Incest and Adolescent Sexual Abuse; Uncovering the Truth
"There were times when Bad Daddy marched down the hall toward my room. This was our secret that would remain unspoken, suppressed, hidden. I was learning what I would later master—the art of bottling up and never expressing the truth. By the time I was three years old, the habit of lying was entrenched in the cells of my body, mind, and being. My mother taught me, by example, the skill of denial, shaping me into an adept liar... Because I was so terrified of her, I learned to lie in order not to displease her. I also learned to disappear into my lies."
Incest: the Deep, Dark Family Secret
Incest has been around forever. There were the god-like Pharaohs marrying their sisters. Cleopatra married her younger brother, and her parents had also been brother and sister. There was Lot, impregnating his two virgin daughters, and one of Solomon’s many wives was his sister. But we don’t hear a lot of stories about incest and family abuse because it’s usually a deep, dark, and dangerous secret. It certainly was in my household. I was only two years old when my father began molesting me. At nine, he raped me, and continued to do so until I was thirteen. My mother ignored what was happening as my father abused me. As a child, this seemed like an even larger betrayal than what my father was doing to me. Having been betrayed by both parents is a devastating experience for any child. I have written about my adolescent sexual abuse, its aftermath and living as an incest survivor in my book, Truth Heals: What You Hide Can Hurt You:
Speaking out about incest
"Silence is a major part of the problem of abuse. It takes a brave soul to break the code of silence: "This is our secret; DON’T TELL!" With an implied or direct threat of consequences — OR ELSE — if we do tell. It’s the secret nature of incest that keeps its victims tied up in knots of guilt and shame, feeling ‘dirty’ and fearing the way they will be judged by others should they dare to speak their truth."
The "monster" abuserHaving sex with a child is a line that is constantly being crossed, no matter the race, religion, or socio-economic status of the abuser. My father was a well-respected attorney in our community. He was a Catholic who went to confession (which prompted the priest confessor to sexually abuse me as well). There was nothing in his outer life to suggest he was raping his only daughter. We don’t want to think that our nice neighbor, or that kind Sunday school teacher, or that intelligent judge is molesting his child. We prefer to think of abusers as monsters, like Joseph Fritzl of Austria, who had started to abuse his daughter Elizabeth when she was 11; then when she was 18, he drugged her and dragged her to a secret room in his basement where he kept her locked up for 24 years, raping her repeatedly and fathering seven children with her. The Fritzl case brought worldwide attention to the issue of incest early in 2008, but his brutality made people think it was an isolated case of an unusually depraved man. What kind of monster did this to his own daughter? What kind of monster would keep babies in a cellar and have them grow up in semi-darkness? (One child, grew so tall that he had to stoop whenever he stood up, and he still has trouble walking upright.) I would bet that Fritzl had been the victim of family abuse in his childhood, that he had grown up with an over-controlling parent who tortured him physically, sexually, and/or verbally. That the scars to his psyche were such that only by reliving his experience with his daughter could he unconsciously seek to hold up a mirror to his own pain. Many years after my adolescent sexual abuse had stopped, I learned that my father had been sexually abused as a child. The "monster" is almost always first of all a victim, then a perpetrator. Incest is generational... and it’s not about sex.
