Since the publication of several high-profile sexual harassment accounts in New York Times last October, the conversation around sexual harassment, abuse and male entitlement has infiltrated every sector of public American society—unleashing swift consequences for powerful men in Hollywood, big business and political office. But who holds the perpetrators of our most intimate spaces accountable?
Weeks before the New York Times story broke, Mexico had a similar moment of reckoning with its own track record of sexual violence against women, albeit in a more official forum, when the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) released the results of a large-scale population survey known as the ENDIREH that examined key aspects of family life in the country, including sexual assault. The survey showed that 4.4 million women reported experiencing child sexual abuse. Uncles were identified as the primary perpetrators (20.1 percent) of people committing sexual violence against them.
These findings reveal the same exact pattern I discovered in a qualitative study I conducted between 2005 and 2006. In the course of conducting in-depth personal interviews with 60 Mexican women and men with histories of incestuous relationships, I found that the women I interviewed reported incestuous violence by their uncles most frequently. I also discovered that familial sexual abuse is not an isolated event, but rather a multi-generational pattern.
When a niece is being sexually assaulted by her uncle, it should ring an alarm bell. Statistically, it means that other girls in the extended family have been assaulted by him, or by other men in the family.
Of course, as research shows, sexual violence perpetrated by uncles is not exclusive to Mexico. In his landmark 1953 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Dr. Alfred Kinsey and his team of researchers at Indiana University documented the histories of almost 6,000 women and discovered that of the 609 “white non-prison” females who reported being sexually approached by an adult man during their preadolescent years, uncles were named most often as perpetrators within the family—more frequently than fathers, brothers, grandfathers and other relatives. Decades later, feminist sociologist Dr. Diana Russell similarly reported that uncles were “the most common perpetrators of incest” in her book The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women, based on a major study of incest in California published in the mid 1980s.
What does it mean that uncles are the most frequent perpetrators of sexual abuse? Hollywood moguls aren’t the only ones who feel entitled to girls’ and women’s bodies—men in familial settings sadly often do as well.
One of the most important feminist revolutions has to take place at home. How could the #MeToo movement prompt a reckoning in our most secretive, intimate sector?
Sexual violence against girls and women in the context of family life is deeply rooted in gender inequality. The women who shared their lives with me were socially trained to serve the men in their families—in the most extreme case, an eight-year-old girl was cleaning, sweeping and mopping the room of an uncle in his forties. In these family patterns of gendered servitude, men who are expected to be served by the girls and women in the family may feel entitled to be sexually served by them as well.
The more we disrupt these everyday practices of gender servitude, the more likely it is that a girl or young woman will be able to perceive gender inequality as abnormal. More importantly, she’ll view it as unacceptable and deem it worthy of its own #MeToo moment within the walls of her own household.
Practicing equity at home also means that we ask girls and boys to split household chores like cleaning and doing the dishes evenly. In a democratic family, a girl does not clean after an able-bodied brother, cousin, or uncle or other male relatives. If a girl doesn’t feel pressured to clean up after a man, she’ll be much less likely to accept other forms of sexual servitude.
It’s worth asking: If girls started to fight back, what would the #MeToo movement look like under our own roofs?