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Incest is the sexual exploitation of a person who is legally unable to give informed consent due to age, intellect, and/or physical impairment by an older person having a close family blood tie (e.g., parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or cousin) or a substitute for such a blood tie (e.g., stepparent, stepbrother, or stepsister). In short, incest can be defined as the sexual exploitation of a child by a relative with more power. Incest includes sexual contact, exhibitionism, masturbation, anal intercourse, exposure to sexually oriented media, or any acts that have a sexually stimulating component for either the victim or the perpetrator (Renvoize 1993). Sexual contact includes touching, kissing, fondling, or overt sexual contact such as intercourse, manual stimulation of genitals, and oral-genital contact (Trepper and Barrett 1989).

Incest often involves collusion of the nonperpetrating parent and/or siblings and occurs in an inclusive system (Glasser et al. 2001). Psychological preparation for incest often occurs within a family by way of dissolving healthy generational boundaries. Some victims are manipulated by withdrawal of love or affection or with rewards of money, objects, and/or time with the perpetrator. Incest perpetrators often use elaborate methods of persuasion to manipulate victims. Isolation and secrecy is part of the grooming period that often comes before actual incest. Perpetrators use trust, favoritism, alienation, secrecy, and boundary violations to prepare children to participate in sexual activities (Christiansen and Blake 1990).

Prevalence of Incest

Prevalence rates for incest vary widely due to differences of definition, methods of study, and the population source of the data (Glasser et al. 2001). Commonly, studies report prevalence rates of child abuse in general and do not break the abuse into familial and nonfamilial. In the United States in the 1990s, it was estimated that 100,000 to one million cases of incest occur annually, but only about 10 percent of them are reported ( Johnson 1983). Although some research estimates that less than 2 percent of the general population experiences sexual abuse (Kutchinsky 1992), other studies estimate that incest is experienced by 10 to 20 percent of children in the general population (Briere and Runtz 1989; Finkelhor et al. 1990; Russell 1983). A few other countries have published research in English on the prevalence of incest. In Brazil, for example, prevalence estimates range widely from 0.05 percent to 21 percent (Flores, Mattos, and Salzano 1998).

It is not unusual to find very different prevalence rates of incest for males and females, as in the study conducted by Renvoize (1993) who reported that as many as one-third of all girls and one-fifth of boys have experienced incest. Researchers agree that girls are much more often the victims of incest. Others report that the incidence for males is less than half of that for females because a higher proportion of males are sexually abused by adults outside the home by strangers (Carlstedt, Forsman, and Soderstrom 2001; Finkelhor et al. 1990; Gonsiorek, Bera, and LeTourneau 1994). Male incest victims may also report less frequently because they are socialized not to express feelings of helplessness and vulnerability (Nasjleti 1980).

Estimates of the prevalence of incest have risen steadily since the late 1960s as knowledge of child sexual abuse and incest has increased. There is some controversy, however, over the validity of the reported prevalence of incest. The often painful and shameful aspects of sexual abuse within the family make the collection of data very difficult. It is generally thought by professionals that the underreporting of incest is common due to the secrecy, shame, the tendency to blame the victim, and criminal ramifications surrounding incest. However, false reports by children of nonoffending parents, especially in divorce-custody situations, may account for an increase in reported incidents. There has been criticism that therapists may encourage reports through a process of recovering memories forgotten by the patient. Even considering false reporting and misuse of recovering memories, it is still very likely that the number of incest cases is underreported.

Recidivism among incest offenders is estimated at around 8.5 percent, though up to the late 1990s, very few studies had been conducted on this issue, and recidivism is as underreported as are first reports of incest (Quinsey et al. 1995). A study of the sexual recidivism of 251 convicted adult male incest perpetrators in a clinical setting in Ottawa, Canada, found that 6.4 percent had committed another sexual offense six-and-a-half years after their incest conviction (Firestoneet et al. 1999).

