Unspeakable: Father-Daughter Incest in American History

Overview

This history of father-daughter incest in the United States explains how cultural mores and political needs distorted attitudes toward and medical knowledge of patriarchal sexual abuse at a time when the nation was committed to the familial power of white fathers and the idealized white family.

For much of the nineteenth century, father-daughter incest was understood to take place among all classes, and legal and extralegal attempts to deal with it tended to be swift and severe....

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Overview

This history of father-daughter incest in the United States explains how cultural mores and political needs distorted attitudes toward and medical knowledge of patriarchal sexual abuse at a time when the nation was committed to the familial power of white fathers and the idealized white family.

For much of the nineteenth century, father-daughter incest was understood to take place among all classes, and legal and extralegal attempts to deal with it tended to be swift and severe. But public understanding changed markedly during the Progressive Era, when accusations of incest began to be directed exclusively toward immigrants, blacks, and the lower socioeconomic classes. Focusing on early twentieth-century reform movements and that era’s epidemic of child gonorrhea, Lynn Sacco argues that middle- and upper-class white males, too, molested female children in their households, even as official records of their acts declined dramatically.

Sacco draws on a wealth of sources, including professional journals, medical and court records, and private and public accounts, to explain how racial politics and professional self-interest among doctors, social workers, and professionals in allied fields drove claims and evidence of incest among middle- and upper-class white families into the shadows. The new feminism of the 1970s, she finds, brought allegations of father-daughter incest back into the light, creating new societal tensions.

Against several different historical backdrops—public accusations of incest against "genteel" men in the nineteenth century, the epidemic of gonorrhea among young girls in the early twentieth century, and adult women’s incest narratives in the mid-to late twentieth century—Sacco demonstrates that attitude shifts about patriarchal sexual abuse were influenced by a variety of individuals and groups seeking to protect their own interests.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Rhode Island's Little Hostages

History Professor Lynn Sacco meticulously documents centuries of denial, steeped in class, race, and gender, that refused to prosecute white fathers for incest.

Women's Review of Books

Sacco's absorbing and nuanced book investigates the empirical reality of father-daughter incest by drawing together historical evidence from disparate sources... In an inspired move, she steps aside from the confusions and controversies of today to investigate medical, legal, and newspaper reports from the past two centuries to discover whether communities were ever aware that sex crimes were being committed within their own borders and if so, what they did about it.

History Wire - Where the Past Comes Alive

The author provides a concise, one-paragraph summary of her new book that is hard to improve upon: 'For much of the nineteenth century, father-daughter incest was understood to take place among all classes and legal and extra-legal attempts to deal with it tended to be swift and severe. But public understanding changed markedly during the Progressive Era, when accusations of incest began to be directed exclusively towards immigrants, blacks, and the lower socioeconomic classes. Focusing on early twentieth-century reform movements and that era's epidemic of child gonorrhea, Lynn Sacco argues that middle-and-upper-class white males, too, molested female children in their households, even as official records of their acts declined dramatically.'

Social History of Medicine

This engaging and accessible book weaves together narratives of social, professional and technological change. Sacco particularly excels when considering the processes by which incest shifted between political spheres, describing the transition from religion to medicine and eventually to public health.

Choice

Historian Sacco grounds her history of incest, particularly parent-and-child incest, in a broad discussion of mores, an analysis of gonorrhea in children, and awareness of the underlying codes of racism and classism that dominated dialogue in the US... This study of sexual assault and its interpretations, with incest as only a part of that picture, should be useful for collections on family violence.

Bulletin of the History of Medicine
This is a path-breaking and important work in medical history.

— Joan Sangster

American Historical Review
Sacco chronicles an appalling history of influential individual professionals and organizations whose devotion to eliminating STDs stopped short of accusing middle-class white fathers of assaulting their daughters... She has proven this indictment with meticulous research, all of it offered to the reader with clarity and—given the nature of this inquiry—admirable dispassion... Sacco's monograph is the most extensive investigation devoted to the leadership that health professionals gave the public on this issue... impressive.

— Louise Barnett

Journal of American History
Sacco has made a valuable contribution to the history of sexuality, the family, and public health.

— Brian Connolly

Bulletin of the History of Medicine - Joan Sangster

This is a path-breaking and important work in medical history.

American Historical Review - Louise Barnett

Sacco chronicles an appalling history of influential individual professionals and organizations whose devotion to eliminating STDs stopped short of accusing middle-class white fathers of assaulting their daughters... She has proven this indictment with meticulous research, all of it offered to the reader with clarity and—given the nature of this inquiry—admirable dispassion... Sacco's monograph is the most extensive investigation devoted to the leadership that health professionals gave the public on this issue... impressive.

Journal of American History - Brian Connolly

Sacco has made a valuable contribution to the history of sexuality, the family, and public health.

Choice

Historian Sacco grounds her history of incest, particularly parent-and-child incest, in a broad discussion of mores, an analysis of gonorrhea in children, and awareness of the underlying codes of racism and classism that dominated dialogue in the US... This study of sexual assault and its interpretations, with incest as only a part of that picture, should be useful for collections on family violence.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801893001
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Publication date: 7/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Lynn Sacco is an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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