“IS THERE any help for a person like me?” This sad question came from a woman with a difficult problem—one shared by a surprising number of other women today. After many years, she was still suffering from a childhood experience. She had been a victim of incest. How can her question be answered?
“Incest” is not a pleasant word. Most would rather not discuss it, yet it is increasingly common. If estimates are correct, it is quite likely that some of your personal friends have been victims. It is certainly a problem of which parents should be aware.
Most of us know what incest means—sexual activity between close relatives. It is suspected that a lot of such activity goes on between brothers and sisters, although this is not usually reported. Authorities are particularly concerned when children are abused by adult relatives. Of greatest concern, and probably accounting for most of the reported cases, are instances where children are molested by their fathers or stepfathers.
Is the Problem Really Widespread?
Despite the lack of complete statistics, the answer is clearly, Yes. Susan Brownmiller, in her book Against Our Will, says: “The sexually abused child is statistically more prevalent than the physically abused, or battered child.” Mrs. Lee Preney, a childcare worker, asserts that incest is “more common than rape, and less frequently reported.”
A report in the Seattle Times said: “Look at any 15 girls in your daughter’s classroom the next time you’re there . . . the odds are good that at least one—and possibly two or three—has been a victim of incest.”
Hank Giarretto, a psychologist who works in a sexual-abuse treatment program in prosperous Santa Clara County, California, thinks that incest is “epidemic” in America. In an area with a population of around one million, he saw incest cases rise from 30 in 1971 to more than 500 in 1977. In an interview with the magazine People, he said: “I think we are just beginning to tap the actual prevalence.”
Some estimate that 25 million women in America today suffered incestuous abuse as children! Reports indicate that many other countries are experiencing the same growing problem.
Should We Be Concerned About It?
Many experts have raised this question. For example, Wardell Pomeroy, coauthor of the original Kinsey reports, was quoted in Time magazine as saying: “It is time to admit that incest need not be a perversion or a symptom of mental illness. Incest between . . . children and adults . . . can sometimes be beneficial.”
Are you a parent? How do you feel about that viewpoint? Would you allow your little boy or girl to have sex relations with an older relative?
If you are a Christian, you know you should be concerned about incest. God’s opinion about it—much more important than any man’s—was stated very clearly to the Israelites: “You people must not come near, any man of you, to any close fleshly relative of his to lay bare nakedness.” The forbidden relationships are specified, including: brother/sister, parent/child, as well as uncle-or-aunt/niece-or-nephew relations.—Leviticus 18:6-18.
The experience of children who have been incestuously abused also shows that we should be concerned.
What Happens to the Child?
In correspondence with the Australian Women’s Weekly, a woman described how childhood incest drove her to several suicide attempts, starting from the age of 10. Others could not have normal sex relationships when they grew up.
Another, one of three sisters molested by their father, wrote: “It has taken me 10 years and a lot of help from my husband to come to terms with it and discuss it freely. It affects everybody differently. My eldest sister thinks sex is the dirtiest thing in the world; my youngest just doesn’t care. She was charged with prostitution at the age of 14 and had a child by the time she was 15 years old.”
Prostitution, drug abuse, committing rape (in the case of boys), alcoholism, rebelliousness and emotional turmoil have all resulted from incest. One young girl could not think of God as her heavenly Father. An incestuous relationship with her natural father had soured her on the whole concept of fatherhood.
Why does incest seem to cause more emotional turmoil than, say, rape? Because the molester is imposing on a very close and important relationship. One girl complained that she felt more like a wife than a daughter and believed that she was there only for her father’s sexual pleasure.
Consider the comment of another victim: “I was terrified to tell anyone what was happening to me. I was so scared to disobey him; after all he was my father, he wouldn’t do anything he wasn’t supposed to . . . As I grew into my teens, things got worse and worse. I understood things better. I felt like I was dirty, cheap and worthless. So many times I considered suicide. And how I hated men! . . . I knew I was only a little girl when it started, but I could not stop feeling that it was all my fault . . . almost worse than the actual molesting is the guilt.”
What About the Perpetrator?
Not only the victim, but the molester, too, can suffer because of incest. Often he feels shame and self-hatred, while all the time becoming more and more involved. A therapist told the Seattle Times: “The problem is that we’re dealing with compulsive behavior. These men have conditioned themselves through repeated sexual daydreaming . . . to respond to young girls.”
One molester said: “I tried stopping it several times, and I told my stepdaughter that I had to stop because of what I was doing to the family.” But he did not stop. Another said his incestuous relationship left him with “permanent emotional scars.”
Besides this, remember that in most lands incest is against the law, punishable by a possible prison sentence. Surely, if all these facts were kept in mind, fewer parents would allow themselves to fall into incestuous relationships.
Then Why Do They Do It?
Some adults who turn to incest are psychotic. Most are not, however. They may be apparently good family men, business or community leaders, even good churchgoers.