Effects on Victims

Sexually abused children report and/or display affective, cognitive, physical, and behavioral symptoms (Shaw et al. 2000). Symptoms may include general behavior problems, delinquency, anxiety, regressive behaviors, nightmares, withdrawal from normal activities, internalizing and externalizing disorders, cruelty and self-injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, poor self-esteem, and age-inappropriate sexual behavior. A review of forty-five studies indicated two common patterns of psychological response to incest (Williams and Finkelhor 1993). The first are those associated with posttraumatic stress symptomology. The second is an increase in sexualized behaviors, including sexualized play with dolls, putting objects into anuses or vaginas, excessive or public masturbation, seductive behavior, and age-inappropriate sexual knowledge and behavior.

Long-term psychological sequelae of incest include depression, anxiety, psychiatric hospitalization, drug and alcohol use, suicidality, borderline personality disorder, somatization disorder, and eroticization (Schetky 1990; Silverman, Reinherz, and Giaconia 1996). Common, too, are learning difficulties, posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorders and conversion reactions, running away, prostitution, re-victimization, poor parenting, and an increased likelihood of becoming a perpetrator. The frequency and severity of psychological sequelae secondary to sexual abuse has been related to frequency and duration of the abuse, relationship to the perpetrator, use of force, type of sexual abuse, penetration, age of the victim, age difference between victim and offender, and the parental support variable (Schetky 1990). Most incest victims experience confusion about their own reactions to the incest experience. It is this betrayal of innocence and resultant confusion, along with the loss of control and power over one's own behavior, that lead to the emotional and psychological impact on the victim. Victims often experience, both at the time of the incestuous act and later as adults, a sense of shame, a feeling of powerlessness, and a loss of their childhood.

Sibling incest is often thought to be the least harmful form. Although one of the key aspects of incest is the difference in power between the perpetrator and the victim, sexual behavior between two siblings of equal power, where touching, looking, and exploring are mutual decisions, can still pose problems for the participants and/or parents. What Diana Russell (1986) calls the myth of mutuality in relation to sibling incest may put the victim in a psychologically and physically vulnerable position. In her research with adult women, she found that 78 percent of her subjects who had had childhood sexual experiences reported that their sexual behavior with brothers was abusive. When the reported sexual behavior was with a sister, 50 percent of the female subjects experienced the behavior as abusive. Approximately one-half reported sibling incest as extremely upsetting, and another one-fourth as somewhat upsetting. The degree of coercion and the emotional harm in sibling incest may be more underestimated than incest in general.

The effects of sexual abuse on children and their later development into adulthood depend on at least five important factors: the age of the child, the duration of the abuse, the type of the abuse, the manner in which the child frames the abuse, and the ability of the child to heal. It is likely that there are important gender differences in how girls and boys make sense out of incest experiences. Girls tend to view the incest experience within the larger context of the child-adult relationship and are likely to be more concerned with the perpetrator's feelings and family stability. In contrast, a boy may focus more on his own sexual experience. All children, whether male or female, attempt to make sense of or to create an explanation for the incestuous relationship as a part of the healing process.

The ability of people to heal from a damaging experience is related to their ability to confront their own feelings of fear, terror, anger, rage, confusion, helplessness, and vulnerability. A common report of adult victims of childhood incest is a clear sense of removing oneself from the event. A sense that it was being done to someone else and/or a sense of leaving the body during the sexual contact are common reports. The danger is that denial becomes the preferred or most common behavior to deal with stress. Moving beyond denial to healing requires that the incest victims allow themselves to experience the feelings of confusion, rage, and helplessness.

