Incest as a form of abuse can be challenging to define, as it differs from culture to culture. Perceptions of incest vary across societies, and the degree of taboo around incest—not to mention the legal ramifications—depends largely on where you are from. In some cultures (and eras), marrying your first cousin is a perfectly acceptable practice.
In this article we’ll focus on the contemporary Western attitude toward and definition of incest. According to Incest: The Nature and Origin of the Taboo, by Emile Durkheim (tr.1963), “The incest taboo is and has been one of the most common of all cultural taboos, both in current nations and many past societies.”
Incest is a type of sexual abuse that can (but does not always) include sexual intercourse, sexually inappropriate acts, or the abuse of power based on sexual activity between blood relatives. The important thing to remember is that incest is a form of sexual abuse. As a form of abuse, it is highly damaging to a child’s psyche and most often results in prolonged Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Feminist.com says that “Incest and sexual abuse of children take many forms and may include sexually suggestive language; prolonged kissing, looking, and petting; vaginal and/or anal intercourse; and oral sex. Because sexual contact is often achieved without overt physical force, there may be no obvious signs of physical harm.”
Incest is a reprehensible form of abuse not just because it is cloaked in shame and stigma, but because this type of sexual abuse in particular affects young victims by implicating and damaging their primary support system. This can be very confusing for children who have been taught to be wary of strangers, but to trust in family. Because they are in the beginning stages of developing their value systems and trust models, the betrayal of incest can be utterly confusing, if not permanently damaging, to a child’s delicate psyche.
The statistics on incest are extremely difficult to pinpoint because most cases of incest are never reported due to the intense level of shame associated with this type of sexual abuse. Aside from the misdirected shame that victims of incest often feel, there is increased pressure to keep it a secret because of fear of disrupting the family dynamic or experiencing blame or anger from other family members. However, it’s believed that the most common form of incest happens between older male relatives and younger females.
HOW INCEST PTSD MANIFESTS
PTSD as a result of incest can result in a variety of coping mechanisms including:
Issues with disassociation
HOW TO HANDLE A SUSPECTED CASE OF INCEST
The most important thing to remember when dealing with those who have suffered incest (especially if the victim is yourself) is that shame and guilt, while a common response, is not an appropriate one. The biggest immediate help you can offer to a victim of incest is to listen with respect and compassion... and belief. In other words, the first step is always to believe the victim.
RAINN (The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) has a protocol in terms of who a victim can feel safe reporting an incest situation to:
A school counselor
A friend’s parent
Your minister (or pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, etc.)