The following piece deals with incest and is not suitable for all readers.
There is possibly no topic more controversial or taboo than speaking about incest. Culturally, there are strong emotional and moral limits to incest, and many adverse effects are associated with it.
This article will not describe the acts involved in incest except to acknowledge they happen. Instead, we will focus on what incest is and the many ways it is harmful.
What is Incest?
Incest is sex between family members too closely related, such as father/daughter or son, sister/brother, or first-cousins. Some psychologists believe that children have an inborn incest taboo that keeps them from finding one another as sexy or desirable. However, this is only a theory as incest ranges from 5–20%, suggesting there is no neural adaptation to prevent sex between related children.
According to the most available statistics, incest occurs as a form of child sexual abuse, with 80% happening between an abusive parent and an underage victim.
Incest between two consenting adults is prohibited in all 50 states except Rhode Island and New Jersey. While sexual relations between consenting adults who are closely related are legal in these two states, marriage between two close relatives is not. However, marriage between distant relatives, such as second and third cousins, is primarily legal in the United States.
There are differences in how incest is handled in the states. Punishments vary from the length of the criminal sentence and how much fines must be paid. North Dakota bans incest between first cousins while other states allow it.
The Psychological Costs of Incest
Unfortunately, most cases of incest do not happen between two consenting adults. Instead, adults abusing children is the most common form of incest (Maltz, W. (2002). Childhood sexual abuse is a human rights violation often committed by a close relative or someone else who is intimately involved with the child and/or their family.
Because the people who perpetrate incest on related children cause a great deal of psychological distress, as is determined by women who grew up with such relationships, research has found that women who experienced familial abuse had a higher level of depression and anxiety when thinking about the incestuous child abuse perpetrated against their person.
It was also found that women who experienced incest had increased levels of distress if the incest was extensive (violent). Other findings stated the distress was also higher with the number of times the woman had been abused. Other factors were the age and when the abuse began (Hartmann, Finn, & Leon, 1987).
The psychological costs to incest victims are high, including many symptoms including:
- Sexual dysfunction
- Periods of promiscuity or prostitution
- Increased risk of adolescent pregnancy
- Intense guilt
- Drug/alcohol abuse
- An increased risk of physically and emotionally abusing their children
- Chronic traumatic neurosis
- Relational imbalances
- Increased intergenerational risk of incest
One can add to the above list all the signs and symptoms found of child sexual abuse.
The Five Stages in the Sexual Mistreatment of Children
Child sexual abuse, including incest, doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, research suggests that it forms in five stages (Sgroi, Blick, Porter, 1982).
Stage 1. Engagement. The adult forms an intense relationship with the perpetrator. The child is gradually exposed to sexualized behaviors via special favor that engages the child’s need for attention. Slowly, sexual play is normalized via games or other physical contacts that bring the child their needed attention. Sometimes perpetrators use violence and threats to coerce sexual behavior from the child.
Stage 2. Sexual interaction. The perpetrator builds on the grooming they have been used to entice the child. These sexual behaviors toward the child by the adult escalate, progressing from exposure and touching to penetration.
Stage 3. Secrecy. To set the stage for ongoing sexual activity, the perpetrator tries to make sure what they are doing is done in secret. The child is made to feel responsible for what is happening to them and that there would be horrible consequences if the child tells. The perpetrator uses threats of harm to the child or others and threatens abandonment by the perpetrator with whom they have become deeply attached. The perpetrator assures the child that they would not be believed if they tell and sometimes that because the child is bad, they will be rejected by God.
Stage 4. Disclosure. The secret of incestuous child abuse is disclosed. The perpetrator’s role in the family and the shame the family feels determined how they will react instead of thinking of the best interest of the abused child. It is not uncommon for the family to become protective and defensive and move to disavow the severity of the offense, blaming the victim and any authorities or professionals who may have become involved.
Stage 5. Suppression. The family moves to suppress the incest and minimize the severity of the abuse and its consequences. Individuals in the family may actively attempt to discredit the child or pressure them to recant.
If you have experienced child sexual abuse by a relative, the above stages align with what happened to you.
It was not your fault.
A Failure of Society
Incest is an ugly, ugly subject to need to write about. It is sickening and distressing to think an adult would prey on the children who depend on them for everything. However, if we do not talk about this problem, it will continue unchecked.
Listen, child abuse is atrocious and horrid, but you know what is worse? Society sticks our heads in the sand and pretends it does not happen. Just listen to the following statistics.
In the United States of America:
- 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are known to be victims of child sexual abuse, most of them being victimized by a blood relative
- During one year, 16% of children between the ages of 14–17 were sexually victimized
- Children are most vulnerable to child sexual abuse and incest between the ages of 7–13
- A study conducted in 1986 found that 63% of women who had suffered sexual abuse by a family member also reported a rape or attempted rape after 14.
For a country that prides itself on justice and freedom, we are guilty of ignoring these crimes against the most innocent among us, our children.
Ending Our Time Together
Incest, the taboo subject, is challenging to read about and, quite frankly, to write about. Being a victim of incest myself, I find myself relating to many things in this article. Yet, with professional care, I have overcome most of the effects incestuous childhood sexual abuse has on adults.
If you relate to this article because you are a victim too, please take good care of yourself. Although I have not and will not post triggering information, this article may have stirred up deeply held guilt or other negative emotions. I urge you to call someone and remember that we believe in you.
“You can’t calm the storm, so stop trying. What you can do is calm yourself; the storm will pass.” Timber Hawkeye
“Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise again.” — Victor Hugo
Briere, J. N., & Elliott, D. M. (1994). Immediate and long-term impacts of child sexual abuse. The future of children, 54–69.
Gelinas, D. J. (1983). The persisting negative effects of incest. Psychiatry, 46(4), 312–332.
Hartman, M., Finn, S., & Leon, G. (1987). Sexual-abuse experiences in a clinical population: Comparisons of familial and nonfamilial abuse. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 24(2), 154–159.
Maltz, W. (2002). Treating the sexual intimacy concerns of sexual abuse survivors. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 17(4), 321–327.
Sgroi SM, Blick LC, Porter FS. A conceptual framework for child sexual abuse. In: Sgroi SM, ed. Handbook of Clinical Intervention in Child Sexual Abuse. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books; 1982:9–37.