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Research – Incest

Introduction

Incest has long been a social taboo. In the past, it was seen as a problem because it created jealousy between family members and inbreeding resulted in deformed, sickly, and improperly developed offspring. Today, we recognize that incest is more than just an issue of bad breeding, but a terrible and traumatising crime.

Definition

The Criminal Code of Canada defines incest in section 155 (1): "Every one commits incest who, knowing that another person by blood relationship is his or her parent, child, brother, sister, grandparent or grandchild, as the case may be, has sexual intercourse with that person." However, this definition does not include touching, fondling, oral sex, or masturbating; all of which are considered to be forms of sexual abuse and can be found in other sections of the Criminal Code that are not limited to family relations. A more appropriate definition taking those other acts into account would be “sexual relations between persons who are so closely related that their marriage is illegal or forbidden by custom.” (yourdictionary).

There are different types of incest:

  • Cross generational incest: The perpetrator is considerably older than the victim. The perpetrator may be a parent, step-parent, aunt/uncle, or grandparent.
  • Peer incest: The victim and the perpetrator are close in age. The perpetrator is most often a sibling but may also be a cousin.
  • Opposite Sex incest: In this case the perpetrator will choose a victim of the opposite sex. The most common type of opposite sex incest is between a father and daughter or step-father and step-daughter.
  • Same sex incest: In this case the perpetrator will chose a victim of the same sex. This does not necessarily mean that the perpetrator is him/herself homosexual.

Incest can further be grouped into three major categories:

  • Consanguinal incest: This is considered to be the most forbidden category of incest because it occurs between blood relatives. Perpetrators may include the victim’s mother/father, aunt/uncle, grandparent, cousin, or sibling.
  • Affinal incest: In this case there is no blood relation, but the perpetrator is still considered to be part of the family. This may include step-parents or step-sibling, or adoptive parents.
  • Quasi-relatives: Incest that occurs with a live-in partner or a foster parent.

Another important term is multiple incest, which can have two different definitions. It can refer to a victim who is being abused by more than one perpetrator, either concurrently or sequentially. Or, it can refer to a perpetrator who has more than one victim. 

Victims

Victims of incest can be any age. The majority are victimized between the ages of 8 and 12 but the abuse may start younger or continue into adulthood. Incest is more likely to occur in families of low socio economic status, or families in which substance abuse is a factor. Although both of these may be causal factors, incest is not at all limited to occurring within these situations.

Victims of incest are both male and female. Statistics show that female victims outnumber male victims 10 to 1, however this is not believed to be truly representative. Due to the nature of this crime, many cases go unreported due to embarrassment or fear that the perpetrator instils in the victim through threats. Many children believe that they are at fault and blame themselves for what is happening to them. The perpetrator may tell them it is their fault because of their appearance, behaviour, way of dressing, etc. Perpetrators trick the victims into believing that they brought this upon them themselves and for this reason refuse to go to anyone for help. This is especially true for boys, who may view themselves as being weak and, if the perpetrator is male, are afraid of appearing homosexual.

Perpetrators

Perpetrators can be male or female and of any age. Perpetrators tend to be males, and are usually considerably older than their victims; 75% of incest cases are (step) father (step) daughter relations.  Male perpetrators tend to abuse their victims to a more serious and traumatic degree than do female perpetrators. However, neither male nor female perpetrators rely on physical abuse, but instead use threats or implied threats to control their victims. Typical threats used by perpetrators surround the family atmosphere. The perpetrator will tell the victim that if he/she tells someone that it will destroy the family, ruin relationships, and make other family members mad. More severe threats centre on harming other loved ones, destroying important personal items, or the perpetrator may even threaten to commit suicide if anyone finds out. The abuse generally starts when the victim is around 8 to 12 years old and begins under the guise of affection or education. It starts as occasional contact but may escalate to several times a day. The average duration of incest is approximately four years and the frequency of the abuse often escalates with time. Perpetrators of incest are not necessarily pedophiles, which is a clinical sickness. The majority are not pedophiles and just take advantage of the situation at hand.

The Family

Incest creates a lot of confusion in the family. Relationships are ruined, trust is broken, and the family falls apart. Sometimes, in the worst scenarios, the incest is just ignored. There are generally three roles that another, non-abusive, family member can take. For the purpose of this explanation we will use the mother to explain the possible roles, with the father as the abuser and the daughter as the victim.

  1. The mother does not know about the incest, but when she finds out she takes the child’s side. This is the best outcome. Not only does it allow to child to escape the abuse, but the child sees that she still has one parent on her side that she can trust.
  2. The mother does not know about the abuse, and when she finds out she does not have the strength to take the child’s side and risk the family’s social/economic security. The mother is more loyal to her husband than to her child.
  3. The mother knows about the abuse but ignores it.

Both the second and third roles can be extremely damaging to the child. If a family member finds out about the abuse but does nothing to stop it, the abuse will not only continue but it will likely escalate as well. An unresponsive family member also further damages the child; they believe that there is no one to trust, no one to help, and they may end up believing that they are at fault and somehow responsible for the abuse.

