Understanding Survivors

Does this kind of abuse actually happen? I haven't heard much about it.

Yes, this abuse does actually happen AND occurs more than most people realize. Logically, there is nothing about a woman or a mother that would automatically make her unable to commit such an act. Please keep in mind that the vast majority of mothers DO NOT sexually abuse their daughters, but it DOES happen.

In the U.S., sexual abuse was once thought to be a one in a million phenomenon. However, it is commonly believed that as many as one in four girls are victims of sexual abuse and various estimates report that between 1-10% of girls are victims of female-female sexual abuse. It is important to note that accurate statistics regarding mother-daughter sexual abuse are difficult to report because the crime is grossly underreported and most states and countries do not fully break down the type and number of perpetrators and victims by gender and relationship to victim. 

Regardless, biological mothers are identified as perpetrators in about 5% of documented cases of sexual abuse in Canada. In a 2010 report released by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, 8% of sexual perpetrators were identified as having a maternal relationship with their victims (male or female) in cases of documented harm. This is significant because this number only includes cases identified by CPS and the overwhelming majority of mother-daughter sexual abuse survivors report that their abuse was not identified or reported.

If you have not heard much about this form of sexual abuse, it is not surprising. The sexual abuse of children in general has been a difficult concept to for society to grasp. It is a scary, unsettling topic. Accepting that mothers, the one group of people who are supposed to love and protect their children unconditionally, are capable of sexually abusing their own daughters, can be shocking and uncomfortable. 

If you do not believe that it actually happens, then please ask yourself why you feel that way, and what may convince you otherwise. There are many phenomenons that are part of human existence that not everyone knows about or with which they are familiar. It doesn't mean that they don't exist.



What is it like to have been sexually abused by your mother? I am trying hard to understand.

There is no easy answer to this question. Bear in mind that growing up, survivors of mother-daughter sexual abuse probably heard as little about this form of abuse as you did as a child. This can be very confusing and isolating for a child, who may not be able to even recognize her experiences as abusive or inappropriate. Even if she does have a feeling that something is wrong, it is difficult for her to know who to turn to when her own mother is sexually abusing her. Research has suggested that fathers engage in very little intervention, and are largely absent, uninvolved or unaware. As unimaginable as it may be for you to think about your own mother sexually abusing you, it is even more horrific and just as unimaginable when it actually happens.

As an adult, mother-daughter sexual abuse remains a taboo topic, even in sexual abuse survivor circles. Sometimes the experiences of mother-daughter sexual abuse survivors are not believed by survivors of male-female abuse, or are seen as "less than" because a mother was the perpetrator, and some believe that the abuse must have been gentle or just a misunderstanding. Realistically, there is a wide range of violence associated with mother-daughter sexual abuse, as with any other form of abuse. 

In general, there is very little validation and support for this form of abuse, and the difficult process of healing is compounded by friends, family members, other sexual abuse survivors, and even therapists, being unaware of the problem and/or unwilling to listen to or believe the survivor.



How does mother-daughter sexual abuse affect the survivor? Does it affect the survivor differently than if she were abused by a male?

Mother-daughter sexual abuse affects the daughter in many of the same ways that other forms of sexual abuse affects individuals. It can negatively affect her self-esteem, her ability to express her feelings, her body image, her basic trust, her sexuality, etc.

However, when a female is sexually abused by her mother, there are additional repercussions.

The overwhelming majority of MDSA members have also been abused by males and/or other females. Despite this, survivors of mother-daughter sexual abuse report that the sexual abuse by their mothers often stands out as the hardest to accept and heal from, and the last abuse experiences to be remembered (this is also corroborated by recent research). The impact of this statement cannot be overlooked, and speaks to the horrific nature of this form of abuse.

