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What is incest?

What does incest mean? The definition of incest can be confusing. Due to the intentional oppression of incest survivors throughout history, as well as the lack of representation or the misrepresentation of incest in contemporary public discourse and the media, the meaning of incest remains a confusing, stigmatized, and sensationalized topic. We're here to provide a clear incest definition.

Incest Meaning

So, what is incest? The meaning of incest is the sexual abuse of a person by a family member, a primary caregiver such as a stepparent, or someone considered family. Whether experiencing this abuse as a child or an adult, it is extremely traumatic and has lasting harm for the survivor. 

The definition of incest can include more than just sexual behavior. It can also include non-touching behaviors such as exposure to a child, making a child view pornography, invading a child’s body privacy or taking sexually explicit photos of them, or communicating with a child about sexually explicit fantasies. Covert incest refers to an adult using a child to meet their emotional needs to replace a romantic partner or friend.  All types of incest can be perpetrated by an adult or by an older child.

One-third of child sexual abuse is committed by a family member. It is time to put incest front and center. 


One of the challenges in understanding the nature and scope of the incest problem is that research and recent data is hard to find. We know that rape is the most underreported violent crime in America. Although child sexual abuse statistics can vary widely, recent CDC research indicates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys is sexually assaulted before the age of 18. 91% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child or their family knows. Clearly, the greatest danger to children is not strangers.


This website defines the meaning of “incest” as the sexual abuse of a person by a family member or a primary caregiver such as a stepparent. RAINN notes that state laws on incest vary from state to state. A substantial amount of child sexual abuse is incest. DOJ statistics show that among cases of child sexual abuse reported to law enforcement, 34% are family members. 


Experts believe that sexual abuse by a sibling is the least recognized form of incest and deserves further study. Finkelhor (1980) estimated that the rate of sibling incest may be as much as five times that of cases involving parents, but that statistic is forty years old, so more research needs to be done to confirm that figure. 


Up until very recently, mother-child incest was considered to be virtually nonexistent. We now know that female perpetration is common but sometimes minimized or misunderstood. Females often co-offend with a coercive male partner and many (76% in one study) have been sexually victimized themselves. Data has shown that female perpetrators were reported in over one-quarter of assaults of males. Another study found that men experiencing sexual violence were actually more likely to report female rather than male perpetrators. Female perpetration of family members is a topic with insufficient research undertaken. It must be better studied if we hope to acknowledge and prevent it.


A surprising number of survivors do not disclose incest. Collins, Griffiths, Kumalo (2005) found that disclosure of sibling sexual abuse is relatively uncommon, with only 30% telling. Sperry and Gilbert (2015) found that child-on-child sexual abuse in general is rarely talked about, with fewer than 25% of victims telling an adult. 

When children do tell an adult about incest, in many cases the abuse doesn’t stop; in one study of women, 52% of incest survivors who reported various forms of incest to a parent were still being abused one year later. In fact, Roesler and Wind (1994) found that female incest survivors disclosing as children were commonly met with disbelief or blame instead of protection, validation, and support.


Why should we be concerned by these statistics? The effects of incest are severe. The majority of survivors victimized by someone they know (79%) experience substantial harm that affects their work, school, and emotional state. For many incest survivors, sexual victimization continues in adulthood, as child abuse survivors are substantially more likely than non-survivors to be revictimized as adults. As ACE research shows, traumatic childhood events such as incest are closely linked to many physical and mental health problems, substance abuse, and education and job struggles. Survivors are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who haven’t. (You can read more about the effects of incest here.)


Why is there such poor data on incest? The lack of good data may have to do with controversy in the 1990s, when researchers, practitioners, and the media were charged with encouraging the false reporting of incest, discouraging researchers from pursuing further study. Richard Kluft notes that since that time,  “the study and treatment of incest has been under a cloud of suspicion that has impeded the advancement of knowledge about this devastating form of abuse. Scholars have backed away from even using the word, to the point that it has become difficult to research unless one searches under more bland and innocuous terms. Between the overall power of the incest taboo and scholars’ wish to avoid provoking acrimonious reactions to their work, the term ‘incest’ has been receding from the literature.”

People of color and the LGBTQ+ community experience sexual assault/incest at shocking rates. For example, the American Psychological Association reports that one in five black women is a survivor of rape, 35% of black women are the targets of some form of sexual violence during their lifetime, and up to 60% of black women experience coercive sexual contact by the age of 18 - yet for every black woman who reports rape, at least 15 others do not.

It’s important to remember that, as the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault explains well, incest affects families from all walks of life and within the context of a wide variety of familial relationships. “Incest does not discriminate. It happens in families that are financially-privileged, as well as those of low socio-economic status. It happens to those of all racial and ethnic descent, and to those of all religious traditions.” RAINN says it well when they note that the very “people who were supposed to protect and care for (an incest survivor) may have caused harm or allowed the harm to continue.”

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