Changing the Way We See Incest

Incestuous Child Abuse

By Dawn Boykin

The effect of child sexual abuse is a leading concern among mental health professionals and is a fairly new topic of mental health research. Child sexual abuse, defined as acts intended for the sexual stimulation of an adult is often seen between a female child and a familiar man (National Center for Child Abuse). Most of the literature on child sexual abuse focuses on father-daughter incest. Further, the sparse nature in the abuse of boys often concerns maternal abuse. One major difficulty in establishing long-term effects of child sexual abuse is the lack of conceptual and methodological limitations in published research. However, in order to understand theoretical application an incorporation of a developmental perspective is necessary. Most importantly, it is necessary to understand (a) the manifestation of the effects of sexual abuse at different stages of development (b) the influence of developmental factors on specific outcomes (c) the impact of childhood on later adjustment. This approach is valuable because of its normative and atypical variations considered in studying the origin and nature of psychological disorder. Also, measures that are linked to developmental ability can assist in identifying age-related symptoms and later psychopathology on a continuum or discontiuum. A better understanding of development associated with child sexual abuse can be informative for intervention.

Developmental psychopathology is a perspective which examines the evolution of psychological disturbance in the context of development (Cole & Putnam, 1989, 1992). A stressful event, such as incest causes psychological vulnerabilities to compromise specific developmental factors that influence a child’s ability to manage stress. It is best to focus on specific forms of child sexual abuse in constructing a developmental framework for understanding its effects (Brown & Finkelhor, 1986). Father-daughter is extremely problematic since it occurs within the arena of a child’s main source of support and socialization. This common form has an estimated incident rate of 1 in 70 females (Finkelhor, Hoteling & Lewis, 1990). The research that I will report focuses on incest and its influence on self development during different periods of development. It is agreed that some psychopathological outcomes in adulthood is highly correlated with that of incest and that self-development is an important construct in understanding these outcomes.  I will also discuss the Radical Feminist view on incest and finally discuss the resistance to child abuse and incest.

The Nature of Incest

Although child sexual abuse causes immense trauma, incest by a father is rarely a discrete traumatic experience. This abuse tends to emerge within a larger family dysfunction and has episodic series of unwanted sexual contact. The first sexual contact is normally with the oldest daughter (Cole& Putnam, 1992). The mean age of onset was 8 to 9 years for incest with a range of 2 months to 19 years (Herman & Schatzow, 1987; O’Brien, 1987). The duration of the abuse ranged from one episode to 18 years and averaged 3 years (O’Brien, 1987) and 5 years (Herman & Schatzow, 1987).  Father-daughter incest often has a longer time span than other forms of sexual abuse, partly due to the insular nature of the family unit. Research indicates that mothers of incest abuse on daughters play a pivotal role in the sexual abuse. These mothers were reported as having provided inconsistent care in early years, were passive, distant or depressed (Bernstein, 1989, 1990; Berry, 1975; Cohler, 1987). These precursors indicate abuse and the child feeling deprived of love, then seeks love or accepts love from the father. Research also indicates strained or distant marital relationships, where the mother often sustains from sexual intimacy with the father (Cohler, 1987). About half of the articles reported that fathers or stepfathers involved in incest abused alcohol or were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the abuse. There is also an indication that fathers were frequent in physical violence, threatening or angry behaviors. Fathers were also said to be unable to show affection, except with being sexual (Bernstein, 1989, 1990; Cohler, 1987; Ehrenberg, 1937). Generalization involving maternal abuse is difficult because of its rarity; but most literature tends to agree on two key points. Abusive mothers who engage in sexual acts with their children are described as pathological, and more disturbing than incestuous fathers. Mothers also report great difficulty tolerating the child’s separation or are described as early unreliable entities. (Kramer, 1990; Margolis, 1977; Shengold, 1963). What has yet to be indicated in the research is the intergenerational nature of sexual abuse.