Mother-daughter sexual abuse extremely hinders the healthy development of the mother-daughter bond. The daughter's boundaries are severely violated, and the mother and daughter often reverse roles in terms of the mother's needs taking precedence over her daughter's. The daughter lacks a healthy mother with which to identify and develop a sense of normal female development, roles, and sexuality. If the daughter had a sexual response to the abuse (which is a normal biological reaction), she may feel especially ashamed and/or become confused about her sexual identity. This is not meant to suggest that mother-daughter sexual abuse causes homosexuality, but rather emphasizes the point that it is especially confusing and overwhelming for a child to have sexual feelings encouraged by her mother's touch or actions. Mother-daughter sexual abuse is not about homosexuality, but rather a mother's distortions about herself and her daughter. Finally, having the complete opposite of a mother's protection, love, encouragement, support, etc. is obviously very devastating.


How can I help a survivor of mother-daughter sexual abuse? I'm not sure what to say or what she needs.

To understand what helps, let's first examine what kinds of responses do NOT help.

REALLY?!?!?!? Does that kind of thing happen?!? Why would she do that to you??

Initial surprise when someone discloses to you that they were sexually abused is not an uncommon reaction. When you have never heard of mother-daughter sexual abuse before, your reaction may be one of disbelief or shock. You may want to know right away how something like that could have happened. To ask such a question immediately may seem like you think that there was something that the survivor did to cause the abuse. This is generally not a helpful response. The survivor often feels that she is abnormal or defective because of her experiences. Keeping the focus on the survivor by being surprised and showing empathy because someone would hurt your partner or friend whom you care about is a better response.

What exactly happened?

You may want to ask the survivor this question as a way of understanding what she experienced or to determine for yourself what qualifies as mother-daughter sexual abuse. She may view this as your attempt to see if her experiences are valid, i.e. she may feel that you don't believe her. Remember that you do not have to have the details of her experiences in order to believe or support her. She may even be more willing to talk to you about her abuse experiences if she doesn't feel pressured to and feels in control of the disclosure.

But your mother's so nice and normal.

Adults who sexually abuse children are not necessarily going to look creepy and abuse occurs in what appear to be "good families". Appearing perfect to the world is often important in some abusive families, and they are often successful in convincing the world that they are. Mothers who sexually abuse their daughters may very well seem nice and normal. They may be active in their communities, on PTA and in the church. Remember that the daughter is the real expert on who her mother is and what her mother has done to her. The daughter is often very aware that her mother seems normal to the majority of the world. This sometimes contributes to the survivor's unwillingness to talk about her experiences. If her mother is nice and normal, then she must be the "crazy" one!

Oh, I have problems with my mother too.

This is perhaps one of the most unhelpful responses. Some women may say this to demonstrate that they understand or can commiserate, but it can actually be a very hurtful and dismissing comment. Mother-daughter relationships are not without problems and conflict, but when the relationship is abusive, the problems exist on a different plane, and the effects can be severe. It is similar to telling someone with a painful chronic illness that you understand how she is feeling because you have a headache. Of course you are feeling ill and deserve some empathy, but your condition is just not comparable.

You should be nicer to your mother. She is your mother after all.

Yes, the woman is her mother, but she is also her abuser. Her mother forfeited her rights to participate in a mutually kind and giving relationship with her daughter when she abused her. The survivor often needs to understand her right to live independently of her mother and to attend to her needs first. She also needs to express anger, grief and sadness over her relationship with her mother and the losses she suffered because of the abuse. The survivor often feels guilty or uneasy to have negative feelings toward her mother or to not take care of her mother because of earlier role reversal. The way in which she regards her mother may not seem appropriate, but she is feeling this way about her abuser and is responding to the extreme violation that was imposed on her by her abuser. Please note: You may want to step in if she is being directly abusive toward her mother or directs her anger at you. You both have a right to be angry at the abuser, but to keep that energy focused in the right direction and to do so safely.

What DOES help survivors

1) ask her what she needs. This may seem incredibly simple, but a survivor has often had people in her life who assumed that they knew what she needed or wanted, or just didn't care. Even if she does not know what she needs at the moment, you have at least shown respect for her wishes and offered yourself to her as someone who cares.

