Emotional Incest: The Junior Wife

[Editors' note: At the time of writing, Libby Anne and Sierra were unaware of the controversy surrounding Hugo Schwyzer. The discussion of his critique of emotional incest is not an endorsement of Schwyzer by NLQ.]
by Sierra

Libby Anne has begun a series on Emotional Incest at Love, Joy, Feminism. In her latest post, she also links Hugo Schwyzer’s striking analysis of the problems with the “Daddy’s Girl” myth and princess culture. The following is my attempt to confirm and add more perspectives to the issue they are bringing to light.

As a child of a believer and a nonbeliever, I walked a confusing and sometimes torturous line between the prescriptions of my church and the realities of a divided household. Additionally, I was the only child, and female. For the first couple of years after my mother joined our fundamentalist church (while my age was still in the single digits), we basked in fellowship and preoccupied ourselves with the joys of home. Fundamentalist culture is extremely good at fostering an environment that feels like shelter, with clearly-defined expectations and an emphasis on the “simple life” – about which I’ll write more later. So for the early years, I happily did my homeschool lessons, read books, played outside, and ran to the door yelling “Dad’s home!” whenever his pickup truck began the descent of our long rural driveway.

Then puberty hit like a bombshell.

At nine, I developed breasts and wrapped them in sports bras to keep them hidden. At eleven, menstruation, which was impossible to hide. I was the youngest girl I knew to cross the threshold into womanhood, and the least willing. Although certain parents in my church had already singled me out by age seven as a sexual threat to their sons, the outpouring of messages about my sexuality was suddenly deafening as I crouched under the table in our church’s reception hall, clutching my abdomen and crying from the senseless pain.

The church had more answers for me than I had questions. Over the next few years, I was set adrift in a sea of advice. I was instructed in the rigors of courtship, plied with the sweet, romantic story of a married couple who first held hands at the wedding altar. Purity pledges became common in my peer group; I bought a key necklace with a cross in the center to demonstrate that I was “taken” by Christ. I even wore a fake engagement ring in public to ward off interested parties. I was warned against talking to boys, the same boys who had grown up my friends. I discovered, to my mortification, that I could no longer give a boy a birthday gift without his interpreting it as a sexual advance. I experienced my first stalker at age 16 – a member of our church a decade my senior. I was taught to look for a Christian boy who would ask my father’s permission to court me, who would show no interest in my physical form, who would be a model of a godly leader and provider. I was taught to expect to obey him and bear him children. I was taught that my father could veto any unsuitable boy; I was his responsibility and he was my head.

I was terrified.
But more than that, I was a special case. My father wasn’t a godly leader. He couldn’t judge the character of my potential suitors, since he didn’t have the Holy Ghost. He didn’t believe in the orthodoxy he was expected to enforce. What was going to happen to me?

My “specialness” in this regard was the subject of great angst between my mother, the pastor, and our friends. My mother asserted that God Himself would be my “head” and send me the right boy. My pastor cautioned that I still needed to be obedient to my father. Our friends told me that I ought to treat him as if he were already godly and he would follow suit as God worked in his heart. I was exhausted with the commentary. What if I just didn’t get married? I tried to ask. Paul had favored celibacy. I could be a missionary! I could run a soup kitchen! I could follow the Lord perfectly fine without courting anybody, ever.

Yeah right, they said.

Now, all of this angst presumed that my father would approach my adolescence completely differently. They presumed that he would encourage me to be immodest and promiscuous, to be a cutthroat career vixen, to abandon submission and childbearing, to have a string of boyfriends and marry only for money. They presumed that he would let me drink and smoke and go to places no decent girl had ever heard of.

They were full of crap. My father was a fundamentalist of his own kind.

My father responded to my changing body with a mixture of terror and possessiveness. He oscillated from warnings to lectures to assertions of power. He claimed the right to see my body naked to inspect my “development,” then warned me that boys my age were only interested in one thing. He lectured me about the weaknesses of men, telling me that they were helpless victims of their urges and that a high-heeled shoe could destroy a relationship. He taught me that men would cheat whenever possible (“it’s in their nature”) and that I should protect myself by withholding my body from them. He told me that boys would do anything to get me into bed. He said that I shouldn’t even trust the ones who seemed genuinely interested in my ideas and my life, because it was all just a mask hiding their real intentions. When we were out shopping, he pointed out boys in the crowd and told me that they had been staring at me, and if they got any closer he would have to kill them. I rolled my eyes and told him I could defend myself, thanks.

My father expected a lot of his rules to be broken. He expected me to get a boyfriend and to be physically involved with him, but demanded the right to grouse about it and treat the boy with suspicion and contempt. My father expected me to dress to attract boys; he wanted me to be immodest so that he would have the satisfaction of telling me to go upstairs and change. He wanted to have “a talk” with my hypothetical boyfriend, to warn him of his impending demise if he “laid a finger” on me. But despite all these expectations, my father nonetheless told me all the same things the church did about men. And ultimately, his actions added up to covert incest: the emotional substitution of a daughter for a spouse. He openly told me that my mother was asexual but I was hot, that she had abandoned him but I would not, could not, because I was his daughter.

From both my father and the church, the combined messages were:

  1. Men are primarily motivated by sex and are hopelessly weak against feminine wiles
  2. Women do not want sex, but use it to get power and money by leveraging it for marriage.
  3. The father’s job is to protect his daughter from would-be suitors, with physical violence if necessary.
  4. “Boyfriend” is a dirty word that means “drunk sex addict who beats up girls for fun.”
  5. A daughter should adore her father and measure all suitors against him.
  6. Fathers should “date” their daughters to prevent them from seeking admiration outside the family.
  7. Daughters should practice their wifely skills on their fathers.

