Incest describes any sexual relations between members of a family. While the strictest definition of the term applies only to those who are closely related, incest may also refer to sexual intercourse between family members who are not blood-related, such as step-siblings or cousins by marriage.
What Is Incest?
Sex between any family members who are too closely related to marry is considered incest. Sex between third or fourth cousins may not be considered incest, since marriage between cousins of this degree of consanguinity is generally not prohibited. Some evolutionary psychologists believe there is an innate incest taboo preventing children raised in the same household from finding one another sexually attractive or engaging in sexual relationships. However, estimates of incest ranging from 5–20% suggest incest is not fully prohibited by any gene or brain adaptation.
Incest most often, according to available statistics, occurs as a form of child abuse. Eighty percent of underage victims of incest are abused by a parent. Sometimes incest occurs by choice, between adults who are of an age to consent to sex. This, however, is believed to be fairly uncommon.
Most incest laws in the United States prohibit marriage or relations between siblings, parents and children, and grandparents and grandchildren. Each state defines incest differently and has its own laws regarding incestuous relationships. In some states, for example, two first cousins may be allowed to marry. Sexual contact with a family member under the age of 18 is a crime in all states.
Prevalence of Incest
Incest is largely underreported, and many reports of incest have been written off as fabricated repressed memories or otherwise called into question. This doubt, and the stigma already surrounding incest, may be partially responsible for the reluctance of survivors to report incest. Some children may not report incest because the abuser has threatened them or told them what is happening is normal. They may also feel embarrassed or ashamed and be unsure of who to tell. Many people believe incest is rare, perhaps because it is often not reported, but study results show incest to be much more common than it is assumed to be.
In America, approximately 44% of rape victims are under 18 when assaulted, and over a third of the perpetrators in these cases are family members. However, because of the aforementioned factors, the actual rates of incest are difficult to calculate and may be much higher.
Incest and Trauma
Non-consensual and coercive incest can cause severe psychological damage. Due to the stigma surrounding incest, many of those who are victimized never report the crime, which can often prevent them from being able to process the abuse and heal from it.
Some survivors repress their memories of incest. Doing so may help them temporarily avoid trauma and pain, but over time, they may experience concerns such as:
- Posttraumatic stress
- Low self-esteem
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Sleep issues
- Suicidal ideation
- Eating disorders
- Other sexual assault later in life
Even incest occurring between adults who have both consented to the sexual relationship can have lasting effects. When closely-related relatives, such as siblings, have children together, there is a higher likelihood of birth defects and genetic mutations. However, more distant relatives are less likely to experience these effects.
Help and Resources for Incest
The lasting effects of incest, and other sexual abuse, can be addressed in therapy. Therapy can be beneficial to survivors of incest, even when the abuse happened years or even decades earlier. Disclosing incest, especially when memories have been repressed, can be difficult for survivors, but a trained and compassionate therapist or counselor can often help survivors explore and heal from feelings of guilt, shame, and betrayal, as well as any mental health concerns experienced as a result of the abuse.
Some survivors may also find support groups to be helpful, and a therapist or counselor, as well as organizations such as Survivors of Incest Anonymous, can connect those seeking help with local survivor support groups. Those who have survived incest can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 or chat online, anonymously and confidentially, at RAINN.
Incest and the Law
In the United States, each state establishes its own incest laws. Some states criminalize relationships between siblings, parents and children, and cousins, while other states permit relationships between cousins. Incest laws are generally enforced by prohibiting marriage and sexual activity between certain people; when incest is not consensual, the perpetrator may be prosecuted for rape or sexual assault. Incest crimes often receive more severe sentences than other sex crimes against minors.
No minor can consent to sexual activity. Further, many states treat incest between an older teen (above the age of consent) and a related adult as statutory rape, no matter the circumstances of the sexual activity.