2) accept that mother-daughter sexual abuse does happen and that it is never the victim's fault. This is the basic truth. If you cannot accept this fact, then you will not be a good support person.

3) accept that you will not fully understand her experiences. This may sound harsh, but if you have not been sexually abused by your mother you, then you will not FULLY understand what a survivor has experienced. You can greatly enhance your understanding of the topic, her experiences, and its effects, but you will never fully understand.

4) accept that she will probably require the support of a psychotherapist or self-help/support group. Survivors need people knowledgeable about abuse, therapy and the healing process to aid and support them. In a most simple sense, individual therapy allows a person to explore feelings and past experiences in a safe environment that focuses on his or her needs. Psychotherapists are specially trained professionals, and therapy is much more than "just talking", as most people who have gone through successful therapy can tell you. Speaking with other survivors is important because it validates experiences, decreases feelings of isolation, reduces shame, gives new insight, builds relationships, and gives survivors the opportunity to receive help and to help others. Of course, survivors also need friends, family and other supportive people in their lives just as someone who goes for surgery not only needs the doctors and nurses, but is greatly helped and comforted by the support of their family and friends as well. For some survivors with partners and children, couples or family therapy may also be helpful.

5) educate yourself about this topic and get support if necessary. Educating yourself about mother-daughter sexual abuse is a great idea. It will help you to understand survivors better, and reduce some of the confusion you may be feeling, especially if you are a friend of a survivor. There are also self-help/support groups for friends and family of survivors of abuse. The issues that you face as a support person cannot be overlooked, and self-help/support groups can provide you with many of the same benefits that it offers to survivors.

6) keep your promises. Try to only offer the support that you are capable of giving. This varies tremendously among individuals. It is often better to be honest about how much you can do for someone up front, rather than to make a promise that you can't keep. That may have negative consequences for both you and the survivor.

7) try to support her decisions regarding contact with her mother and family of origin. This is a difficult topic for survivors who are often torn between their loyalty to their family and a growing acknowledgement of their abuse and their own rights. Try to remember that survivors of abuse have a right to as little or as much contact with their families as they wish, depending on their own needs and comfort level. If the survivor is still being abused in some way by her family, then your gentle encouragement, as well as that of a therapist, can gradually help her to break abusive ties.

8) keep her safe. If anyone is suicidal, do NOT take it lightly. Get help. Call your friend's therapist, a local emergency room or hotline. If the survivor is injuring herself (cutting, scratching, biting, etc.), this is a common but serious phenomenon among abuse survivors. It is best if the survivor's therapist knows about this issue and that you confront it with empathy and not threats or force. Helping her find other activities or other ways to express/cope with her emotional pain is often helpful. If you are worried about serious physical harm, seek professional help for your friend.

9) take care of yourself. Amid all of the survivor's issues, it is important to remember to take care of your needs first. It is similar to when you are on an airplane, and are instructed to put on your oxygen mask before helping a child with his or hers. This is not to compare a survivor to a child, but to point out that it is difficult to help another person if you are gasping for oxygen yourself. You deserve to take care of your needs.

10) be patient. It can be very hard to be patient, especially when you see someone you care about in so much pain and dealing with intense emotion and confusion. If she is actively in the healing process, she may seem worse than before she started to confront her past abuse, and your relationship may suffer, and you may wonder if her healing is really worth it. It is worth it! In one way, psychotherapy can be compared to chemotherapy - sometimes you feel worse before you feel better. If she is committed to healing, and is seeking good support, areas both within and outside of herself will get better little by little. Healing is a long and individualized process, and the survivor is often frustrated by how painfully slow it seems to go at times. Sometimes it is hard for a survivor to see the small improvements that she has made, so it is especially helpful for those around her to try to be aware of them and to help her to acknowledge the good work that she's doing and its positive effects.

* artwork on this page was created by "pinks," MDSA Member