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What are the effects of incest?

Incest effects can last well into adulthood, particularly when the survivor has ongoing contact with family who refuse to acknowledge or address the abuse, or blame the survivor for it. It's so important that the effects of incest abuse be taken seriously and recovery solutions be provided.

Incest effects.

The effects of incest are similar to those experienced by other survivors of sexual violence, including:

  • Persistent feelings of being alone, unwanted, and unloved

  • Difficulty sleeping, nightmares, or finding it hard to get out of bed

  • Suicide attempts, self-harming behaviors, and feelings of hopelessness

  • Use of alcohol, prescription drugs, or substances to cope with the effects of abuse

  • Dissociating during abuse or from the memories as a coping mechanism, sometimes forgetting the experience entirely

  • Intense confusion about the experiences, especially when family deny the abuse ever happened

  • Emotional, embodied, or visual flashbacks that may be persistent or occasional 

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks, which cause overwhelming feelings of anxiety and fear that can be disabling

  • Anger, a deep sense of being flawed or contaminated, low self-esteem, and difficulty asserting oneself 

  • Eating disorders

  • Chronic physical pain or illness

  • Pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections

  • Sexual challenges and confusion.

  • Disruption at home, for example, being removed from the family and placed with other caregivers or in foster care, or the removal of the offender from the home

  • Poverty, unemployment, and homelessness, especially if the survivor runs away from home or is made to leave

Although there are many similarities between abuse by a family member and by someone outside of the family circle, incest effects can last throughout a survivor’s lifetime. ​

  • Dependence on the abuser. If the offender is a parent or primary caregiver, the survivor may be completely dependent on the abuser for their care, making it even harder to report the abuse or separate from the relationship.

  • A family dynamic of shame, blame, secrecy, and fear. Incestuous families have their own unique dynamic that may minimize the problem as “not a big deal”, blame the survivor for the abuse, deny the incest is occuring, and threaten the survivor with physical harm, family isolation, or withdrawal of financial support, among other impacts.

  • Sometimes intergenerational. Although not always, sexual abuse can be intergenerational, with cycles of abuse occurring within multiple generations of families. Behaviors and beliefs common in incestuous families can become ingrained in family members as they age, leaving the next generation vulnerable to similar abuse and behavior patterns.

  • No one wants to talk about it. Incest is called a taboo for a good reason: it is one of the most hidden forms of sexual assault and one that was not addressed during the #MeToo movement. Our society’s anxiety about family abuse and the belief that “what happens behind closed doors is a private matter” creates a cloud of secrecy that feels impossible to break.

  • Ostracism from family. Other family members may ostracize the survivor for talking openly about the abuse, labeling them “crazy”, a “liar”, or “out to shame the family.” Immediate family members such as siblings and parents - who may be targets of abuse themselves - will often defend the abuser at all costs, leaving the survivor to feel alone and rejected. There is also the possibility of disruption at home, for example, the survivor being removed from the family and placed with other caregivers or in foster care, or the removal of the offender from the home.

  • Difficulties with relationships, fear of abandonment, persistent feelings of being alone, unwanted, or unloved, and an increased risk of being sexually victimized in the future. Many of these effects can last well into adulthood, particularly when the survivor has ongoing contact with family.

  • Incest intersects with other social justice issues and can make the problem worse. Racism, sexism, adultism, ableism, sizeism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia can all contribute to the repression of survivor stories and support. Social stigmas and systemic oppression against historically marginalized populations — like police violence — lead to the silencing of survivors for community protection. Or, the focus of community advocacy is often directed toward these other issues so that incest remains unaddressed. 

If you are a survivor, it is important for you to know that you are not alone and that there is hope for healing. What you experienced was wrong, and it was not your fault, no matter what you have been told. Please, be patient with yourself as you manage many incest effects at the same time. Take a look at our pages in the Heal section for more guidance and information. If you are interested in supporting a survivor, please, go to our Support page.

Gordon Green.jpg

Survivor Wisdom

“Remember it was done to you, not by you.”

 

- Gordon Green

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