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According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a rape occurs every ninety seconds somewhere in the United States. Of those cases, fewer than half are reported to the police. Current statistics also suggest that one out of four females will be sexually abused within their first eighteen years of life. Approximately 75 percent of those cases will involve individuals who are sexually abused by someone in their own family.
Sexual relations between two family members (excluding husband/wife) is called incest. Since biblical times, incest has been documented to exist, and today it is suggested that it is one of the most underreported and least discussed crimes in America (Wyatt et al. 1999). For clarity of law, a person is guilty of incest if he/she knowingly marries, cohabitates with, or has sexual intercourse with an ancestor, a descendant, a sibling of the whole or half blood, an uncle, aunt, niece, or nephew of the whole blood (Goldstein 1999). Since incest is a topic of international taboo, it often remains concealed by the victim because of guilt, shame, or fear of further and more severe abuse by their attacker. Therefore, these victims rarely receive help in ending their abuse. In families experiencing domestic violence, it is not unusual to discover incidents of incest.
I. Categories of Incest
III. Indicators of Abuse
IV. Progression of Sexual Abuse
V. Incestuous Families
Categories of Incest
Many cases of incest (or familiar sexual abuse) involve children. Those categories of incest are molestation, rape, and assault, based upon the degree of harm to the child (Mayer 1983). In these categories, incest may include not only intercourse, but also the fondling and sexual petting of a child by an abuser. In a majority of these cases, the child does not suffer physical signs of abuse such as vaginal tears or a bleeding rectum; however, the abused child is still left with feelings of betrayal and emotional scars (McCabe 2003).
The first category of incest, child molestation, may occur without the physical act of intercourse. A child is fondled or touched in a manner or location that is uncomfortable to the child or petted by an adult who is thus sexually aroused by the thought of a sexual relationship with a child. Molestation occurs more often than assault or rape in cases of child incest. Unfortunately, molestation cases, because of their lack of physical evidence, are the most difficult category to identify or prosecute. In addition, without eyewitness testimony or a confession by the perpetrator, law enforcement is at a major disadvantage in the investigation of these cases (McCabe 2003). Therefore, it is not unusual for incest cases of molestation to continue without penalty or the punishment of the perpetrator.
The second category of child incest is rape. A rape is sexual intercourse against one’s will or by force. An incestuous rape, just as a nonincestuous one, contains three elements: anger, power, and sexuality. Perpetrators of such actions often rape as a means of expressing anger and rage. The goal of these perpetrators is often not to harm their victims (as they would like the relationships to continue), but to maintain power and control over the victims and to achieve sexual gratification through rape.
When a rape occurs the child has no control over the situation. In addition, during the time period (perhaps years) in which the sexual abuse is occurring, it is not uncommon for children to also experience both physical and emotional abuse. Undoubtedly, the more violent the encounter, the more harm there is to the child both physically and emotionally. Some research suggests that individuals, mainly children, are damaged more by the physical and emotional abuses than by the sexual abuse; however, sexual abuse at the hands of a family member is very traumatic for a child victim. The rape of a child by someone the child should look toward for protection is most damaging. Not only has this person sexually abused the child, but the force through which the rape occurred deems this the most violent of actions.
The third category of child incest is assault. An assault may involve intercourse; however, the intercourse does not involve the physically forced intercourse of rape (Mayer 1983). It is within this category of incest that defense attorneys portray the child as the ‘‘willing’’ victim. Since the child did not resist the abuse, it must have been consensual; therefore, the child is not a victim. In these cases, the child probably does not have the physical injuries associated with a violent rape, but the emotional scars of victimization remain (McCabe 2003). Incestuous assaults of children may occur willingly due to drugs, alcohol, or the ignorance of the children, or because they feel that their parent would never cause them harm. Historically, parents have had control over their children, and when they tell the children to do something, the children do it. It is in these cases of incest that parents urge their children to participate in the sexual activity, and the activity continues until the children mature physically and are no longer perceived as ‘‘attractive’’ by their perpetrators, or the children themselves end the incestuous relationship. Regardless of their ‘‘willingness’’ to participate in a sexual relationship with a family member, the action is still identified as incest and is still illegal.
The most commonly discussed incestuous relationship is that of father and child, typically a daughter. In fact, quite often the public will become so focused on the father–daughter relationship that it will fail to recognize sexual relationships between other relatives as incest (Crosson-Tower 2002). In the overwhelming majority of father–daughter incestuous relationships, the father is the perpetrator and the daughter is the victim; however, there have been cases in which the daughter was the aggressor.
