While what you did was exploitative and potentially harmful, at least you understand that now and feel responsible for its consequences. I sincerely hope she was not traumatized by what happened to her, since I wouldn’t wish emotional damage on anyone. Your remorse and current concern give me hope that you’ll do what you have to, to ensure that she’s alright.
First and foremost, you should stop being intimate with her until both of you can resolve exactly how all of this affected her, where her sexual feelings are coming from, and if it’s at all good for her to be involved with you. If she was traumatized, the current relationship may be a kind of dysfunctional coping mechanism, impeding her from healing. You yourself have expressed such concerns.
Make sure she understands that you’re ending the sexual intimacy because you love her, and that your love is unconditional, with or without the sex. Sexual relationships between parents and adult children should always be based on such an understanding. You are still her father first, the sex is just an addition to that.
Look for and examine these warning signs:
- The fact that she has limited memory of that childhood sexual contact is a warning sign. The older she was when it happened, the more of a warning sign it is.
- Does she seem hyper-sexual? In particular, in a self-destructive way? What do you know of her past relationships and sexual encounters with boys/men? Did she disregard her own physical and emotional safety by picking dangerous or abusive men, or having repeated unsafe sex with different partners? Has she sexually abused or coerced anyone else?
- Does she seem unconsciously threatened around strange men? She may not be consciously aware of it, but in enclosed spaces with strange men she might become panicked. This is a big red flag. If she switches from being excessively flirtatious with men, to being frightened, in a single social setting and with little reason, that’s a huge red flag. (E.g. she is sexual and flirtatious with men until the instant she loses an escape route, then becoming panicked.)
- Does she have any self-hatred or self-disgust around sex? Does she feel alienated or distant from her own body? (This is the opposite of being hyper-sexual, though both can be exhibited. Common responses to sexual trauma are to live life exclusively through one’s flesh, and/or to distance oneself from one’s flesh.) Does she seem very emotionally unavailable after sex?
- Does she have problems with emotional intimacy? In particular, does she display a split over intimacy, seemingly very intimate, flirtatious, and open with acquaintances and friends, but antagonistic and distant once people become romantically close to her?
- Does she have a history of problems forming meaningful non-sexual relationships with boys and men? (I’m not referring to you, in this case. One piece of evidence is not enough.) Does she try force her platonic relationships with boys/men into sexual ones? Does she avoid non-sexual friendships with boys/men?
- Does she have serious problems with socializing, especially ones that can’t be related back to general shyness or a history of being bullied? There are different levels of introversion, and if hers is on the more extreme end, it might be a symptom (though it might not).
These are things you need to think about, and you should ask her to think about them as well. However, I would advise against trying to therapize her yourself. If she was traumatized, then you’re the last person she needs to work these things through with - at least at such an early stage.
After initially exploring these issues, I would suggest getting her to see a therapist about it. Now, therapists for situations like this are tough, because you won’t be able to find one that doesn’t have existing baggage concerning the “incest” taboo. This may lead the therapist to trying to put your daughter into one of their handy boxes for categorizing victims of abuse. Even if she was traumatized, adding further trauma and stigma on top of it won’t help. Unfortunately, some therapists and psychologists don’t seem to realize how nuanced and diverse individual reactions to sexual abuse can be.
I suggest that she see a therapist - preferably one who is emotionally open and deals frequently with younger people and victims of sexual abuse - but not state specifically why. She should go through the therapy normally (getting help for other issues is always a good idea, anyway), and see if the therapist starts picking up on signals of past sexual abuse. If the therapist starts suspecting that she was, in fact, abused, then it would probably be okay for her to discuss the past sexual contact, if not the recent sex. If it does turn out that she was traumatized, and that y’all’s current relationship is a kind of acting out on her part, a symptom, then you should, as a responsible father - assuming that’s what you’re trying to be here - do whatever she and the therapist feel is necessary for her to heal. Take full responsibility for the consequences of your actions.
Now, it’s unlikely, but not impossible, that she wasn’t emotionally harmed in any lasting way by that sexual contact. (Once again, people’s reactions to childhood sexual contact are diverse. I’m not going to excuse what you did, but I’m not going to demand that she feel a certain way, either.) If she wasn’t, then thank god. Now you two have to examine together whether y’all’s current relationship is healthy, independent of the past.
- Talk to her about all of the things you thought, the warning signs you perceived, what she thought, what she perceived, and what came out in therapy. You shouldn’t do this during the process, but if it reaches this point then it should be okay to start unpacking it all with each other.
- How did she feel about you when she was younger, as her father? How did you feel about her, as your daughter? What did she feel was missing from her life as your daughter? What do you wish you had done differently? What critiques does she have of you as a father? (Do not critique her as a daughter, that is not your role, as her prior guardian and the current older party.) Talk about this. It’s very important that you re-establish a healthy family bond before moving on to anything more.
- Why did she accept entering into a sexual relationship with you as an adult? How did she feel about it at that time? Why did she continue with it? How does she feel about it now? You should think about and explain the same for yourself. Talk about what this sexual relationship means to the two of you.
- Where does she want the relationship to go in the future? Where do you want it to go? Is it going to be temporary? Is it purely family-with-benefits? Or is it just a sexually close family relationship? Or is it fully romantic? Do either of y’all want it to be an open relationship, or to get married to other people, or do y’all want to live together monogamously?
- Does she understand the social repercussions of having a sexual relationship with you? Is it worth it to her? Is it worth it to you?
If you abstain from sexual contact with her during this process, and if after self-examination and therapy she finds she doesn’t feel traumatized or behaviorally affected by your sexual exploitation of her as a minor, and if after all of that she reforms some kind of secure non-sexual bond to you, and if after that she still wants to continue with y’all’s sexual relationship… then go ahead. At that point, there’s no practical ethical reason for me to say y’all shouldn’t, other than a moralistic attempt to force her to feel abused when she doesn’t.
I blog about healthy and ethical nontraditional sexual and romantic relationships at my tumblr The Final Manifesto. You can send me asks there, which I will not publicly respond to or post without permission. You can also send me an email at: email@example.com.
Um…. I think this is for the dad you send me a couple messages.
These is a response to that, I think? Seems like a bit of an overreaction all things considered but thanks for submitting.