The legal definition of incest varies from state to state, but most often includes a prohibition of sexual contact between persons who are related by blood and/or social ties. Most states consider that minor children cannot give consent before a defined age and therefore child/adult incest is a criminal act, whether or not there is coercion or violence involved. Some theorists and researchers have broadened the term to include any sexual betrayal of a relationship of trust between a child and an adult. This definition emphasizes the psychological trauma that occurs with childhood sexual abuse.
Accurate prevalence statistics are difficult to obtain. Most researchers agree that between 20% and 25% of girls and about 2% to 16% of boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18. Men account for 90% to 95% of perpetration for both girls and boys, most often in the father role, although perpetration by women is most likely underreported. Incest typically begins when a child is between the ages of 8 and 12, lasts an average of 4 years, and averages 20 incidents over that time frame. Although stereotypes abound, incest crosses all ethnic groups, socioeconomic statuses, and is no more likely in rural areas than in urban ones.
Generally, greater psychological trauma is associated with a younger age of onset, a closer relationship between the child and the perpetrator, and a longer duration or greater frequency of incidences. Psychological effects on the victim are often tied to the developmental age of the child when the incest occurred. The idiosyncratic meaning of experience greatly influences the amount and type of trauma experienced. Initially, the reaction to the outcry is influential regarding recovery: if the child is believed by the adults they tell, blame is placed with the perpetrator, and support is given, there is a good prognosis for healing. If the child is not believed, or is blamed for the abuse, more psychological distress is usually encountered.
Adults who, as children, experienced no intervention or poor intervention often experience a range of psychological problems due to the incest. The most common psychological effect for victim/survivors is pervasive self-blame. Posttraumatic stress disorder, characterized by hyper-vigilence and anxiety, avoidance of cues that remind them of the abuse, and intrusive thoughts about the abuse, is often observed with victims of incest. Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse can also experience depression, suicidal ideation/attempts, and substance abuse. Sexual functioning can be disturbed, from lack of sexual desire to indiscriminate sexual behaviors. Relationships are affected, as many victim/survivors note that they have difficulties with trusting. Victims often use dissociation to cope with difficulties throughout their lives, because it was a likely adaptive skill during the actual abuse. Somatization is a common occurrence, with stress-related medical problems such as TMJ and reproductive illnesses. Incest victims often report repeated revictimization throughout their lives, including other forms of interpersonal violence, such as battering and rape in adulthood, as well as increased frequency of victimization in other violent crimes. Importantly, the above psychological reactions should be regarded as ways to cope as a child with a very intrusive and overwhelming experience that may or may not be adaptive into adulthood.
Few criminal charges are filed when the incest occurs. As adults, victims are winning increasing numbers of civil cases, and the statute of limitations is being extended in many states from time of first outcry. Unfortunately, for more perpetrators there is little chance of being caught or prosecuted. Most will abuse several children during their lifetimes.
- Courtois, (1988). Healing the incest wound. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Finkelhor, (1984). Child sexual abuse: New theory and research. New York: The Free Press.
- Freyd, (1998). Betrayal trauma. Boston: Harvard UniversityPress.
- Russell, (1986). The secret trauma: Incest in the lives of girls and women. New York: Basic Books.