So, what causes incest? The incest discussion has had a problematic history in the United States asking questions like: What is considered real incest? Or, is incest even harmful for children? Although the harm of incest has been known for over a century, questions like these continue to cause stigma, misinformation, and misrepresentation of this all too common issue that can have lifelong impacts on survivors and families. If you have any questions, please, reach out to an organization in the Incest AWARE Alliance.
What causes incest?
The real incest discussion throughout history.
Myth & Memory
When trying to answer the question, what causes incest?, we have to place the issue within its historical context. The incest discussion began through myth passed down from generation to generation. Creation stories — or tales of how the world began — within many cultures include the relations and rapes between family members as an explanation for how humans procreated prosperously. Incest abuse is included in other stories within sacred or canonized texts like the Bible. Unfortunately, this form of abuse has lived not just in mythological stories, but also within the bodies and memories of too many people. Sexual violence has been justified and normalized in family systems throughout history.
The Freudian Cover-Up
In the eighteenth century, London's central criminal court, the Old Bailey, documented 25% of their capital rape prosecutions involving children under age 10. In the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud working with others found that the primary reason for Hysteria in women was childhood sexual abuse, often occurring within family systems. He published his findings in a book called, The Aetiology of Hysteria, which he hoped would be received with great social support. Instead, the book had a controversial reception as it challenged incest, a common issue in the homes of many in power. To save his social status and career, Freud chose to publicly deny the stories of survivors to protect those who were harming their children.
The Second Wave of Feminism
The real incest discussion didn't return to public discourse until the second wave of feminism in the 1970's. The cause of incest was shaped as an abuse of power usually by fathers against their daughters, and justified by patriarchal social norms and structures that give men dominance over women and children. This focus, however, neglected incest against boys and gender nonconforming children, as well as the possibly more common child-on-child sexual abuse within the family. Incest was discussed in anti-sexual violence consciousness raising groups, as well as represented in fiction and non-fiction books like, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Just Above My Head by James Baldwin, The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis in the 1980's, and the Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison in the 1990's.
The Medicalization of Incest
The real incest discussion erupted a pro-incest versus anti-incest social struggle. Some continuing to side with those who harm and justify the abuse, while others understood the lifelong harm and sought to prevent incest and protect survivors. In the 1980's, the anti-incest movement moved from the mouths of feminists to the desks of psychologists, focusing the narrative now on the medicalization of the issue. This inspired research into the harms of incest on a survivors' health represented in books like Father/Daughter Incest by Judith Herman, as well as created focus groups for survivors. However, it also redirected the cause of incest from a social issue that communities and institutions needed to solve together, to a family issue. The burden of education and disclosure was placed on the child being harmed instead of parents, professionals and other adults in the community. Also, only those with resources were able to receive effective treatment for childhood sexual abuse, so it came to be known as a "white women's issue," neglecting male and gender nonconforming survivors, as well as those of racially, ethnically, and economically diverse backgrounds.
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation
"The Incest Family," a culture within a family system that allowed incest to occur, became the primary cause of incest, while the responsibility to resolve the problem and heal fell on the shoulders of survivors. The medicalization of incest also spurned the creation of The False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which taught parents and professionals that forgotten then reclaimed memories of childhood sexual abuse by adults were falsified. The founders of this foundation have been accused of incest by their child. The real incest discussion was nearly erased after this, leaving children vulnerable to sexual violence in their homes and survivors isolated in their healing. Social sensationalization of incest, as well as reactive fear responses, have caused any movements to prevent incest and support survivors to end without an effective implementation of solutions.
Even after #MeToo went viral in 2017 inviting a global acknowledgement of sexual violence by survivors, incest remains an unspoken and taboo topic in public discourse. Today, there are still proponents of the pro-incest movement arguing that incest should be decriminalized or that pedophilia is just a sexual preference and should be added to the acronym "LGBTQIA+." Within the anti-rape movement and rape crisis networks, few offer specific services, resources, or programming for the unique consequences of incest abuse for survivors. Teaching prevention methods are neglected from childrearing classes and education curriculum due to purity culture and taboo. Social paralysis and shock caused by the complexity of the problem, as well as individuals' own untreated experiences of incest, continue to keep children vulnerable to incest abuse.
Incest effects everyone. It denies children access to safe childhoods, a foundation that makes fulfillment in adulthood much more achievable. It costs the medical, economic, and legal systems greatly as survivors lean into medical care and the procurement of justice, and out of work in order to heal. The consequences of incest harm family and other interpersonal relationships as trust, the foundation of safe relationships, is never established. It robs incest survivors of self-love, as the brain, body, and being attack itself to survive. Yet the causes of incest continue to go unchallenged, keeping the statistics of children harmed by this horrible crime high.
It's time to become Incest AWARE. Learn about it. Talk about it. End it.
You can read more about the history of childhood sexual abuse, as well as solutions at BEYOND SURVIVING:
TOWARD A MOVEMENT TO PREVENT CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE by the Ms. Foundation for Women.
What Else Causes Incest?
Colonialism & Capitalism.
Colonialism glorified a culture of violence, creating power over/power under leadership models that have led to years of genocide, oppression, marginalization, and exploitation of a number of people and the environment by those in power. Native and Indigenous children were murdered, forced to move onto reservations, or kidnapped and placed into boarding schools to learn to assimilate to the ways of the colonizer. European children arrived to the United States either as the offspring of colonizers or indentured servants working for masters. African children were kidnapped and enslaved, forced into chattel slavery.
