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Incest Survivors Need Their #MeToo Moment

The past few years have seen great changes in how we talk about sexual assault, with one big exception: the shame and stigma that still surrounds those who publicly accuse a family member of a heinous crime.

Older woman in a red and blue print dress and brown cardigan standing in front of a brick building. (left). Older woman sitting at a counter, holding a mug wearing a tye die sweater. (right)

(Photography by Chloë Ellingson and Jessica Deeks)

When Arch Montgomery  died in the late 1980s, his obituary included a curious Bible quote about harm befalling those who hurt children: “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” It had been decades since he sexually abused his granddaughter Sue Montgomery, but she wanted his tight-knit, religious community to know the truth.

Montgomery didn’t have the language to label the experiences as sexual assault when she was a child, but at age nine, she told her mom that she did not like the way her grandpa treated her. Her mom looked horrified but said nothing. Years later, in her early 20s, she did call the experience sexual abuse when telling her family about it, after discovering she was not her grandfather’s only victim.

“Sexual assault brings all kinds of judgment to its victims, but it’s an extra layer of shame when it’s incest,” says Montgomery, a one-time journalist as well as a former mayor of the Montreal borough Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. It’s a shame that she’s determined to dismantle: About a decade after telling her family, she spoke publicly for the first time about her experience of incest, at an event on violence against women. Montgomery has been projecting her voice into the silence ever since.

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Statistics on rates of incest in Canada are hard to come by. A 2012 Statistics Canada report on police-reported incidents of family violence found 158 victims of incest that year. But considering the low rate of reporting for all forms of gender-based violence—in 2014, StatsCan found that only five percent of sexual assaults were reported to police—the total number must be significantly higher.

The veil of secrecy surrounding other forms of sexual violence has been pulled off in recent years, in part thanks to the women who, beginning in 2014, said they were harmed by former CBC star Jian Ghomeshi. There are also the legions of survivors who disclosed their experiences at the hands of high-profile perpetrators such as Bill Cosby, R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein. But while #MeToo successfully challenged many stereotypes, myths about sexual violence persist. Even if abusers aren’t always strangers lurking in public spaces, we tend to think they’re at least people like Weinstein—grotesque perps that you can spot from a mile away.

There is no doubt that #MeToo forever changed the way we talk about sexual assault. But where are the survivors of incest? Speaking up is still extra difficult for these people, who often must overcome their own internal stigma just to conceive of a loved one as abusive—let alone publicly accuse them of a heinous crime.

(Photograph by Chloë Ellingson)

Sexual taboos have long fascinated philosophers and anthropologists, and incest is no exception. The formative 1897 French text by Émile Durkheim, Incest: The Nature and Origin of the Taboo, attempts to trace the taboo’s roots: Is it born from nature or nurture? Is it an evolutionary disgust or one imposed by prudish societies? Either way, it is clear that the taboo still exists. Incest is seen as so repulsive that even most pornography, which exists to indulge the forbidden, avoids it, obfuscating with promises of sex scenes between “stepmoms,” “stepsisters” and “sugar daddies” rather than biological relatives.

The few representations of incest in media or pop culture are often stereotypical caricatures of inbred hicks. Even though monarchies the world over are notorious for marrying within the family, it is the chilling banjo plucking of the classic 1972 film Deliverance that is most often the punchline to jokes about incest. This image haunts JoAnne Brooks, executive director of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County (a rural area outside of Ottawa), who has worked with countless survivors of incest over her nearly 30-year career.

“It is absolutely the vast majority of our clients,” says Brooks. “And I know it’s not just happening here, because my colleagues across Canada see the same number of incest clients. But it’s so hard for rural survivors because they feel like coming forward is reinforcing the worst stereotypes about rural life.” She knows this intimately because she is a survivor herself. Brooks is originally from rural southwestern Ontario; her father sexually assaulted her for years.

Confidentiality is almost impossible to come by in rural areas, where everyone knows everyone. Victims must decide whether to approach service providers or the police with the knowledge that people will find out and probably be disinclined to believe something so awful about a family they’ve known for years. “If your story becomes public, it becomes public property, and you become the incest survivor in town,” says Brooks.

This is particularly difficult when the assault is perpetrated by one sibling on another. Of the 10 survivors I interviewed for this piece, six were sexually abused by their brothers. Sam*, a woman in her early 20s from southern Ontario, grew up in an evangelical family. She says a lack of knowledge about family violence meant she was unable to fully understand what was going on when her older brother convinced her that what she was experiencing wasn’t abuse; he was simply “practising for marriage.”

“When I thought about pedophiles, I thought [about] creepy old men, not my 16-year-old brother,” says Sam.

Sibling-on-sibling sexual assault is particularly complex for parents—to believe the child coming forward, they must see their other child as an abuser. When Madison*, who grew up in Quebec, told her parents that she was being sexually assaulted by her brother, the abuse was excused because he had an intellectual disability.

“I feel like the default assumption with sibling assault is that it is seen as exploration rather than a form of assault,” says another survivor, who was sexually assaulted by an older brother and sister for years.

The idea that everyone involved in incest is equally to blame is not just a dangerous stereotype; for a long time, it was also embedded into the legal system. In 1892, Section 176 of the Criminal Code read, “Every parent and child, every brother and sister, and every grandparent and grandchild, who cohabit or have sexual intercourse with each other, shall each of them, if aware of their consanguinity, be deemed to have committed incest, and be guilty of an indictable offence and liable to fourteen years’ imprisonment.”

“Clearly, the older member is the criminal, but the power imbalance wasn’t taken into consideration back then,” says Constance Backhouse, a law professor at the University of Ottawa whose 2008 book, Carnal Crimes, looks at sexual assault law in Canada from 1900 to 1975. “Everyone involved was criminalized.” (Even Backhouse, Canada’s premier feminist legal historian, said that she hadn’t really thought about the incest taboo and how it played out in the criminal justice system until I asked her.)

