Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire goes where not even the usual depictions of black dysfunction usually go.
The protagonist, Claireece “Precious” Jones, is sexually abused by her father—and her mother. Her father impregnates her twice and infects her with an STD that eventually kills him.
These extreme, fictional examples of child sexual abuse may reflect true experiences by some people. God, bless them. However, the sexual abuse depicted in Precious doesn’t reflect what really happens in homes where children are sexually abused.
First, stepfathers—not fathers—are more likely to be abusers in homes where this occurs. Sibling-sibling incest is the next mostly likely occurrence, according to Professor Debra Lieberman, a University of Miami psychology professor, who has written extensively about the social cues that lead to “incest avoidance.” (In plain language: How people know not to “mess with” their relatives.)
According to Lieberman, mother-son incest, which is extremely rare, comes next. Even then, the son is likely to initiate. And the type of mother-daughter abuse depicted in Precious? Not unheard of, but certainly not the type of trend that should lead people to believe its depiction on the big screen is indicative of a vast conspiracy to ignore its existence.
Audiences are sure to be touched by Precious’ journey to self-awareness and self-acceptance. But they should not confuse her fictional journey with what is “normal” in poor black communities, or believe the typical poor, black community routinely turns a blind eye to its most vulnerable children. Black fathers should not suffer from another brush from the palette of negative stereotyping.
We should also set the record straight on child sexual abuse before a new meme takes hold: Research shows that fathers are hard-wired against incest, even before morality and values come into play. The necessary presence of the father is critical to a girl’s sexual development because his presence, through the release of pheromones, slows her sexual development, making her less attractive to other males.
The insidious crime of child sexual abuse tends to take place when people are not sure they’re related, Lieberman says. Fathers who do sexually abuse their daughters may be unsure the child is theirs. These crimes occur in a cesspool of pathology, like drug- and alcohol abuse. Promiscuity is an issue that may lead fathers to be unsure of parentage. These are reasons, please note, not excuses, for disgusting, criminal behavior.
“Males need to have the certainty of paternity …,” Lieberman says. “Knowing the female they’ve been living with has been faithful in the production of a child.”
For siblings, social cues such as living in the same home, being cared for and breast-fed by the same woman, are important clues to kinship that kick in even before morality is taught, Lieberman says: “These systems rely on a family structure that is typical over our evolutionary history. If you disrupt that family structure, you might also disrupt some of the natural aversions that develop.”
“Sexual abuse occurs as result of the disruption of these natural cues,” she says. “I would hope this movie accurately reflects that. There’s rhyme or reason for it. You don’t want to give people the message that any random family is open to sexual abuse.”
No, we don’t.
Deborah Douglas is a Chicago-based journalist and writing professor.