Sexual abuse of children is far more prevalent than most people realize. At least 25% of the adult population of this country has been molested as children. 25% of girls are molested before the age of 16. At least 27 million females are current or future adult survivors of child sexual abuse. Incest is the most common form of child abuse.
What is Incest?
E. Sue Blume, CSW, defines sexual abuse as "ANY use of a minor child to meet the sexual or sexual/emotional needs of one or more persons whose authority is derived through ongoing emotional bonding with that child." 1 This person can be an adult, or another child who is older or bigger." This person could be a blood relative (parent, sibling, aunt, uncle cousin, grandparent etc.), a teacher, priest, step-parent or sexual partner of a parent, scout master, doctor, therapist, baby-sitter, close neighbor, etc. Blume writes that sexual abuse "does not require penetration, nor does it even require touch." "Sexual abuse does not include sexual exploration between peers, but rather a violation, which, due to her relatively powerless position, makes the victim's consent impossible. It is based on coercion, using the child's dependence to control her; it rarely requires physical force." 2
This coercion usually includes threats of dire consequences if the victim should ever 'tell on' the perpetrator. These consequences can include loss of love of family, the jailing of the perpetrator, destruction of the whole family, punishment, abandonment, death. Perpetrators often blame the child for this crime against her; the child is told she aroused the perpetrator, she "asked for it", tempted him, he couldn't help himself. This leaves the child feeling dirty, guilty.
Incest on the continuum of violence against women and children
Violence against women is one of the methods of maintaining the placement of power in the hands of men, just as it was a method of keeping slaves from visualizing and forming revolution in the South before emancipation. This continuum of relentless violence against women includes rape, incest, sexual abuse, sexual harassment in the work place, degrading or abusive pornographic depictions of women and children, ridiculous depictions of women throughout the male-controlled mass media, psychic and physical attacks upon women and children, treatment of women and chlidren as second or third class citizens, discrimination against women in every arena.
In this backwards, male-dominated society, with patriarchal nuclear units as the "family values" unit, the perpetrators are predominantly heterosexual males. Under this system, a child is considered thepossession of her/his parents, along with the car, the house, the TV, the gun . . . . In these family units the mother of the victim very often feels powerless herself and will actually deny the truth and protect the perpetrator, to whom society has given economic and emotional power over her as well. This is one of the most heart-breaking aspects of incest, that the survivor may feel abandoned by her mother in a time of extreme need for protection and consolation.
Many survivors develop amnesia around the event(s) of the abuse. They may remember nothing at all about the abuse for years following the event(s); it's as though it had never happened.
"When a child is abused, her mind cannot handle what happens to her. It's too much. Even if the mind remembers some of the abuse, it will bury most of it. It may remember the events, for instance, but bury the emotions. Basically, what the mind does is take the memories, put them deep in the unconscious and build a wall around them. The mind also pulls the memory apart. It stores the different parts of a memory - the event (the visual picture of what happened), the emotion (like the terror or the sexual feelings), and the identity of the perpetrator(s) and put them in different parts of the mind. Some parts are easier to access than others. There is a "layering effect, with the worst memories at the bottom." 3
This is a protective move on the part of the mind; it seems to know what a person can deal with and what needs to be stored away and dealt with later when the person is in a safer environment, more emotionally mature, and in good enough health to handle the work of recovery. A child cannot handle facing the fact that this person who has power over her would do her harm. The mind waits until conditions are favorable for healing then allows the survivor to remember some of what happened. If the person can handle it, more memories are allowed to surface. If she can't, the memories are put on hold for a few more years.
Memories often come up in bits and pieces, which can be confusing. Survivors may wonder if these recurring dreams, flashes of imagery or senses are just fabrications. They may think they're going nuts. Disregarding these memories may be a form of denial. Many survivors who remember will "minimize or deny the effects of the abuse so completely that they cannot associate it with any later consequences."2 It's important for the survivor to pay attention to her memories and try to find out what happened.
When the time comes for the recovery process to begin, a survivor will need to find a person who will listen, believe what she tells them, help her interpret some of the memories, and she needs someone to have confidence in her ability to recover. She and the people around her need to have patience, for the recovery process can take a while. Some people just don't understand why it takes so long - they can get impatient, annoyed, tell the survivor that she's just "dwelling on it" too much and tell her to just "get over it" and stop being so self-absorbed, or hassle her and guilt-trip her about the money treatment is costing. These people should be ignored.
Aftereffects of Incest
The personality and behavior of the survivor may change as a result. Although they don't know why, the survivor may sleep fully dressed every night for years, and refuse to undress for swimming and bathing. She may begin to wear big, baggy clothing which covers up her body and makes her gender less distinguishable, even in the heat of summer. She may shuffle along looking at the ground, trying to attract no notice, trying to blend into the background, to avoid the attention of males. She may have a poor body image. She may feel guilt, anger, self-hatred, low self-esteem or complete worthlessness. She may find herself spacing out a lot. She may experience nightmares or night terrors. She may self-mutilate.
"She may now feel very angry at her body, alienated from it, neglectful of it. She will be plagued by a feeling of being unclean, soiled. . ." 2She may now have an aversion to being touched. She may feel betrayed by her own body, and may wish to 'escape' her body. She may feel depressed and not know why. She may experience sensory flashbacks of the event without understanding where they're coming from. She may transfer her feelings about the perpetrator onto a person less powerful than her, a younger sibling perhaps, and feel an inexplicable sense of disgust or anger toward that person, who is smaller and therefore a "safer" place to direct her feelings. She may feelincapable of trusting the people who love her, since her trust has been brutally destroyed. She may be very sensitive to and fearful of abandonment by those close to her. She may experience depersonalization, dissociation, numbness; a shut-down of feelings during times of crisis. She may be more prone to addictions and compulsions such as alcoholism, drug abuse, anorexia or bulimia. A survivor may feel self-destructive and despair, considering suicide.
What should we do?
I'm all for having these perpetrators publicly proven guilty, exposing to the public how wide-spread this problem is. I'd like to see children's rights taken more seriously and lots of education on the subject for kids and adults. The intergenerational cycle of abuse can be broken through intervention with adult survivors. We also need to battle the dominance of males over females and adults over children in our society. We must empower ourselves and each other and take no shit from men. Men are taught to believe that they are ENTITLED to the bodies of women and children, that rape is just one of their rights. We need to help each other UNLEARN the lies of male dominance that are shoved down our throats from the moment we're born and dressed in either pink or blue. We need to help each other recover from abuse, become emotionally strong enough to drag our parents, our siblings, our doctors and lawyers and priests and ministers and rabbis and teachers out of the secrecy about incest and abuse that protects and privileges them. Perpetrators must be revealed to protect more children from being abused at their hands. Perpertrators often are adult survivors of incest and child abuse themselves, and will need help coming to terms with this and beginning their own healing process, so the cycle of violence can be broken in their lives.
1. "Post-Incest Syndrome in Women; The Incest Survivors' Aftereffects Checklist", by E. Sue Blume, C.S.W., Diplomate in Clinical Social Work, October 1987.
2. The Walking Wounded: Post-Incest Syndrome by E. Sue Blume, CSW, in SIECUS REPORT, Volume XV, #1, Sept 1986.
3. A Few Facts About Incest, hand-out at the SIA conference, August 1, 1991, author unknown.