A mother's love is sacred in our culture. So hearing that 36-year-old Aimee L. Sword had sex with her 16 year old son seems unfathomable to us. Somehow, a father having sex with a daughter, while just as disturbing an despicable, seems more typical. Most sex offenders are male.
Or so we think.
James A. Cates, a clinical psychologist in Northeast Indiana, says bad record keeping and limited reporting prevents us from truly knowing how common this form of incest is. He says there is still enough chauvinistic thinking that "victims," particularly adolescent males coerced by older females, may not perceive themselves as "victims" at all, and hence such crimes may be under-reported. Young men may be too embarrassed to report assault or coercion by a female, and even harbor a disbelief that it occurred (e.g., "Aunt So and So would never do that!").
No question Sword has problems. Women who become romantically and/or sexually aroused by a child, preadolescent, or early adolescent male are likely to experience many of the same issues as any sex offender: fear of intimacy, failure to develop full adult emotional relationships, sexual and/or emotional trauma at an early age, failure to empathize fully with others, Cates explains.
Researchers are only beginning to examine some of the possible differences between male and female offenders, but because the number of female offenders is so small by comparison, it's shaky at best.
It would be unprofessional and unethical for Cates to comment directly on the Sword case, but he did offer some general insight into why moms sometimes have sex with their sons.
One reason has to do with the fact that Sword gave up her son for adoption when he was a baby, and didn't reconnect with him until he was a teenager. There is a theory that raising a child from infancy onward "inoculates" a male parent against seeing that child as a sexual object.
"Rather, the parent learns to see the child as a son or daughter, to be loved in a protective, parental manner rather than a sexual or romantic manner," Cates says. "This would probably hold true for a mother as well, but the theory has largely been applied to male offenders."
Psychologists sometimes use this theory to explain the reason stepparents or adoptive parents sexually abuse their children, and it could apply in the case of a birth mother who had placed her child for adoption, only to find him in later years. "There would be no bonding to stop a parent with preexisting problems with sexual/romantic boundaries from feeling drawn to her/his child in an inappropriate way," Cates says.
He doesn't give much weight to another circulating explanation for Sword's behavior, called "genetic attraction." This is the theory that close biological relatives who meet as adults have been known to experience such attraction. Author of the book on this theory, Barbara Gonyo, dubbed the phenomenon "Genetic Sexual Attraction" in discussing her own charged reunion with the son she gave up for adoption.
"What we don't understand about the maternal-child bond, much less the parental-child bond is overwhelming, although efforts such as the human genome project, advances in brain imaging technology, and a better understanding of neurochemistry are advancing us rapidly in these areas," Cates says. "It just remains for an understanding of the emotions to catch up."
For now, we can only wonder and pray we do not hear a story like this again anytime soon.
"We are shocked when mothers too are fallible humans who fall prey to irrational thinking, destructive behaviors, or fail to treat their children as we think they should," Cates said. "The greater wonder (for which we should be thankful) is that so many mothers do work hard to be caring, competent parents, often in the face of overwhelming odds."
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