For Parents, Grandparents, sexual abuse, Sexual Relations

Incest . . . The Too Common Family Secret

Leviticus 18:6 (NKJV) – “None of you shall approach anyone who is near of kin to him, to uncover his nakedness: I am the Lord.”

Luke 8:17 (NKJV) –  “For nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to light.”

Following last week’s blog about perpetrators, Milton and I thought it appropriate to share this article excerpted  and updated from the book entitled We Survived Sexual Abuse! You Can Too! (ABC’s Ministries, 2016) In the book the article is entitled “Incest, Sexual Sin in the Family”, pp.  96-106. 

Written by Pamela K. Orgeron, M.A., Ed.S., BCCC, ACLC, Author

Introduction

Although incest, also know as intrafamilial sexual abuse (Child Sexual Abuse Committee of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2009, April), has occurred since the early beginnings of world history (For biblical examples, see 2 Samuel 13; also, Genesis 19:30-36), the study of incest is a more recent event. Not until the 1970’s did researchers begin studying incest. In 1975, an authoritative text proclaimed that the incidence of father-daughter incest in the United States was 1 in a million families (Kluft, 2011, January 11, ¶ 2). National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) (2009, April) reports that in over half of the sexually abused child cases in current times, the perpetrator is a parent or other family member (Did you know? box).

Fontaine, (2013, January 24) reports that today’s statistics revolving around incest are overwhelming to society in general.

One in three-to-four girls, and one in five-to-seven boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, an overwhelming incidence of which happens within the family. These statistics are well known among industry professionals, who are often quick to add, “and this is a notoriously underreported crime.” (¶ 4)

Ninety-five percent of teen prostitutes and 
at least one-third of female prisoners were abused as kids. Sexually abused youth are twice as likely to be arrested for a violent offense as adults, are at twice the risk for lifelong mental health issues, and are twice as likely to attempt or commit teen suicide. The list goes on. Incest is the single biggest
commonality between drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, teenage and adult prostitution, criminal activity, and eating disorders. Abused youths don’t go quietly into the night. They grow up—and 18 isn’t a restart button. (¶ 11)

Incest is a national nightmare, yet it doesn’t 
have people outraged, horrified, and mobilized as they were following Katrina, Columbine, or 9/11. A combination of willed ignorance, unconscious fears, and naivete have resulted in our failure to acknowledge this situation’s full scope, but we can only claim ignorance for so long. (¶ 12-13)

Family Secrets

Kluft (2011, January 11; 2012, May 15) offers reasons why incest victims choose to remain quiet or do not remember past incestuous relationships. Among these reasons are:
• Common defense mechanisms (e.g., rationalization)
• Dissociation during abuse
• Personal coping strategies
• To protect the abuser
• To protect the family reputation
• Religious reasons
• Bargaining
• Not understanding the reality of what happened
• Discouragement by others not to report
• Encouragement from others to forget what happened.

Indicators of Incest

The indicators or symptoms of incest vary widely depending on the individual victims. Compared to being a victim of an unknown perpetrator, since incest is committed by someone whom the victim loves and trusts and who should love and protect the victim, the pain and its consequences are typically more severe than non-familial sexual abuse, often resulting in comorbidity. Comorbidity is where victims are diagnosed with two or more physical or mental disorders simultaneously. For example, a victim may be diagnosed with both an eating disorder and PTSD.

