Teaching Rape and Incest
Elizabeth Breau

I once fled a graduate seminar in tears because the class didn't question Freud's claim that Dora and all the other women he treated wanted to be sexual with their fathers, teachers, and other adult men in their lives. Not many people knew (in 1991) that Freud initially believed his patients' claims of childhood sexual abuse.[1] Instead, my literary theory class only studied the theory for which he is much more widely known: that children fantasize the sexual abuse they report because they secretly desire it (Breau, "Lying With the Father," 3). That day, I only had my stomach-clenching, hands-trembling, there's-no-way-I-can-say-this-without-losing-it reaction to go on, and it just wasn't enough.

Already deeply in crisis from my own memory-recovery process, I went to see the professor, Jay Clayton. I even asked him to close the door.

I started to cry as soon as I started to speak, but I managed to gasp out the words. I wanted to write my term paper on incest, on my incest, but could not present it to the class as required. He changed the requirement. He was the only one who read my paper.

Jay was able to read my distress for what it was, a crisis between experiential reality (abuse happens) and institutional “truth” (abuse doesn’t happen) because he had engaged with feminist theory and was committed to feminist politics in the classroom.[2] Later, he became my dissertation director because no other faculty member felt comfortable with my topic: representations of father-daughter incest in twentieth-century American fiction by women.

I’m the professor now. And, like Jay, I’m committed to classroom strategies that empower my students. Put plainly, I would never want any of my students to feel as silenced and insane as I did that day in 1991. As with many other parts of being a survivor, I always feel as if I’m doing something illicit, forbidden, and shameful. However, the interactions between psychotherapy, feminism, and literary theory help me remember that rapist ideologies have set me up to feel that way. That’s probably why Freud retracted his initial theory. He caved in to enormous public pressure to do so, complicated by agonizing self-doubt (Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 12-15). Having our realities denied sure makes a lot of us nuts, too. So I just tell that voice in my head to shut up.

Many feminist teachers and theorists have explored how being female affects being intellectual, professorial, or authoritative. Jill Eichorn writes about teaching as a pregnant body. bell hooks speculates about the effect on students of her African-American female body. Since our subconscious image of male authority still tends to be that of a white male body, bodies that are conspicuously not white and male are seen as problematic.

Here’s an example: My husband earnestly assured me that there were many authoritative female professors at his medical school in the 1980s. Undeterred by his implication that once again hysterical feminist ideas had taken over my sanity, I pressed ahead with my questions. What did he mean by “authoritative?”

Well, now that he thought about it, they were intimidating. Domineering was a good word for them, too. They were uniformly “mannish” in appearance and without exception, old, ugly, and fat. I waited for the implications of his language to penetrate his cliché-ridden memories. I wondered how he would have responded to a female teacher who did not remind him of the wicked old witch of fairy tales. What if, for example, his professor reminded him of his ex-girlfriend or his favorite actress? How would that have affected his classroom experience?

I teach literature. Although this might seem safe and innocuous, literature functions as a powerful cultural voice. It mediates and interprets our experiences, especially when we are isolated from people around us. Not only that, but literary voices in the Western tradition have tended, over the centuries, to be mostly male, powerful, and white. Back in the pre-feminist Dark Ages, literature was taught as though only those voices had legitimacy.[3] All readers were presumed to view the world through the lens of white, wealthy manhood.

A more empowering approach to literary criticism and pedagogy might assume that each of us brings something of ourselves to whatever we read. Feminist revisions of reader-response theory argue that when a woman reads a male-authored text, entering the world of the text requires her to undergo a perceptual distortion (see Tompkins and Schweickart). Similarly, when a woman reads male-authored texts in which rape is eroticized or the result of female "seductiveness," she has already "consented" to the text's perspective by imaginatively "becoming" male. In a rape scene, then, she reads as the male rapist while also responding (perhaps less consciously) as the objectified, raped woman. However, if the text arouses her, she becomes like the abused child who is sexually aroused by caresses that are nonetheless involuntary and abusive. Identifying these dynamics helps readers to understand how gender hierarchies can be manipulated within texts as well as why many contemporary women writers have chosen to rewrite rape from the perspective of the raped woman or child.

Being a survivor complicates being a teacher, just as it complicates being a mother, a partner, or anything else. One can’t simply avoid all texts that contain sexual abuse. It would mean eliminating William Shakespeare, John Webster, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and many, many more. Judith Herman discusses incestuous themes in fairy tales in the introduction to Father-Daughter Incest. Even the story of Lot’s daughters in the Old Testament blames daughters for incest instead of fathers, legitimating theories of “seductive daughters” centuries before Freud (Gen. 19:31).