Thankfully, decades of advocacy have successfully changed various elements of the Criminal Code related to sexual assault. Currently, it reads, “Everyone commits incest who, knowing that another person is by blood relationship his or her parent, child, brother, sister, grandparent or grandchild, as the case may be, has sexual intercourse with that person.”

It is encouraging to see the legal system’s acknowledgement of the devastation of incest, but it’s hard to know what true justice looks like. While some survivors might want criminal charges and imprisonment for their abusers, others are still reluctant, in part because of how that might affect their larger community. Incest, by definition, implicates the family. Survivors aren’t just sharing their stories, but rather a family legacy.

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Dakota* is a First Nations incest survivor who, as an adult, sees the clear links between sexual abuse at the hands of family and intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools. “Incest is not something that is easily rectified if the ‘traditional support systems’ like family are the instigators or perpetrators,” he says, which is why it’s complicated to contemplate a path forward for survivors. For him, healing came through therapy and opening up to friends, creating a chosen family of support. Dakota believes that “strengthening ties outside of the ordinary familial bonds could be a step in the right direction.”

Holding abusers accountable while recognizing the circumstances that enabled the abuse is complex work. Another complication is the reality that abusers often prey on multiple victims, usually also in the family; in these cases, coming forward means you are not only telling your story but the story of a sibling, cousin or other relative.

Three-quarters of the survivors I spoke to said they have not publicly shared their stories because they want to protect the confidentiality of a fellow victimized family member. As survivors, they feel torn between their desire to share their story and their desire to protect those who are not yet comfortable doing so.

All the survivors I spoke to wanted a #MeToo moment for incest but also feared the toll that coming forward would take on survivors. “When people dare to speak out, countless others feel seen,” says Brooks. “#MeToo showed us that. But that visibility can cost you. We always end up putting the onus on the very people who have already survived so much bullshit.

Older woman sitting at a counter, holding a mug wearing a tye die sweater, and glasses.

(Photograph by Jessica Deeks)

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On a personal level, Brooks found justice in moving away from her home community, working with other survivors and eventually writing a letter to her family explaining why she was now estranged. Her mother eventually apologized, weeks before she died in 2004: “I just didn’t know where to turn, so I turned away,” her mother said.

Survivors are still searching for paths to healing and justice, neither of which are linear. It’s clear they need allyship from those who understand the issue but are able to speak freely without consequence. As a society, we must also re-examine our definitions of accountability. There is a strong need to create new models of justice that go beyond the current criminal system, particularly when perpetrators come from within families.

One idea for where to start is restorative justice, an approach with roots in many Indigenous communities. The goal is to think beyond carceral approaches to punishment in favour of meaningful healing for everyone involved. Restorative justice approaches exist within Canada’s legal framework, as part of sentencing for various crimes: According to Justice Canada, restorative justice “seeks to repair harm by providing an opportunity for those harmed and those who take responsibility for the harm to communicate about and address their needs in the aftermath of a crime.” It can also be facilitated in grassroots spaces, such as St. Stephen’s Community House in Toronto, which offers community-based mediation for several types of conflicts, including restorative justice circles for sexual assault survivors.

The process can be an incredibly effective means of providing survivors with a path to healing, says Dr. Alissa Ackerman, an associate professor at California State University, Fullerton, who holds a PhD in philosophy. As a rape survivor and the co-founder of Ampersands Restorative Justice, she has worked with hundreds of survivors. Feedback has been incredibly positive, which Ackerman believes is “because survivors have the lead.”

Perpetrators’ honest participation is required for a traditional restorative justice process, and all of the survivors I spoke to said that their abusers refused to acknowledge the harm they had caused, either denying or minimizing their actions, or failing to show remorse.

Even so, Ackerman says there are options. They can include inviting a proxy to participate in the healing process, such as a parent who blamed their daughter when she disclosed being assaulted. While not all survivors will be able to confront their abusers directly, it’s still possible to heal a relationship with the support system that failed someone after an assault.

Unlike the traditional criminal approach, true restorative justice is a private process that is consensus-based, survivor-directed and trauma-informed—an ideal situation for those who want to heal within the family while still maintaining privacy.

But while Ackerman and her team are among a handful of restorative justice experts in North America who specialize in addressing sexual harm, she has never dealt with an incest case.

“Incest exposes entire family systems, so people are not willing to come forward,” she says. “But I think if survivors went through a restorative justice process and there were healthy outcomes, families would be more willing to be open about it.”

Many, if not most, sexual assault survivors “rarely know restorative justice exists,” says Ackerman, who thinks greater awareness about its existence would go a long way toward breaking silence and secrecy within families.

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When the Ghomeshi story broke in the fall of 2014, Montgomery took to social media to share her story with the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported. As an adult, she had tried to report her grandfather’s sexual abuse to the local police—but because Arch was a loyal churchgoer and a dedicated community leader, she says the police dismissed her.

Undeterred, Montgomery confronted her grandfather before he died. “God knows what you did. I hope you rot in hell,” she told him before storming out of his house. “I just wanted an apology and proof that I wasn’t crazy,” she says now.

Montgomery also told the rest of her relatives the truth about what he had done to her and other women in her family. Many recoiled in horror. She remains unsure what they found more disturbing: the revelation or her audacity to say it aloud. And after Arch’s death, she found solace in including that scathing scripture in his obituary.

Either way, confronting him and publicly labelling his crimes were the closure Montgomery was denied by police, and it’s what she wishes for all survivors: “I took justice into my own hands and I have no regrets.”

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