What it is & How it Affects People
On this website, when we refer to “incest” we are talking about the sexual abuse of a person by a family member or a primary caregiver such as a stepparent. Whether experiencing this abuse as a child or an adult, it is extremely traumatic and has lasting harm for the survivor.
This abuse can be more than just sexual. It can 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. It can be perpetrated by an adult or by an older child.
The effects of incest are similar to those experienced by other survivors of sexual violence, including:
Persistent feelings of being alone, unwanted, and unloved
Difficulty sleeping, nightmares, or finding it hard to get out of bed
Suicide attempts, self-harming behaviors, and feelings of hopelessness
Use of alcohol, prescription drugs, or illegal substances to cope with the effects of abuse
Dissociating during abuse or from the memories as a coping mechanism, sometimes forgetting the experience entirely
Intense confusion about the experiences, especially when family deny the abuse ever happened
Flashbacks that may be persistent or occasional
Post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks, which cause overwhelming feelings of anxiety and fear that can be disabling
Anger, a deep sense of being flawed or contaminated, low self-esteem, and difficulty asserting oneself
Pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections
Promiscuity, sexual compulsions, aversion to sexual contact
Disruption at home, for example, being removed from the family and placed with other caregivers or in foster care, or the removal of the offender from the home
Poverty, unemployment, and homelessness, especially if the survivor runs away from home or is made to leave
Many of these effects can last well into adulthood, particularly when the survivor has ongoing contact with family who refuse to acknowledge or address the abuse, or blame the survivor for it.
Although there are many similarities between abuse by a family member and by someone outside of the family circle, incest causes additional levels of harm that can last throughout a survivor’s lifetime.
Dependence on the abuser. If the offender is a parent or primary caregiver, the survivor may be completely dependent on the abuser for their care, making it even harder to report the abuse or separate from the relationship.
A family dynamic of shame, blame, secrecy, and fear. Incestuous families have their own unique dynamic that may minimize the problem as “not a big deal”, blame the survivor for the abuse, deny the incest is occuring, and threaten the survivor with physical harm, family isolation, or withdrawal of financial support, among other impacts.
Sometimes intergenerational. Although not always, sexual abuse can be intergenerational, with cycles of abuse occurring within multiple generations of families. Behaviors and beliefs common in incestuous families can become ingrained in family members as they age, leaving the next generation vulnerable to similar abuse and behavior patterns.
No one wants to talk about it. Incest is called a taboo for a good reason: it is one of the most hidden forms of sexual assault and one that was not addressed during the #MeToo movement. Our society’s anxiety about family abuse and the belief that “what happens behind closed doors is a private matter” creates a cloud of secrecy that feels impossible to break.
Ostracism from family. Other family members may ostracize the survivor for talking openly about the abuse, labeling them “crazy”, a “liar”, or “out to shame the family.” Immediate family members such as siblings and parents - who may be targets of abuse themselves - will often defend the abuser at all costs, leaving the survivor to feel alone and rejected. There is also the possibility of disruption at home, for example, the survivor being removed from the family and placed with other caregivers or in foster care, or the removal of the offender from the home.
Difficulties with relationships, fear of abandonment, persistent feelings of being alone, unwanted, or unloved, and an increased risk of being sexually victimized in the future. Many of these effects can last well into adulthood, particularly when the survivor has ongoing contact with family.
There are unique impacts from incest on people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ folks. Visit our page on Other Helpful Resources for Survivors for links to information and organizations created specifically for these survivors.
If you are a survivor, it is important for you to know that you are not alone and that there is hope for healing. What you experienced was wrong, and it was not your fault, no matter what you have been told. Please take a look at our pages in the For Survivors section for more guidance and information.
“As different and isolated you may feel, unfortunately there are far too many of us that do understand and get it. You are not alone (YANA). Surround yourself with people that believe you and in you.”
- Nancy Allen