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Legal Reform, Not Decriminalization, Will Ensure the Safety of America's Children from Incest Abuse

Incest abuse survivors are deeply concerned about recent news and advocacy efforts that seek to decriminalize incest so that consenting adult family members can marry. Supporters of the consensual incest movement are using “freedom of choice” and “marriage equality” as the foundation of their argument while disregarding complications of consent due to grooming patterns often prevalent in power dynamics between family members.

Even with the laws in place, incest abuse survivors have been ignored, passing the sexual violence of children from one generation to the next– causing a range of physiological, neurological, psychological, social, and financial issues for survivors. Incest abuse is an issue that must be understood, addressed, and mitigated before we can consider loosening litigation for related adults interested in consensual relationships.

Currently, incest laws intend to serve two purposes: “to promote security and unity with the family, and to prevent the genetic problems that often occur in babies whose parents are related.” However, the reality is that the repression of survivor stories, issues in law language and limitations, and social taboos and ignorance toward incest restrict the reporting of abuse and the incarceration of perpetrators.

Children are particularly vulnerable to abuse within family systems as perpetrators have consistent access to them. They can easily abuse power dynamics by grooming children to meet their sexual needs– making sex a source of survival for the victim. In these common occurrences, a relationship is built between the perpetrator and the child, who learns that sexual consent is directly related to their survival in order to have their physiological needs met. As the child develops, their body might actually enjoy the sexual relationship making consent more confusing, now integrating pleasure into the already convoluted relationship between sexuality, safety, and survival.

In the case of incest, most children do not report the crime during their childhood for a variety of reasons: their abuser is their primary caregiver who also provides for their basic needs; they don’t have access to confide in safe adults; abuse is normalized in the child’s family system; the child may have been threatened; or they repressed their memories in order to survive. Though underreported, data still reveals the prevalence of incest abuse within family systems. Of the abuse cases reported by children, 93% knew the perpetrator, of which more than a third were family members.

Additionally, the language and requirements of incest abuse laws, which vary from state to state, often contribute to the lack of reporting by incest abuse survivors. The definition of “incest” may include those within a child’s bloodline, but may not include the adults who have the most access to the child: family by adoption or marriage, foster families, and even “family-like” situations where a romantic partner may be living with the family. Most incest laws have a very short statute of limitations, requiring survivors to report within a few years of the incident or after a specific determined age of adulthood, robbing many survivors of their rights to justice.

For survivors who do report within the narrow legal windows and enter into the criminal justice process, the cross-examination procedures can be retraumatizing as the defendant’s strategy is often to deny the truth of the survivor’s experience whose recollection may reflect gaps or confusion due to the trauma. Without trauma-informed judges and jurors, as well as normalized cultural narratives which often accuse children of lying or disbelieving that incest occurs, justice for survivors remains rare. Regardless, the impacts of incest abuse often have detrimental long-term effects on survivors.

The developmental trauma caused by experiencing incest abuse can often lead to Complex-PTSD, a number of psychosomatic and auto-immune issues, as well as social, familial and financial problems that can last a lifetime. Additionally, childhood sexual abuse survivors are 2-3 times more likely to attempt suicide. Suzanne Isaza, a father/daughter incest survivor, and the founder of Incest AWARE proclaims, “Overturning a law designed to keep children safe from family abuse would only roll back important legal tools to hold perpetrators like mine accountable and away from other children. Incest laws keep kids safe.”

It’s imperative that we continue to create effective social and legal systems that ensure family environments are safe for children. I believe this starts by teaching others to recognize and prohibit perpetration patterns, reforming the judicial system, and increasing accessibility to healing resources. As an incest survivor, I wish these systems of support would have existed to keep me safe. Today, I commit to their creation for the next generation of children.

- Anne M. Lauren

Anne M. Lauren is an author and activist who serves on the board of Incest AWARE. She shares her story of childhood trauma and recovery through writing and public speaking as a medium to express the significant intersections and urgent demands between spirituality, psychology, healing, and justice on individual and collective levels.

Anne’s story has been published in print and digital magazines like Yes!, Arcadia, Elite Daily, The Mighty, Ms. Magazine, and Elephant Journal. You can review her portfolio at and find her @annemlauren on all social media platforms.

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