Children were viewed to be the property of their fathers, masters, or enslavers. Enslaved children could be bought and sold to other enslavers, breaking family systems apart. While all other children were expected to be contributing to economic labor by the age of 10, reducing the existence and purpose of children to the capacity of their bodies. Child exploitation and the harm of children's bodies for economic benefit was common. Chattel slavery ended in the late 19th century, while child labor laws ceased in the United States in the 1930's, but the practice of treating children as property has not.
Patriarchy, Parenting Paradigms, & Purity Culture.
The birth of the nuclear family system challenged tribal family models and limited the rights and roles of women and children to the domestic realm. The patriarchal model of family — where a cis-man sits as the head of the home and holds all economic power, the woman is submissive to her husband, and the children are the property of their father — became the norm. In the United States, gender non-conforming individuals and the LGBTQIA+ population have been so oppressed because their identities, lifestyles, and family structures offer alternatives to this invented nuclear family model that keeps men in power and everyone else subservient.
Today, the patriarchal nuclear family system remains the most common form of family. Cis-men continue to have better economic opportunities and social privileges than all other people and sit at the heads of their households. Cis-boys are raised to dominate and objectify others, continuing the practice of power over/power under dynamics. A culture of hierarchy inside and outside the home contributes to the exploitation of children. Often children are taught to protect their families at all costs regardless of violent treatment. When violence becomes intergenerational — or passed from one generation to the next — it becomes normalized behavior that goes unchallenged.
Adultism is bias and discrimination directed at young people by adults. Many beliefs founded in adultism are normalized in family systems, robbing children of personal agency and autonomy, while granting too much authority, control, and power to adults to control children's bodies and lives. In violent homes, the abuse of power by adults justifies the exploitation and oppression of children in a variety of ways, including incest. Neighbors, extended family, and other community members are often taught not to get involved in private family matters, even when they suspect harm is being done.
Purity culture, the belief that everyone should abstain from sex until marriage, has contributed to social stigma around human sexuality. Educational opportunities to teach children accurate terminology about their physical anatomy, or safe concepts of sex like consent, have been left out of family discussions and school curriculums. In this culture of sexual silence, many children today encounter sex for the first time through pornography, which usually presents sex as a way men receive pleasure regardless of the experience and participation of others. Often, pornography is violent, especially when it includes incest, contributing to rape culture within and outside of the family system.
Social Injustices, Silence, Secrecy, Shame, & Stigma.
Other social injustices like racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia all contribute to incest. In a hegemonic culture that upholds power for cis, white, able, wealthy male citizens and robs power from everyone else, standards of safety also become reduced to a hierarchy. Social and economic safeties are prioritized, while physical and sexual safeties are compromised.
Often populations that experience the consequences of social injustice create community care models that uphold the safety of the community within a violent system over the safety of an individual. Violence within the community, especially sexual violence and incest, is ignored in order to protect the community as a whole, causing deeper layers of harm called Cultural Betrayal Trauma. Incest abuse survivors who have to navigate the intersections of a number of social injustices simultaneously like racism, ableism, and classism will experience more barriers to disclosure, healing, and justice. Multi-racial survivors navigate the sexual values and cultural conditions of a number of ethnic and social communities simultaneously, often compounding the challenges and causing confusion on how to find safety, healing, and justice.
Social injustice has kept incest survivors silent throughout history. In most cases, incest survivors are threatened and manipulated to keep the abuse a secret. Too often, they are blamed as the cause of the abuse instigating deep internalized shame. Most childhood sexual abuse goes undisclosed and unreported. Often the survivor discloses as long as 20-50 years after the abuse took place. When they have shared their stories, they are often met with social stigma. Communal validation — or society acknowledging the harm done and supporting the recovery process — continues to be denied to incest survivors because so few people understand the gravity of the issue, its consequences, and the multi-modality healing approach necessary for recovery.
Institutional Betrayal & Ignorance.
Social ignorance around the issue of incest is not an accident. Institutional betrayal — or the failure of systems that are supposed to support those who have been harmed — has denied incest survivors proper care in the family system, the social system, faith-based systems, the medical system, and the criminal and civil legal systems. Incest, most often a serial crime, continues with impunity without proper intervention and transformational justice methods. Children have few rights within the US penal code. So, if incest is identified within a family system, the child, not the person who harmed, is removed from the home and often placed in shelters or foster care homes where they are vulnerable to further sexual abuse. Unless a victim's case is prosecuted by the criminal legal system, they will receive no funding for recovery treatment. If the victim does receive support, it is just for the individual and does not included the necessary healing and transformation of the entire family unit.
Unfortunately, the anti-rape crisis movement and the vast network of rape crisis centers must continue to fight for funding and treatment to meet basic needs of single incident sexual assault survivors like rape test kits, legal support, and short-term counseling, and don't have the bandwidth to address the longterm care that incest survivors require. Without social and systemic supports, incest survivors are often forced to stay within their abusive family systems. Those who run away are often kidnapped and sold into human sex trafficking. Many others leave their family systems to seek sexual safety without a safe place to land and struggle to secure economic, social, and medical support, compromising their safety in other ways.
Together, we can improve methods of incest prevention, intervention, recovery, and justice to ensure the safety of the next generation of children and support for survivors.
“Do not accept the shame that belongs to your abuser. Deshame yourself, beautiful incest survivor!”
- Pamela Clark, Deshaming Podcast