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Incest / Sexual Abuse of Children

"If you have been sexually abused, you are not alone. One out of three girls, and one out of seven boys, are sexually abused by the time they reach the age of eighteen." (Bass and Davis, 1988, p.20) The traditional definition of incest is sexual intercourse between blood relatives: it is illegal to marry because of such a close relationship.

There is now an evolving definition of incest that takes into consideration the betrayal of trust and the power imbalance in these one-sided relationships. One such definition is: "the imposition of sexually inappropriate acts, or acts with sexual overtones ... by one or more persons who persons who derive authority through ongoing emotional bonding with that child. (Blume,1990,p.4) This definition expands the traditional definition of incest to include sexual abuse by anyone who has authority or power over the child. This definition of incest includes as perpetrators: immediate/ extended family members, babysitters, school teachers, scout masters, priests/ministers,etc. "Incest between an adult and a related child or adolescent is now recognized as the most prevalent form of child sexual abuse and as one with great potential for damage to the child".(Courtois, 1988, p.12)

According to Diane Russel (The Secret Trauma) and David Finkelhor (Child Sexual Abuse) 95% of the perpetrators of girls are men and 80% of teh perpetrators of boys are men. (Bass and Davis, 1988, p.96) This may be the major reason why talking about incest is a bigger taboo than incest itself! Who hold the power in our society? Men. The majority of judges, police, prosecutors and others responsible for protection and enforcement are men.

"Approximately 40% of all victims/survivors suffer aftereffects serious enough to require theraphy in adulthood. (Browne and Finklehor, 1986)." Some of the aftereffects can include: inability to trust (which effects the therapeutic relationship), fear of intimacy, depression, suicidal ideation and other self-destructive behaviors, and low self-esteem, guilt, anger,isolation and alienation from others, drug and alcohol dependency, and eating disorders.

"Briere questions the use of psychiatric labels (for victims of sexual abuse). He suggests instead that the psychological disturbances experienced by survivors of sexual abuse be considered post-sexual-abuse-trauma. This term refers to symptomatic behaviors that were initially adaptive, but that over time have become contextually inappropriate components of victim's adult personality." (Gil, 1988, p.28) This view gets away from stigmatizing and blaming the victim. The person responsible for inflicting the trauma is to blame - the perpetrator. Children are never responsible for their sexual abuse, adults are the ones responsible. At the turn of the century, Freud labeled victims of sexual abuse (predominantly women) "Hysteric". For the next 70 to 80 years society has labeled these victims as "mentally ill". It is now understood that survivors of sexual abuse are actually suffering from the aftereffects of the trauma.

Traditionally, sexual abuse of children was considered either incest or pedophilia. Now, it is viewed as being on a continuum. While some incestuous men have sex with only their own children, according to one study (Abel, 1983), "at least 44%, abuse children outside the home during the time they are having sexual contact with their own children," and other men have sex with children they aren't related to. Characteristics that offenders have in common are: "dependent, inadequate individuals with early family histories characterized by conflict, disruption, abandonment, abuse and exploitation." (Encyclopedia of Social Work, 1987, p.256) Not all offenders are men. While some offenders were sexually abused as children, they still need to be held accountable for their abuse of children and receive sex offender treatment. Unfortunately, court action may be the only way to assure offenders' participation in treatment programs.

She (he) must face the reality that she (he) holds information whose witholding keeps others at risk. No perpetrator stops on his (her) own. In breaking the secret, she (he) has finally, the power to break the chain." (Blume, 1990, p. 72-73)

Source: Patricia D. McClendon, Copyright, 1995.


Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse

Amnesia for childhood sexual abuse is a condition.
The existence of this condition is beyond dispute.

Repression is merely one mechanism that may be
responsible for the conddition of amnesia.

At least 10% of people sexually abused in childhood
will have periods of complete amnesia for their abuse,
followed by experiences of delayed recall.
(Conservative estimate based on published research.)

Research evidence showing that it is NOT RARE for people who were sexually abused in childhood to experience amnesia and delayed recall for the abuse. This body of work shows that claims to the contrary are contradicted by scientific evidence.

It is not rare for people to say they don't remember an abuse experience that actually happened.
It is not rare for people to report that there were times when they didn't remember an abuse experience that they remember now.

When people say these things, we try to describe and explain what they are reporting with psychological constructs:

  • "forgetting"
  • "amnesia"
  • "repression"
  • "dissociation"

    Two crucial points: "Amnesia" is a purely descriptive construct. It directs our attention to the condition of being unable to remember experiences like childhood sexual abuse. "Repression" and "dissociation" are explanatory contructs. They point to hypothesized psychological mechanisms that may be responsible for the condition of amnesia.

