The term "incest" encompasses sexual behavior with a variety of patterns, variations, causes, types, relationships, and effects. Although incest is illegal in all states in the United States, the laws vary from state to state regarding the behavior and degree of relatedness considered incestuous. In general, incest laws prohibit marriage, cohabitation, and sexual relations (usuallydefined as sexual intercourse) between individuals who are closely related byblood, marriage, or adoption.
Most social scientists believe that the primary purpose of the prohibition, often called the incest taboo, is to protect the nuclear family from the consequences of sexual rivalry and jealousy. The taboo is linked with the rule ofexogamy (marriage outside of one's kinship group, usually for the purpose ofsocial alliance between groups). Besides reinforcing the incest prohibition,this rule prevents families from becoming culturally ingrown through continuous endogamy (marriage within a kinship group). Highly inbred populations havediminished reproductive capacity and have higher risks for hereditary disorders. Marriage to relatives outside the nuclear family is common in a number of cultures, however, and it is no longer widely believed that the incest taboo serves principally to guard against inbreeding as a negative biological result of incest.
Another theory, emphasizing socialization, argues that the incest taboo is animportant method of regulating the erotic impulse in children, preparing them to function with mature restraint in adult society. The psychoanalytic explanation of Sigmund Freud speculated that the horror of incest resulted from the combination of ambivalent emotions toward one's immediate family, and repressed forbidden desires to commit sexual acts with family members.
Incest can range from a one-time occurrence to hundreds of contacts spanningdecades. It may involve occasional contact or may be compulsive/addictive innature and occur several times a day. The average duration of activity is approximately four years. In addition, most perpetrators are considerably olderthan their victims, are predominately male, and who on the average abuse at more serious and traumatic levels than do female perpetrators. While incest has commonly been thought to occur more often in families of lower socioeconomic class, in ethnic minorities, and in rural families, those beliefs have notbeen adequately substantiated.
Indications are that incestuous abuse usually does not commonly involve physical force or violence. Verbal or implied threats are more often used by the perpetrator to ensure the child's silence and compliance. The child maybe threatened with family breakup, dissolution of the special relationship with the perpetrator, shame, or blame. The perpetrator may also threaten to commit suicide, harm the victim or other family members, family pets, or valuedpossessions if the incest is revealed or terminated.
Rape and Incest
It is clear from research findings that rape and incest share many similarities but also have some differences as well. The differences are found in threeareas: the duration and progression of sexual activity over time; coercion;and consent. Most incest involves multiple acts of sexual violation over time, ranging from several months to many years. The usual pattern is for the sexual activity to escalate. In addition, most incestuous relationships begin not as the result of physical force and violence but rather under the guise ofaffection or education. Frequently, the perpetrator offers the victim the opportunity to be involved in a special relationship with a known and valued adult. Usually the coercion is subtle, especially at first. However, it may intensify over the course of the incestuous relationship. Threats, lies, and manipulation are often used to ensure secrecy and continued involvement.
While neither women who are raped nor incest victims willingly give consent,the child's experience differs because of the adult's authority and importance in his or her life. The perpetrator gains access to the child by betrayingthe child's special trust and by exploiting the child's powerlessness. Thus,incest can be viewed as a form of rape (sexual penetration through the use offorce with lack of consent on the part of the victim) within the family, with the added potential for psychological damage to the victim due to the relationship between the child and the adult.
Incidence and Prevalence of Incest
Until the late 1970s and early 1980s, incest was believed to be exceedingly rare. It has proven difficult to accurately estimate the incidence (the numberof incestuous cases that have occurred over a period of time) and prevalence(the number of people who have been victims during their lives) of incestuous abuse. There are many reasons why it is difficult to obtain accurate estimates. These include difficulties in defining incest (some definitions list only sexual intercourse as incestuous abuse, while others include other types ofsexual contact). In addition, many victims of incest may fail to report theact a tendency that incest shares with rape. However, various studies place the percentage of incest victims in the general population of America at about10 to 20 million. Among the reported victims of incest, girls outnumber boysby approximately ten to one; however the number of boys abused may be underreported.
Incest most commonly begins when a child is between the ages of eight and twelve. Emerging data indicate that the earlier the victim was abused, the morerepressed the memory. Thus younger victims are more prone to have protectively "forgotten" their earlier experiences and so are unable to report them.
Categories of Incest
The major categories of incest include incest between blood relatives (consanguinal incest); relatives by adoption or marriage (affinal incest), and quasi-relatives (for example, a live-in partner or foster parent).
Sexual relations between the most closely related blood relatives, that is, within the nuclear family (between parent and child and between siblings), arethe most forbidden because they have the most serious potential for harm anddestruction. Parent-child incest, which in most cases means father- or stepfather-daughter involvement, is consistently reported as the most damaging type of incest, followed by sibling incest perpetrated by brothers. Many aspectsof the nuclear family are potentially related to the greater traumatic impact: the degree of relatedness and contact between victim and perpetrator and therefore the degree of betrayal involved, along with the greater opportunityfor contact and entrapment and the related opportunity for incest of longer duration, greater frequency, and greater severity.
