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What is incest?

What is incest? 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. If you have questions, reach out to an organization within the Incest AWARE Alliance.

What is incest?

Incest AWARE's definition of incest.

So, what is incest?  At Incest AWARE, we define incest as the sexual abuse of a person by a family member: a primary caregiver including a stepparent or foster parent, a sibling or cousin, or someone else considered family like a nanny or close family friend. Whether experiencing this abuse as a child or an adult, it is extremely traumatic, can negatively impact everyone in the family and community,  and has lasting harmful impacts on the survivor

The definition of incest, often known as intrafamilial child sexual abuse, 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 sexual fantasies. Covert incest refers to an adult using a child to meet their emotional needs to replace a romantic partner or friend. 


Incest is a broad term that covers more specific types of incest like adult-on-adult abuse, adult-on-child abuse, and child-on-child abuse. Within these subcategories more kinds of harm exist like sibling sexual trauma, father/daughter incest, mother/son incest, cousin/cousin incest, etc. 

The social definition of incest.

According to most dictionaries, incest is defined as sexual activity or marriage between family members. This traditional meaning of incest includes both consensual incest between related adults, as well as sexual violence between related adults and children or children and children.

The legal definition of incest.

The legal definition of incest differs depending on the country. In the United States, the meaning of incest changes based on state law around who is considered a part of one's family. According to US Legal:

"Laws vary by state, but generally, a person commits incest if [they/she/he] marries or engages in sexual intercourse with a person [they/she/he] knows to be, either legitimately or illegitimately:

  • [Their] ancestor or descendant by blood or adoption; or

  • [Their] brother or sister of the whole or half-blood or by adoption; or

  • [Their] stepchild or stepparent, while the marriage creating the relationship exists; or

  • [Their] aunt, uncle, nephew or niece of the whole or half-blood.

In some states incest also includes copulation or cohabitation between first cousins, but the majority of jurisdictions permit marriage between such cousins. Incest is a crime in all states, even if consensual by both parties."

To expand the legal definition of incest, according to NOLO, "For the purposes of incest laws, 'family' can [also] mean [...]  foster families, and sometimes even 'family-like' situations (such as a parent and child who lives with the parent's significant other)."

In some states, incest laws focus on marriage and presumed consensual relations between adults, while incest abuse against children would be prosecuted under rape and child abuse laws.

Why are there so many definitions?

The social and legal definitions of incest are confusing. The social definition includes both consensual relationships and violence between family. The law sometimes includes both, but often defers to incest as non-abusive sexual relating between adult family members. Confusion about an already misunderstood and taboo topic exacerbates the issue. Without a common definition and understanding of a word, people can't talk about.


Some cultural contexts exist where consensual marriage and sexual relations between family or clan members are practiced. Consanguine marriages is a term for marriage between close family members, while endogamy a word that applies to inter-group marriage.  However, outside of these contexts and within the United States, incest is most often a form of sexual violence.

That's why at Incest AWARE, we define incest as the sexual violence between family members or those considered family. The modern family system is made up of blood relatives and/or chosen others who together create a nuclear network of care and support. To us, incest includes the abuse of anyone by someone within this intimate network because the victim will suffer from the unique consequences that incest survivors face and will need specialized, trauma-informed treatment to recover.

Why we use the word "incest."

Intrafamilial sexual abuse or sexual abuse by a family member are other ways to describe incest. However, in the 1980's and 1990's there was a successful incest awareness movement that was forced underground due to strong backlashes from legal, medical, and private institutions. The word "incest" became stigmatized and any attempts to find funding or promote resources and healing initiatives were denied.


The repression of the word has led to the oppression of the issue itself. That's why we strongly reclaim the word, "incest," to represent the problem of sexual violence within the family system. The word has power and needs to be utilized frequently so that incest awareness can expand, children can be raised safely, and survivors can receive the support they need to heal and find fulfillment.​

The difference between incest & child sexual abuse.

Child sexual abuse encompasses the sexual abuse of children. This includes sexual violence by another child, a religious leader, a coach, a teacher, a stranger, a neighbor, or someone within the family network. However, incest victims and survivors are often marginalized or neglected within this broader category.


When the person who harms is not related to the child and/or does not live in the same home, the person who harms must groom the child to gain access to them. The abuse happens as frequently as that person has access to the child. If the person who harmed is caught, they can be removed from the lives of the family and reported.  The child can "other" the person who harmed and honor the child's self, body, sense of identity, and foundation of survival as separate from the person who harmed them.


In the case of incest, on the other hand, family members already have access to the child. In the United States, many children are conditioned to trust or tolerate family members regardless of how the child is being treated. So, grooming is often not necessary to access and abuse a child. If the person who harms lives with the child, then the abuse is likely to be more serial, as access is easier. If the person who harmed is caught, reporting and prosecution can be convoluted because the removal and criminalization of the person who harmed may impact the peace, stability, and economic and social safety of the entire family system. So often, the children or adult survivors who disclose later will be disbelieved or abandoned without a safe network to fall back on. Violated children must remain in abusive households, while the adult survivors must choose between unsafe family participation or the cost of walking away from everything they're familiar with to start their lives over.


If raised in an abusive home, one's identity, sense of self, and survival are all intimately connected to the culture of abuse or the providers who are also perpetrating. Within incest families, there are the people who harm and the people who refuse to do anything about it. Although the responsibility of the abuse always lands on the shoulders of the person who does the harm, relationships with non-offending members of the family system can be equally as complex for survivors. Disclosure of the abuse often splits the family system onto sides of the victim and the person who harmed. Or, victims aren't believed by anyone in the family because it's often easier to side with the person who harmed. When trying to recover from the abuse, set boundaries, receive family support, or establish a safer foundation outside of the family network, children or adult survivors may find it difficult to separate and understand themselves as different from the person/family who harmed them. They may be dependent on their families financially, psychologically, and emotionally. Additionally, they may look alike, share common genetic and personality characteristics, as well as have the same last name and family identity. 


Often these nuances go unacknowledged in prevention, intervention, recovery, and justice frameworks for child sexual abuse. That's why we differentiate the unique needs for incest prevention and recovery to address these complexities.

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