Sanitized For Your Protection: Medical Discourse and the Denial of Incest in the United States, 1890-1940
This article examines medical discourses from 1890 to 1940, when physicians and reformers uncovered, and then dissembled, evidence that white, middle- and upper-class American men were sexually abusing their daughters. Doctors had long recognized that children could acquire gonorrhea, but they believed that infections were confined primarily to poor and working-class girls who had been sexually assaulted. In the 1890s, doctors began to incorporate new technologies into the diagnostic process and they were shocked to discover that gonorrhea infection was so common among girls that they feared it was epidemic. Doctors claimed that concurrent infections in fathers and daughters from “respectable” white families were particularly vexing. Although they could neither explain nor prove how else these girls became infected, doctors refused to consider the possibility of incest. Persistently ignoring the obvious, health care workers and reformers revised their views about the susceptibility of girls to infection, not incest. By 1940, medical textbooks relied on untested speculation to declare that most girls acquired gonorrhea from nonsexual contacts with other females or contaminated objects: their mothers, other girls, or toilet seats. “Scientific advances,” ironically, obscured rather than illuminated the source of girls’ infection.
“Sanitized For Your Protection: Medical Discourse and the Denial of Incest in the United States, 1890-1940.” Journal of Women’s History 14 (autumn 2002): 80