My biological father wanted to have sex with me from the first moment he laid eyes on me. This I learned two years after meeting him, as I dry heaved over his toilet in a moment of all-consuming anxiety and self-loathing. This was just after the second time we had oral sex.
“How long have you wanted this to happen?” I asked. I didn’t really want to know the answer.
“From the first moment I saw you,” he told me.
I met him for the first time when I was 19, the same age my mother was when she met him. They had had unprotected sex a handful of times, before she got pregnant and he made a quick exit. I sought him out because I was lonely and angry at her. She’d stayed in an abusive relationship with a new partner for almost a decade, and when it ended, my self-esteem was wrecked and my confidence shattered. I wanted to find a parent who would love me unconditionally, who would protect me. The irony of what happened does not escape me.
Bent over that toilet, I was filled with an unmatched horror. I can’t really begin to describe it. All along I’d thought I had landed in paradise; I thought I was finally safe. He lived in Jamaica, and from the ages of 19 to 21, I flew there for visits. He dazzled me. He treated me to exquisite meals, to travel on the island—anything I wanted. At the time, it made for a stark and welcome contrast to my mother’s abusive long-term partner, whom I’d long feared.
My father and I often talked on the phone between visits. We had so much in common; we connected immediately. It seemed that everything he loved, I loved, and vice versa. When I first met him in person I noticed that we even had the same posture, the same way of carrying ourselves in the world. I was intoxicated by our likeness, which I never shared with my mother, or with any siblings (I am an only child). All of a sudden I had company. It was that simple. I had a dream parent, and I was over the moon.
There were a lot of red flags over the course of those two years, moments I’m only now able to recognize as such. But being the daughter of a let’s-look-at-our-vaginas-together feminist who is also a sex historian with a specialization in pedophilia and sex offenders—topics that were often openly discussed around me as a kid—I found that the boundaries that existed in other families simply did not exist in mine. So when my dad started talking to me openly about his past sexual encounters, it felt fairly normal. When he told me he was cheating on his current girlfriend, I was not bothered by it. I was 19, and my mother had always spoken to me like an adult. I felt he was speaking to me the same way. I felt included in his club, and I was flattered.
On my second trip to Jamaica, I started sleeping in my dad’s bed. It was, in retrospect, yet another thing that might seem inappropriate to other kids. But I came from a kiss-on-the-lips relationship with both my mother and grandmother, and growing up, it was normal for us to cuddle and be affectionate together. I enjoyed it. I also had no idea what was normal in a father-daughter relationship. We held each other and I felt safe. When I started feeling sexually attracted to him—as well as shocked and horrified to realize it—I spoke of it to no one, least of all him. I hoped I would go home and the feeling would go away. But it didn’t. Instead, it grew.
During that final visit to Jamaica, I discovered our sexual attraction to be mutual. It was August 2009, and one day, my dad did something that deeply upset me. The heat outside was deadly, and we stayed cooped up in his bedroom, where there was air conditioning. We were watching TV to pass the time when he put on a porn channel. Sex workers were being interviewed and he told me which of them he would most like to fuck.
I fled from the room in anger and confusion. I shut myself up in the other bedroom, which was oppressively hot, until he coaxed me to come out, apologizing repeatedly. I wanted to love him. I felt I needed him in my otherwise broken life. But things were starting to feel wrong between us. He was crossing boundaries; I was doing my best to suppress my sexual attraction to him. But despite my sense of impending doom, it was there. And then, we became sexually involved.
I imagine that, unless you have experienced genetic sexual attraction yourself, this is going to sound entirely unbelievable. But trust me: it is as real and intense as anything. The sexual feelings I had for my father felt like a dark spell that had been cast over me—a description that a therapist told me had been used almost verbatim by another client who had experienced father-daughter GSA. In general, my guiding principle in life is being in control. But in that moment I had absolutely none. It was like those nightmares in which you scream and no one hears you: you are powerless and you know it. I was not only a victim of my father’s two-year seduction; I also felt a victim of my own sexual feelings. I didn’t know then what GSA was, or how common it is. (The incidence rate of GSA is unquantified due to the difficulty involved in reporting or researching it; a commonly cited, if disputed, figure puts it at 50% of relatives who meet as adults.) I felt ashamed of myself, and I had no one to talk to about it. I wasn’t equipped to understand or handle my feelings.
