Understanding Incest Chapter 1: The Brisbane Rape and Incest Survivors Support Centre
The Brisbane Rape and Incest Survivors Support Centre (BRISSC) is a support service for women, run by women. It operates on public money which is allocated to BRISSC through government grants, therefore services offered at BRISSC are provided free of charge
BRISSC operates on a ‘collective’ basis. That is the women who work at BRISSC undertake to share work skills, work loads, information, decision making, resources and wages. The BRISSC collective operates within a larger collective, or association of members, called The Women’s Community Aid Association’ (WCAA). It is through this association that BRISSC is ethically accountable to the women’s community.
The Women’s Community Aid Association was incorporated in 1975, the same year the rape crisis service began operation. BRISSC is presently located in a house in the residential community of Woolloongabba. It is a ‘women only’ space known as ‘Women’s House’. This space also houses the offices for the domestic violence refuge service Women’s House Shelter. Women’s House was the space from which the first Queensland 24 hour women’s help‑line and refuge referral operated. It was also the original space for the operation of the now autonomous Women’s Health and Women’s Legal Services.
BRISSC is a non‑government organisation. We do not have mandatory reporting. That is, we are not compelled by law to report cases of incest to the police or other authorities. Our policy of confidentiality assures all women that their stories will not be repeated to other services or to government organisations – unless it is with the express consent of the woman whose story has been entrusted to us at BRISSC.
A place where women who have been raped can talk with other women in a safe, supportive and confidential environment.
Support groups for women survivors of sexual violence, including adult survivors of childhood sexual violence
Information on police, medical and court procedures, including support and advocacy throughout the reporting & court processes
Community education about violence against women and children, through the presentation of information, facilitated discussion, workshops and worker training
A library specialising in violence against women resources and internet facilities
Drop in centre and meeting space for women
Information to friends, relatives and supporters of women and children who have been raped
Interpreters and child care can be arranged when requested.
For information, support or appointments call or email:
(o7) 3391 0004 (support line)
(07) 3391 2573 (administration)
BRISSC A Women Only Space
In general, mixed spaces are dominated by men. In these spaces women’s stories are either actively silenced, not heard, or distorted. In these spaces women’s realities are defined by men.
At BRISSC we work with women because we value women’s experiences, women’s truths, women’s lives, and women’s skills. As women we can share our stories and have them validated. As women we can share survival skills. As women we can cry and laugh at adversity. As women working together we can resist men’s violence. This is what we mean by creating a safe and supportive ‘women only’ environment.
BRISSC Provides Support Not Therapy At BRISSC we speak of ‘support’ rather than therapy’ or ‘counselling’ because the latter can imply personal or mental health problems. These implied “problems” put the onus of the responsibility on women, rather than on society or men. This is particularly the case in terms of familial and social expectations around the female roles of daughter, wife, lover or mother. (See below, The Family). At BRISSC we believe that women who come to Women’s House are not ‘sick’. Rather, they are likely to be suffering from, and resisting, the pressures of being female in a male defined society. Many women are seeking ways to positively survive and resist the often devastating effects of sexual violation, violence and abuse. BRISSC workers believe that women are the experts in their own lives and thus it is up to them to define what is and what is not a problem for them. It is for these reasons that we prefer to talk of support not counselling. It is for these reasons too that we prefer to work in a house in the community rather than in a unit attached to a hospital.
Many women who approach BRISSC, either by telephone or through ‘face to face’ appointments, are adult survivors of sexual violations which occurred during their childhood. Some women have never forgotten these violations; others remember only fragments of their abuse; others have only recently remembered. Some women have never spoken of these violations; others have not been heard; others have not been believed. Many women experience some form of sexual violation at some time of their lives. Often this occurs in the home and is perpetrated by those whom we are told we should trust. It is probable that almost all women’s lives are limited to some extent by the knowledge of potential violence. Significantly, almost all perpetrators of sexual violence are men.
Women’s truths and institutional truths
Because our women’s experiences, stories and truths often do not match up with the experiences and stories which we are told are the truths of our lives‑ we may believe that we are ‘going mad’. Stories of love and happy families in novels, magazines, song lyrics, TV soapies, family anecdotes and snapshots or home movies, may sit at odds with the memories and realities of our lives. When this clash of truth, or reality, occurs we may not only believe that we are going mad, but may be encouraged to believe this. After all, definitions of madness depend upon agreements over what is real and what is not!
It is very convenient for perpetrators to claim that their victims are either mad and/or lying. This way their criminal behaviour is hidden. When the medical and legal professions concur with the belief that women ‘make up stories’ then men’s criminal behaviour is denied (made invisible) and/or implicitly condoned by two very powerful institutions. The institutions of law and medicine have the power to determine what is ‘the truth’, or what is ‘real’. This is often what feminists mean when they talk about ‘structural violence’.
