[Two Pronged] Are my mom's actions considered sexual abuse?
Rappler's Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr Margarita Holmes.
Jeremy has a master's degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in 3 continents, he has been training with Dr Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives.
Together, they have written two books: Love Triangles: Understanding the Macho-Mistress Mentality and Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons.
Dear Dr Holmes and Mr Baer (translated from Filipino):
I am experiencing something very different from anything I have before and somehow I cannot stop fantasizing about this. Here are 3 things that have happened:
When I was in Grade 5, my father was living in the province, so we all slept with my mother in the same bedroom because that was the only one that had an aircon. One morning, I woke up with my back turned way from my mother. I felt my mother was waking me up on purpose. Her thing was on top of me, her genitals were against my buttocks, and she was grinding it against my buttocks, she was giggling and whispering things. I didn’t move. I pretended I was asleep and eventually, she want to the bathroom.
When I was already in college, my parents separated. My father had stopped giving my mother his salary and it had been over 10 years, according to my mother, since they last made love. There was a brownout one night. My mother invited me to sleep in the sala because it was much cooler there. I did not agree to do so. My bedroom door was open, and I could see the folding bed my mother was lying on. She had a blanket over her and I could see that she was fingering herself under the blanket. I saw, because her folding bed was positioned right in front of my door. I do not know if she was purposely making an exhibition of herself.
The 3rd instance also happened when I was in college. My mother was putting on some makeup in the sala. She had nothing on but her robe. Once she had finished making herself up, she came over and kissed me on the cheek. Her robe was not tied, and all she did was kiss me, and then she went back to her room and closed the door.
My question is: doesn't it seem as though she wants to sleep with me? As if all she is waiting for is for me to force myself on her? Is she just waiting for me to find a way so that we can have sex? I feel she is trying to seduce me. Is this considered sexual abuse? Please help. I am so confused.
Thank you for your email.
Instances of mother/son sexual abuse and incest are not reported as often as the father/daughter variety and there has been much less discussion and literature on the subject. According to an international study (from the University of Barcelona published in Clinical Psychology Review in 2009, Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse in Community and Student Samples: A Meta-Analysis) which analyzed 65 research studies across 22 countries to estimate an “overall international figure” for such abuse, it shows that the highest prevalence rate of child sexual abuse geographically was found in Africa (34.4%). Europe showed the lowest prevalence rate (9.2%). America and Asia had prevalence rates between 10.1% and 23.9%. The Philippines officially records less than 0.01% of cases of sexual abuse!
In many parts of the world there is a cultural taboo against speaking ill of mothers because they are associated with giving life, nurturing their offspring, and giving unconditional love to their children. Catholic countries also have to contend with the cult surrounding Mama Mary, mother of Christ and mother of the church, which of course further reinforces the taboo. In addition, the importance of preserving the reputation of the family and the fear of revenge from the perpetrators are factors that contribute to underreporting.
Minors who are subjected to abuse or incest by a parent have few, if any, weapons with which to defend themselves. Firstly, to whom will they direct their pleas for protection when it is the very parent who should be protecting them that is the abuser? Secondly, society tends to believe the word of an adult over that of a child. Thirdly, there is often a closing of ranks between parents against outside attacks when their own children are involved.
Turning to the specific issues raised in your email, it seems clear that your mother’s behavior was at the very least inappropriate. Context is important when considering people’s actions. You cite 3 examples. Were these the only ones or are these merely 3 out of many more? Was your mother sober at the time? These and other questions arise when looking at her behavior.
From your perspective however, it is evident that these incidents had a very significant psychological effect on you – and with good reason. The questions you raise are entirely legitimate and you are right to seek explanations for what can only be described as aberrant behavior. I would strongly recommend that you consider therapy as a way to understand and come to terms with what has happened.
All the best,
Thank you very much for your letter. Being subjected to parental sexual advances is one of the most difficult (oftentimes devastating) experiences a person goes through and it is a tribute to your strength of character that you can articulate your feelings and admit that you are unsure if your mother’s actions were sexually abusive or not.
Your uncertainty is, actually, a good sign because it shows you are capable of Theory of Mind, which is difficult to maintain in the middle of experiencing something as fraught and frightening as mother-son incest, even if you were not certain this is what your mother intended.
Theory of Mind (often abbreviated ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states – motives, beliefs, disingenuity, etc – to oneself and others while realizing that others may have mental states that are different from yours. Many articles (both in scientific journals and “pop psychology” magazines) have been written on ToM, but Brittany N Thompson’s July 3, 2017 article Theory of Mind: Understanding Others in a Social World is by far one of the most accessible to readers.
While it’s true that you – and thus, Mr Baer and I – cannot definitively say she was purposely seducing you, that was, in effect, what she was doing.
And your response to this seduction is what is most important. I realize that your response is also dependent on knowing your mother’s motives. However, how you can best handle this problem depends on you. While your fantasies may come unbidden, how you actually behave towards her is not and I suggest we focus on this.
When you were younger, ignoring her behavior and refusing her requests as you did, was the smartest (and best) thing to do. Now that you are older, you can do what supervisors tell their psychiatrists (or clinical psychologists) in training to do when the client’s transference issues get in the way of the therapist-client relationship:
- (simply) ignore, if able (if the behavior is not all THAT disturbing);
- comment if simply ignoring is an inadequate response;
- make the transference issues part of the therapy;
- refer the client to someone else
You have done the first step and steps 3 and 4 are not in your remit. To do step 2 means you will be more involved in your interactions with your mother and I am unsure if this is what you want or even if this is the best thing to do under the circumstances. However, sometimes “needs must” and should that be the case, a helpful guideline is to not accuse, but simply express an observation and see where it goes from there. Thus, listen, listen, listen.
In a perfect world, it would be your mom taking care of you. It would be she, not you, teaching the other how to behave (because you are responsible not only for yourself, but also for the messages you send). However, these are not the cards you were dealt.
Please write to us again if you decide to talk to her about this. I am fairly certain we could help you through this journey. Actually, please also feel free to write us again should you decide to continue with option 1 (simply ignoring when she behaves this way). If we can be any source of comfort or support, we would like to be.
I am so, so sorry that, at this stage, we cannot offer any more than this, but perhaps this is all you need right now, and should you need more, well, we are just an email away.
All the best,
Need advice from our Two Pronged duo? Email email@example.com with subject heading TWO PRONGED. Unfortunately the volume of correspondence precludes a personal response.