When a mother sexually abuses her son
There has been much research on girls sexually abused by adult males, and there are many books and research articles on fathers who commit incest with their daughters. Yet there’s little on females sexually abusing children—particularly boys—and especially not their own sons. In books about male survivors of sexual abuse, one can find the occasional case history about a boy sexually abused by his mother.
However, I have found only one book titled, Mother-Son Incest: The Unthinkable Broken Taboo by Hani Miletski, with solid, valuable information. Also, psychotherapist Kali Munro wrote an article on her website about mother-son incest and female perpetrators of sexual abuse.
Why such silence about this? Certainly, mother and son incest occurs, but there is a strong cultural taboo about speaking ill of mothers. We revere anything associated with “mother”—Mother Earth, Mother Nature, and the celibate, childless Mother Teresa. Especially in the mental health field, when we examine a child’s early infancy, we focus on the mother, the time and attention she devotes to nurturing her baby.
Even female sex workers reject engaging in fantasies of mother-son incest because it disturbs them. Enter “mother-son incest” in most search engines and you’ll find few legitimate entries. Most are porn sites, thousands of them, which tells us that such incest fantasies are quite alive, though in a dark subculture.
“Love your mother”
This is something of a cultural mantra.
We idealize mothers, and never want to think of them as behaving abusively or of harboring bad or sexual intentions toward their own offspring. We find it hard to believe that a mother doesn’t love her children, or lacks maternal instinct. Those who speak out about their mothers sexually abusing them or being indifferent maternally often find themselves accused of lying and betraying their mothers. Even when a mother is accused of intentionally killing her own children, we want to believe otherwise, giving her the automatic benefit of the doubt, until we absolutely cannot because of incriminating evidence.
Contributing to this sort of blindness, when a mother sexually abuses her son it’s most often covert. She’s subtle and does it in such “loving” ways that even the son is left with questions as to whether abuse really happened.
Overt versus covert sexual abuse
Overt sexual abuse involves direct touching or intercourse with another against that person’s will. Sometimes force is used, other times psychological or emotional power (such as differences in age, status, or rank).
Covert sexual abuse, however, is more indirect: sexual hugs, wet kisses, sexual stares, inappropriate comments on one’s buttocks or genitals, shaming someone for the kind of male he is and homophobic name-calling. Like sexual harassment, covert incest is not easily perceived and is often subtle, such as a parent denying privacy by entering the bathroom while their teenage child is showering, or insisting children and teenagers leave open the bathroom or bedroom door. Or it may involve lingering hugs, flirtatiousness, staring at someone’s body, inappropriate comments on someone’s body parts or their development, or sexual name-calling.
Over the years, I’ve counseled men whose mothers have:
- Asked to see their penises to be sure they are developing correctly.
- Told their sons to take off their shirts while working outside while she stares at him.
- Pressed her breasts against him with a wet kiss.
- Taking uncomfortably long cleaning his genitals as a toddler.
- Slept in a bed with them into their teenage years.
- Walked into the bathroom while the teenage son is showering.
- Revealed to her son, details of her sex life with his father and/or other men.
Often victims of covert abuse feel “icky” and violated, but can’t put their fingers on the reason why. When someone accuses the perpetrator, the victim often denies it, saying things like, “You’re taking it the wrong way,” or “How could you think that’s what I meant?” Since the act is indirect and inconspicuous, the perpetrator finds it easy to deny it was intentional.
If you begin talking about pedophiles, people immediately think of male pedophiles. I’ve heard clients and colleagues say they would never have expected a female pedophile, particularly a mother. Again, we bump up against the assumption that mothers protect their children and would never intentionally harm them, especially not sexually.
Despite their strong feelings, victims are persuaded to believe that their thinking is faulty and give their perpetrators a pass. Clients sometimes can’t identify subtle sexual abuse, even though it made them feel them strange, because she never actually touched them. However, it is abuse because she is touching them emotionally and mentally.
A friend said to me that women couldn’t sexually abuse male children because males could fend off the female. Many share that mindset, but the truth is that young boys are just as susceptible as females to sexual abuse and rape. So males underreport being raped or abused, reframing it as their first experience or denying it was sexual and/or abusive at all.
Thus, when a mother sexually abuses her son covertly, you have the setup for a perfect crime: The mother goes unsuspected, her son has no tangible evidence, and it all gets ignored or covered up—even by the son who will repress the memories because he doesn’t want to have to view what happened as abusive.
Let me offer one of my cases that illuminates this problem.