Researchers suggest that in order for the father to justify or lower his inhibitions, he will often distort the role of the child in order to rationalize the sexual encounter (Crosson-Tower 1999). The child, in most cases the daughter, takes on a role other than a child in the family. In some cases, the mother is absent from the home and the daughter assumes the roles of the mother, e.g., housekeeper, cook, caretaker. In these cases, it is not unusual for the daughter to also assume the roles of wife and lover to the father of the household.
There are also those researchers who suggest that sexual relations between a father and a child are a way for the father to display his authority over the family. Fathers who engage in incest with their daughters are attempting to maintain a position of power within the household (McCabe 2003). In these cases, daughters are viewed as the property of the fathers; therefore, the fathers have the right to use their daughters as they desire and for as long as the daughters remain under their roofs.
Incest between a father and a daughter is just one form of parent/child incest. There also exist cases of father–son incest, with quite often the same dynamics of power and control, perpetrator and victim. However, with the stigma often associated with homosexuality, father–son incest is even less likely to be reported than father–daughter incest. Sons, who may themselves question their own sexuality, will rarely report victimization through father–son incest, as they themselves are often aroused during the encounter and therefore perceive (in their minds) that they were a willing participant. It is in these cases that the sons will remain silent. With less of a chance of being reported, son victims of incest also have less of a chance to receive assistance in addressing and ending the abuse. It is not quite clear how or why one father can comfort his child in his/her bed after a nightmare, while another father upon entering the child’s bedroom becomes sexually excited; however, the distinctions do exist, and the cases of father–child incest are common in the United States and worldwide (McCabe 2003).
Another form of parent/child incest occurs between mother and child. Historically, women are not considered as perpetrators of sexual crimes, much less of a crime such as incest; however, mothers also engage in sex with their children. Unfortunately, a mother who has initiated sex with her child would go not only unreported, but unrecognized by many in society. Mothers are, for the most part, the major caretakers of their children. In the day-to-day activities of child rearing, it is assumed that mothers will have formed close and intimate relationships with their children. Mothers diaper, bathe, and dress their children; therefore, the touching of a nude child is perceived as loving and normal; certainly it is not perceived as a sexual encounter. It is usually within her role of caregiver that a mother often begins her sexual relationship with her child. In fact, a mother perpetrating incest may easily ‘‘mask’’ the activity under the role of mothering, and the incest may begin at a very early age and continue to be unrecognized for years. The mother is in the most advantageous position to be a perpetrator of incest.
Attempted explanations of mother–child incest mirror those provided for father–child incest, including a history of the parent herself having been a victim of incest as a child. In addition, it is suggested that mothers may initiate a sexual relationship with their male children in response to sexual rejection from an adult male (perhaps the child’s father). The mother, still wishing to maintain a relationship with her selected adult male partner, may choose his offspring as a substitute. Although unexpected and quite often unrecognized, sexual abuse between mothers and their children does occur more often than is perceived by the public (Crosson-Tower 2002). The mother, the caretaker, can be the abuser.
Another form of incest is sibling incest. Although parents or guardians are presumed to be the perpetrators of incest, some researchers suggest that the brother–sister sexual relationship is the most common form of incest (Wiehe 1997). This form of incest involves sexual relations beyond age-appropriate exploration in that an older sibling, who often differs significantly in age or by virtue of his or her power and resources, is the perpetrator and the younger sibling is most often the victim. What society may label as simply ‘‘adolescent exploration’’ may be terrorizing and traumatic to the victim of sibling incest. It is suggested that sibling incest is one of the worst forms of abuse for a child to overcome. Specifically, since the older sibling often has more knowledge or experience, he/she usually maintains the power and control in the relationship. The younger sibling is defenseless. As the siblings are often forced to remain in the company of each other in the role of babysitters, the incestuous relationships are not only more likely to occur, but also more likely to continue until either the perpetrator or the victim moves out of the household or the victim ends the abuse by reporting it to a third party or confronting the abuser.
Explanations of sibling incest include not only that it is an attempt by one sibling to control or humiliate the other (Laviola 1992), but that because many of these juvenile abusers have been abused themselves, their perpetration of abuse is a way for them to imitate what they had to endure or experience (McCabe 2003). The cycle of violence model suggests that children who are abused will become abusers later in life; therefore, it stands to reason that a child who is a victim of incest may mature to be the perpetrator of incest with the younger children that remain in the home.
Indicators of Abuse
In most cases of incest, there are no physical indicators. If the child does not report the abuse immediately after it occurs, any sort of physical evidence is either washed away or healed (McCabe 2003). In addition, most perpetrators of incest do not leave evidence such as sperm, blood, or lacerations in the child’s genital area because vaginal or anal penetration usually does not occur. However, there are some clear indicators of incest.
