Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Arts


This thesis examines the behaviour known as deliberate self-harm in young women who are victims of parental incest. I am interested in identifying the impact and significance of incest in childhood on the development of young women’s agency and the significance of self-harming behaviour in that development. I argue that central to understanding the relationship between self-harm and incest is the notion of the self and the social and relational context in which it develops. The theoretical framework I employ to explain the development of self draws upon work in developmental psychology and feminist philosophical discourse on selfhood. My examination of the relationship between deliberate self-harm and incest explores the interaction between the three facets of an incestuous relationship: the sexual abuse of a child by her parent. The analysis of this interaction begins by articulating the significance of the relationship between parent and child on the child’s development. I contend that when a parent sexually abuses his child, he threatens his child’s attachment to him. Because this connection is integral to her psychological development, the child will try to remain in relationship with her parent despite his abuse of her, and will therefore develop complex, and sometimes contradictory, responses to the harm of incest that protect this attachment. I argue that deliberate self-harm should be understood in part as an attempt to remain connected to her abusive parent because of the importance of this relationship to the child’s developing sense of selfhood. To further illuminate the implications of incest on self-development, I articulate some of the psychological impacts of shame as it operates within an oppressive relationship such as parental incest involving a child. I attempt to show that the shame engendered by incest communicates to the child that she is an inferior and an inadequate moral agent, an agent unworthy of being treated respectfully by others. Because she is developmentally vulnerable, this shame profoundly shapes her understanding of herself, her responsibility and her agency. In light of such disturbances to the child’s sense of self, I critically analyse the popular conception of deliberate self-harm as primarily a coping strategy used to deal with the effects of sexual trauma. I argue that this is not the best way to understand, and respond to, the behaviour. I contend that current coping theory does not adequately attend to the influence of development or context upon an individual’s coping style, and because the selfhood of a victim of incest develops within an oppressive context, coping theory cannot significantly advance our understanding of the behaviour, not the development of appropriate clinical responses or treatment. The examination of the relationship between deliberate self-harm and incest is advanced by a consideration of the interplay between oppressive socialisation and personal autonomy. Drawing on the significance of relationships, trust and selfregard in the development of a child’s selfhood and autonomy, I show how the development of the skills of autonomy is compromised by the experience of incestuous abuse. I maintain that the behaviour of self-harm is indicative of such compromise in her skills. Given my argument that adopting a developmental approach to selfhood is conducive to reaching a better understanding of deliberate self-harm, I move to an analysis of the adequacy of the typical clinical response to young women who selfharm. I argue that the diagnostic tool of the clinical community constrains clinicians’ ability to adopt a developmental approach when treating those who self-harm, and as such, is likely to lead to an inappropriate clinical response. I conclude with some suggestions as to how a clinician may, informed by the argument concerning the development of relational autonomy and selfhood developed here, more ethically engage with young women who self-harm. This thesis demonstrates that adopting a developmental, relational approach is conducive to better understanding self-harm in young women who are victims of incest. Such an approach illuminates the significance of relationships in the development of selfhood, which in turn better positions the clinician to address the issues which underlie her behaviour.

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Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.