There have been many indications of impaired ego development in abused children. Relative to the level and quality of personality development prior to the abuse, there were more reports of extensive ego damage when abuse occurred in early childhood as opposed to early adulthood (Wolf & Alpert, 1991). Patients with damaged senses of self or with difficulties around boundaries were described in various studies. The self representation of incestuous abused girls ranged from unstable female identification to primary identification with the father. Other reports include feelings of not being whole, lack of body integrity or feelings of fragmentation (Ehrenberg, 1987; Ganzarain & Buchele, 1988), grandiosity, narcissism, sense of entitlement (Cohler, 1987; Marcus, 1989; Margolis, 1977). Variable super-ego functions were found in boys who found it difficult to resolve the Oedipal complex. Intense feelings of shame and guilt were also reported.  It should be noted that children are affected by abuse on an individual basis, unique to their own experience.

The extensive numbers of studies which have been published suggest an array of multiple outcomes regarding the long-term effects of incest. Every psychological symptom and most medical symptoms have been implied to incestuous abuse (Conte & Schmerman, 1987). However, recent research has correlated a number of disorders in which incestuous significance has been determined. These conditions include borderline personality disorder, somatoform disorder (pseudo seizure, pelvic pain, and gastrointestinal disturbances), eating disorder as well as substance abuse in women. The two similarities shared by these different disorders is that they suggest disruption in self-development (a) deviations in the inner ability to define, regulate and integrate aspects of self and (b) deviations from the ability to experience trust and confidence in relationships. Specifically these relate to issues involving identity confusion and dissociation of the way self is viewed (eg; sense of separate self, loss of memory about self, distorted body image), lack of impulse control (e.g.; being self- critical and self- destructiveness) as well as insecurity in relationships.

Developmental Perspective on Self

            Developmental psychology conceptualize normative aspects of the acquisition of self and social development as it relates to the integration into psychologically healthy adults. A secure sense of self and prolific interpersonal relationships is necessary for the basis of a healthy functioning adult. It has been asserted that some psychopathological outcomes in adulthood are highly correlated with a history of incest and that self- development is an important construct in organizing these outcomes. A sense of self comes from one’s experiences which organize into individuality. A sense of self emerges from relationships between individuals and others and forms of emotional worth from significant relationships in early childhood. Self and social development is one in the same, so quite naturally dysfunction in self would apparently have bearing in the social arena.

The Infant and Toddler

Infancy and toddlerhood pertaining to social and self-development include discovering people and objects, establishing security in social relationships with family members, establishing a sense of self and discerning a sense of right/good and wrong/bad. In the recent developmental psychology perspective, the idea of developmental attachment has heavily considered the establishment of an emotionally secure relationship with a primary caretaker, who is most often the mother. The security in this stage of development predicts later social construct (Waters, Wipman & Stoufe, 1979), development of identity and self- awareness. Toddlers are very sensitive to social situations dealing with coping with stress; this is evident when social norms are violated, even with their own behavior but show that they are able to cope with disturbing circumstances, including attempts to reduce stress in those around them. In infancy and toddlerhood, it has been proven that there are advancements in the developmental sense of self as well as trust and sensitivity socially. The act of incest in infants and toddlers seem to have a low occurrence compared to the other age groups. Children in this age group don’t understand inappropriate behavior. None-the-less, the child’s sense of trust and idea of control over events are threatened.

Pre-School Age

The Pre-school years are generally ages 2-5 or upon entering elementary school being advancement from infancy to childhood. Regarding social and self- development, the focus is learning to integrate a secure sense of one’s self into self- regulatory limitations of one’s own behavior, cooperation with others and being accountable for violating rules. Learning the difference between real and superficial limits is found through interactions and play. In circumstance where pre-schoolchildren lack coping strategies, denial appears to be common. There is controversy as to whether the developmental structure of preschoolers actually may protect them against the effects of sexual abuse or whether it causes more strife. One idea is that the innocence of a child in this age group protects them from guilt since they do not realize the taboo nature of the abuse. The current development favors the view that ego development is compromised and has a negative effect on adult personality. Fraiberg (1959) notes that preschoolers are able to name body parts and understand social tensions about touching of the genitals. Sexually abused preschoolers may use denial or dissociation coping strategies in response to the social authority and physicality of the abusive father. Telling another adult is overridden by confusion, feelings of guilt, shame, and fear. Further, victimized preschoolers are affected by the ongoing sense of self-organization and regulation. In essence, the abuse destruct accomplishments of early infancy and toddlerhood.