At the core, the church and my father saw adolescence through the same lens: as a dangerous time in which pair bonds between peers must be warded off and substituted with father-daughter relationships lest the gates of hell pop open and spill out clouds of heroin and gonorrhea. I suspect that fundamentalist-evangelical culture’s enshrinement of emotional incest as “good practice” for marriage reflects a paranoia unique to patriarchs. Men are made to compete with their daughters’ suitors for their hearts and minds. Marriage is only acceptable if the “other man” is nonthreatening to the father’s centrality in the daughter’s emotional world. “Daddy’s Girl” is a life sentence. Marriages might end, but daddy is forever.

This identical lens was the source of serious damage for me as an adolescent. Here’s how:

  1. When my father asserted that he owned my body and could “inspect” it to see that I was “developing” properly, my church told me that I didn’t need to obey my father if he asked me to sin. They didn’t elaborate on whether his demand was sinful.
  2. When my father painted boys my age as sexual predators, the church agreed.
  3. When my father made allusions to our shopping trips and lunches out as “dates,” the church agreed.
  4. When my father told me that other people on the street would probably mistake us for a couple, the church was silent.
  5. When my father told me not to put on clear lipgloss because someone might think I was his prostitute, the church only sighed and shook its head.
  6. When my father told me he planned to drive off any suitors or do them physical harm, the church agreed that this was a sign of his protection.
  7. When my father told me that I was looking “busty” or sexually alluring, my church told me that he ought to say those things to exhort me to deeper modesty.
  8. When my father talked about our “special bond,” the church agreed. Voddie Baucham and the Botkin Sisters had made this “special bond” a God-given benefits package for fathers.
  9. My church told me that I should practice being a wife on my father. I should care for him emotionally. I should do domestic tasks for him. I should always be meek, submissive and adoring. My father’s gruff demand for coffee and his critical eye as I washed dishes were evidence of his “care” and “involvement” in my life.

When I chafed against my father’s invasions of my privacy, against his sexual crudeness, against his erratic moods and his sense of dependence on me for validation and emotional balance, my church told me to be longsuffering and to obey him as much as I could.
When my father ultimately left, the church mourned as if I had become a ship without a rudder. When I told them I was glad to escape his neediness and critical oversight, they told me that I was really acting out because I missed him.

My church enabled my father to practice emotional incest. It gave me no defense against him. Even though he lived outside their jurisdiction, they validated his desires for emotional possession of me and told me that I should accept them as normal. They mourned that he was not there to be my “head,” to take me to purity balls, to “guard” my virginity. They did not mourn that he placed me in the impossible position between doll and wife, the mediator for himself and my mother but also the replacement for her.

I am now engaged to my partner of five years. We have been through hell and heaven together. We are ever more committed to each other as the time wears on. But there’s a problem, you see, for my father and my church. My partner is a “boyfriend” – that inherently evil entity that disrupts the father’s “special bond” with his daughter and deprives him of his junior wives. Hence, within the first six months of our relationship, my father took me out to brunch for the express purpose of telling me that my boyfriend would dump me in the first month of graduate school the moment a “warm body” made itself available.

According to evangelical-fundamentalist culture, he was right to do so.

But he was so, so wrong.

Discuss this post on the NLQ forum. Comments are also open below.

Part 1 ~ Part 2 ~ Part 3

Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog  the phoenix and the olive branch

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce


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  • http://www.funkenwagnel.com Sharon @ Funken Wagnel

    This is just so shocking! I think what was most disturbing for me was the demand to inspect your developing body. I don’t know how you handled that, you poor thing. Thanks for writing this. I have an 11 year old daughter, and this is really challenging my thoughts on how she will be affected over the next coming years, despite not being in a religious household, there’s still much to think about.

  • africaturtle

    thank you for sharing this…so much detail to dive into. I appreciate it b/c I am so familiar with all those teachings on father daughter relationships, and also because it highlights many things that are in society in general (to a lesser degree). I remember hearing boys on the bus in high school talk about how they would act in “protecting” their own daughters someday. There does seem to be some sort of notion of a cultural “right of passage”. But there are so many shades with which it can be applied. I really see so much destructive power in what i would have labeled before as “typical” dad behavior. I know i was always elated any time i got to do something one-on-one with my dad, but he never really bought into the “dating your daughter” idea (my mom, of course was disappointed he wasn’t taking more “initiative” ) but really now, i am so grateful that he had rather healthy (i think) expectations for his kids. your essay definitely gives me food for thought!

  • LeeWhitt

    This site is jaw-dropping. Keep having to remind myself this is the USA we’re talking about here. Jaw-dropping.

  • Fred

    I’m a guy (of course!) and I’m blessed to have a strong stomach, but reading what you went through absolutely made me physically ill. Even though I didn’t grow up Fundamentalist, I knew quite a few people who did, and as I recall, on occasion, in high school and college, being treated by some girls’ fathers the way you describe if I showed ANY interest in them whatsoever — and I’m a Christian guy who has always been very strict about saving sex for marriage (I ultimately did marry, to someone who grew up 2 counties away from me, whose family didn’t practice this nonsense), and I remember feeling like I wasn’t being given a fair shake.

  • LiberatedAM

    Sorry for what you’ve been thru. I grew up in a Branham church and that’s exactly what they say about non-message-believers boys: ALL of them want your virginity and NONE of them are sincerely seeking true love. As a result I turned down many college boy friends who have now become engineers or scientists, and I ended up marrying a man that couldn’t keep a job and made my life miserable.