The Fritzl Case

Perhaps the most notorious incest case of our time is the Fritzl case, which emerged in April 2008. Elizabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman from the town of Amstetten, had been held captive by her father for 24 years in a concealed, windowless part of the basement of the family home. Elizabeth’s father, Josef Fritzl, lured her into the basement on the pretence of needing help carrying a door. He subdued her with ether and moved her into the concealed basement chamber. Elizabeth’s mother went to the police to file a missing person’s report but Josef forced Elizabeth to write a letter stating that she had run away with a friend and was living in Branau. Josef visited his captive daughter once every three days to bring food and supplies and admits to physically and sexually assaulting her many times during her imprisonment. Elizabeth gave birth to seven children during her imprisonment, one of which died shortly after birth and three of which were fostered by her father and mother after Josef ‘found’ them on his property. Josef told Elizabeth and the other three children that he would gas them if they ever attempted to escape. He also warned them not to meddle with the door; if they did they would be electrocuted to death.

On April 18th 2008, one of the daughters, Kerstin, fell ill and needed to be taken to the hospital. Kerstin’s visit to the hospital created a lot of confusion and suspicion among the staff. There were no health records and the notes that Josef brought from the mother only added to the suspicion. Finally, Josef brought Elizabeth to the hospital where the police detained them and took them in for questioning. Only when Elizabeth was promised that she would never have to see her father again did the true story come out. On March 14th 2009, Josef Fritzl pled guilty to the following charges: murder by negligence, enslavement, incest, rape, coercion, and false imprisonment. Josef Fritzl was sentenced to life in prison for his heinous crimes.  Elizabeth and her children all required medical care and extensive therapy to help them move on from their traumatic loves.

Effects

Incest is a traumatic experience that can have immediate, short-term, and long-term effects. The most common effects are feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness. Incest can also cause in more serious health-problems such as depression, eating disorders, phobias, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety issues, and suicidal tendencies.

The most severe cases can result in personality disorders, all of which can be found in the DSM IV:

  • Histrionic personality disorder: a pattern of excessive emotionality and attention seeking including need for approval and inappropriate seductiveness.
  • Borderline personality disorder: is characterized by splitting (alternating between idealizing and demonizing others) and mood disturbances. Individuals with this disorder are incredibly sensitive to how others treat them and they will engage in self-harm.
  • Avoidant personality disorder: a pervasive pattern of social inhibition including feelings of inadequacy and avoidance of social interaction. These individuals fear being disliked, rejected, or made fun of.
  • Dependent personality disorder: characterized by an over-reliance on others and fear of separation.
  • Narcissistic personality disorder: These individuals have an inflated sense of self-importance and a strong need for admiration. They display little or no empathy and are considered to be very arrogant.

Treatment

Due to the nature of the psychological effects of incest, therapy targeted towards incest victims generally focuses on the fact that that victim was not at fault. Therapists work to make the victim understand that the abuse was not a result of the victim’s actions, or behaviours, and that the only person at fault is the perpetrator. Therapists emphasize the importance of this realization as it can make an enormous difference in self confidence and self-esteem.

Group therapy is a popular method used in incest victim treatment. Victims are able to share their story and see that they are not alone. This helps the victims come to terms with the fact that they are blameless and free of guilt. Group therapy is also beneficial because victims are more willing to listen to other victims’ stories and share in their pain rather than ignore and turn away from it. Studies have shown that group therapy is one of the best methods to help incest victims as it provides a safe environment for victims to both receive and give support.

Signs That a Child Is Being Abused

The following list describes some of the characteristics that one may see in a child that is being sexually abused by a family member:

  • avoiding a member of the family/fear of being alone with that person
  • drastic changes in school performance
  • drastic mood changes (i.e. a change from being outgoing to withdrawn)
  • inappropriate and unexplainable knowledge of sex and sex play
  • bed wetting; nightmares
  • child has money or candy that cannot be explained
  • fear of going home
  • irritation/pain around the genital area
  • painful urination

It is also important to listen to your children. If they tell you, or indicate in any way, that they are being sexually assaulted it is important to believe them. Young children do not have the knowledge to make this kind of thing up. To tell someone this information is terrifying for a child. They fear that they will not be believed, but they also fear for their abuser; despite what he/she has done to them he/she is still a family member. If a child tells you that something has happened, believe them and go to the authorities immediately.

Sources

Canadian Criminal Code

“Child Abuse and Incest” Safe Horizons. http://www.safehorizon.org/index/what-we-do-2/child-abuse--incest-55.html

FAQs Org. “Incest”. Health. http://www.faqs.org/health/topics/68/Incest.html

Levin, Lisa. “The Incestuous Family: Roles in Sexual Abuse.” Web4health. August 2008. http://web4health.info/en/answers/sex-incest-family.htm

“Myths and Facts.” 2005. http://www.hccac.org/abuse/myths.html

Ramirez, Laura. “Child Incest: The Effects of Child Molestation Can Last a Lifetime.”  Parenting and Childhood Development. http://www.parenting-child-development.com/child-incest.html

Wikipedia. “Fritzl Case.”  Updated January 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritzl_case

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Last updated: 2011-03-15

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