So there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the recent talk that old school Men’s Rights guru Warren Farrell gave at the University of Toronto. Protesters troubled by Farrell’s repugnant views on incest and date rape, among other things, blocked the entrance to the building holding the talk; police broke up the blockade. You can find various videos of what went down on YouTube. I’m not going to try to sort out all the various claims and counterclaims about what happened.
I personally don’t approve of blocking people from giving talks, even if their ideas are repugnant. But I certainly do approve of holding people responsible for what they say, and Farrell – in addition to being wrong about nearly every aspect of relations between men and women – has said some truly awful things over the years.
Exhibit A: A notorious interview he gave Penthouse magazine in the 1970s in which he discussed a book he was researching about incest, tetatively titled The Last Taboo: The Three Faces of Incest.
Let me put a giant TRIGGER WARNING here for disturbing discussion of incest and child sexual abuse.
In the interview, he argued that incest could be a good thing for everyone involved. Indeed, he waxed poetic about the possible positive effects:
“Incest is like a magnifying glass,” he told interviewer Philip Nobile. “In some circumstances it magnifies the beauty of the relationship, and in others it magnifies the trauma.”
The book Farrell was working on never appeared, and Farrell would apparently prefer it if what he said in that interview simply vanished into the memory hole, but a radical feminist site called the Liz Library has a copy of the original 1977 magazine in which it appeared, and has put high quality scans of it online. You can find them here.
Here are some of the things Farrell said in that interview. I’ve put the direct quotes from Farrell in bold; the rest is Nobile’s summary of what Farrell told him.
The article summarized the “findings” of Farrell’s (at that time incomplete) incest research, starting with his take on mother-son incest:
Mother-son incest represents 10 percent of the incidence and is 70 percent positive, 20 percent mixed, and 10 percent negative for the son. For the mother it is mostly positive. Farrell points out that boys don’t seem to suffer, not even from the negative experience. “Girls are much more influenced by the dictates of society and are more willing to take on sexual guilt.”
Apparently, in his view, girls feel bad about the abuse not so much because abuse is inherently bad, but because “society” tells them it’s bad; he returns to this theme repeatedly.
Apparently Farrell’s “findings” about father-daughter incest were not quite as cheery:
The father-daughter scene, ineluctably complicated by feelings of dominance and control, is not nearly so sanguine. Despite some advertisements, calling explicitly for positive female experiences, Farrell discovered that 85 percent of the daughters admitted to having negative attitudes toward their incest. Only 15 percent felt positive about the experience. On the other hand, statistics from the vantage of the fathers involved were almost the reverse — 60 percent positive 10 percent mixed, and 20 percent negative. “Either men see these relationships differently,” comments Farrell, “or I am getting selective reporting from women.”
Yea, that’s right. He’s saying that the overwhelming majority of the abusive men he interviewed enjoyed sexually abusing their daughters, but for some baffling reason their daughters generally didn’t enjoy the abuse. And the explanation for this is that perhaps the daughters are lying – er, sorry, “selectively reporting?”
The bit about advertisements seems to suggest that Farrell went out of his way to try to find and interview women who felt positively about being sexually abused, but still was unable to find more than a small percentage who did.
The article continues. (This is Nobile summarzing Farrell, not Farrell’s direct words.)
In a typical traumatic case, an authoritarian father, unhappily married in a sexually repressed household and probably unemployed, drunkenly imposes himself on his young daughter. Genital petting may have started as early as age eight with first intercourse occurring around twelve. Since the father otherwise extends very little attention to his daughter, his sexual advances may be one of the few pleasant experiences she has with him.
Let’s just repeat that last sentence for emphasis:
Since the father otherwise extends very little attention to his daughter, his sexual advances may be one of the few pleasant experiences she has with him.
The article continues:
If she is unaware of society’s taboo and if the mother does not intervene, she has no reason to suspect the enormity of the aberration. But when she grows up and learns of the taboo, she feels cheapened.
So the incest “taboo” is the main problem, not the abuse itself?
And here is a doozy of a quote from Farrell directly:
“When I get my most glowing positive cases, 6 out of 200,” says Farrell, “the incest is part of the family’s open, sensual style of life, wherein sex is an outgrowth of warmth and affection. It is more likely that the father has good sex with his wife, and his wife is likely to know and approve — and in one or two cases to join in.”
(Note: I’m relying on the Liz Library’s transcription of this quote; some of the text in their scan of this page is blurry.)
Farrell told Nobile that he was feeling hesitant about publishing his book, because it might encourage exploitation of daughters, but that he felt compelled to continue researching it for two main reasons:
“First, because millions of people who are now refraining from touching, holding, and genitally caressing their children, when that is really a part of a caring, loving expression, are repressing the sexuality of a lot of children and themselves. Maybe this needs repressing, and maybe it doesn’t. My book should at least begin the exploration.”
“Second, I’m finding that thousands of people in therapy for incest are being told, in essence , that their lives have been ruined by incest. In fact, their lives have not generally been affected as much by the incest as by the overall atmosphere. …
Farrell also hopes to change public attitudes so that participants in incest will no longer be automatically perceived as victims. “The average incest participant can’t evaluate his or her experience for what it was. As soon as society gets into the picture, they have to tell themselves it was bad. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. “
According to The Liz Library, Farrell now claims that the bit about “genitally caressing” children is a misquote, and that what he really said was “generally caressing.” You can see the scan of the page here; Penthouse clearly has him saying “genitally.”
But let’s assume that Farrell is telling the truth and Nobile misheard the word. Here’s the quote again, with that one word changed.
First, because millions of people who are now refraining from touching, holding, and generally caressing their children, when that is really a part of a caring, loving expression, are repressing the sexuality of a lot of children and themselves.
I’m not sure that’s much better; he’s still talking about “touching, holding, and … caressing” children in a sexual context.
Farrell has not, to my knowledge, challenged any of the other quotes in this interview besides that one. Nor, again to the best of my knowledge, has he forthrightly repudiated the substance of what he said. If he wishes to clarify or challenge any of this I will happily give him space here on this blog to do so.
I should note that in the interview Farrell stopped short of actually advocating incest. But his reasoning here is curious, to say the least:
“I’m not recommending incest between parent and child, and especially not between father and daughter. The great majority of fathers can grasp the dynamics of positive incest intellectually. But in a society that encourages looking at women in almost purely sexual terms, I don’t believe they can translate this understanding into practice.”
So apparently father-daughter incest – ie, sexual abuse – isn’t a good idea because in a sexist society fathers are likely to do it wrong?
I encourage everyone with the stomach for it to read the entire Penthouse piece, which also discusses the incredibly creepy views of some other incest “researchers” at the time.
I will highlight more of Farrell’s problematic views in future posts.