The effects of incest are both intense and devastating as in addition to the guilt and shame victims feel about the act, they also often present with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which if left untreated keeps the victim returning to snapshots of the event even later in life.
Incest may be defined as “sexual contact with a blood relative usually including a parent, child, sibling, grandparent or grandchild” (Oxford Dictionary, 2012). It may include a combination of any of the following: sexual intercourse, fondling, molestation or exhibitionism by a family member. Though there are instances where females are the perpetrators, the majority of the perpetrators are men (Athlone Rape Crisis Centre, 2012).
It is perpetuated by a number of factors which include cultural myths, the absence of the mother from the home and inadequate supervision, and ignorance of the inappropriateness of the behavior. More importantly, fear perpetuates secrecy and the secrecy perpetuates the abuse (Athlone Rape Crisis Centre, 2012).
The fact is that incestuous relationships are often kept secret due to the guilt and shame associated with them. The data available of its prevalence is far from the reality. The statistics unit of the Jamaica Constabulary Force in their 2004 data showed 32 reported cases of incest; this dropped to 14 reported cases in 2005. In those instances the majority of the perpetrators were the children’s fathers.
Incest is associated with “unique negative effects in the domains of self and social functioning, specifically in jeopardizing self-definition and integration, self-regulatory processes, and a sense of security and trust in relationships” (Cole & Putnam, 1992). In instances of mother-son incest, Kelly, Wood, Gonzalez, McDonald and Waterman (2002) reported that men who reported this form of sexual abuse exhibited more trauma symptoms than did other sexually abused men. For the female victims of paternal incest/incest by other male relatives (father, brother, male cousins, uncles etc.), Brunngraber (1986) reports that they “endure more emotional, social, physical, self-identity, familial, and interpersonal difficulties during and shortly after the incest has been terminated and relationships with men and sexuality were more adversely affected with time”. Female victims of incest suffer more than twice the number of psychiatric illnesses than women who had not been sexually abused as children (Hazelton, 1992). The long term effects of incest between siblings was not found to differ from paternal incest (Cyr, Wright, McDuff, Perron, 2002; Rudd &Herzberger, 1999).
In childhood/adolescence the effects range from loss of trust which impacts capacity to form close relationships, low self esteem that often shows itself in academic performance or over-achieving which is marked by a preoccupation with being perfect, or as a way of displacing how low they feel, flashbacks and hyper vigilance (Athlone Rape Crisis Centre, 2012). One of the most damaging effects of incest is the confusing feelings that are generated from the experience – on the one hand the child may feel that incest is bad and they feel shame, but on the other hand the child may feel good about the act itself, in terms of the contact, attention and touching (which can be pleasurable) with the family member. These mixed feelings often result in the child experiencing “a strong sense of self-loathing and unworthiness” (Parenting-Child-Development.com, 2012).
In adulthood, a history of incest is associated with alcohol dependence, depression, panic attacks and phobias, especially a fear of public places. Victims tend to have higher levels of anxiety-related problems. Researchers have found that survivors experience difficulties with: negative self-image (Blume, 1990;Lew,1988) promiscuity (de Young, 1982; Herman, :1981; Maltz & Holman, 1987) and sexual phobia/aversion (Courtois, 1988; Jehu, 1987)
One incest survivor writes, “Incest strikes at the very heart of salvation. It loads the victim’s soul with undeserved guilt, creates in her [him] such a self-loathing that she [he] shrinks from the Saviour, and all but destroys her [his] capacity to form a whole relationship with God. Even after the victim has come to Christ, she [he] often remains spiritually crippled, unable to accept God as her [his] Father” (Vernon, 1989).
Shaw (2012), in revisiting the story of David’s daughter Tamar (2 Samuel 13), provides an example of the trauma and tragedy of rape or incest. She summarizes the sentiments highlighting the “immeasurable injury and insult inflicted by incest” as such:
“Tamar’s half-brother (Amnon) was physically ill with lust for his beautiful half-sister. He may never have had the courage to act out his sexual lust if it had not been for a crafty and devious friend who helped construct a plot to entrap the young woman and attack her. Read the account and the words describing her reaction to Amnon’s behavior. “No, my brother, do not force and humble me, for no such thing should be done in Israel” (verse 12), “How could I rid myself of my shame?” (verse 13). “No! This great evil of sending me away is worse than what you did to me” (verse 16). “She put ashes on her head and tore the long sleeved robe which she wore, and she laid her hand on her head, and went away shrieking and wailing” (verse 19). “So Tamar dwelt in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman” (verse 20)”.
Having reviewed the nature, prevalence and effects of incest on the person, how should the church respond? Ferree (2009) makes some meaningful suggestions:
- Take the person’s story seriously. It is very rare for an adult to make up stories about this experience, as no one want to be subjected to the embarrassment associated with being a survivor of this experience. In the case of a minor, the counselor, pastor or volunteer is mandated by law to report the incident to the police. It is better to be report and be wrong than to not report and the story is true.
- Acknowledge the individual’s pain and the methods of coping that are being used. The tendency of the church is to disregard the pain, in an effort to get the person to “move on or overcome” their past. To truly help survivors they should be allowed to experience the pain and deal with it in such a way that they do not brush it aside, ignore it or ‘sweep it under the carpet’ but actually accept their experience, learn from it and develop healthy coping mechanisms for overcoming the negative emotions and behaviours associated with the experience. They should be allowed to grieve. Do not be afraid to condemn this act that has been committed against them. Remember to affirm the individual’s strength for disclosing.
- Expect spiritual wounds, which may be marked by ambivalence or anger toward God. In response to these feelings provide a supportive environment that will allow for the healthy theological reflection on experience. Do not rush the individual through the healing process.
