Israeli society as a “calling” rooted in the cultural-symbolic realm of Judaism and Jewish nationalism. This narrative links the religious Jewish commandment "be fruitful and multiply” to the social perception of the "demographic threat" to Israel; the widespread concern of the size of the Jewish population in Israel where the people achieved statehood and independence in the shadow of the traumatic memories of the Holocaust, migration, terrorism and wars. Based upon these narratives, the realization of biological motherhood in Israel is viewed as a basic civil/ moral duty for women, and as an act of patriotism (Donath, 2011).
A telling example of Israeli pronatalism is the government mandated social policy of supporting fertility treatments. Fertility politics surrounding the issue of childbearing are expressed in birth-encouraging policies, turning Israel into the leading fertility center in the world. This policy is based upon the premise that every woman ought to become a mother, and that every woman is capable of becoming a mother because love and the protection of children are universal, natural, and intuitive feelings present in all of womankind (Donath, 2011).
In addition, other social variables make it difficult to recognize sexual abuse carried out by mothers, namely homophobia and the feminist focus on sexual assault as a crime perpetuated by men against girls and women. Homophobia, which is prevalent in Israeli society, inhibits same-sex imagery which makes it difficult for others to understand how a woman could be a sexual aggressor. At the end of the 1970’s, the feminist movement stressed the gendered nature of sexual assault whereby men were the aggressors and women were the victims. This view of sexual assault became the ideological foundation on which the rape crisis centers for victims of sexual abuse in Israel were established. Although the movement is credited for the development of therapeutic responses for victims of sexual abuse, its political view that violent acts of sexual abuse are perpetrated by men against women makes it difficult to come to terms with acts of sexual violence committed by women against women or girls.
In many feminist circles in Israel, addressing the subject of female-perpetrated sexual violence is accompanied by a sense of caution and apprehension. Many fear that the subject may produce reactions that fundamentally oppose the foundational principles of the movement, and negatively affect its public support.
The Israeli study
At the end of November 2009, as part of the research I conducted in Tel Aviv University on the subject of mother-daughter sexual abuse, I posted an advertisement seeking women who believed to have been sexually abused by their mothers or whose mothers crossed their sexual boundaries, to consider participating in the study. This broad definition was based upon my assumption that due to the obscurity surrounding mother-daughter sexual abuse, victims might find themselves "wordless", lacking the appropriate words to transcribe and conceptualize their experiences as sexual abuse victims.
Aside from the support of female therapists in Israel who encouraged my efforts to research the subject, as a female therapist and researcher in the field of sexual abuse, I encountered negative reactions from experienced professional women in Israel who claimed firmly, "there are no women like that in Israel, there is no data on women who were sexually abused by their mothers and even if they exist, no one will agree to talk to you".
Concerned about what I'd been told, I went ahead with my research. Within eight weeks from the day I sent out the advertisement seeking participants for the study (through the help of the Israeli website "macom" and through distribution lists of therapists who specialize in the treatment of sexual abuse), I was overwhelmed with responses. Seven secular Jewish women, between the ages of 28-68 from all over Israel, spoke to me face to face about the sexual abuse they experienced at the hands of their mothers. Fifteen additional women who felt that they met the criteria, considered participating in the research over the course of those weeks yet ultimately declined due to various personal considerations. From this time until the present, I have been approached by other women in Israel who were sexually abused by their mothers.
Like other victims of mother-daughter sexual abuse around the world (Crockett, 2001 Peter, 2005 Rosencrans, 1997) the Israeli participants (Israel being no larger than a big metropolis in other countries) described intense feelings of alienation and difficulty in finding others who shared similar experiences. They were encouraged to hear about my meetings with other victims: “So are you saying that there are more women like this in Israel? "My whole life I thought I was the only one that this had happened to".
The tremendous lack of social acknowledgement to confirm and validate their experiences exacerbated the participants’ hardships while coping with the abuse. For some, getting help from the emergency rape crisis center hotlines for sexual abuse, which provide accessible and free service for victims of sexual abuse in Israel, was not an option as many participants were fearful of sharing the fact that they had been sexually abused by their mother and not by a male family member. In a way, that fear reenacted their abuse experience and they felt that there was nowhere to turn to find protection and escape their pain. These women described acute loneliness, which greatly increased my struggle as a feminist female therapist and researcher in the field of sexual abuse treatment.
The unrecognized pain of mother-daughter sexual abuse victims led me to understand that the barriers of social resistance to the acknowledgement of mother-daughter sexual abuse would not be broken down by research that sits on a shelf at a University, or by any other professional publications that follow in its wake. At the time, I thought to myself that in spite of my extensive efforts, it was not enough to merely "speak out loud"; rather, it was necessary to make the voice be heard.
