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KNOXVILLE — With the debut of actress Mackenzie Phillips’ new book alleging her sexual relationship with her father, incest suddenly has become the subject of television talk shows and water-cooler discussions.

Such frank talk may be uncommon, but the problem has been around forever.

“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we saw countless women from all social classes publicly announce — on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ in People magazine and in their communities — that their fathers had sexually abused them. But many people still refuse to believe that apparently respectable middle- and upper-class men do, in fact, molest their daughters. The fact is, it’s a problem that has always affected all classes, all cultures and races,” said Lynn Sacco, an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Sacco, a lawyer who practiced for 15 years in Chicago before turning to academics, in July published her first book, “Unspeakable: Father-Daughter Incest in American History.” In the book, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, Sacco used sources from medicine, law, social reform and popular culture to document both the occurrence of incest and the noisy silence around the subject. Her research and teaching interests include the histories of sexuality and gender, medicine, law and public policy, popular culture, and 19th-century and 20th-century U.S. history.

“I am interested in the struggle to reconcile the contradictions between what we observe and what we believe,” Sacco said. “While no one wants to believe that father-daughter incest can and does occur in any type of home, there is abundant evidence to demonstrate that it does.”

Sacco said father-daughter incest always has been around — although cultural mores and political needs have, at times, caused reports of it to be hidden, especially when it involved middle- or upper-class white families.

“For much of 19th century, father-daughter incest was understood to take place among all classes, and legal and extralegal attempts to deal with it tended to be swift and severe,” Sacco said. “But during the Progressive Era, from the 1890s to the 1920s, accusations of incest began to be directed exclusively toward immigrants, blacks and the lower socioeconomic classes. People began closing their eyes to the fact that it also was still a problem among more affluent white families.

“For instance,” she said, “scientific breakthroughs in the 1890s improved doctors’ ability to detect gonorrhea, which doctors considered an STD, but social biases kept doctors and legal authorities from seeing the obvious evidence that they themselves had uncovered.

“When they discovered that gonorrhea was ‘epidemic’ among all classes of girls — not just girls from socially marginalized families — health care professionals and reformers revised their views about gonorrhea, not incest. Without any research on the topic, doctors and reformers simply rejected out of hand the possibility that men from their own class had committed such heinous behavior. They blamed the epidemic instead first on mothers’ hands, then on other girls, and finally — in desperation — on toilet seats.”

Sacco said the new feminism of the 1970s brought allegations of father-daughter incest back into the light, creating new societal tensions.

A flurry of news reports seems to be having the same effect today.

“This actress’ allegations — as well as some of other high-profile stories that are making news today — are once again forcing us to look at the issue of incest and realize that it continues to be a problem in our society,” Sacco said. “Every time an allegation is made, people spend a lot of time debating whether it really happened. Such debate is rather pointless. Simply wishing incest didn’t happen — or claiming that there is no way of knowing if it happened — won’t stop father-daughter incest or protect vulnerable girls from assault.”

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely, (865-974-5034,