The first indicator of incest is physical evidence that is collected immediately after the incident. Sperm and saliva are just two forms of such physical evidence. Another particularly unfortunate indicator of incest is the presence of a sexually transmitted disease (STD). An STD, especially in young children, will often provide the evidence needed to confirm incest—especially in those cases where the parent (or perpetrator) has the same STD. In addition to physical evidence, a child’s preoccupation with touching his/her genital areas may also indicate incest, as the area is perhaps sore or injured or the child has discovered that masturbation of the area provides a feeling of pleasure.
Another indicator of incest is the presence of cuts or bruises on the child that are suspicious, either in shape or location. In addition and in reaction to the incest, the child may attempt to injure him/herself through drugs, alcohol, self-mutilation, anorexia, bulimia, or suicide.
Finally, children with very poor hygiene may be victims of incest. In attempts to make themselves less attractive to their perpetrator, they will often refuse to bathe, hoping that their dirty appearance or smell will discourage future sexual assaults (McCabe 2003).
In cases where there is no physical evidence (the majority), one must consider behavioral evidence or indicators. Often a child who is a victim of incest will provide hints of that abuse through actions and behaviors instead of physical indicators. In particular, such a child may avoid others (especially adults), appear angry, anxious, or depressed or display a drastic personality change. The victim of incest has been betrayed by an adult to whom the child entrusted his/her safety and security. Hence the child is hesitant and perhaps even fearful of any other relationship that might occur with an adult (McCabe 2003).
The child victim of incest may also experience problems at school in terms of attention deficits, slow progress, and showing disrespect for authority figures. It is not unusual for the victim of incest to use sexual language or descriptions of sexual acts in conversations that are not considered age appropriate. For example, a first grader might discuss sexual intercourse and include the mechanics of position and ejaculation. As noted previously, it is not unusual for children who are victims of incest to imitate their abusers and sexually abuse other children.
Finally, some child victims of incest demonstrate fear in performing everyday activities or fear of world dangers, as well as a fear of homosexuality (more the case for male victims) and the fear of being perceived as ‘‘damaged goods’’ (more the case for female victims). These children often appear nervous or stressed out and express the desire to be alone or in a quiet, noninteracting environment. These victims of incest do not trust others and, in many cases, do not love themselves. The more frequent and severe the incest, the more obvious and apparent the behavioral indicators are to the observer (McCabe 2003).
Progression of Sexual Abuse
In attempting to understand the dynamics behind the incest, once must first consider the conditions that exist, including the state of the abuser’s mind, before the seduction of a child. Finkelhor (1984) suggested that before a sexual assault of a child occurs, there is a progression of stages (or conditions), which must be completed. At each one of the stages, there is a progression of events that must occur; if this progression is interrupted or terminated, then the likelihood of abuse (at least for this encounter) is forfeited. With incest, these progressions also occur. The four preconditions to a sexual assault are:
- Precondition I: Motivation to sexually abuse
- Precondition II: Overcoming internal inhibitors
- Precondition III: Factors predisposing to overcome external inhibitors
- Precondition IV: Factors predisposing to overcome a child’s resistance (Finkelhor 1984).
In the first precondition, the focus is on the perpetrator and the victim. The two middle preconditions focus on elements other than the perpetrator or the victim. The last precondition focuses solely on the victim or child.
In precondition I, the perpetrator or abuser attempts to relate to the child on an emotional level. In this stage, the child is seen as the source of sexual satisfaction for the abuser. In many cases, other sources of sexual satisfaction (such as adults) are not available to the perpetrator, and the child is a suitable alternative (Finkelhor 1984). Or the child may be precisely the target of the adult’s desire. It is during this stage that many perpetrators perceive the everyday actions of the child to be seductive (Crosson-Tower 1999). A child who sits on the perpetrator’s lap or smiles at the perpetrator, which is common in the family environment, is perceived as ‘‘flirting’’ with the soon-to-be abuser; thus, the abuser responds with attention to the child. In this stage, the adult is socially comfortable. Perhaps because of his inability to relate to adults on a social or emotional level, the adult enjoys the company of children more than that of adults. The child welcomes the attention from the adult, who may in other cases fail to acknowledge the child.
In precondition II, the perpetrator must overcome internal inhibitors—i.e., his consciousness that sex with children is wrong—before the sexual abuse will occur (Finkelhor 1984). It is during this stage that alcohol, drugs, and perhaps pornography will be introduced to the child within the family setting, to reduce her/his inhibitions. Pornography’s role in the sexual abuse of children has long been discussed (McCabe 2000). Quite often a child will be shown adult or child pornography by his/her sexual predator as a means of introducing the child to the ‘‘normalness’’ of adult and child sexual relations. The child, who is inherently curious about his/her body and feelings of sexuality, may view the materials while masturbating or while allowing the perpetrator to sexually stimulate them. Through the use of alcohol, drugs, or the viewing of child pornography, the child is sexually aroused and the abuser’s internal inhibitors are overcome. The perpetrator may now focus on overcoming the child’s resistance.