In elementary school prior to the onset of puberty, the self-development aspect increases in cognition and social understanding and control. At ages 8 or 9, criticism and knowing feelings of shame and pride are clear. Development of self and its ability to have negative or positive qualities arise and are related to advanced cognition and social experience. As adolescence approaches, children integrate elements of loyalty and trust into their relationships with friends. Friends serve in an interpersonal support network and with coping. New social demands increase the capacity of self- regulation. In childhood, having self- control, being non- compulsive and unselfish acts aid in building social relations. A moral view of responsive guilt builds self-esteem. Since the average age in which first experiences with abuse between father and child occurs between 7 and 9 years old, the abuse is critical in continued establishment of self. The child may exhibit uncontrolled behavior and the feelings of guilt, shame and confusion decreases the likelihood of continuing to build friendships or seek social support. Denial and dissociation appear to increase in those abused also. This abuse interrupts the construct of positive and negative view of self and with the realism of self- praise.


If incest happens during this time period, during the onset of puberty and emerging sexuality, this will affect the most salient aspect of developmental changes. Incest does in fact happen for some victims during this time, but for most it begins prior and continues through some time of adolescence. The defiant sexual relationship with the father is happening when the adolescent is trying to understand the change in sexuality and the exploring of opposite-sex relationships. More importantly, the ongoing development of the varied aspects of self is significantly endangered. Furthermore, the incestuous relationship suggests that this integration may not happen. Moreover, if the adolescent must depend on denial and dissociation as a coping mechanism, psychopathology risks are increased. Unable to reason, plan or reflect maturely, this increases the likelihood to act on impulse when feelings of frustration, depression and anxiety arises. The result becomes misbehavior, substance abuse, acting out sexually, running away and other self- destructive activities. However, if the first sexual victimizing experience occurs after the onset of puberty, these victims may not be affected in the same way and may not risk severe adult psychopathology.

 Early to Middle Adulthood

The incest victim’s survival into adulthood influences the varied impairment to self and social functioning in the role of the adult women. More so, the adult sexual relationships are so adversely affected by not being able to communicate sexually, feeling secure expressing limits of sexual comfort or being sexually aroused. There is impulsiveness and a lack of respect and insight that aid in re-victimization. Forming close relationships is problematic since they must rely on trust, a secure sense of self and emotional stability. Marriage and parenting test self-boundaries and are most likely more stressful than satisfying for most. Many incest victims enter therapy later in life for other reason besides the abuse they suffered earlier in life. A large number are eventually able to recall their experiences later in the therapy relationship and self- reflection, recollection and development becomes possible with a healthy, supportive adult relationship (Herman & Schztzow, 1987).

Radical Feminist Theory

From the radical feminist perspective, society is permeated by many forms of oppression, from race, class, age and sexuality. Gender oppression appear to be the simple most basic power that men have over women in physical force and violence and is a last line of defense in maintaining oppression (Aulette, pg. 378). The term patriarchy is used by radical feminist to describe the order of all forms of oppression. One form of patriarchy is the historical male dominance role, in which the male dominate the entire household both related and non-related. Looking at the relationship between incest and the structure of patriarchy, (Herman and Hirschman, 1977) determine that the social sanction against father-daughter incest is very weak in patriarchal contemporary families like the United States. Also, incest results in patriarchal dominant families within a patriarchal society.

Resistance against Child Abuse and Incest

Resistance against child abuse is not a new topic in politics and its discussion is most devastating. Victims of incest have a long history of fighting back and investigation records show that girl victims resist by running away, and informing the police and others. Organizations have also been active in seeking policy changes to empower children to be protected and see the perpetrator punished. However the political relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children and White Anglo-Saxon Social workers, representing the dominant culture and working class poor show oppression of the subordinate group. Incest victims resist the abuse by their fathers, women and children fought back and communities and families fight authorities to make their own definition of family, child rearing and what is ultimately right morally.


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