David Finkelhor is one of the leading researchers on child sexual abuse. In 1983 he estimated that a million girls in the United States were victims of incest and that 16,000 new cases are filed annually (Finkelhor, 1983). At the time of his research, it was not believed that males were victimized at close to or the same rate as females. Male victims are even more reluctant to disclose sexual abuse. They have additional concerns in their perception of weakness and sexual identity. Finkelhor's statistics are also very low because they do not represent low income and minority families.
A child is especially vulnerable to sexual abuse by family members. Children are naturally trusting, and adults and older family members hold a position of trust and authority. To be abused by that family member is a betrayal of trust and more damaging to the child than sexual abuse by a stranger. Victims are reluctant to tell about the abuse because they may be dependent on the offender for physical and emotional needs. A betrayal bond may develop between the offender and the victim.
If the child exhibits signs of abuse, he or she will often deny that anything is wrong. Offenders tell children that these sexual behaviors are normal, that other fathers and children do them, or that mothers know the abuse is occurring and approve. Young victims believe what perpetrators tell them. Victims also fear that they will not be believed if they report their abuse. Perpetrators may tell the victim that they will be blamed or punished if they tell.
Incest may occur over a period of many years without being disclosed. It is not unusual for an adolescent or adult to report that the incest began they they were very young and continued until they were teenagers or older. Sexual abuse is usually progressive. Incest may begin with non-contact sexual behaviors, change to contact-behaviors, such as petting, masturbation, and oral sexual contact, and progress to attempted or forced vaginal or anal intercourse.
In order to survive abuse, children often dissociate during the abuse. They may mentally disappear - their bodies present but minds elsewhere. This results in biochemically-induced amnesia due to the body's trauma response and and endocrine and neurological changes which occur as a result. Many children do not remember the abuse. Other victims do not remember large segments of their childhoods. Sometimes children develop alternate personalities as a result of this dissociative process.
Many incest survivors have PTSD. This condition is triggered by severe trauma, such as sexual abuse, and may include symptoms of nightmares, anxiety, flashbacks, intrusive memories, and avoidance of reminders of the abuse. When compared to children who have been sexually abused by strangers or community members, children who experience incest have:
Whether the incest was a one-time event or occurred over a period of time, the damage is extensive and affects many areas of a victim's life. See Long Term Consequences. Recovery is painful and difficult. Family relationships may be irreparably damaged.
For an incest victim the first step is disclosure. Everything the child feared would happen may occur. The child may then recant, saying that the abuse did not occur. Almost all children who disclose sexual abuse are telling the truth. When children recant, it is because they have been pressured to take back the disclosure or they are afraid and guilty because of the result of the disclosure. Children fear that their family will be destroyed. The disclosure results in reports and involvement of law enforcement, social services, and court systems. The perpetrator receives consequences. Other family members are affected. It takes time for the crisis to pass and the recovery process to begin.
Ongoing counseling is important for the victim. The recovery process begins with disclosure of abuse and may continue for many years. It is important that mothers not think that everything is "okay," and that counseling is no longer necessary because the victim appears normal. Open communication is vital. As children remember or feel a need to talk about the abuse, they need a safe envirnoment to do so. It is critical that mothers listen, believe, and support the child in her recovery. Mothers also need to utilize all the resources available to them for their own health and recovery.