Thankfully, there are now also many feminist texts about rape and incest. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Jane Smiley, Sharon Olds, and Dorothy Allison are just a few who have turned the claims of perpetrators inside out. In the process, they’ve assembled a stunning indictment of religion, the family, and male supremacy. Carolivia Herron’s Thereafter Johnnie, for example, views incest through the Biblical stories of Noah and the Flood, Jacob’s Ladder, the Crucifixion and the Christian Apocalypse as well as on Macbeth and Yeats’ poem, “Leda and the Swan” (see Breau, “Incest and Intertextuality”). Johnnie, a daughter born of father-daughter rape, is a messianic figure whose birth heralds the end of the world.

When I teach a text that touches on rape or incest, I acknowledge the statistical probability that some of “us” here in the classroom have experienced “these issues” either “personally” or “through someone we know.” I say this as matter-of-factly as possible. Statistics from the US Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN) website indicate that eighty percent of sexual abuse victims in the US are under age thirty (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network, RAINN Statistics, para. 12). In fact, women between sixteen and nineteen are twice as likely to be the victims of rape or sexual assault as any other group, and the risk remains high until age twenty-four.

If most rape victims are under thirty (as are my students), it stands to reason that many perpetrators are also young. Again, this is especially likely to be true in a university setting when many young people are on their own for the first time. Athletic teams and fraternities frequently carry out gang rapes; date rape drugs are apparently prevalent in clubs and at parties.

Sometimes I think I see tears in a woman’s eyes during these class discussions, especially when I’m contextualizing the material with examples from real life. The men look thoughtful too, and I wonder what they aren’t saying. For some, it may be their own victimization that’s on their minds. Although I try to leave linguistic space for male victims, I know it is still more difficult for them to speak out. I also wonder whether any of the men have committed sex crimes. Could a class such as mine alter predatory behavior?

It seems to me that these questions present teachers with choices. For example, we can ignore all aspects of students' lives outside the classroom or go back to victim-blaming ideologies. We can assume that all men are evil and implicitly guilty from birth and only teach from a gynocentric perspective in an all-female environment. We can assume that at least some perpetrators act without awareness of the harm they cause or as a result of their own victimization. We can explore sexual violence as a self-perpetuating oppressive structure and debate what that implies about individual responsibility.

Since I know that there are many decent men in the world, including Jay and my husband, I choose to believe in the value of education. Since I don't claim to have all the answers, I instead focus on asking questions. What does it feel like to be a rapist? Why does raping a child make a perpetrator feel powerful? Is his victory ever in doubt?

These are not questions I ask lightly. Abuse trickles down through generations because it has been sanctioned by our culture. Every abuser was a nice kid once (at least theoretically). We aren't going to stop abuse if we address only victims. We also need to consider how to teach men that rape is not sexy and that power is not erotic.

None of this was obvious to me at first. The first rape text I taught had me in knots for weeks. I agonized about how much personal information to reveal and what to do if a student plunged into crisis because of my class. Ten years later, though, the climate of the classroom has changed. Many public schools in the United States now include violence prevention and safety skills in their curricula. And RAINN's website reports a sixty percent drop in rapes in the United States since 1993 (RAINN, "New Report," para. 12).

However, it would be premature to claim sexual abuse has stopped. According to RAINN, there was one rape/sexual assault in the US every two minutes in 2002[4], and "non-strangers" in the United States commit sixty-nine percent of offenses (RAINN, "New Report," para. 3, 9). The website for the Department of Justice Canada states that sixty percent of all sexual assault victims are under age eighteen. Parents are responsible for forty-two percent of these assaults (Department of Justice Canada, "Family Violence," para.11). The Ontario Women's Directorate says fifty-one percent of Canadian women have been sexually assaulted but that a mere six percent of all sexual assaults are reported to the police (Ontario Women's Directorate, Sexual Assault: Dispelling the Myths, para.1).

Placing literature about sexual abuse within today's pedagogical landscape assures students that a discussion of how rape functions in literature is a valid part of their curriculum. It has social relevance today and provides us with insight about our cultural traditions. If we didn't talk about whether Stanley rapes Blanche at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, for example, we would be ignoring a significant dramatic moment during which meaning is constructed for and by readers. If Stella chooses to believe her husband's denial over her sister Blanche's accusation, what does that tell us about the relation of violence to power within the context of marriage? If Blanche is "crazy" for claiming rape, what does that imply about the validity of women's reality in a male-dominated society?

