Child Abuse

Incest: The Under-Reported Form Of Child Sexual Abuse

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“Incest, as both sexual abuse and abuse of power, is violence that does not require force…It is abuse because it does not take into consideration the needs or wishes of the child, rather meeting the needs of the `caretaker’ at the child’s expense…incest can be seen as the imposition of sexually inappropriate acts, or acts with sexual overtones, by – or any use of a minor child to meet the sexual or sexual/emotional needs of one or more persons who derive authority through on-going emotional bonding with that child.”

This definition expands the traditional definition of incest to include sexual abuse by anyone who has authority or power over the child. It includes as perpetrators: immediate/extended family members, babysitters, school teachers, scout masters, priests/ministers, etc. “Incest between an adult and a related child or adolescent is now recognized as the most prevalent form of child sexual abuse and as one with great potential for damage to the child.” What is paramount is the imbalance of power. Despite the fact that children are more likely to be sexually abused by an adult they know, parents teach children to expect danger from strangers and not from trusted authority figures. It is understandable, given the fact, that a violation of this trust is so terribly frightening and confusing. The extent of incest and childhood sexual abuse is difficult to measure because of lack of reporting and lack of memory. One study in which adults were asked to report on past incidents found that one in four girls and one in ten boys experienced sexual abuse.

Father-daughter incest is a kind of functional adaptation by a family to severe role strain. Parents in these families usually have unhappy marriages, and sex between spouses is unpleasant or non-existent. Fathers are often authoritarian and physically abusive within the family but incompetent as providers. Mothers, for their part, are either unwilling or unable to fulfill parental functions. They are ill, still heavily under the sway of their own families, or uncomfortable with the responsibilities of motherhood. In addition to tension with their husbands, they have strained and alienated relationships with their daughters. In this situation, incest is a possible outcome and sometimes even a solution to the family dilemma. Depressed, incapacitated, and subservient, many mothers are unable to provide any protection for their daughters. They are peripheral family members.  

Some women feel they have no choice but to stay in a relationship with a perpetrator and try their best to prevent further victimization of their children because they’re financially dependent on the perpetrator, or as a result of a lack of job skills or limited job skills.  However, should they choose to remarry (as in the case of a husband), they could be putting their children, especially their daughters, at risk of sexual abuse. “The finding that stepfather-daughter incest is far more prevalent and severe than biological father-daughter incest has considerable implications. The most obvious ones are not only that the daughter of women who remarry are at much greater risk of being sexually abused by their stepfathers, but that it is a substantial risk…research suggests a one-in-six risk factor…Another implication of these findings is that women with daughters might be more cautious about marrying again if they were to recognize the consequent risk to their daughter. As some researchers have begun to suspect, it may be the case that a growing number of stepfathers are really `smart pedophiles’, men who marry divorced or single women with families as a way of getting close to children.

Sexual victimization may be as common as it is in our society because of its degree of male supremacy. It is one way in which men, the dominant status group, control women. To maintain control, men need a vehicle by which women can be punished, brought into line, and socialized to a subordinate status. Sexual victimization and the threat of it are useful in keeping women intimidated. Inevitably the process starts in childhood with the victimization of girl children… The cultural beliefs that underpin the male-dominated system contribute to making women and children sexually vulnerable.” The dominant society blames its victims. The child is blamed for her (his) sexual abuse: “they asked for it or they didn’t say `no”. The mother is blamed for not protecting the child: ” where was she? or she wasn’t taking care of her husband’s needs”. The criminal justice system is a part of the larger patriarchal system which sympathizes with the male perpetrator and blames the victim or the victim’s mother. Since most perpetrators of child sexual abuse are men, women and children can’t expect to get much help from the criminal justice system. If convicted of incest/sexual abuse the perpetrator isn’t given much punishment either.

The criminal justice system also often operates on an erroneous assumption – that an incestuous perpetrator is only perpetrating against his/her own family, not someone else’s children. While some incestuous perpetrators have sex only with the children within the family, according to one study, “at least 44%, abuse children outside the home during the time they are having sexual contact with their own family member.” The criminal justice system needs to be changed so that victims aren’t revictimized by the system and offenders are held accountable. A task force that represents a broad cross-section of community resources needs to be formed in each community to coordinate their efforts towards making the criminal justice system more effective in handling child abuse cases.

Adapted from Pat McClendon’s Clinical Social Work: “Systems Theory and Incest/Sexual Abuse of Children: Focus on Families and Communities”

 

RESOURCES FOR SURVIVORS OF SIBLING SEXUAL ABUSE AND THEIR SUPPORTERS

  1. Incest and Child Sexual Abuse: Understanding and Treating
  2. SASIAN: Sibling Violence and Abuse

 

Books

  1. Understanding Your Child’s Sexual Behavior, By Toni Cavanaugh Johnson
  2. Sex Is More Than a Plumbing Lesson: A Parents’ Guide to Sexuality Education for Infants Through the Teen Years by Patty Stark
  3. From Diapers to Dating: A Parents Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children, By Debra Haffner
  4. A Very Touching Book: For Little People and Big People, By Jan Hindman
  5. Sibling Abuse: Hidden Physical, Emotional and Sexual Abuse
  6. When Children Molest Children: Group Treatment Strategies for Young Sexual Abusers. By Cunningham, Carolyn and Kee MacFarlene
  7. The Sibling Bond. By Stephen Bank
  8. Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women by E. Sue Blume
  9. Heal & Forgive: Forgiveness in the Face of Abuse, by Nancy Richards

 

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