During the course of 2010-11, I volunteered my time to conduct a series of lectures in order to increase awareness of mother-daughter sexual abuse while I finished up my research. The lectures took place at all the rape crisis centers in Israel and in similar frameworks at the Ministry of Welfare in Israel. I believe that this tour of lectures helped to enable the transformation of a phenomenon that "doesn’t exist" to an existing one, which would be discussed amongst therapists and rape crisis centers volunteers.
The testimonies of the courageous victims who shared their experiences provided the key which unlocked the doors to the rape crisis help centers, and helped to lead the way to social change and awareness. Lectures given at the various help centers, demonstrated how to turn a subject that was not spoken about, into a subject that is openly discussed. At the same time, they raised awareness among hundreds of volunteers on the front line of the centers for victims of sexual abuse in Israel. The long and intimate discussions with the volunteers and professionals at these lectures, allowed for an honest dialogue about the volunteers’ difficulties in dealing with victims of mother-daughter sexual abuse by addressing their feelings of inadequacy such as "you're taking away everything that is safe", or “this is the only subject that still turns my stomach" and offered them a new thought process for dealing with the victims. Photo-therapeutic photographs, given to me by one of the research participants who used them to express the abuse she underwent, were presented to the audience at the lectures and artistically illustrated the experience of the abuse. As a result of this activism, some of the help centers in Israel added the subject of mother-daughter sexual abuse into their annual training program for new volunteers. A few of these centers chose to present the subject at their annual seminars for professionals during 2011-2012.
In Israel, as in many other countries in the world, it is necessary to consistently pursue the acknowledgement and validation of women who were sexually abused by their mothers. The initial research conducted in Israel, and the activism that followed in its wake, are signs of progress, but a true transformation of the subject requires many additional efforts. Currently, I continue to take steps to increase awareness about the subject in various treatment centers in Israel and am working towards setting up group therapy sessions for women in Israel who were sexually abused by their mothers.
Programs addressing the help and treatment needed for victims of mother-daughter sexual abuse need to be developed at all treatment facilities for girls and women, including Welfare Authorities and the Ministry of Health. These programs need to be carefully attuned to the victim’s unique experiences within the socio-political context of their lives. We must strive to ascertain that these victim’s experiences are not met with closed doors in the legal, law enforcement and educational systems.
The Israeli research participants looked the social forces that shamed them, and rendered them invisible for so many years, straight in the eyes. However, real change requires many more sets of eyes to be opened wide, and many more legs prepared for the long journey towards acknowledgement and validation for the unspoken victims of mother-daughter sexual abuse.
These Phototherapy pictures (above) were taken by Tamar Hess (pseudonym), a 70-year-old victim, who lives on a kibbutz in the South of Israel and are shown here, with her willing agreement, in order to increase awareness in the world for victims of mother-daughter sexual abuse.
The first picture describes a number chart 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 which repeats itself, a frontal depiction of a private technique that she adopted in order to disassociate herself from being emotionally present when the abuse took place.
The second picture shows a hammer, which Tamar used, as a form of self-injury in an attempt to transfer her emotional pain to her legs extremities.
There is a large x symbol in the picture, a blue cut out, which is placed on the hammer to symbolize the invalidation of the hammer as a coping mechanism with the long concealed pain. "I no longer need the hammer today" explained Tamar in her research interview, "today when I know that I can talk about it, the hammer is no longer relevant. The pain exists; it’s a pain that will probably stay with me all my life, a pain that does not go away, I don’t think it can go away. It can become more manageable, maybe become a little easier to live with, but it doesn't go away. So, once the pain controlled me, today it stands beside me, let's say. It doesn't force itself on me. This whole story cannot be put aside and I cannot say I'm not part of it. It exists, it depends on how you relate to it, it's not something that can be taken away from you, and it’s there and it will always be there."
The author would like to thank the research participants in Israel: Or Ruben, Hila Ormland, Yehudit Ilan, Neta Cohen, Rut Marom, Tom Vaknin and Tamar Hess (pseudonyms) on the courage, commitment and energies invested in participating in the research, and for their faith in the research as a initiator of social change.
The writer would like to thank Professor Einat Peled, School of social work at Tel Aviv University, for her dedicated supervision of the research and her endless support.
The writer would also like to thank, from the bottom of her heart, Dr Christine Hatchard and the staff of MDSA for their inspiring world wide activities that constitute a lighthouse in the darkness for survivors of mother daughter sexual abuse around the world.
About the author
Dody Blatt, MSW, specializes in treatment of men and women who were sexually abused. She runs a private practice in Tel Aviv, Israel. She is a researcher and activist for raising social awareness about mother-daughter sexual abuse and developing treatment for its victims.
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