It is under precondition III that the perpetrator must overcome the external inhibitors of a child (Finkelhor 1984). The goal is to have a willing or at least nonresisting child victim. Before abuse will occur, the child must consent to the sexual activity. In many cases, this means that the child’s internal inhibitors or the perpetrator’s external inhibitors must be eliminated. Those external inhibitors may be the amount of supervision of the child or the child’s social support system. Oftentimes, abusers (including family members) will select their child victims not simply based upon their physical characteristics, but also based upon their availability (McCabe 2003). A child who is unsupervised during a great proportion of the day and/or evening is an available child. Such a child who chose to report the abuse would have few options in doing so, and no adults around to take the report seriously; therefore, not only are the children vulnerable from an approachability/availability perspective, they are also vulnerable to repeat victimization from a reactive perspective. A child with little adult supervision, other than that of the perpetrator, is an ideal child for a sexual assault.
Precondition IV is the final stage prior to the sexual abuse of the child. Here, the factors that eliminate the child’s resistance are the focus of the perpetrator (Finkelhor 1984). Whether creating an environment of powerlessness or a trusting relationship between the perpetrator and the child, the abuser must develop an atmosphere to eliminate the child’s resistance to sexual activities with the adult. As the abuser places himself in a pseudo-caretaker role for the child, he becomes indispensable in that child’s eyes. In turn, the child wants to please the adult and, in most cases, will do all that is asked by the abuser. Once this stage has been satisfied, the child’s sexual assault will likely occur.
Research suggests that families that are involved with incest often share similar characteristics or traits (Crosson-Tower 2002; Sgroi 1982). In considering the physical characteristics of a family, Finkelhor (1980) and Russell (1984) suggest that incest is more likely to occur in large families. Explanations of this phenomenon include the proximity of many family members within a limited space, the lack of child supervision, and a cultural norm of incest within the family.
The social characteristics of a family are also related to an increased risk for incestuous relationships. Specifically, parents of incest victims are often either absent or uninvolved in their children’s lives (Crosson-Tower 1999). With parent(s) absent for most of the child’s life, the child is not only unsupervised, but also likely to be on his or her own at an early age. This vulnerability, as discussed earlier, increases the risk of incest. In today’s society, half of all parents are unavailable to child victims of incest because of death, alcoholism, or psychosis.
Another social characteristic of incestuous families is limited communications among family members on all subjects, but especially the subject of sex. Parents may have extremely rigid attitudes toward sex that lead to little discussion or few questions from their children about sex or sexuality (deYoung 1982). A child who has such questions may go to others (instead of their major caretaker) for answers.
Finally, some parents acknowledge the reports of incest but blame the victim rather than the perpetrator (Laviola 1992). In the minds of some parents, the victims themselves play an active role in the incestuous relationship (especially if the relationship was between the child and the parent’s adult partner); therefore, the child is thought to have seduced the adult and is to blame for the encounter, and the protestations of the child are not believed by the parents (Wiehe 1997). The incest is likely to continue until the child victim ends the relationship.
Siblings who are not the victims of incest will often not provide aid to the victim. In fact, many siblings of incest victims are resentful of the attention given to the abused child by the perpetrator and often are among those who blame the incest on the victim—due to jealousy—without ascribing any blame to the perpetrator (Crosson-Tower 1999). In other cases, the nonvictimized sibling will not report the activity for fear of ‘‘breaking up’’ the family. In the sibling’s mind, an incestuous family is better than none at all. In general, incestuous families are dysfunctional and either discount or ignore the incest (Laviola 1992); thus, the abuse continues.
Finally, like domestic violence, incest is also a subject not openly discussed by those involved. In fact, it is not unusual that families involved in incest are also involved in domestic violence, with the same wall of silence used to cover both. Again, the victims are generally the only ones capable of ending the abuse.
The consequences of any form of abuse vary from victim to victim. Although the physical wounds may heal in a short time, the healing of mental and emotional scars involves a much longer process, and some victims are never able to recover and address the consequences of their abuse. Research shows that sexual abuse at the hands of a family member is, in many cases, more damaging in terms of long-term consequences than is sexual abuse at the hands of a stranger (Gully et al. 1999).
A family’s responsibilities include protecting, loving, and offering support for its members in both joyous times and times of crisis. It is the parents’ job to raise and protect their children. The parents should provide an environment of trust. When that bond of trust is broken by incest, the family structure begins to fall apart. The repercussions of incest are both short-term and long-lasting, damaging and distorting the child victim’s perception of family and other personal relationships.
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