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While the prevalence and severity of child abuse in the United States has been given an increasing amount of attention -- attitudes, definitions and statistics continue to vary. The examination of incest may incite some of the greatest discrepancies, for it remains one of the most under-reported and least discussed crimes in our nation. An almost international taboo, incest often remains concealed by the victim because of guilt, shame, fear, social and familial pressure, as well as coercion by the abuser.1
One definition describes incest as: "...the sexual abuse of a child by a relative or other person in a position of trust and authority over the child. It is a violation of the child where he or she lives -- literally and metaphorically. A child molested by a stranger can run home for help and comfort. A victim of incest cannot".2 Additional definitions include the following characteristics:
Incest does not discriminate. It happens in families that are financially-privileged, as well as those of low socio-economic status. It happens to those of all racial and ethnic descent, and to those of all religious traditions. Victims of incest are boys and girls, infants and adolescents. Incest occurs between fathers and daughters, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and mothers and sons. Perpetrators of incest can be aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, step-parents, step-children, grandparents and grandchildren. In addition, incest offenders can be persons without a direct blood or legal relationship to the victim such as a parent's lover or live-in nanny, housekeeper, etc. -- as this abuse takes place within the confines of the family and the home environment.2 The study of a nationally representative sample of state prisoners serving time for violent crime in 1991 revealed that 20 percent (20%) of their crimes were committed against children, and three out of four prisoners who victimized a child reported the crime took place in their own home or in the victim's home.4
Estimates of the number of incest victims in the United States vary. These discrepancies can be attributed to the fact that incest remains an extremely under-reported crime. All too often, pressure from family members -- in addition to threats or pressure from the abuser -- results in extreme reluctance to reveal abuse and to subsequently obtain help.1
Incest has been cited as the most common form of child abuse. Studies conclude that 43 percent (43%) of the children who are abused are abused by family members, 33 percent (33%) are abused by someone they know, and the remaining 24 percent (24%) are sexually abused by strangers.5 Other research indicates that over 10 million Americans have been victims of incest.
One of the nation's leading researchers on child sexual abuse, David Finkelhor, estimates that 1,000,000 Americans are victims of father-daughter incest, and 16,000 new cases occur annually.6 However, Finkelhor's statistics may be significantly low because they are based primarily on accounts of white, middle-class women and may not adequately represent low-income and minority women.1
Victims of incest are often extremely reluctant to reveal that they are being abused because their abuser is a person in a position of trust and authority for the victim. Often the incest victim does not understand -- or they deny -- that anything is wrong with the behavior they are encountering.2 Many young incest victims accept and believe the perpetrator's explanation that this is a "learning experience" that happens in every family by an older family member. Incest victims may fear they will be disbelieved, blamed or punished if they report their abuse.
In addition, some recent research suggests that some victims of incest may suffer from biochemically-induced amnesia. This condition can be triggered by a severe trauma, such as a sexual assault, which causes the body to incur a number of complex endocrine and neurological changes resulting in complete or partial amnesia regarding the event. Thus, any immediate and/or latent memory of the incident(s) is repressed.1
Most research concludes that girls and women are at substantially higher risk of being sexually assaulted than males.1 A recent study of all state prisoners serving time for violent crime in 1991 revealed that of all those convicted for rape or sexual assault, two-thirds victimized children and three out of four of their victims were young girls.4 However, estimates of male incest may be low due to the fact that, while girls are extremely hesitant to disclose incest, boys are probably even more so. Boys may be especially reluctant to admit incest victimization because of the sexual details and their fear it may indicate to others a weakness and/or homosexuality, which can result in negative social stigmatization.2
Incest can have serious long-term effects on its victims. One study concluded that among the survivors of incest who were victimized by their mothers, 60 percent (60%) of the women had eating disorders as did one-fourth (25%) of the men. Of the 93 women and nine men included in this study, 80 percent (80%) of the women and all of the men reported sexual problems in their adult life. In addition, almost two-thirds of the women stated that they never or rarely went to the doctor or the dentist as the examination was too terrifying for them. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- which includes amnesia, nightmares and flashbacks -- also remains prevalent among incest survivors.2 Additionally, there is research which indicates that children who have been sexually abused by a relative suffers from even more intense guilt and shame, low self-esteem, depression and self-destructive behavior (such as substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and prostitution) than children who have been sexually assaulted by a stranger.1
Whether an incest victim endured an isolated incident of abuse or ongoing assaults over an extended period of time, the process of recovery can be exceptionally painful and difficult. The recovery process begins with admission of abuse and the recognition that help and services are needed. There are services and resources available for incest victims -- both children and adult survivors of incest. Resources for incest victims include books, self-help groups, workshops, short and long-term therapy programs, and possible legal remedies. Many survivors of incest have formed self-help/support groups where they along with other incest survivors can discuss their victimization and find role models who have survived incest.2
In addition to believing, listening to, and helping victims of incest in their process of recovery, we need to simultaneously search for ways to prevent future generations from enduring such abuse and from continuing the cycles of abuse within their own family and relationships.
1. Matsakis, Aphrodite. (1991). When the Bough Breaks. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
2. Vanderbilt, Heidi. (1992, February). "Incest: A Chilling Report." Lears, p. 49-77.
3. Caruso, Beverly. (1987). The Impact of Incest. Center City, MN: Hazelden Educational Materials.
4. Greenfeld, Lawrence. (1996). Child Victimizers: Violent Offenders and Their Victims: Executive Summary. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice.
5. Hayes, Robert. (1990, Summer). "Child Sexual Abuse." Crime Prevention Journal.
6. Finkelhor, David. (1983). The Dark Side of Families: Current Family Violence Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Blume, E. Sue. (1990). Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women. New York: Wiley Publishing.
Byerly, Carolyn. (1985). The Mother's Book: How to Survive the Incest of Your Child. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing.
Davis, Laura. (1990). The Courage to Heal Workbook: For Women and Men Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. New York: Harper & Row.
Fuller, A. Kenneth and Robert Bartucci. (1991). "HIV Transmission and Childhood Sexual Abuse." Journal of Sex Education & Therapy, 17(1).
Gust, Jean and Patricia Sweeting. (1992). Recovering from Sexual Abuse and Incest: A Twelve-Step Guide. Bedford, MA: Mills & Sanderson Publishing.
Hunter, Mic. (1990). Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims of Sexual Abuse. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Mayer, Adele. (1985). Sexual Abuse: Causes, Consequences, and Treatment of Incestuous and Pedophilic Acts. Holmes Beach, FL: Learning Publications.
National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse. (1988). Basic Facts About Child Abuse. Chicago, IL: National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse.
National Center for Victims of Crime. (1997). "Child Sexual Abuse," FYI, Arlington, VA: National Center for Victims of Crime.
National Center for Victims of Crime. (1997). "Civil Legal Remedies for Victims of Violent Crimes," FYI, Arlington, VA: National Center for Victims of Crime.
National Center for Victims of Crime. (1997). "Cult and Ritualistic Abuse," FYI, Arlington, VA: National Victim Center.
National Center for Victims of Crime. (1998). "Extensions of the Criminal and Civil Statutes of Limitations in Child Sexual Abuse Cases," FYI, Arlington, VA: National Center for Victims of Crime.
National Center for Victims of Crime. (1992). "Rape-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder," FYI, Arlington, VA: National Victim Center.
National Center for Victims of Crime. (1997). "Trauma of Victimization," FYI, Arlington, VA: National Victim Center.
Ward, Elizabeth. (1985). Father-Daughter Rape. New York: Grove Press.
Wiehe, Vernon. (1997). Sibling Abuse: Hidden Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Trauma. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
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