The long-term effects for survivors of childhood incestuous abuse

digitally manipulated photo of a toddler boy face in hands

According to Wikipedia (2006) incest is defined as ” …sexual activity between close family members.”

Although incest is taboo or forbidden in the majority of current and historical cultures… different cultures have differing notions of ” sexual activity” and close family member”. For the purpose of this paper, incest is defined as an activity that is regarded as sexual by the perpetrator and that occurs between biological or marital relatives. It is not necessary for penetration to take place for sexual abuse to have occurred, as the sexual activity may consist of inappropriate fondling or exposure of genitals, amongst other activities. Sexual expressions may be made both overtly and covertly, i.e. by means of verbal seduction and implied or direct threats.

Incest is also a betrayal of trust, by an adult who is in both a position of authority and a protector of the child, but who chooses to take advantage of this position. A child’s innocence is destroyed by the very person that they would have expected to protect them and the effects on the child are both traumatic and long-lasting. The incest survivor often also feels betrayed by other adults who may have been involved. The mother who turned a blind eye to the father’s inappropriate acts or refused to believe her daughter once she found the courage to speak out, also betrays the survivor at a fundamental level. It is not surprising, therefore, that difficulty in sustaining relationships and building trust are legacies carried into adult years.” A young child under the age of 12 or so is very vulnerable to the words and deeds of other people.They have very little choice in what happens in their lives and are dependant upon others for their well-being.” (Markham, 1998, p.2). Thus, they are easy to manipulate by their abuser and be dismissed by other adults. When a young child decides to disclose to someone that they have been sexually abused, they often don’t have the words to describe the act or to answer the questions asked because they don’t understand what has happened, only that it feels wrong for a multitude of reasons. An adult to whom they confide may become uncomfortable, frustrated by trying to understand what is being said and even dismiss it as storytelling. This child is likely not to try and disclose again for a long time, if at all. The abused child learns to keep their secret for fear of not being believed and by adulthood, has learnt their lesson well, convinced that they are seriously flawed and that the incest was their fault.Incest survivors initially keep their incest secret because the perpetrator either overtly or covertly threatens them or because they are so ashamed. They may be told that it is their fault for being too seductive or that it is okay, because the perpetrator loves them. With this distorted viewpoint of love and fear of disclosure, the survivor creates an unrealistic picture of themselves and of others. Their negative self image means that they may not believe that they are capable of ‘normal’ love and if anyone tries to persuade them otherwise, will often believe that this is because they feel sorry for them or want something in return.

Statistics clearly show that the majority of incest perpetrators are male and the majority of victim/ survivors are female. Incestuous abuse may start as early as a few months old and last into adulthood.

The effects of incest on survivors are many and will often last for many years into their adults lives. Some of the most common effects are examined below:

  • Self-blame, guilt and vulnerability towards further victimization: ” Terrible damage is often done to the child – and thereby to the future adult- by deliberate abuse of this kind. The child soon accepts himself as someone unworthy of better treatment; he begins to believe that …he truly deserves it. When the child grows into an adult, he will automatically seek out other people who make him into a victim.” (Markham, 1998, p.20).
  • Excessive control: Survivors may become control freaks and keep their lives in fastidious order or need to be the controlling partner in any relationship in order to manage their high levels of anxiety.
  • Shame: One of the first things that an incest survivor may feel is an overwhelming shame. This can lead to many other problems including a deep sense of inferiority and inadequacy, a belief that they are a flawed human being.
  • Difficulty in sustaining relationships: Because incest occurs in a context that includes both emotional and sexual intimacy, a combination that resembles healthy adult relationships, survivors often lack skills in sustaining intimate relationships as adults.
  • Sexual dysfunctions: Survivors may experience a range of sexual problems, including decreased sexual desire, increased sexual dysfunction and a tendency to have multiple short term sexual relationships.
  • Flashbacks and intrusive memories: These can be so intrusive into the survivor’s personal life, that they may interfere with their ability to function on a day to day basis. In addition, they may experience avoidance of the stimuli associated with the incest and numbing of ability to experience sensations. In other words, they have many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Eating disorders and Substance Abuse: Anorexia may be seen as control, in one of the only areas left available to the survivor whereas Bulimia is more overtly self mutilation, an escalating state of self hatred. However, substance abuse, whether it is drugs, alcohol or food, serves to numb the pain sufficiently for the survivor to cope with day to day life.
  • Dissociative reactions: This is a psychological defence mechanism employed to keep traumatic memories from conscious awareness. Due to the severity of the childhood trauma, ‘alters’ may develop to carry the memory and the pain which can remain unknown to the main personality.
  • Self-mutilation: Children who are abused often feel that a major jolt to their body, by self inflicted pain, can reduce their emotional pain. Repetitive self injury is not seen as a suicidal gesture but one aimed at reducing overwhelming emotional pain.
  • Depression and anxiety: Survivors often have an inability to self nurture and statistically have a five times higher life time risk of major depression, than the rest of the population. Generalised anxiety disorders and phobias are also more likely to occur in incest survivors.
  • Isolation and loneliness: Sometimes the only way that the survivor can deal with the pain, is by avoidance of others and thus may become completely isolated and more vulnerable to any of the afore mentioned problems.

Some incest survivors may not even remember the abuse happening or may completely repress it until many years later, when a new period of stress in their lives may induce flashbacks or memories. In order to survive, memories were literally pushed from their conscious minds and in some cases, the child was so young that memories are mostly pre- visual. The survivor may even question their sanity, as the new memories may contradict old ones held about their abuser. However, whether they consciously remember the incest or not, it is obvious that survivors will probably still experience many after-effects.

Once incest survivors begin to remember the abuse or come to a point in their lives where they can no longer ignore its effects on their lives, professional counselling is necessary. There are also specific support groups which in combination with individual counselling and client personal growth, will eventually enable the incest survivor to become a functioning adult, in a world that has allowed the fundamental betrayal of those who should have nurtured and protected them.

Carole Kelly, 2006.

    <p><em>Incest. </em>(2006) [Online], Available: <a title="read the Wikipedia article" href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> </a>

Markham, Ursula. (1998) Childhood Trauma: Your Questions Answered. Element Books Ltd: Dorset.

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