Kluft (2011, January 11) reported “The groups of symptoms most commonly encountered in incest victims involve several clusters (Table 2).” (Symptoms section, ¶ 1). These clusters include the following:

• Emotional incontinence: an inability to contain distressing effects and the urges that accompany them
• Affective dysregulation: the intrusion of strong emotions and/or their suppression
• Dysfunctional self-soothing: use of addictive substances, activities, rituals of self-harm or self-stimulation
• Somatoform dissociation: physical expressions of emotional distress
• Comorbidity: the effects of trauma-related condition, physical and mental
• Sexual dysfunction: inhibitions, dyscontrol, and reenactment-driven compulsive sexuality
• Reenacting and revictimization behaviors: efforts to please, charm, withdraw, defy, place self at risk for further trauma, etc.
• Failures in relatedness: efforts to play a role pleasing to others, or inoffensive to others, while experiencing mistrust/unrealistic trust toward others; often relationships do not provide either intimacy, nurture, or support, but they are continued. (Kluft, Table 2)

Cultural Challenges of Disclosing Incest

The NCTSN (2009, April) reported the culture of a child sexually abused may influence whether that child will speak up about the abuse.

Virtually every culture has spoken and unspoken rules about sex and sexuality. These rules can make it even more difficult for children to ask for help when they have been abused. For example, in cultures that place a high value on female virginity, a girl who has been sexually abused may feel that she has been disgraced and is now “damaged goods” whom no one would want to marry. This can lead to feelings of shame that in turn lead to further secrecy. Boys who have been sexually abused may experience shame and self-doubt. Boys who have been sexually abused by a male may struggle with a commonly-held misconception that this makes them gay. (The Effect of Intrafamilial Sexual Abuse on Children section, Cultural Challenges box, ¶ 1-3)

In some jurisdictions outside the United States, sex between an adult and a child is legal and considered the norm. Remember the saying, “What’s always legal is not always moral; and, what’s moral is not always legal.” In such situations, I encourage others to abide by the dictates of Scripture: any sexual relations outside the husband and wife marriage relationship are inappropriate. Such relations need to be exposed with the childhood victim of abuse receiving the best help available to heal and offer forgiveness to the perpetrator.

After Effects of Incest

Incest can result in serious consequences that will affect the wellbeing of a victim for his entire life. Courtois (1988), as cited by Kluft (2011, January 11), summarized “a number of factors generally thought to increase the severity of psychopathology” (Kluft, Sequelae section, ¶ 2). These factors are:

• Longer duration of mistreatment
• Frequent mistreatment
• Degree of force and intimidation
• Onset at a very young age or in latency
• Transgenerational mistreatment
• Male perpetrator
• Closeness of relationship
• Passive or willing participation
• Having an erotic response
• Self-blame and shame
• Disclosure did not lead to help
• Parental blame and negative judgment
• Failed institutional responses: shaming, blaming, ineffectual efforts. (Kluft, Table 1)

Treatment

Treatment of incest victims must be tailored to the individual, depending on the incest victim’s diagnosis and severity of symptoms; available resources, appropriate coping skills, such as journaling; and, the individual’s personality.  One incest survivor whom I call Sally shares five tools she found most effective in her journey to recovery:

Gestalt Therapy

Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary (2012) defines Gestalt Therapy as

a humanistic therapy technique that focuses on gaining an awareness of emotion and behaviors in the present rather than in the past. The therapist does not interpret experiences for the patient. Instead, the therapist and patient work together to help the patient understand him/herself. This type of therapy focus on experiencing the present situation rather than talking about what occurred in the past. Patients are encouraged to become aware of immediate needs, meet them, and let them recede into the background. The well-adjusted person is seen as someone who has a constant flow of needs and is able to satisfy those needs.

According to AAIM Counseling (2017),

The most powerful techniques involve role-playing. For example, the patient talks to an empty chair as they imagine that a person associated with an unresolved issue is sitting in the chair. As the patient talks to the “person” in the chair, the patient imagines that the person responds to the expressed feelings. Although this technique may sound artificial and might make some people feel self-conscious, it can be a powerful way to approach buried feelings and gain new insight into them.
(David James Doermann, The Gale Group Inc., Gale , Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 2002, as cited by AAIM Counseling, Description section, ¶ 2)

Sally recalls two specific occasions when one of her therapists used Gestalt therapy in her treatment plan. When Sally first started recalling memories of sexual abuse, her
therapist placed two chairs facing each other. Then he asked Sally to sit in one of the two chairs and imagine that Jesus was sitting in the opposite chair. After Sally was seated, the therapist then asked her to take herself back to the time of the abuse.