We had oral sex a few times, almost always followed by my descending into a whirlwind of self-hate and disgust and dry heaving over the toilet in the bathroom attached to his room. He lay on his bed looking aloof during these episodes, spouting empty reassurances like “You’ll be fine.” I was on an island far from home, and had no one to turn to, nowhere to escape. I did not want to fly home early because I knew my mother would have questions, so I stayed in Jamaica for the remaining few days of my scheduled visit, the darkest of my life. I felt so powerless that I begged him to stop me from initiating, and for him to stop initiating too. He agreed, did neither, and I remained horrifically and self-destructively unable to resist.
In the meantime he took me out for dinner with his friends and girlfriend, charming them all as usual. I wanted the floor to open up and make me disappear forever. Finally, on my last night in Jamaica, I shut myself up in the other bedroom, away from him, and he drove me to the airport in silence the next morning. I hoped I would return home and the terrible feelings that haunted me would go away. Instead, they grew.
I had daily panic attacks and felt like a criminal of the most terrible kind for years. It took my therapist at the time explaining GSA to me, and that it is never the child’s fault (a person, regardless of age, is always the child in their relationship with their parent), for me to stop blaming myself.
When I admitted to our sexual involvement, I was accused of a lot of terrible things. I expect that publishing this will bring more. A member of his family demanded to know why I was not speaking to him, and when I told her, she accused me of planning the whole thing to spite both my mother and father, by making my mother jealous, and vindictively wrecking my dad’s life (I obviously failed on that front, since he is running a successful new business and, as far as I can tell, is undamaged by my biblical womanly evil).
To many people, parent-child incest is as repellent as pedophilia, to which it is linked in obvious and complicated ways. But we are schizophrenic on this issue: calling one’s male sexual partner “daddy” is commonplace, and parent-child sexual attraction is referenced and parodied frequently in pop culture. To be sure, mother-son relationships crop up far more frequently than father-daughter ones, i.e. Margaret and Billy Chenowith in Six Feet Under, Lucille and Buster Bluth in Arrested Development, and Gillian and Jimmy Darmody in Boardwalk Empire—and there’s a reason for this.
Within a patriarchal system, the idea of father-daughter incest is especially disturbing, because it is already entrenched in so many of our traditions, as well as our most cliché gendered stereotypes—the reluctant father walking the daughter down the aisle on her wedding day, giving her away to her husband-to-be, as though he had previously owned her sexual being. The jealous father trope—the father who attacks or humiliates each of his daughter’s potential or actual sexual partners in hopes of scaring them away—is as common as the “daddy’s girl” trope: the daughter who is fiercely loyal and attached to her father (often playing an emotionally wifely role in his household), and wants to find a sexual partner who is as much like him as possible.
Male power in these scenarios often goes unseen. Despite the fact that father-daughter incest has always been the most commonly reported type—and despite the reality that women are far more frequently the victims of male violence than the other way around—stories of women committing sexual crimes against men continue to shape our culture, all the way from Lot’s daughters and Ovid’s Myrrha to the straw women that figure prominently in men’s rights circles.
So, though she hurt me deeply, I understand the factors that made my dad’s family member accuse me of planning the whole thing. There is a strong, subverted pop culture dialogue surrounding parent-child jealousy and sexual attraction. But we are still inclined to address those who have had sexual encounters with their parents or family members with the hottest hate and with the most intense disgust. I know this personally: these are the feelings I directed towards myself for years following my sexual encounter with my biological father.
So here’s a new story to throw into the mix: genetic sexual attraction is normal, and very real. If it is a parent-child relationship, the parent, whether male or female, is always responsible for establishing and maintaining boundaries. Failing that, they are sexual abusers. And to the victims of their abuse, I want to say what I have finally been able to understand myself: that my attraction, and what it led to, was not my fault.
Natasha Rose Chenier, M.A., is a writer, musician, and award-winning literary scholar. She is currently writing a novel based on her experience with GSA, which is published serially, on the first of each month, at her website.
A follow-up interview with Natasha will appear on Jezebel tomorrow.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.