- Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters, and Postwar American Culture
From the perspective of today's relentless sexualization of children, especially girls, it is easy to forget that child sexual abuse has a remarkably short history as a social problem. When Florence Rush announced at a 1971 conference that "the family itself is an instrument of sexual and other forms of child abuse," even the experienced feminists in her audience were stunned. Incest was then considered, when it was considered at all, a very marginal phenomenon perpetrated by monstrous child molesters. Their predatory behavior was more likely to attract [End Page 214] criminologists interested in a tiny minority of male offenders than scholars interested in the experiences of ordinary children, women, and families.
All of this changed quickly. Rush's book, The Best Kept Secret, was published in 1980, followed by Father-Daughter Incest by Judith Herman and Lisa Hirschman in 1981. Together, these books revealed that incest was common rather than rare and publicized the fact that its victims, overwhelmingly female, numbered in the millions. In short order, child sexual abuse became a subject of vigorous social and medical research, a target of legislation and policy, and a focus of therapeutic interventions designed to heal a rapidly growing list of traumatic life events.
Rachel Devlin's smart book argues that "the father-adolescent daughter relationship was the apparatus through which the sexualization of the teenage girl was envisioned" (p. 173), a conclusion as disquieting as it is provocative. Many historians, Devlin points out, have described new autonomy among teens, girls included, after World War II, and have identified the origin of the "generation gap" with the appearance of a teenage market. Rather than holding consumption chiefly responsible for sexualizing younger girls in more ways during the past half century, Devlin suggests that we consider the transformation of father-daughter relationships during the 1940s and 1950s. Ongoing sexual exchanges between adolescent girls and their fathers were profoundly eroticized in postwar culture. Typically dismissed as fluff, these relationships helped to produce the deeply troubling wave of child sexual abuse by normalizing it.
Devlin surveys plays, films, magazines, and novels in order to make this point, from "Junior Miss," the Broadway smash of 1941 to "Father of the Bride," the Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor film of 1950 to novels such as Lolita and Lie Down in Darkness. Her sensitive analyses of these examples demonstrate that, far from being liberated from parental authority by their new commercial roles, middle-class teenage girls (African-American as well as white) were actually mired in novel forms of familial dependence. With the oedipal relationship between father and daughter idealized as an experience of sexual affirmation—indeed as the launching point for mature womanhood—girls confronted a gender-specific developmental paradox. To establish independent lives beyond their families required protracted dependence within their families. The absence or weakness of sexual entanglements with fathers increased girls' risks of delinquency and undermined their prospects of femininity, heterosexuality, and marriage. Sexual attention from fathers was not only perfectly normal. It was the necessary foundation of female psychology.
The Oedipal drama of female adolescence offered kinder, gentler opportunities to govern girls and women at a time when many Americans were grappling with the democratization of kinship, new sexual freedoms, and male flight from domestic commitments. Devlin notes that fathers as well as daughters used their erotic bonds to navigate the delicate historical metamorphosis from stern patriarchs to benevolent breadwinners who cheered on their daughters' adolescence from a safe distance. They indulged desires for clothes and makeup, supervised dating and boyfriends, and facilitated coming-of-age rituals such as showy proms and weddings. As an expression of paternal devotion, fathers' sexual interest was passive, benign, and positively helpful to their daughters. Sinister variations, such as Lolita's incestuous step-father, Humbert Humbert, were [End Page 215] only possible because of the axiomatic eroticism that pervaded father-daughter relationships at the time, according to Devlin. The harmlessness of culturally sanctioned father...