Shared experiences of words on the page ground the class even when differences in interpretation arise. Often, the supposed neutrality of a literary work allows us to ask questions that might be too volatile in a more personalized setting. Bringing rape, incest, and sexual exploitation into the college classroom as a valid arena of intellectual endeavor helps dismantle the institutional structures that continue to victimize women and children. By enabling students to become more sophisticated readers of cultural texts, we counter claims that sexual violence is a tolerable, yet unspoken, fact in the lives of women and children.

Discussions of sexual violence in the college classroom introduce students from high-risk populations to a rigorous multidisciplinary critical apparatus that is designed to prevent them from abusing or being abused and to encourage those who have been (or are being) victimized to seek the help they need. We can continue creating a new truth that rape and sexual abuse are survivable events instead of life-destroying ones. Speech breaks silence, reclaims self, and exposes the abusers in our midst. Vociferously, vocally, voicefully, we have changed laws, police, and security procedures, initiated serious national dialogue, and educated our children better than we were ever taught ourselves. Believing that we can make this system work, that my experiences may yet be put to good use, is the only way I can stand to know that abuse happens every day, all the time, to so many of us.


1 See Freud, Benjamin, and Masson. back

2 "Truth" is used here deliberately. I think it's important to make certain stands. One tactic that prevents thought from developing on this topic is the demand that we prove every claim we make each and every time we make it, while abuse has been officially denied more often than not. back

3 Theories about how oppression functions in literary texts have benefited from work in many fields, including philosophy, economics, postcolonial studies, women's studies, and psychiatry. back

4 RAINN offers their detailed calculation of this stat on their website at http://www.rainn.org/statistics.html. back


Works Cited

Breau, Elizabeth. "Incest and Intertextuality in Carolivia Herron's Thereafter Johnnie." African American Review 31/1 (1996): 91-103.

---. "Lying With the Father: Patterns of Incest in Contemporary Feminist Fiction." PhD Thesis, Vanderbilt University [US], 1994.

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

Department of Justice Canada. "Family Violence: A Fact Sheet From The Department Of Justice Canada - How Widespread Is Family Violence In Canada?" Updated June 2, 2003. [http://www.canada.justice.gc.ca/en/ps/fm/familyvfs.html]. (4 Dec. 2003).

Eichorn, Jill, et al. "A Symposium on Feminist Experiences in the Composition Classroom." College Composition and Communication 43 (1992): 296-321.

Freud, Sigmund. "The Aetiology of Hysteria." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. New York: Collier, 1963.

Herman, Judith with Lisa Hirschman. Father-Daughter Incest. Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 1981.

---. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

Herron, Carolivia. Thereafter Johnnie. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge. 1994.

Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff. The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1984.

Ontario Women’s Directorate. Sexual Assault: Dispelling the Myths.
[http://www.gov.on.ca/citizenship/owd/english/publications/sexual-assault/myths.htm]. (14 Nov. 2003).

Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN). “New Report Shows Dramatic Increase in Willingness to Report Rape to Police.” [http://www.rainn.org/ncvs2002.html]. (11 Nov. 2003).

Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN). RAINN Statistics. [http://www.rainn.org/statistics.html]. (4 Dec. 2003).

Schweickart, Patrocinio P. "Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading." In Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1994. 268-278.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts. New York: Phaeton Press, 1970.

Tompkins, Jane. "Teach By the Values You Preach." Harper's Magazine Sept. 1991: 30+.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Ed. Elizabeth Brennan. New York: Norton, 1983.

Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: New Directions Books, 1947.

Further Reading

Abbott, Franklin, ed. Men and Intimacy: Personal Accounts Exploring the Dilemma of Modern Male Sexuality. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1990.

Armstrong, Louise. Kiss Daddy Goodnight. New York: Pocket Books, 1986.

Danica, Elly. Beyond Don't: Dreaming Past the Dark. Prince Edward Island: Gynergy Books, 1996.

---. Don't: A Woman's Word. Prince Edward Island: Gynergy Books: 1988.

Du Cille, Ann. "Phallus(ies)of Interpretation: Toward Engendering the Black Critical 'I.'" Callaloo 16/3 (1993): 559-573.

Fine, Yehudah. "The Generation Bridge." Hadassah Magazine 85/3 (Nov. 2003): 44+. [Online at http://www.hadassah.org/news/content/per_hadassah/archive/2003/03_NOV/family.htm].

Maher, Frances A. and Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault. The Feminist Classroom. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Scholder, Amy, ed. Critical Condition: Women on the Edge of Violence. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1993.

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