Incest is about power, not sexThe taboo about incest is universal. It’s been with us throughout time, in all countries and cultures. Yet for some, it’s just another rule to be broken, another boundary to cross. Mackenzie Phillips’s father, Papa John Phillips of the 60s band The Mamas and the Papas, saw himself as beyond boundaries. Egged on by a massive ego and a huge amount of drugs, he took what he wanted, whenever he wanted it. And he wanted to know that Mackenzie was his, forever under his thumb. Her first recollection of sexual intimacy with her father happened on the night before her wedding at age 19. But she had been groomed since childhood to do whatever he wanted. What kind of parent starts their kid on drugs at age 11, and later teaches them how to shoot up cocaine? But no matter what, you still don’t hate your parents. You want their love, you crave their attention. You need affection, in whatever form it takes, for some that manifests as family sexual abuse. As I said in a blog on Psychology Today
"It’s whatever daddy wants. You wouldn’t dream of upsetting him because you are so linked, so inseparable from each other. It’s not because you’re enjoying the intimacy and it’s consensual. It’s because you are completely disempowered and the parent is in the driver’s seat, and you’re trying to please a parent whose attention you crave."Incest totally disempowers you—there is no other word for it. Which explains why even adult women can still be trying to please their abuser. There was an "Essex Fritzl" in England (so called after the Austrian Fritzl), who began abusing his daughter when she was seven, and continued till she was 40. She wasn’t locked up, so how come the incest continued so far into her adulthood? Judge David Turner, QC, who sentenced the man to jail, said that he held a "persuasive and perverted power" over his daughter. She actually wept as she watched the proceedings. The judge said: "You dragged your daughter into a grotesque fantasy world of your wicked making. You held her in your psychological grip, limiting her freedom, her movements and other relationships, curtailing her autonomy, exploiting her vulnerability, conditioning compliance. This was a grotesque breach of trust. Her childhood was horribly betrayed." Some have likened ongoing incestual relationships to the Stockholm Syndrome, where the victim begins to identify with the person who traumatized and molested them. In the case of incest and family abuse, the identification is intense. In Australia, a woman in her 40s got brave enough to go to police about her virtual imprisonment by her father for three decades, bearing four children to him. In an interview in the Australian, a former neighbor of the incest survivor said: "When I said to her, 'Do you want to go to the bingo?', [she said] 'Oh no, Dad won't let me'. I thought, 'Dad won't let you?' And you're in your 30s? It didn't make sense to me." But it really does make sense. Psychological imprisonment is no less real than a locked basement.
The emotional stew of incestWhat most people don’t understand about incest is the deep confusion caused when a person you love, an authority figure in your life — whether it’s a parent or sibling or close relative — adolescent and family sexual abuse does something to you that is violent and painful, but you are grateful for the attention from them and the feeling of being somehow special. A particularly confusing aspect of incest, one that is almost never talked about, is the activation of the pleasure principle in incest victims. The human body responds to sexual stimulation, even if the sex is terrifying or physically dangerous. Young children are sensual/sexual beings and don’t understand that sex is a violation. They do, however, sense at a deep level that there is something wrong, something shameful, in what is happening to them. They’ve been sternly told by their abuser not to tell anyone, that it’s "our secret." They take on the adult’s guilt and shame. When child abuse victims are older and possibly sexually active, they will be horrified by their body’s responsiveness and will feel "dirty." They are understandably confused and wonder if their response means they enjoyed the experience, or that it was "consensual." Mackenzie Phillips stopped using the word "consensual" and now calls what happened to her by its rightful name: family abuse.
Busting the myths about incestIt’s taken a long time to get to the truth about incest. The secretive, hidden nature of incest has fostered a number of damaging myths. Briefly, here are the top four incest myths:
- MYTH: Kids invent incest experiences.
TRUTH: In fact, children don’t invent experiences they’ve not had and most are afraid to talk about it when it is happening to them.
- MYTH: Children "come on" to adults.
TRUTH: In reality, incest is initiated by the abuser, usually accompanied by bribes or coercion and force.
- MYTH: Most child sexual abuse is done by strangers.
TRUTH: In fact, the offender is usually someone they know and trust — a father, stepfather, the mom’s boyfriend, grandfather, brother, or uncle. Child abuse statistics show that 46% of childhood victims are raped by someone in their family. Boys are molested and experience adolescent sexual abuse too, but the great majority of incest is a male with the first or only daughter.
- MYTH: Children who are molested by a sibling are just exploring their sexuality.
TRUTH: Actually, if the sibling is older and stronger and more in control, it’s incest and it’s just as damaging as incest with a parent.
What to doWhen you are struggling to recover from sexual abuse, the important thing to remember is that you are not alone. You may have been isolated and ashamed while going through the experience of abuse, but know that there are millions of others, and there are scores of resources available. You may find incest survivor support groups or a group therapy setting helpful. There are online forums, message boards, chat rooms, and blogs that are devoted to discussing incest and to helping you recover from family sexual abuse. When you cannot sleep at 3 a.m., you can go online and talk with others who are feeling the same way, and you can also feel good about helping other people along in their journey. If you know someone who is a victim of family abuse, listen to them and believe their story. If you are a teacher, minister, counselor or other professional who is a "mandated reporter," you can check RAINN’s mandatory reporting database to see if you have to make a report on adolescent sexual abuse.
- RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) - Visit RAINN.org
- The National Center for Victims of Crime - Visit NCVC.org for a good list of resources
- VOICES in Action, Inc. - Visit Voices in Action