Structural or institutional violence
Structural violence, or institutional violence, upholds or reinforces the violence of an individual abuser. The violence of a particular medical ‘truth’ may add to and reinforce the violence of the actual abuse. For example, we may believe, or be told, that it is our own ‘paranoia’ that is to blame for the constantly recurring fears of sexual and physical abuse: that there is something wrong with us if this fear surfaces years after the abuse has ceased. We may even be told that our fear is based on a fantasy, rather than on reality Because paranoia and fantasy discount the truth or reality of our fears, these medical ‘truths’ are experienced as violations in themselves. Yet, it is very unlikely that paranoia, or fantasy, are to blame for recurring fears of sexual abuse. The fears related to childhood sexual abuse do not simply go away. These fears are based on experienced sexual abuse and work to maintain women’s silences.
There are many difficulties associated with recounting stories of sexual, physical and emotional violations that happened many years ago. Yet these difficulties are often misunderstood, or taken as evidence of lying, fantasising or psychosis.
When recounting stories of incest in law courts, where ‘facts’ must be recited in a rational, linear or logical fashion, women’s truths are terribly disadvantaged. For example, if a woman was raped for many years of her childhood by her father, it is unlikely she would be able to recount specific times, dates and details of particular incidences. This is another instance where institutional violence (in this case the legal system) upholds and reinforces the violence of the abuser.
The dreadful fear of incest continuing may blur memories of the actual incidents of incest. A survivor reports:
There was always a fear of it happening … The incidents become blurred because the fear of it happening became the overriding thing
(adult survivor, quoted in Elizabeth Ward, Father—Daughter Rape)
This blurring of the actual incidents of incest may give men’s allegations that women and girls are lying, the resemblance of truth. Fear of not being believed may lead to women’s and girl’s silences as much as fear of the perpetrator himself. Fear always works in the interests of the perpetrator. Perpetrators are aware of this.
Other institutions which uphold and/or reinforce individual abuse by men are the institutions of the family (see below sections 3&4) and the institution of heterosexuality (sections 4&5).
Breaking the silence
The persistence of women’s fears is clear in this statement made by a survivor who recalls;
I felt as if he was behind me and I felt as though I was going to get banged in the neck for telling someone—and he’d been dead six years
(adult survivor quoted in Liz Kelly, Surviving Sexual Violence)
Nevertheless, women do tell their stories. Breaking the barriers of silence needs courage, but breaking them can often be liberating if you are believed. Creating your own supportive networks of friends, or joining a survivors’ group, may be more important in the long term than talking with individual workers at BRISSC. Within these networks you are not only supported by other women, but can become a support person for others.
Support, unlike ‘therapy’, is something any woman can do for another woman. Support, unlike therapy, recognises that incest is not only an individual act of violence, but an act of violence which is reinforced by structural and institutional violence.
BRISSC is a feminist collective
Almost all institutions are organised on a hierarchical (boss/worker) structure: business, government, religion, medicine, law, education, the family, and so on. Hierarchies are, by their very nature, oppressive structures since they rely on the structurally legitimated power of a few over others. This power has the potential to be exercised in exploitative or tyrannical ways over those with less legitimised power. In this sense hierarchies
are always at least potentially, and at most, actually violent. Most women have experienced this violence in some form or another. Hence feminists identify hierarchical organisations as another form of ‘structural’, or institutional, violence. In almost all present hierarchies men have more access to power than women. Feminists refer to this form of social organisation as ‘patriarchy’.
There is a myth that hierarchical organisations are more efficient than collective organisations. Yet any woman who has worked in a hierarchical institution may have noticed that the further the work practice is from the decision making process the more delay there is and the more chaos ensues! The oppressive nature of hierarchies can work against creativity and innovative work processes. Yet hierarchical institutions are integral to western (and other) male centred societies.
Collective work processes need at least a basic working agreement if they are to function efficiently. In order to work as a feminist collective it is important that BRICC workers agree with the basic philosophies and goals of feminism. These are:
- the eradication of structural violence through ongoing resistance to women’s physical, emotional, economic and socio/political subordination to men
- the eradication of structural violence through ongoing resistance to the dominant male view of reality
- the eradication of structural violence through ongoing resistance to patriarchal organisation (institutions/relations)
- the eradication of structural violence through the valuing of female differences (rather than the devaluing of ‘others’)
- the eradication of structural violence through an acceptance of new/different truths and realities, and new/different ways of organising and relating.
Hence BRISSC’s belief in the necessity for organisational structures (institutions and relationships) to be based on consensus and reciprocity rather than on hierarchies of oppression and subordination.
Clearly then, it is not only efficiency, or even equality, that is at stake here. Women working at BRISSC believe that attention to feminist goals and ways of organising is a way of working towards stopping men’s violence against women and children.
Some Women’s Words
No one is born a woman
Simone de Beauvoir
I can’t imagine anything worse than being a good girl—this is my life and I really don’t care what anyone think about the choices I make.
I found real love in girlfriends… I’ve always found girls I’ve loved and who’ve made me laugh.
What men desire is a virgin who is a whore.
Unless you’ve lost you’re reputation you never realise what a burden it was or what freedom really is.
Feminism is recognising our common ground as women and supporting other women to the maximum possible extent.
Melissa (Sisters Inside)
No‑one should have to dance backwards all of their lives.
If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament
Florence R. Kennedy
“…we are the women that men warned us about.”
I’m not frightened o’ the darkness outside. It’s the darkness inside houses I don’t like.