    It is not rare for people to say that at some point they came to remember a past abuse experience which they had not previously remembered.

    Linda Meyer Williams found that the closer the relationship to the perpetrator and the younger the child at the time, the greater the likelihood an incident was (apparently) not remembered.

    Those with a prior period of forgetting--the women with 'recovered memories'-- were younger at the time of abuse and were less likely to have received support from their mothers than the women who reported that they had always remembered their victimization.(Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8, 649-673)

    For this sample of women memories resurfaced in conjunction with registering events or reminders and an internal process of rumination and clarification. For women with greater economic means than those of the women who comprised this sample, therapy may play a greater role in recovering memories of child sexual abuse.

    "While these findings cannot be used to assert the validity of all recovered memories of child abuse, this study does suggest that recovered memories of child sexual abuse reported by adults can be quite consistent with contemporaneous documentation of the abuse and should not be summarily dismissed by therapists,lawyers, family members, judges, or the women themselves" (pp.669-670)

    Excerpts: "The majority of the patients (64%) did not have full recall of the sexual abuse but reported at least some degreeof amnesia... Just over one quarterof teh women (28%) reported severe memory deficits [i.e., recalled very little from childhood, reported recent eruption of previously inaccessible memories, or had such recall during the course of group treatment]"(p.4).

    The majority of patients (74%) were able to obtain confirmation of the abuse from another source. Twenty-one women (40%) obtained corroborating evidence from the perpetrator himself, from other family members, or fromphysical evidence such as diaries or photographs. Another 18 women (34%) discovered that another child, usually a sibling, had been abused by the same perpetrator. An additional 5 women (9%) reported statements from other family members indicating a strong likelihood that they had also been abused, but did not confirm their suspicions by direct questioning. the three following case examples illustrate corroboration of the incest histories by, respectively, admission of the perpetrator, testimony of other family members, and physical evidence.

    Harvey, M.R., & Herman, J.L.(1994).

    Amnesia, partial amnesia, and delayed recall among adult survivors of childhood trauma. Consciousness and Cognition, 4, 295-306.

    Abstract: "Clinical experience suggests that adult survivors of childhood trauma arrive at their memories in a number of ways, with varying degrees of associated distress and uncertainty and, in some cases, after memory lapses of varying duration and extent. Among those patients who enter psychotherapy as a result of early abuse, three general patterns of traumatic recall are identified:
    (1) relatively continuous recall of childhood abuse experiences coupled with changing interpretations (delayed understandings) of these experiences,
    (2) partial amnesia for abuse events, accompanied by a mixture of delayed recall and delayed understanding, and
    (3) delayed recall following a period of profound and pervasive amnesia.

    These patterns are represented by three composite clinical vignettes. Variations among them suggest that the phenomena underlying traumatic recall are continuous and not dichotomous. Future research into the nature of traumatic memory should be informed by clinical observation."

    Herman, J.L.(1995).

    Crime and Memory. Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 23,5-17.

    Excerpt: "On one hand, traumatized people remember too much; on the other hand, they remember too little.... The memories intrude when they are not wanted, in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, and behavioral reenactments. Yet the memories may not be accessible when they are wanted. Major parts of the story may be missing, and sometimes an entire event or series of events may be lost. We have by now a very large body of data indicating that trauma simultaneously enchances and impairs memory.

    When people are in the state of terror, attention is narrowed and perceptions are altered. Peripheral detail, context, and time sense fall away, while the attention is strongly focused on central detail in the immediate present. When the focus of attention is extremely narrow, people may experience profound perceptual distortions, including insensivity to pain, depersonalization, time slowing and amnesia. This is that state we call dissociation...

    In my clinical work with incest survivors, again and again I have heard how as children they taught themselves to enter a trance state.

    Source : Scientific Research and Scholarly Resources by Jim Hopper.


    Betrayal Trauma

    The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse

    How can someone forget an event as traumatic as sexual abuse in chilhood? People who don't know firsthand may wonder, and many apparently do, or controversy wouldn't be raging around the issue of recovered memories today. This book lays bare the logic of forgotten abuse. Psychologist Jennifer Freyd's breakthrough theory explaining this phenomenon shows how psychogenic amnesia not only happens but, if the abuse occurred at the hands of a parent or caregiver, is often necessary for survival. What Freyd describes, with cogent real-life examples, is "betrayal trauma," a blockage of information that would otherwise interfere with one's ability to function within an essential relationship--that of parent and dependent child, for instance.

    Jennifer J.Freyd

    is Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon.


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