Breast Ironing to Protect Girls From Sexual Victimization

In some areas of West and Central Africa, female relatives attempt to protect girls from sexual abuse and rape by means of "breast ironing." When girls begin to develop breasts, older women, usually mothers, massage and pound their daughters’ newly forming breasts with heated, hard objects. This procedure causes the breast tissue to break down, and the young girls’ breasts flatten and sag, changes that their mothers hope will hide the girls’ sexual development. Breast ironing is very painful and often causes blisters, abscesses, and infections. Many girls who have been subjected to this painful procedure also have difficulty breast-feeding after giving birth. In areas where breast ironing is traditionally practiced, about one in four teenagers and an estimated 4 million women overall have had their breasts altered in this manner (Helfer, 2006; Ndonko & Ngo’o, 2006; Sa’ah, 2006).

Most researchers distinguish between nonrelative child sexual abuse, referred to as pedophilia or child molestation, and incest, which is sexual contact between two people who are related (one of whom is often a child). Incest includes sexual contact between sib­lings as well as sexual contact between children and their parents, grandparents, uncles, or aunts. Incest can occur between related adults, but more commonly it involves a child and
an adult relative (or an older sibling) perpetrator. Although its definition varies slightly from culture to culture, incest is one of the world’s most widely prohibited sexual behaviors.

Each state has its own legal codes that determine whether sexual interaction between an adult and a younger person is considered child molestation (usually if the younger person is under age 12), statutory rape (usually ages 12 to 16 or 17), or a consenting sexual act. The age of consent in the United States tends to range from 16 to 18, but it can be as low as 14 or 15. The legal codes may appear ludicrous at times, particularly in cases of teenage interactions in which one partner is technically an adult and the other technically a minor, although only one or two years separate their ages.

Incest occurs at all socioeconomic levels and is illegal regardless of the ages of the participants. However, an incestuous relationship between consenting adult relatives is considerably less likely to precipitate legal action than one between an adult and a child.

Although it has been commonly assumed that father-daughter incest is most preva­lent, studies have shown that brother-sister and first-cousin contacts are more com­mon (Canavan et al., 1992). Sexual relations between brothers and sisters are seldom discovered, and when they are, they do not typically elicit the extreme reactions that father-daughter sexual contacts usually do. However, coercive sexual abuse by a sibling or a parent often has a devastating effect on the child victim.

The incestuous involvement of a father (or stepfather) with his daughter often begins without the child understanding its significance. It may start as playful activities involving wrestling, tickling, kissing, and touching. Over time the activities may expand to include touching of the breasts and genitals, perhaps followed by oral or manual stimulation and intercourse. In most cases, the father relies on his position of authority or on the pair’s emotional closeness rather than on physical force to fulfill his desires. He may pressure his daughter into sexual activity by reassuring her that he is "teaching" her something impor­tant, by offering rewards, or by exploiting her need for love. Later, when she realizes that the behavior is not appropriate or when she finds her father’s demands to be unpleasant and traumatizing, it may be difficult for her to escape. Occasionally, a daughter may value the relationship for the special recognition or privileges it brings her. The incestuous involvement may come to public attention when she gets angry with her father, often for nonsexual reasons, and "tells on him." Sometimes a mother may discover, to her horror, what has been transpiring between her husband and daughter. Other times, the mother may have been aware of the incest but allowed it to continue for reasons of her own. These may include shame, fear of reprisals, concern about having her family disrupted, or the fact that the incestuous activity allows her to avoid her husband’s demands for sex.

Father-daughter sexual abuse is more likely to be reported to authorities than other varieties of incest. However, a child often does not report being victimized because of fear that the family may be disrupted—through imprisonment for the father, economic dif­ficulties for the mother, and perhaps placement in foster homes for the victim and other siblings. Separation or divorce may result. Sometimes the victim herself is blamed. These potential consequences of revealing an incestuous relationship place tremendous pres­sures on the child to keep quiet. For these and other reasons, she may be extremely reluc­tant to tell anyone else in her family, let alone another adult such as a teacher or neighbor.