There are a number of types of family incest. Depending on who is being harmed and who is harming, the impacts and support models will need to be different. It's important that everyone understands the differences between the different types of sexual abuse in families so that survivors can be met with the highest quality of care. If you have any questions, please, reach out to an organization in the Incest AWARE Alliance.
Types of Family Incest.
Family incest causes harm to all family members, especially the victim. There are three primary types of sexual abuse in families: adult-on-adult abuse, adult-on-child abuse, and child-on-child abuse. Adult-on-adult family incest is sexual molestation or rape of one adult in the family by another. Adult-on-child abuse includes any adult within a nuclear or chosen family who abuses a child within the same family network. The adult could be a grandparent, a parent, a step-parent, a foster parent, an in-law, or any other primary caregiver integrated enough into the family unit that disclosure of the abuse would disrupt the family system. The child could be direct offspring of a parent or an in-law like daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, adopted children, foster children, or non-binary or gender fluid children. Child-on-child abuse occurs when one child in the family system harms another child in the same family.
Although family incest has been a neglected conversation in public discourse throughout history, the representation of adult-on-child incest, specifically father/daughter incest, has been focused on the most. However, all types of sexual abuse in families cause harm and need equal attention. Here is a simple breakdown of each of the types. Below you can also learn more about the causes and consequences of incest by specific family members against children.
Adult-on-Adult Family Incest.
Adult-on-adult family incest is often portrayed as consensual incest. It has been sensationalized in the media in shows like The Games of Thrones and Gossip Girl, portraying siblings in seemingly consensual sexual relationships. Other articles question whether or not family incest is even wrong, or, justify it arguing that incest should be decriminalized. However, family incest isn't that simple. Throughout history, the pro-incest movement has done and will continue to do great harm for victims of incest abuse, as well as the families seeking support.
Adult-on-adult family incest often begins as abuse — either between adults and children or children and children — due to power and gender dynamics that exist within family systems. Experiencing sexual violence as a child often causes victims to mistake rape as sex, confusion as consent, and abuse as pleasure. People who harm work hard to groom and manipulate victims, so overtime and into adulthood, the victim may begin consenting, as they may experience sexual desire for the person harming them. However, the foundation of the relationship and the psychological manipulation required to sustain that relationship has been and remains harmful for the victim.
Adult-on-adult family incest is illegal in all states in the United States of America. Consent should always be questioned and challenged, not assumed in these cases.
Adult-on-Child Family Incest.
Adult-on-child family incest relies on a culture of ignorance, complacency, and silence. This culture creates an environment where adults can misuse power by abusing children instead of protecting them. Children are often easy targets for sexual abuse in families because they are easily accessible and can be silenced through threats. Families often trust other adult members within the system or refuse to enforce methods of accountability within family systems, leaving children vulnerable to sexual harm. Family incest tends to be serial — repeated offenses occurring at higher rates depending on the ease of access to the child. For example, a parent or other live-in adult has greater access to a child in their home than an in-law who lives outside of the home and only visits the child occasionally.
The family is the foundation of US society. What happens within the private sector of the home is considered not to be a public problem. Many children who experience incest are isolated or taught to protect the family at all costs. In these cases, sexual abuse in family systems is normalized, then repeated without recourse or justice. The impacts are passed from one generation to the next. Disclosure is always difficult for victims because it will disrupt the entire family system. Additionally, the trauma of family incest is so severe that often children forget the abuse is happening and don't recall their memories until adulthood. This makes both disclosure and the pursuit of justice challenging.
A community care model can help break the private and public boundary and claim that all children deserve to be safe. If a child can't disclose in their family systems, it's important that they have another safe adult to disclose to and a system of support to guide them to safety while the family deals with the consequences of family incest.
Child-on-Child Family Incest.
Although father/daughter incest abuse has been most focused on in feminist and medical discourse, child-on-child sexual abuse may actually be the most common form of sexual abuse. Sibling sexual trauma, including foster and step-siblings, and sexual abuse between cousins has just as grave of an impact on the victim. In these cases though, the intervention and treatment methods are more complex. Due to purity culture and sexual stigma, sex and appropriate body vocabulary are not often taught to children by parents or in schools. These prevention. methods are imperative to incest prevention. In the digital age, children often encounter sex for the first time through pornography searched for on the internet. Then, they experiment sexually on their siblings and cousins.
Although these children are accountable for their actions, they often don't intend to cause harm. Treatment to end sexual abuse for children who harm other children has proven to be 95% effective. However, treatment for survivors continues to be lacking. As we consider ideas for sexual assault prevention, teaching children safe sexual expression and stopping abuse patterns young will ensure children don't continue abusing into adulthood.
Specific Types of Sexual Abuse in Families
At Incest AWARE, our approach is solutions and survivor-centered. The relationship that survivors had with the person or people who harmed them matters to their healing process. If your father hurt you, the recovery road may be different than if your mother hurt you. If your grandparent or in-law hurt you, your healing journey may be different than if a parent hurt you. If a sibling or cousin hurt you, you may require a unique set of tools to heal. Read more about each of these types of family incest and their consequences through the links below.
INCEST BY COUSINS
“Do not accept the shame that belongs to your abuser. Deshame yourself, beautiful incest survivor!”
- Pamela Clark, Deshaming Podcast