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1The anthropologist Dorothée Dussy here describes the practice of incest in French families – a practice prohibited and condemned in our society. At the time of writing, incest was not mentioned as such in French law, though being a close older relative or having a position of authority did and does constitute an aggravating circumstance in cases of rape or sexual violence. Since then, incest has been introduced into the penal code by way of Law no. 2016-297 of 14 March 2016 on child protection.

2This book, the first of three volumes, focuses on incest perpetrators. The second will study victims and the third, legal trials involving incest. Drawing on an ethnographic survey conducted with 22 men aged 23 to 78 serving prison sentences in the Grand Ouest region of France for rape of a child or children in their family, Dussy reveals how incest contributes to the process of producing and reproducing dominant persons (incest perpetrators) and dominated ones (victims). In addition to this fieldwork, she questioned family members of prisoners whenever possible, interviewed adults who had experienced incest, attended trials for the crime of incest and collected investigation files used in them. She has also been active for the last five years in mutual assistance associations for incest victims in France and Quebec.

3The first two of the book’s seven chapters present an overview of statistical knowledge on incest and sexual abuse of minors, as well as perpetrator characteristics. The next two plunge us into the destabilizing world of the incest perpetrator, while the last three focus on the history of sexual abuse in families, the freedom to speak – or lack thereof – within families, the general silence about incest, and last, how the judicial system and society at large deal with cases of incest.

4Dussy observes that incest perpetrators are not “extraordinary” individuals or “psychopaths” but rather people who are “well integrated in life”. Most are men (father, older brother, cousin, uncle), which explains why there is a much greater amount of scientific literature on male than female perpetrators. In fact, this work provides no information on women perpetrators because according to the anthropologist, no reports accusing women of incestuous rape have ever been filed in France during the period under study.

5In retracing the family histories of the prisoners interviewed, Dussy reveals that “incest occurs in a context where it exists already”. The majority of the 22 men interviewed in prison reported being aware of other incestuous situations in their family. Though they refuse to think that they acted in a way that imitated their past, seven men also reported having been sexually abused in childhood. The author remarks that there are a great variety of incest configurations and that there can be no single “typical portrait or even profile of an incest perpetrator”. It would be useful to corroborate this statement statistically by analysing family characteristics (age difference between spouses, kinship tie between perpetrator and victim, number of perpetrators implicated, etc.) and checking whether other types of domestic violence associated with incest (intimate partner violence, voluntary negligence, verbal, psychological or physical violence against children, etc.) also occurred. Moreover, though the profiles of the convicts in the author’s sample vary widely, she shows that all the cases have points in common: the exercise of domination, the victim’s silence, the perpetrator’s lying, not to mention possible complicity of other family members.

6Child or adolescent victims are always younger than their aggressor and “do not necessarily think of incest”. As the author explains, there is no possible comparison with one’s friends’ experiences, no space of dialogue or support (a film, a story) that would enable the child to express the abnormality or seriousness of the experience. In other words, “the practice of incest is protected by the absence of words to describe it”. Some victims only reveal to their family what happened to them years after the abuse has stopped; very few file charges and start judicial procedures, and then only if their word is not discredited by the perpetrator. Others remain mute: “socialisation through enacted incest prevents people from revealing incestuous behaviour even to themselves”.

7Aggressors know that the social order prohibits incest, but they minimize the seriousness of their acts and the effects of those acts on the victim. The vocabulary used by incarcerated perpetrators to describe the sexual abuse they have committed is highly revealing; they speak of “caresses,” “little kisses,” “doing naughty little things.” And in cases of fellatio or anal sex they do not have the sense that they have committed rape because they do not conceive of those acts as rape; also because the child seldom manifests non-consent.

8The ethnographic survey is admirably clear on the practice of incest and how it goes unspoken within the family; statistical surveys, meanwhile, make it possible to quantify intra-family sexual abuse. According to the anthropologist, the first incidence studies (assessing the number of new cases of sexual abuse during a given period) were conducted by the American Humane Association (dedicated to the welfare of animals and children), and the first prevalence studies (assessing the proportion of persons sexually abused in childhood) were conducted in the United States and Canada, then in Europe and on other continents. Though wide gaps were found, due among other things to differences in definitions or heterogeneous survey protocols, all statistical studies conclude that “being a girl is everywhere a factor of vulnerability to sexual violence, including during childhood”. These findings are confirmed by the Contexte de la sexualité en France survey of 2006, according to which 8.8% of women and 2.8% of men aged 18 to 69 reported having been subjected to at least one attempted or forced sexual relation before the age of 18, as opposed to 7.4% and 1.6% respectively over age 18. Perpetrators of sexual violence against minors are most often the victim’s father, stepfather, another person in the family or a person known to the victim (Bajos and Bozon 2008).

9As a precious complement to these statistical data, Dorothée Dussy’s remarkable book manages to draw incest out of its protective silence. She also, indirectly, shows the discrepancy between the incest prohibition theory put forward by Claude Lévi-Strauss and very real practices of having sex with children in one’s own family. I therefore strongly recommend this book, particularly to professionals working in the fields of child protection and researchers studying sexuality and violence or, at a more general level, gender issues and problems in family functioning.

Amélie Charruault
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