It’s a difficult issue that few want to think about, much less discuss, yet many individuals are currently enduring the effects or aftermath of incest. Every 107 seconds, a sexual assault occurs in the U.S., and 44 percent of those victims are under the age of 18. The perpetrators of a third of those children sexually abused are family members.
And, according to Candice Lopez, national sexual assault hotline director with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), incest and domestic violence are intricately linked.
“When children are being sexually abused by a family member or parent, that parent is more likely to also be abusing the other adult in the household as well.”
By definition, incest is sexual conduct between family members too closely related to be married, such as sexual conduct with a child, sibling, parent or grandparent. It can include touching , kissing, masturbation, oral sex and penetrative sex. Non-touching sexual abuse may involve introducing a much younger child to pornography, forcing them to watch a perpetrator masturbate or watching the victim in the shower or during other private moments.
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We asked Lopez to break down the issue of incest, its long-term effects and how victims can start to heal.
Who are the perpetrators of incest?
Lopez: Incest can happen in any type of family relationship where the perpetrator is a family member to the victim. It could be an adult and minor, or two adults.
What umbrella does incest fall under? It’s sexual abuse, but does that also make it a form of domestic abuse?
Lopez: Domestic violence and sexual assault have social and legal definitions, the latter of which vary from state to state. When it comes to social definitions, what advocates use, sexual assault within a family relationship can be categorized as intimate partner violence, or domestic violence. But how states define incest varies, and laws vary as far as what’s actually illegal. However, anyone who has had a negative sexual experience that they didn’t want is justified in getting help.
Why does incest happen?
Lopez: It’s a lot to do with power dynamics. Perpetrators often find they have easier access to [their] children.
In a home where incest is occurring, is it more likely domestic violence is happening as well?
Lopez: Yes. Domestic violence is about power and control and abusers want to extend that power and control to their children. The isolation, power and control, intimidation—these tactics often carry over to other adults [in the home]. Abusers can use children as part of their abuse tactics, often as pawns, threatening to hurt or take away the children if [survivors] don’t do what the abuser wants them to do. We know for sure that girls are a higher risk of sexual abuse when there’s domestic violence in the home.
What are the long-term effects of incest?
Lopez: It’s similar to the effects of any type of sexual abuse—post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse, self-harming, eating disorders, sleep disorders, flashbacks and anxiety attacks any time there’s a trigger. With incest, these triggers happen whenever [the victim] sees the family member, and their perpetrator has more access to them as a family member.
For many victims, not being able to process what happened can lead to an inability to live a mentally healthy life. When the perpetrator is a family member, children may not have a trusted adult to turn to for help; it takes longer for them to get help.
How does the healing process start?
Lopez: It’s really important [for adults] to listen to and believe their children. In order to heal, victims need that support of just having it acknowledged that it happened.
Is that difficult for some parents?
Lopez: Yes, parents definitely struggle with knowing their child has been hurt. They always have that sense of, ‘How did I not protect my child? I should have been able to do something.’ Our hotline [800-656-HOPE] is for parents and loved ones, as well as victims.
Research shows incest is widely underreported. Why is that?
Lopez: There’s a fear [with survivors] of not being believed, especially if the family member/perpetrator is highly regarded, like a ‘favorite uncle.’ We have in our mind what a child abuser might look like and it’s not actually who’s out there abusing people. There’s also shame. [Survivors] feel like they might have consented, but we know that children can’t consent.
How can victims begin to recover if it’s been years, even decades, since it happened?
Lopez: The longer you hold on to it, the harder it is to share. A lot of people call our hotline [800-656-HOPE] for that reason—it’s a safe, anonymous place where they can test the waters for support. It’s never too late to get the support one deserves at any point in the healing process. Regardless of definitions and laws, if someone feels like they’ve been violated, they should talk to somebody. Start with the disclosure process, search for support groups or seek out one-on-one counseling.
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