“What would you have wanted to say to Jesus then?” the therapist said. “Tell Him.”

After Sally said what she wanted to say, the therapist gave her further instructions.

“Now I want you to tell me what you think Jesus would say in response to what you just said.”

The exchanges between Sally and “Jesus in the chair” became common occurrences throughout Sally’s treatment. On other occasions, Sally’s therapist asked her to bring a picture of specific individuals who had hurt her in her past. The therapist would have Sally place the picture in the chair and imagine that the person was seated there. She
was then given the opportunity to voice how she felt towards the person and how he or she had hurt her. The goal was to eventually reach a point where Sally could eventually forgive the perpetrator.

Letter writing and other homework assignments

Just as the “empty chair” technique helped Sally vent her emotions, writing letters to her perpetrators that she never mailed also enabled Sally to process what had happened. In these letters, Sally started out asking the individual why he or she did what he or she did to hurt her. Then she would write to the person how much pain the injury had caused, and about the damage caused from the incest. The goal here again was to reach a point of resolution with the perpetrator where Sally actually told the person in the letter that she was making a decision to forgive him or her. After completing any of the letters she wrote, Sally would either rip the letters into shreds or burn the letters to symbolize
letting go of the offense and forgiving the perpetrator.

Another homework assignment that Sally found helpful was doing Bible studies on specific issues, and then writing an essay on what she found and learned through the
study. For example, one memorable essay topic she wrote about was on what the Bible says about anger and how that applied to her life.

Journaling

Keeping a journal also was another way that Sally found helpful in venting her thoughts and emotions, and working through any unresolved issues. She has kept hand written journals, as well as password protected online journals.

Recovery Notebook

I want to encourage any victim on the road to becoming a survivor to keep a recovery notebook, regardless of the type of abuse. Items that Sally kept in her recovery notebook include essays and journals she wrote, handouts from her therapists, and other mementos from her journey to healing. Sally found the recovery notebook helpful in keeping track of where she was on her road to recovery. With the recovery notebook Sally said she enjoyed looking back to see where she had been, the progress she had made, and especially the healthier, more positive decisions and changes she had made and was continuing to make in her life.

Prayer

Sally said keeping open communication between her and God was critical to her recovery. With prayer, Sally knew she had Someone, referring to God, Whom she could go to anytime to share anything, even thoughts and feelings that she dared never tell anyone else.

For additional treatment methods in recovering from incest, I refer others to the chapter entitled “Tips for Moving from Victim to Survivor” in the book entitled We Survived Sexual Abuse! You Can Too! (ABC’s Ministries, 2016).

For Parents of Incest Victims

Finding out that one’s child has been sexually abused by someone outside the family hurts. However, research (NCTSN, 2009, April; Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 2009; Victorian Government Department of Human Services, 2013) reports that learning one’s child has been sexually violated by a member of one’s family, someone who is supposed to love and protect the child, creates additional challenges.

RAINN (2009) reports emotional reactions to learning one’s child is a victim of incest will vary. These emotional reactions may include any of the following:

• Guilt that you didn’t know the abuse was occurring or for still having feelings for the person who hurt your child
• Losing faith in your judgement or abilities as a parent
• Anger towards the perpetrator for hurting your child and betraying your trust
• Anger towards the child for disrupting your family, especially if the perpetrator is your partner
• Sense of loss for the family member who hurt your child as you begin to cut ties
• Practical fears about finances and day-to-day life that may change when the family member who caused harm is removed from the family circle
• If the person who harmed your child was another one of your children, you may feel
conflicted about how to provide support to the child who was harmed while still trying to protect your other child. (What if the perpetrator is part of my family? section, ¶ 1)

If the perpetrator is one’s spouse, Victorian Government Department of Human Services (2017) reports consequences of the incest will be life changing where the non-offending parent will need professional counseling and legal advice. Issues that may arise include:
• Functioning as a single parent
• Living with less income
• Possible housing changes
• How to work with the perpetrator when there are shared assets
• Dealing with legal concerns.