The Case of Stuart
Stuart, 37, told me that his wife had finally had had enough of feeling secondary to his mother and son incest fantasies they played out in the bedroom. She said she felt he enjoyed the fantasies more than their sex without them. When he met his wife, she did not like the fantasy at first but eventually went along with play acting it out with him because it turned him on so much. She knew he looked at porn of mother and son adult incest. Initially, she didn’t mind because it reduced the amount of time he played it out with her, but eventually, she felt the porn had become compulsive with him and he agreed.
What his wife did not know was that Stuart was contacting women online to engage in talking about mother and son incest. He never met any of these women, he just enjoyed getting them to admit they were aroused by their sons—even if it were a stepson.
Stuart said he had always had these mother and son incest fantasies. He would ask women he dated and hooked up with to tell him of any sexual fantasies they had about their sons. One particularly erotic fantasy for him was a mother catching her son masturbating and joining him in “finishing the job.”
Since he began his sexual development, Stuart said, he’d been a frequent masturbator. He spent hours on porn sites watching mother and son incest movies and reading erotica on the topic.
His father had been an alcoholic who didn’t become mean or abusive when he drank, but just got quiet and watched television, often falling asleep in front of the set. Then his mother would come into his bedroom to wake him and have him sleep with her in his parents’ bed. She would spoon with him, her arms and legs over him and her large breasts firmly pressed against him.
Often, he would awaken in the middle of the night in a daze, with his mother on top of him. He remembered getting erections from this, and since he was enjoying the contact, he blamed himself. He never believed she knew what she was doing. “She was asleep!” he cried. “How could she know she slept like that?” He thought nothing of telling me this and recalled sleeping with his mother until he was 16-years-old. When I asked how he felt about this, he said, “It didn’t bother me then. It is a little weird as I think back on it now.”
He couldn’t recall how his mother was dressed in bed with him, but during the day she dressed in low-cut blouses and dresses that showed off her cleavage, and never wore a bra. His male teachers and friends commented on how beautiful and seductive she was. Stuart said she often walked from bathroom to bedroom wearing only panties, seemingly oblivious to anyone around her. At clothing stores, she would bring him into her dressing room while she changed. He explained it was because he was young and there’d be no one to watch him if she left him out in the store. However, she did this until he was 15-years-old.
She would walk into the bathroom while he showered and even when he urinated. Until he turned 14, she would often insist on drying him off, which he recalled as “affectionate motherly love.” He made sure to tell me, “She only dried off my back and she never looked at me peeing,” though he said that she would joke that he was better endowed than his father. “How would she know about his genital endowment if she never looked?” I asked. “Maybe she looked at me through the mirror by accident,” he said.
When Stuart was in his 20s, he once told his mother that she should cover up and not wear clothes that exposed so much cleavage. She became angry, said that was “his problem,” not hers, and gave him the cold shoulder for the rest of the day.
He couldn’t say why, but during our work together Stuart began to be concerned about his mother being alone with his 6-month-old nephew. There was no indication of any poor care on his mother’s part. She’d baby-proofed her house, and when his sister came to get his nephew, he was always changed and well-fed. When he told his sister that he was having some disturbing dreams about his mother caring for his nephew, she shrugged it off. He didn’t believe in premonitions either, so he dismissed his dreams, too.
It became increasingly clear to me that covert sexual abuse had occurred between Stuart and his mother, but when I asked him to talk more about his mother’s sexualized behavior, he immediately became defensive. “I’m not here to discuss my mother. I’m here to talk about sexual addiction and my breakup and how I’ll be able to move on from it!”
Over time, however, Stuart was able to admit that his mother was sexual with him. He made several attempts to talk with his mother, but she never admitted to anything, replying that she “couldn’t remember,” and that he was exaggerating much of what he recalled.
However, it was important for Stuart to confront his mother, to disown any responsibility for her abuse, and place it back where it belonged—onto her. Whether she decided to accept it was her issue, not his.
As he worked on the sexual abuse he’d suffered, the compulsivity around his sexual interests in mother and son incest reduced greatly. Interest in mother and son incest fantasies, porn, and play with his wife remained with him, but with our work together, he became able to control these fantasies instead of them controlling him. He went from trauma re-enactment to trauma play.
Facing the truth
Overcoming this taboo about the reality of mother and son incest is not easy for either victim or therapist. But as therapists, we must examine our own reluctance and courageously wade into this unconscious quagmire if we’re going to help our male victims of sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, if you are a male who has experienced sexual abuse there is hope, healing, and recovery that’s possible and waiting for you. I strongly recommend the website MaleSurvivors, which has many resources and an ability to reach out to other men who share your story of sexual abuse.