The taboo applies less strictly to individuals who are affinally related andvaries according to the roles they occupy with one another. Stepparent-stepchild incest is the most forbidden, followed by stepsibling contact, and then contact between other members of the extended family. The societal taboo is even weaker when individuals are unrelated but occupy family roles and performfamily functions (quasi-relatives), as in the case of a live-in partner who takes on the roles of husband and father.
Although state laws prohibit sexual intercourse and marriage between individuals who are related by blood, there is no uniformity concerning the degree ofrelatedness prohibited. Most of these laws also prohibit sexual contact between affinal relatives. Quasi-relatives, however, are not covered by the incest laws because no blood or legal relationship exists between the involved individuals; rather sexual contact between them is prohibited by the state statutes covering rape, sexual assault, child abuse, domestic abuse, or criminal sexual conduct. Sexual contact between quasi-relatives, however, is consideredincest even though it is not so defined legally, since this contact has incestuous connotations and serious psychological repercussions for the child.
Cross-generational incest involves sexual contact with a considerably older partner who is a step-parent, in-law, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or second cousin. It may also involve a quasi-relative who plays a parental or guardian role in the child's life and from whom the child should be able to expect sexualdistance.
Peer incest involves sexual contact between individuals who are close in age.Most sibling (including step- and half-sibling) and cousin incest falls withing this category, although when a large age difference exists between participants, cross-generational incest may be the more appropriate category.
While there is clear that sexual curiosity, observation, and exploration between agemates is normal in humans, it moves beyond this point when it is nonmutual or forced. When incest occurs between individuals who are close in age,it has been assumed to have less potential for damage than when a large age discrepancy exists. However the data suggest that some peer incest, particularly involving older brothers/cousins and younger sisters/cousins, has more serious consequences than has been previously estimated. Many adolescents, for example, abuse younger children as a traumatic reenactment of their own abuseor because they have had inappropriate sexual stimulation or modeling in their own families.
Opposite-sex and Same-sex Incest
Research suggests that same-sex incest, whether it involves males or females(although same-sex incest seems to involve boys more than girls), is vastly underreported and underinvestigated because its occurrence involves breaking two taboos incest and homosexuality. However, same-sex incest should not be always assumed to indicate homo on the part of the perpetrator. The incest maybe a reenactment of the perpetrator's own childhood sexual abuse, as well asa symbolic identification with the victim. It is thus seen as a traumatic stress response and egocentric choice rather than a homosexual one. It is, of course, confusing and traumatizing for the victim and often causes a questioning of his or her own sexual orientation.
The term "multiple incest" has been applied to those situations in which a victim is abused by more than one perpetrator either concurrently or sequentially, as well as to situations in which a perpetrator abuses more than one victim. Many incest survivors have experienced multiple incest by members of thenuclear or extended family, and many perpetrators abuse more than one child.Some perpetrators remain strictly within the family, while others involve other children as well. Some abusers involve more than one child; others engagechildren sequentially, usually beginning with the oldest, most vulnerable, ormost favored child (usually the oldest daughter) and then move on to others.
Occasionally, several incestuous pairings within families occur both the peerand cross-generational levels. Once the incest barrier is broken, there seems little to inhibit additional incestuous activity. Incest becomes the "normal" way for family members to interact, even though the abuse is commonly kepthidden.
After the initial abuse has taken place, a victim of multiple incestuous perpetrators often views the subsequent victimization as proof that something about him or her has caused the abuse. Blame is added to already-existing shame.
Incest and the Family
The typical family in which incest occurs has been found to have rigid boundaries with regard to outsiders, that is, to be socially, psychologically, andphysically isolated. Family members are mutually dependent on one another toget their needs met. Appropriate boundaries are lacking between individual family members and between generations. Children are often involved in role reversal with the parents, for example, the child may become the caretaker for one or both parents or for the entire family.
Emotional and physical deprivation predominates in the family. Often family members do not touch each other with love or affection. Affection is expressedsexually. Consequently, the children may be starved for love and affection,with the contact surrounding the abuse their only source of nurturance.
There appear to be two main family types in which incest occurs most regularly: the dysfunctional family and the superficially "normal"family. The dysfunctional family is characterized by problems spanning generations, relatively low socioeconomic standing, marginal functioning of individual family members,and the family as a whole (for example, drug or alcohol abuse). In this family, it is not unusual for several family members to be sexually involved withone another, for pregnancies to result, and for the resulting children to beraised in the family.
Children in dysfunctional families are basically left to raise themselves, and without adult supervision, are vulnerable to all forms of abuse inside andoutside of the family. While some become caretakers, others become rebels.