Incest in the family, especially when the perpetrator is one of the spouses, changes the family forever. Tough decisions, such as whether to maintain ties with the perpetrator, must be made: thus, the importance of getting professional assistance.

NCTSN (2009, April) reported that reactions of the non-offending parent could be further complicated when that parent has experienced past sexual trauma. When one is a survivor of early childhood sexual abuse, having a child who is sexually abused can trigger unresolved emotions and memories. When this happens, the parent needs to seek professional support for him or herself in order to be able to offer the best support for the child victim. Parents “can contact the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-HOPE or http://www.rainn.org for help in finding support”. (NCTSN, Coping with Your Own Reactions section, Echoes of Past Pain box, ¶ 2)

Before concluding this article, I want to stress how important “facing the abuse” is for incest victims. Trying to bury the abuse only leads to bitterness in the heart and a miserable existence. Often, however, incest victims must separate themselves from their families of origin to find ultimate healing and peace outside the family, especially if other relatives are in denial or prefer to keep the incest a “family secret”. Any therapist or counselor should tell any client that family secrets are not healthy.

I also recommend incest victims join a Celebrate Recovery and/or Life Recovery group or find a biblically based church that will offer support to them throughout the recovery process. In Sally’s recovery she said she often felt closer to her church family than she did her biological family. Within her church family, individual church members would become surrogate parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings who loved and cared for her, as if she were their family. In reality, Sally said she knew all of these surrogate family members were her brothers and sisters. That is in Christ.

References

AAIM Counseling (2017).  Gestalt. Retrieved January 31, 2018 from http://www.aaimcounseling.com/services/adults/gestalt/

Child Sexual Abuse Committee of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2009, April). Coping with the Shock of Intrafamilial Sexual Abuse. Retrieved May 21, 2016 from
http://nctsn.org/nctsn_assets/pdfs/caring/intrafamilialabuse.pdf

Fontaine, M. (2013, January 24). America has an incest problem. In The Atlantic. Retrieved May 16, 2016 from http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/01/americahas-an-incest-problem/272459/

gestalt therapy. (n.d.) Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary. (2012). Retrieved January 31 2018 from https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/gestalt+therapy

Kluft, R.P. (2011, January 12). Ramifications of Incest. Psychiatric Times. Retrieved May 16, 2016 from
http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/sexual-offenses/ramificationsincest

Kluft, R. P. (2012, May 15). Detecting Sexual Abuse Psychiatric Times. Retrieved May 16, 2016 from
http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/sexual-offenses/detecting-sexual-abuse

NCTSN: National Child Traumatic Stress Network (2009:April). Coping
with the Shock of Intrafamilial Sexual Abuse. Retrieved May 23,
2016 from
http://nctsn.org/nctsn_assets/pdfs/caring/intrafamilialabuse.pdf

Orgeron (aka, Owens), (2016). We Survived Sexual Abuse! You Can Too! Personal Stories of Sexual Abuse Survivors with Information about Sexual Abuse Prevention, Effects, and Recovery. Madison, TN: ABC’s Ministries. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Survived-Sexual-Abuse-You-Can/dp/099795650X

RAINN: Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (2009). Home Page. Available:
https://rainn.org/

RAINN: Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (2009). Help for
Parents of Children Who Have Been Sexually Abused by Family
Members. Retrieved May 23, 2016 from https://rainn.org/gethelp/
help-a-loved-one/non-abusing-parent-of-incest

Victorian Government Department of Human Services (2013). You and
your child: For parents of children who have been sexually
abused. Retrieved February 1, 2018 from https://services.dhhs.vic.gov.au/you-and-your-child-guide-parents-child-who-has-been-sexually-abused-word

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