Of all the types of sexual violence that occur, sexual violence committed by women remains the most taboo. Of the women who abuse, mothers remain the most hidden .
It shocks people’s senses to consider that a mother would rape her own child. We perceive mothers as nurturers and inherently good. While most of us are aware that there are bad mothers, people react negatively to any suggestion that a mother would abuse, let alone sexually abuse, her child. This notion of the inherent goodness of mothers and the need to view them positively is so ingrained in some communities that it can be used against them.
That attitude, coupled with people’s tendency to ignore female-perpetrated sexual violence, makes it difficult for victims of mother abuse to come forward. People will take an incredulous stance and see the victim as impugning their mother’s character rather than sharing their experience. Even when people believe the victim, there is still an attitude of disbelief that anyone would share something so negative about their mother. This is laundry, whether dirty or clean, that should be tucked inside the washer never to be seen.
University of Canberra researcher Lucetta Thomas wants to change. She researched the topic with 23 men who shared their stories of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of their mothers. In one case, a mother repeatedly abused her son. When the boy became old enough to physically stop his mother from raping him, she brought in an accomplice to hold him down. The man eventually committed suicide.
Thomas decided it was imperative that she complete the research. Her findings reveal the nature mother-son sexual abuse:
“The abuse often started before the child hit puberty, when the child was still quite young, so they had really no concept of what was going on but they were still being coerced or manipulated into performing sexual acts,” she says.
While some boys were mentally coerced into “a full sexual relationship” with their mother, Lucetta explains that others were on the receiving end of “incredible violence” if they tried to resist. Mothers might also withdraw of basic human needs, such as food and shelter.
This is consistent with other studies on this topic. Women who abuse will often use coercion, yet they are not above using violence. The terrible element about this is that mothers often treat this as a relationship, making the boy the “man of the house” and her lover and her son. This trifecta creates a host of conflicts for the victim, as he simultaneously enjoys the attention and the feeling of the sex, struggles with the pressures of the responsibilities placed on him, and hates the abuse itself. One man shared his experiences:
Hamish,* now in his 50s, was 12 years old the first time he recalls having sex with his mother.
“She had this big bedroom and if we were ever sick or anything like that we’d stay in her bed. One day she just initiated it, she just started touching me and it just went from there.
“She preyed on the fact I was coming into puberty and made me feel important and special,” he tells me.
From this distance Hamish now understands he was just a child when the abuse occurred; he was unable to consent to sex with an adult in a position of power.
At the time though, it was a different story: “I thought I was enjoying it and I thought I was grown up.”
Despite growing up in a wealthy suburb and going to a private school, home life was difficult. His single mother suffered frequent physical illnesses, such as pneumonia and pleurisy. In retrospect Hamish thinks his mother was also mentally unwell.
“It was a good household to be in when my mother was in a good mood and it was a horrible household to be in when she wasn’t,” he says, “she would threaten to kill us and she’d lock all the windows and turn on the gas.”
“I got hurt,” Hamish continues, pointing to a decades-old scar on his the top of his head.
Especially when his mother was sick, Hamish cooked, cleaned and went to the shops to get food for the family.
“She saw me as like some sort of de facto relationship, I’ve got no doubt about that. She’d say: ‘You’re the man of the house’,” he recalls.
Meanwhile his mother warned him to stay quiet about their sexual relationship.
“People wouldn’t understand, you can’t ever tell anybody,” she told Hamish.
The truth is that Hamish had no one to disclose the abuse to — and even if he did, was terrified of splitting up his family.
“You’re physically and mentally trapped in this relationship and you can’t get out of it,” he says.
Bundled on top of all of this is a simple truth: children love their mothers. Yes, they love their fathers as well, and can often have the more intense and intimate bond with them. However, the closest bond a child usually has is with their mother. It is also usually the first bond a child forms.
One can see how this type of situation creates a problem. It is not merely that the child depends on this person, but that the mother is the foundation of the child’s understanding of the world. To have that person hurt them forces the child into an instant cognitive dissonance. They cannot see the mother as bad yet they cannot she her as good either. They must section off those qualities, treating her as different people in order to maintain their love of this person.
Further complicating matters, we have few details on the frequency of this kind of abuse. Part of this comes from male victims’ reluctance to report abuse, part comes from the services failure to reach out to male victims, and part of it comes from society’s unwillingness to believe that a mother would harm her child. That lack of information makes it difficult to determine how often the abuse happens. We can, however, get an idea of its impact on victims:
As adults, the majority of men in Lucetta’s study felt “very trapped, very isolated, very afraid and very unsure of how to go about getting help and understanding the power dynamics that they had been subjected to.”
“One gentleman, sadly, was completely house bound. He basically just felt that it was completely impossible to trust anybody or to be out in society because he had so little self-regard,” she says.
One can imagine how that would play out with victims. It could limit itself to isolation or it could result in a more hostile response to mothers and women in general. The latter would be called “misogyny”, yet it is not born out of hatred of women. It is a defense mechanism designed to protect the victim from those most likely to abuse him.
More research needs to be done to better understand the prevalence of mother-son sexual abuse. I suspect that most sexual abuse committed by women is done to relatives they have easy access to. I would not be surprised to find that up to 30% to 40% of female-perpetrated child sexual abuse is committed by mothers. Women who abuse often hide behind their femaleness. Motherhood provides the best cover for an abuser because no one will question anything they do.