To manipulate the victim, most incest perpetrators foster in the child a set of behaviors that help the child maintain the denial and self-deception needed to survive an ongoing incestuous relationship. The effects of this on the victim can be manifested in multiple ways, including fear of violence, sex, intimacy, and people of the same sex as the perpetrator. Confusion of gender identity, as well as uncontrolled sexual activity, may also result. There is often a need to care for and control others, at home, school, and work. Feelings of isolation, shame, and guilt, often not associated with any specific activity, help to foster a poor self-image, which may lead to suicidal behavior. There is also a tendency for victims of incest to suffer from other disorders, such as sleep disturbances, nightmares, depression, and eating disorders. Incestuous relationships are at a minimum a contributing factor to the above effects, and for countless victims, they are the primary contributor.

Part of the process of healing is the victim's awareness of the context within which he or she made choices. Often, in treatment, victims gain a sense of empowerment when they can begin to trace the development of the incestuous relationship over time. Typically, victims can account for a gradual increase in their ability to make choices and implement them. Victims have often stated that at a certain time, they were able to stop the incest perpetrator's manipulations with the threat of breaking secrecy.

Profile of Offenders

Efforts to conceptualize incest before 1980 led to it being categorized as a subcategory of pedophilia (Stoller 1975). Since then, the trend is to describe incest in terms of interaction factors in the family context (Bentovim 1992; Trepper and Barrett 1986). Some researchers believe that incest does not have a single cause; rather it develops from a combination of influences (Finkelhor 1986; Friedrich 1990; Maddock and Larson 1995; Trepper and Barrett 1989). Incest is a complex and varied family dynamic, although at the same time some patterns of sexual abuse may be predictable and reflective of general disturbances in family patterns of interactions (Maddock and Larson 1995). Some of the systemic factors that influence whether or not incest will occur in a family include intrapsychic influences, relational variables, developmental variables, and situational or circumstantial that make incest more or less likely to occur.

Researchers agree that perpetrators of incest are more likely to be males than females, although plenty of evidence has emerged since the 1980s that shows that some mothers do sexually abuse their children. Fewer female offenders are willing to admit to committing incest (Allen 1991), and society may consider women to be sexually harmless. But it is important to recognize the increased opportunity that women have to perpetrate incest as primary caretakers of children ( Jennings 1993). Women in all societies are given a great deal of responsibility of raising children, and with that comes control over their dependents. They are more often in charge of many intimate activities surrounding the care of the child, including things such as breastfeeding, putting to bed, and bathing. Some cultures where mother-son closeness is the norm may have more occurrences of incest. For example, some Japanese mothers initiate sexual acts with their sons after witnessing their sons masturbate for the first time in order to teach him about sex (Katahara 1989). One very small Australian study of a clinical sample of male incest survivors found a number of factors most likely to influence the occurrence of sexual abuse of young males (Harper 1993). Those include living in a single-parent family headed by a woman of low socioeconomic status where the mother suffers from a schizophrenic illness and/or abuses drugs or alcohol, and where there is a history of violent parental behavior.

Women may commit incest for different reasons than do males. Gender expectations and socializations may vary for males and for female perpetrators, but this does not mean that one form of incest is less harmful to the victim than the other. Regardless of the type of perpetrator, incest perpetrators commit incest for a variety of reasons. They often have poor skills in dealing with their emotions, demonstrate poor empathy skills, and display a marked inability to observe the behavior of others. These perpetrators are often emotionally in a developmental stage equivalent to that of the child they are assaulting.

In a study of seventy-five male and sixty-five female sexual abuse perpetrators, the men and women showed no difference in educational levels, both reported that their marriages as less stable than their parents', and both reported their need for emotional fulfillment is greater than their need for sexual fulfillment (Allen 1991). Both offenders report the least intrusive form of offending (exhibitionism, voyeurism, touching) to be more frequent than oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse. At the same time, women offenders were less likely to report committing sexual activities with children, more likely to report their own experience as victims of sexual abuse, and reported lower marital satisfaction. Women reported greater satisfaction with the relationship with their children, more sexual satisfaction with their spouses/partners, and reported having more sexual partners than the male perpetrators. Women offenders reported significantly higher need for both emotional and sexual fulfillment. Women offenders report more physical abuse by their partners and family of origin. Many more women than men sexually abuse with another (usually male) person whereas men are more likely to commit their offense alone ( Jennings 1993). Females tend to use violence less often than males during their offending (Krug 1989). Females are more likely to know their victims; the abuse is usually less frequent and shorter in duration; and female offenders usually have fewer victims ( Jennings 1993).

