home what'snew resources ask amy news activism antiviolence events marketplace aboutus
Articles & Speeches
Feminist.com Bookstore
Find Services In Your Area
Inspiring Quotes
Links/ Best of the Feminist Web
Our Bodies, Ourselves Reading Room
Partners & On-Site Non-Profits

Incest & Sexual Abuse of Children

One common form of sexual abuse of children is incest, which has been defined as sexual contact that occurs between family members.* Most incest occurs between older male relatives and younger female children in families of every class and color. Other instances of sexual abuse of children are most often committed by friends who have access to children within the family setting and by people normally trusted by parents: doctors, dentists, teachers, and baby-sitters.18

A sexually abusive relationship is one over which a child or young woman has no control. A trusted family member or friend uses his power, as well as a child's love and dependence, to initiate sexual contact and often to ensure that the relationship continues and remains secret.

My barter with my brother was that he could do sex on me to practice for his girlfriends. I consented not because I enjoyed it but because I was afraid to be alone when my parents went out....I never even thought of talking about it. That just couldn't be done.



Toward an Understanding of Male Violence Against Women

Race, Class, and Violence Against Women

Blaming the Victim

Sexual Harassment

Domestic Violence

Sexual Assault

Incest and Sexual Abuse of Children

The Sex Industry

Defending Ourselves Against Violence

Ending Violence Against Women



Despite the fact that children are more likely to be sexually abused by an adult they know, parents teach children to expect danger from strangers and not from trusted authority figures. It is understandable, given this fact, that a violation of this trust is so terribly frightening and confusing.

The extent of incest and childhood sexual abuse is difficult to measure because of lack of reporting and lack of memory. One study in which adults were asked to report on past incidents found that one in four girls and one in ten boys experienced sexual abuse.19

Incest and sexual abuse of children take many forms and may include sexually suggestive language; prolonged kissing, looking, and petting; vaginal and/or anal intercourse; and oral sex. Because sexual contact is often achieved without overt physical force, there may be no obvious signs of physical harm.

Whether or not the signs of abuse are physical and obvious, sexual abuse in childhood can have lifelong consequences. As survivors, we often blame ourselves long after the abuse has ended--for not saying no, for not fighting back, for telling or not telling, for having been ``seductive,'' for having trusted the abuser. Often there is no one to confirm that someone treated us cruelly and that this abuse was devastating to us.

For the next 20 years I will probably continue to walk around and ask other women, "What was your childhood like?" Hearing women say that no one touched them sexually at that young an age helps me realize that something in my childhood was really wrong.

Many of us have difficulty with sexually intimate relationships because of the memories they revive. Many of us desire sexual intimacy yet have difficulty trusting.

It's been really hard to figure out how this has affected me with men. I've had a hard time figuring out who is safe and who isn't. Now the only way I will sleep with someone is if I can have complete control. I need permission to feel uncomfortable with certain sexual acts.

Just as battered women and women who have been raped often blame themselves for the violence, those of us who have survived childhood sexual abuse struggle with self-blame. Teenagers with a history of incest might "sleep around" in order to feel accepted, or run away from our homes and communities. Depression is another common response to the abuse, and adult survivors often turn to drugs and alcohol to mask the pain. Some of us feel worthless.

I often feel hopeless and suicidal. My father treated me with such violence that this is the only way I know to treat myself. I'm learning better ways now, but it's difficult.

It is often very difficult to talk about incest or childhood sexual abuse. Some of us may never have told anyone, though the abuse may have continued for years. We may have dreaded family gatherings, where a particular uncle or family friend would come after us. For some of us, exploring our bodies with an older brother turned into a sexual encounter, after which we found ourselves feeling we had been taken advantage of. Sometimes a father, uncle, or teacher abused our sisters, and we didn't find out for years. Every survivor has her own story, and every story is valid.

Coping Mechanisms

Each of us responds differently to the pain and terror of incest and childhood sexual abuse. We struggle to find ways to cope that will permit us to keep on functioning and to survive. Too often, these coping mechanisms become problematic and don't serve the survivor well as an adult. Common coping mechanisms include self-injury, substance abuse, eating disorders, and dissociation.

Self-injury. Self-injury, much more common among women than men, occurs when we consciously hurt ourselves, by, for example, cutting, hitting, or burning ourselves. Because of the shame surrounding self-injury, women often keep this problem secret and do not reach out for support from others. Although self- injury is not usually done with the intent of suicide, it is a coping mechanism that, though understandable, can be seriously harmful to us. There are many reasons why we injure ourselves. Some self-injury acts to block out emotional pain caused by childhood abuse. Many of us say that the physical pain evoked by self-injury diminishes intense emotional pain. Self-injury can also be a way of expressing anger and other strong emotions that were forbidden to us. Self-injury can begin as a way to replay an abusive experience in order to regain control of it emotionally.