- Encourage the individual to forgive the perpetrator. Depending on the age, duration and nature of the experience, forgiveness is likely to be a difficult task for the individual. The issue of forgiveness may also extend beyond the perpetrator to those in the family who in the individual’s mind failed to protect him/her or did not believe him/her when they reported the incident. Remember that often when the report is made, the family experiences shame and sometimes they blame or are even angry with the victim who they see as “bringing down disgrace on the family”. Some victims stay away from their family of origin to deal with the issue and it is important to respect the boundaries they have set up to feel secure.
- Refer the survivor for outside professional help.
- Set up a support group for persons who have had this experience for additional support for them.
- Same-sex counseling is best. Men should counsel with men, and women with women. It is easier for one to speak of such things to a counselor of the same sex
- Partner with groups such as the Young Adults Action Movement of the UCJCI (United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands) in their Child Sexual Abuse and Awareness Prevention project that invites the church, school and communities to report suspicions of and acts of sexual abuse against our children. They carry this message through their slogan, “Stop, Look, Talk… Save a Child from Sexual Abuse”. This project seeks to teach the individuals the contact number of the Office of the Children’s Registry (1888PROTECT) as well as the process and outcomes of reporting the cases. There is also the “Where is Mellisa?” Project that seeks to give a face and voice to the issue of child trafficking.
Hope for Healing
Ferree, (2009) encourages: “though childhood sexual abuse is a debilitating experience with potentially lifelong effects, it is not a life sentence. The Great Physician offers healing and hope to the abused. There will always be scars, but individuals can move from victims to survivors; and what a perpetrator did for harm, God can transform into good. The experience of sexual abuse can become but one part of the survivor’s history, and the person can ultimately see how those threads have blended into the overall tapestry The educated pastor can be a first responder and one of God’s healing agents in the restoration process”
Our task is to remind the survivor that God, with God’s loving hand can turn their mourning into dancing and replace their pain they have worn of this experience with gladness and peace of mind (Psalm 30:11). The promise of God today is to know that this season of suffering will come to an end and that one day God will throw off their clothes of sadness and clothes them with joy! freeing them from this life gripping secret.
A Prayer: “Dear God of endless love, ever caring, ever strong, always present, always just:
You gave your only Son to save us by the Blood of His Cross. Gentle Jesus, shepherd of peace,
Join our anguishing souls to your own suffering the pain of all who have been hurt in Body, Mind, and Spirit by those who betrayed the trust placed in them.
Hear our cries as we agonize over the harm done to our brothers and sisters.
Breathe wisdom into our prayers, soothe restless hearts with hope, steady shaken spirits with faith:
Show us the way to justice and wholeness, enlightened by truth and enfolded in your mercy.
Holy Spirit, comforter of hearts, heal your people’s wounds and transform our brokenness.
Grant us courage and wisdom, humility and grace, so that we may act with justice and find peace in you. We ask this Healing through Christ, our Lord. Amen.(Christian Classics Ethereal Library)
Athlone Rape Crisis Centre (2012). What is Incest? Retrieved from http://www.amrcc.ie/ menu.aspx?menu=42
Blume, S.E. (1990). Secret Survivors . New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Cole, P.M. & Putnam, F.W. (Apr 1992). Effect of incest on self and social functioning: a developmental psychopathology perspective. Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology, 60(2):174-84.
Courtois, C.A. (1988). Healing the Incest Wound. New York: W.W. Norton.
Cyr M, Wright J, McDuff P, Perron A. (2002 Sep). Intrafamilial sexual abuse: brother-sister incest does not differ from father-daughter and stepfather-stepdaughter incest. Child Abuse & Neglect, 26(9):957-73.
de Young. M. (1982). The Sexual victimization of Children. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Ferree, M. C. (2009) “Innocence Lost” Helping Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Enrichment Journal.
Hazelton, J. L. (December 13, 1992). “Incest Tied to Later Mental Illness : Psychiatry: Study shows long-term effects on a victim’s mind. Therapists are urged to ask each patient about sexual abuse.” Los Angeles Times. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-12-13/news/mn-3971_1_sexual-abuse
Herman, J.L. (1981). Father-Daughter Incest . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
Jehu, D. (1987). An intervention program for women who were sexually victimized in childhood or adolescence. Ottawa, ON: Ministry of National Health and Welfare, Canada.
Kelly, RJ, Wood JJ, Gonzalez LS, MacDonald V, Waterman J. (2002 Apr). “Effects of mother-son incest and positive perceptions of sexual abuse experiences on the psychosocial adjustment of clinic-referred men.” Child Abuse and Neglect, 26(4):425-41.
Lew, M. (1988). Victims No Longer . New York: Perennial.
Maltz, W. & Holman, B. (1987). Incest and Sexuality. Lexington, MS: Lexington.
Oxford Dictionary (2012). Oxford University Press. http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ english/incest
Parenting-Child-Development.com (2012). Child Incest: The Effects of Molestation Can Last a Lifetime. Retrieved http://www.parenting-child-development.com/child-incest.html
Rudd & Herzberger. (Sep 1999). Brother-sister incest – father-daughter incest: a comparison of characteristics and consequences. Child Abuse & Neglect, 23 (9):915-28.
Shaw, G. (2012) From Shame to Peace:
Ministering to Victims of Rape, Incest, and Abortion. Enrichment Journal. http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/201004/201004_111_shame_peace.cfm
Williams, P. (April 30, 2006). CHILD SEX ABUSE – Rampant But Hidden. Sunday Observer.
Sadikie Lyttle-Forbes is a Masters’ level Clinical Psychologist and an ordained minister. She is a Guidance Counsellor at Knox Community College.