The superficially normal family appears to be solid and well-functioning. Theparents have usually been in a long-term marriage. They are socially and financially stable, and seem well-respected by the community. Typically the family follows the traditional model of the husband as"head of the household" andthe wife as subordinate.
The family, however, is not as stable internally as it appears to be on the surface. The parents often lack the emotional capacity to adequately nuture one another, much less their children. As a result, both are emotionally needyand impoverished, perhaps due to the abusive upbringing of one or both parents. Over time the parents become estranged from one another, not only emotionally but also sexually. Sometimes they develop work schedules that allow themto avoid interacting with one another on much more than a superficial level.Alcoholism or other problems are often evident and contribute to the barren emotional family climate. The mother turns to her daughter for help in runningthe household, and the father turns to his daughter for emotional and sexualsustenance. Children, then, often turn to one another to meet their own emotional or other needs, and sometimes the relationship becomes sexual. When andif incest in this family is discovered by an outsider, it is denied or treated as insignificant.
The dysfunction and its associated denial contribute to an unstable atmosphere supported by inconsistent responses on the part of the parents. What bringspraise and affection one day results in abuse and rejection on another. Children cope with this inconsistency by learning to be mistrustful and by responding in ways that help them avoid further conflict, criticism, or punishment.In extreme cases, children begin to split off these different experiences ofreality, a process that ultimately develops a fragmented sense of self. Without outside intervention to break the cycle, the abuse becomes self-perpetuating. It distorts the individual personality of family members and the relationships among them.
The Effects of Incest
Incest is a form of chronic traumatic stress that can lead to a host of initial and long-term effects. Like child sexual abuse in general, it poses a serious mental health risk for many victims. The chronic nature of the abuse, thenature of the family, including its dynamics and defenses, the child's dependence on and entrapment in the family, and his or her loyalty to that family,necessitate using strong defenses to cope. Denial and dissociation (splitting off of normal thought processes from consciousness) allow the victim to discount, minimize, or otherwise suppress memories of abuse. These defenses often persist into adulthood. As a result, survivors may appear asymptomatic andnot suffering from long-term effects of the abuse, when in reality they are emotionally constricted due to the trauma.
Most former incest victims had little opportunity either in childhood or later to get effective assistance to end the abuse or to treat its effects. Theseuntreated effects (immediate or long-term) become chronic or delayed and give rise to additional symptoms. These symptoms, in turn, create new problems that usually prompt the adult survivor to seek treatment. Some of the most common of these problems include depression, eating disorders, substance abuse,anxiety, or dissociative disorders such as multiple personality disorder. Survivors might also seek treatment for domestic abuse or other types of sexualviolence.
Since incest usually occurs in childhood, it inevitably influences maturationand development. For many survivors, the incest experience, along with its aftermath and coping mechanisms, has greatly influenced and become integratedinto the personality. Some survivors develop the symptoms of specific personality disorders, most commonly those associated with hysteric, borderline (difficulty maintaining a stable mood and self-image), narcissistic, avoidant, ordependent personalities.
Goals of Treatment
Long-term treatment is often required because of the frequency and severity of the abuse, its impact on the developmental process, and the character of the victim. Time is also needed to work with strong defenses and establish a therapeutic alliance of trust. Those survivors who have suffered the most serious repercussions and who present the most serious symptoms, including multiple personality, other dissociative states, substance dependencies or addictions of any type, and suicidal and self-destructive behavior, the therapist canassume that the therapy is going to take years. Optimally, the therapist-survivor relationship develops slowly, the interventions and interpretations paced according to both the survivor's ability to work with them and the degree of affect and defense they generate.
Often the survivor becomes discouraged or enraged by the need for such lengthy treatment, its slow pace, and the disequilibrium inherent in recovering from the effects of incest. Some survivors even view therapy as prolonging the abuse. It is important for the therapist to support the outrage, resentment, and discouragement, however. Explanations of the course of therapy and the reasons for its likely duration can put the process in perspective and offer thesurvivor support and reassurance.
Regardless of what type of treatment approach is chosen, common goals include:
- acknowledgement and acceptance of the occurrence of the incest
- recounting the incest
- breakdown of feelings of isolation and stigma
- recognition, labeling, and expression of feelings
- resolution of responsibility and survival issues
- cognitive restructuring of distorted beliefs and stress responses
- self-determination and behavioral change
- education and skill-building
The basic goal of therapy is to help the survivor, in a safe and controlled way, recall the abuse and the original feelings associated with it and to restore the accurate meanings attached to the abuse. The turning point for the patient occurs when his or her rage is experienced not in a vacuum but as a response to cruelty. The patient needs to understand that nothing will erase thepast. The work of therapy is, rather, to reclaim that traumatic past as partof his or her history and identity. With this kind of understanding, the abused patient will be able to grieve and to let go of both the trauma and the distortions in memory and mood that were once necessary for survival.