Why do such “ordinary people” commit incest? Loss of control due to alcohol has been involved. Sometimes, a man marries a woman who already has children. As his stepchildren get older, he may be tempted sexually.
Family problems can contribute. Hank Giarretto says: “Usually it’s a man losing his job or going through a low-ebb period in his life. He and his wife become alienated. The father reaches out to his daughter, looking for closeness. She is open to him, loves him, thinks he’s great. The first overtures are not sexual.”
There may be additional causes. One incest victim told how pornographic literature was always present in the house. Giarretto adds: “It’s the sexual climate of our society which helps create the problem. We teach our girls to be Lolitas and sexual provocateurs from the time they’re 2.”
An adult committing incest with a child betrays selfishness. He shows no concern at all for the welfare of the child. Yet, in a world that encourages us to ‘do our own thing’ and promotes such perversions as child pornography, is it surprising that cases of incest are on the increase?
Can It Be Prevented?
It surely can, but it means that individuals must make a determined mental stand against the worsening moral climate of this world. For this, we can get no better advice than that found in the Bible. The apostle Paul tells us: “Quit being fashioned after this system of things, but be transformed by making your mind over.” (Rom. 12:2) To do this, we must avoid unclean books and entertainment and block from our minds the unclean influences to which we are constantly exposed. Thus, we avoid conditioning ourselves to wrong behavior.
One incest victim recommended teaching children at an early age that certain parts of their bodies are not for others to play with. This can be done in a loving way, perhaps using the story of Dinah, in the publication My Book of Bible Stories. * Then, if anything resembling molestation should occur, the child can immediately tell mother or father. Remember, sexual molestation does not have to be intercourse. Fondling, “touching,” unwarranted intimacy or any sexual playing can cause great damage in later life.
Deep parental love is a true safeguard. Paul said: “Love . . . does not behave indecently, does not look for its own interests.” (1 Cor. 13:4, 5) This unselfish love will surely prevent parents from allowing fleshly weaknesses to nudge them to do wrong acts toward their offspring. It will also help to prevent another problem. Sometimes, as children start to become young men or women, their parents, afraid of falling into incestuous relationships, become cold and distant. Of course, this, too, is harmful to the growing child.
Handling the Problem
Handling incest has not proved easy. It is a secret crime. Families often try to keep it hidden. Mothers who know that “something is going on” may turn a blind eye, afraid of disrupting the family. Children who report their parents may come under strong pressure to withdraw the complaint. Yet, in the experience of many specialists, children rarely lie about incest.
Some feel that prison is not always the answer for the molester. Hence, counseling centers have been set up where these families can be treated as a whole. Explaining what he thinks is very important in such treatment, Hank Giarretto says: “[The father] must face the daughter and accept full responsibility for whatever happened.” This may be difficult for the father to do; but it is a way he can try to undo some of the harm that has been done to the child.
Outsiders can help too. Many victims have testified how, through patient, considerate and selfless care, they were assisted to overcome the emotional confusion and start planning for the future. The scars may never completely disappear; but with persistence, they will at least recede into the background.
Another Source of Help
What, then, about the incest victim whose question appears at the beginning of this article? She was molested by her grandfather from the age of six until nine. She tried immorality, drugs and psychiatrists, but found in these no relief from her unhappiness.
Happily, there is help for such a person. However confused and “down” we may be, there is One who is “raising up the lowly one from the very dust,” and we can get to know him by means of the Bible. (Ps. 113:7) He can help even in the deepest depression, for he is the “Father of tender mercies and the God of all comfort.” (2 Cor. 1:3) It takes much prayer, study and discussion with mature people to replace the depressing, guilt-ridden thoughts in the mind with upbuilding ones. But it can be done. The following experience may help to demonstrate this.
A woman said that she was abused by her natural father from a very early age, and then by her stepfather. She sank into immorality, drug abuse and finally had an illegitimate child. But she says: “There is a way out of incest, child-abuse, statutory rape, drugs and homosexuality. You may feel as though you can’t live through these things with a completely sane mind, but you can if you have hope of something better to live for. I have that hope . . . I never fought back as a child. I only wish I had, but I was afraid, afraid no one would take care of me or want me. I was wrong, very wrong! Jehovah cares . . . and the elders at the local Kingdom Hall [of Jehovah’s Witnesses] care too.”
Whatever our past history, any of us can be “washed clean,” and “sanctified” from the standpoint of God. (1 Cor. 6:11) The Bible explains how. By the power of his Word and spirit, God can also remove our guilt feelings and provide escape even from emotional confusion. He can help us to live a satisfying life now, and give us confidence that, one day soon, we will live in a world where such things as incest will never happen again.
^ par. 33 Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
Many people feel deep anger, worthlessness, and guilt because of incest committed against them when they were children. True friends can give support.
The effects are long lasting for many adults who were sexually abused as children.