Substance abuse. Many women who were sexually abused during childhood find that we have no outlet for the feelings associated with the trauma of sexual abuse. We may turn to alcohol or drugs to help us cope with strong feelings of terror, grief, and anger. After prolonged use or abuse of alcohol or drugs, we may find ourselves addicted and in need of help for a substance abuse problem. (See chapter 3, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Mood-Altering Drugs, for more information.) Those of us who enter treatment programs often find that our feelings related to the sexual abuse come up when we stop relying on the substance. If this happens, it is essential to have support for the feelings connected to sexual abuse and for recovery from substance abuse. In recognition of the fact that so many women in substance abuse treatment programs are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, treatment programs are beginning to work with rape crisis centers and other experts on sexual assault to ensure that this special support is provided.

I thought that everything would be better once I stopped drinking, but now I have nightmares about the abuse I went through as a child. It makes it hard to keep to my promise to myself to stay sober.

Eating disorders. Problems with eating can develop in the wake of sexual abuse. These may take several forms, including bulimia, anorexia, and compulsive overeating. Each of these may serve as a different coping mechanism and may itself become a problem. (See chapter 2, Food, for more information on these eating disorders.)

Dissociation. Many survivors are familiar with dissociation. This is a process that produces an alteration in a person's thoughts, feelings, or actions so that for a period of time, certain information is not associated or integrated with other information.20

A continuum of sorts, dissociation occurs when a child leaves her body and goes to the ceiling during the abuse. It can continue after the abuse: we may have trouble concentrating, experience detachment from ourselves, have dramatic mood shifts, and/or develop several distinct personalities.

If you find that a way you have coped with being abused is causing you problems as an adult, you can get help. Remember that you did what you did at the time in order to survive. Once your method of coping stops working, you can find other, healthier ways to respond to the violence you were forced to endure. Be as gentle with yourself as you can be, and know that you don't have to face these experiences alone. With gentleness toward yourself and with the caring help of others, you can build a support network and practice new ways of taking care of yourself.


Getting Help

To heal from the trauma of incest or early sexual abuse, we need to tell our stories to people who understand what we have experienced. Talking with others in counseling or in special support groups for women with a history of incest breaks the silence, helps us to gain perspective and know we are not alone, eases the pain and helps us feel healthier and stronger.

I now have a lot of compassion for myself because I know the implications of the abuse that occurred in my life. I owe myself all the understanding, patience, and acceptance I can find--a ton of it.

Some women find that they need to confront the family member who abused them. This is a frightening task, but if it is the right thing to do for your recovery, it can also be rewarding.

I feel empowered by letting him know I am aware that the incest occurred. I feel empowered by the fact that I didn't ask him if he remembered--I just told him. I knew he would deny it. I just wanted to say, "This happened." I did not expect results. Telling him was the total opposite of all that happened--what was invisible is now out in the open.

Those of us with a history of incest need to know that whatever we do or don't do is all right, because we have survived a childhood that wasn't like a childhood at all.*


Feminist Insights into Incest and Childhood Sexual Abuse

Years ago, "experts" who wrote about incest and child abuse blamed mothers for abandoning their children to sexually depraved husbands or accused young girls of being seductive or of fantasizing about sexual relationships with male relatives. For the past 30 years, feminists have been challenging these victim-blaming views. The factors that contribute to incest and sexual abuse of children are very complicated. When boys and men are supported in the belief that they have a right to dominate and control women and children, they may well decide that this includes the right to use us sexually. In a society that puts so much emphasis on sexuality as a measure of a man's worth, fathers, uncles, and brothers may try to bolster a low self-image by taking sexual advantage of the powerlessness of the children in their lives. In addition, in a culture in which male violence and sexuality are merged, men may become incapable of distinguishing between feelings of sexual desire and violent impulses--even when it involves their daughters, sisters, nieces, or neighbors. Whatever factors contribute to incest and sexual abuse of children, it is vital to remember that no child deserves to be sexually abused, and no child "invites" it.

As a result of recent challenges to long-held myths about incest and sexual abuse of children, reports of child sexual abuse have increased among adult women. One unfortunate result of this change has been an attempt to popularize the so-called false memory syndrome. This theory claims that many adults who remember sexual abuse as children are actually not remembering correctly. Research into the subject of memories and how they work, however, confirms that children often repress their experience of trauma in order to survive and that this is a necessary and appropriate coping mechanism, not something that the child did wrong. This research is helpful in countering efforts to undermine those who are able to finally give voice to the violence they suffered as children.21


Copyright � 1984, 1992, 1998 by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective. All rights reserved. Published by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

To order Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century