Men as incest perpetrators are not a homogeneous group. In a study funded by a grant from the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, researchers identified five distinct types of incestuous fathers: sexually preoccupied, adolescent regressive, instrumental sexual gratifiers, emotionally dependent offenders, and angry retaliators (Williams and Finkelhor 1992). This typology helps to foster better understanding of the motivations for abuse and may enable better treatment for incest perpetrators. It should be kept in mind that an offender may not fit perfectly into one type; most offenders are a combination of one or more types.

The first type, the sexually preoccupied offenders, is characterized by a sexual interest in their victim, usually from an early age. This offender usually begins molesting the child before age six and continues the molestation past puberty. The second type, the adolescent regressive offenders, has a conscious sexual interest in their victims but usually do not begin molesting until the victims approach or reach puberty. The third type of offenders, the instrumental sexual gratifiers, uses the victim as a vehicle for sexual fantasy. These offenders are more sporadic in their offending, and they often associate the action with remorse. The fourth type, the emotionally dependent, is often lonely and depressed, sex is not a primary motivator, and they often romanticize their need for closeness and intimacy. Fifth, angry retaliators demonstrate low sexual arousal toward their victims but instead use the sexual assault to focus their anger. Often, the assault on the victim is in retaliation for a real or imagined infidelity or abandonment by a spouse.

Besides there being some risk factors for becoming an incest perpetrator, the authors of one Swedish research study suggested there may be protective factors that prevent some victims from entering the victim-to-abuser cycle (Glasser et al. 2001). Those include: (1) positive self esteem; (2) the presence of other important adults in the child's life; (3) religious education stressing positive development and forgiveness rather than sin and damnation; (4) success in school, sports, or other activities; (5) personality, strengths, and social situations that promote long-term goals; (6) parental monitoring reducing the frequency of abuse; and (7) age-appropriate sexual knowledge prior to abuse.


Using trial and error, clinicians now see the necessity for systemic rather than linear interventions for the treatment of incest (Gil 1996). The characteristics of a healing environment are openness, honesty, support, and worthiness. Incestuous families are characterized by secrecy, deception, isolation, and worthlessness. Early in treatment, offenders will commonly protest society's and the criminal justice system's overreaction to their behavior. Offenders will often believe that the child liked the behavior, never objected, and was already sexually active and therefore not harmed by it. Other family members may participate in this pattern of denial as well. As the perpetrator and family begin to understand the effects on the victim of the secrecy and deception the incestuous relationship requires, they begin to break through the denial and rationalizations.

In general, early treatment should be designed to protect society from the offender and the offender from a recurrence of the abuse during the beginning of treatment (Conte 1990). Treatment should include careful assessments and well-informed treatment plans that are directive, cautious, comprehensive, and full of measurable and attainable goals and objectives (Gil 1996). No research has been published that definitively proves one mode of treatment is superior to others. Eliana Gil (1996) notes that clinical interventions focused on the offender were unsuccessful because they did not take into account the interactions between parents and children. She states that treatment carries with it the responsibility to alter harmful behaviors while making an effort to preserve the family without compromising the child's safety. Treatment often includes individual, family, couple, or group therapy for the offender, the victim, the nonoffending parent, and other family members. Finally, the perpetrator and other family members need to be evaluated for co-existing problems such as substance abuse, domestic violence, and psychiatric disorders.

See also:Child Abuse: Sexual Abuse; Incest/Inbreeding Taboos; Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); Sexuality in Adulthood


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