Genetic Sexual Attraction
Genetic sexual attraction (GSA) is a term used to describe sexual attraction between biological relatives who meet for the first time as adults. This can happen when parents meet their adult offspring who were adopted at a young age, when siblings or half-siblings meet in adulthood, or between cousins. Genetic sexual attraction is quite controversial, as many people believe it is nothing more than a form of incest, and sexual relationships between relatives are illegal in most cases. The term was first used by Barbara Gonyo in the 1980s to describe the attraction she experienced when she met, for the first time, the adult son she had given up for adoption.
Those who claim to have experienced GSA describe it as a very powerful feeling, something they cannot stop or control. It is important to note, however, that not everybody who experiences an attraction to a relative necessarily acts on it. There have been some news stories about family members who have gotten married and advocated for their right to engage in a fully consensual relationship as adults, despite their close kinship. Other people, however, have reported feeling guilty and ashamed about feelings of genetic sexual attraction, describing it as a struggle with emotions that feel wrong.
The condition is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and available research on GSA is extremely limited. Many people question whether the phenomenon actually exists. Those who question its validity posit that it may just be a form of abuse, with one partner is taking advantage of the other.
- An introduction to SIA. (n.d.). Survivors of Incest Anonymous. Retrieved from http://www.siawso.org
- Bourke, J. (2007). Rape: Sex, violence, history. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard.
- Chenier, N.R. (2015). On falling in and out of love with my dad. Jezebel. Retrieved from http://jezebel.com/on-falling-in-and-out-of-love-with-my-dad-1686108276
- Fogle, A. (2015). This is what it’s like to fall in love with your brother. Retrieved from http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/relationships/a35098/genetic-sexual-attraction-incest-sibling-relationship
Fontaine, M. (2013, January 24). America Has an Incest Problem. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/01/america-has-an-incest-problem/272459
- Gill, C. (2016). Disgusted by incest? Genetic sexual attraction is real and on the rise. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/family/disgusted-by-incest-genetic-sexual-attraction-is-real-and-on-the
- Incest. (n.d.). Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Retrieved from http://www.rainn.org/get-information/types-of-sexual-assault/incest
Kluft, R. P. (2011, January 11). Ramifications of Incest. Retrieved from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/sexual-offenses/ramifications-incest
Marcotte, A. (2016). Debunking genetic sexual attraction: Incest by any other name is still incest. Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2016/08/16/debunking-genetic-sexual-attraction-incest-by-any-other-name-is-still-incest
Who Are the Victims? (n.d.). Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Retrieved from https://rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-victims#CSA
Last Updated: 05-8-2018
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BeauApril 24th, 2016 at 3:20 AM
Great site with lots of good info. My daughter was sexually abused by her father at age 3y 10m, and she is now 5y 2m…..just trying to better educate myself with all this so I can help her and make sure she’s receiving everything she might need. Just trying to imagine her pain and fear, kills me💔
DianaJuly 14th, 2016 at 3:25 PM
I have an ex sister in-law who was raped by her real father. She didn’t report it because she was drinking with her father whom she had just met for the first time since she was born an adopted out. She is an adult married an has 1 child. This had happened a bout say 4 years ago and she dealt with it not telling anyone what happened for at least 1year 1/2 then came out with it to the family. She has been on meds trying to commit suicide in an out of the hospital. As of now she is in hospital because of another suicide attempt. She use to be a beautiful person an this has taken a toll on everyone an sad to see her like this. I really want to know what we can do for her,? Like is there a treatment center for woman who have been sexually abused raped by their own father? She is in need of desperate help and wanting to look into something that could help her. Live on Vancouver Island. If there is such a place please let me know so I can try an help her an my ex’s family. She is such a beautiful person, an deserves to be helped from this nightmare road shes gone down from what happened to her. Her father destroyed such a wonderful person an want to help her.
VirginiaNovember 15th, 2016 at 2:42 PM
I am an incest survivor and I am so sorry for your terrible experience. I have recently written and published a collection of poetry regarding the subject. It is an introduction to your recovery process. I know first hand how you must feel and I know this little book can be of help to you. It’s available on Amazon. It is titled Novocain and speaks of forgiveness. I know in time this nightmare will be behind you. Also please keep in mind that your child can provide so much strength for you.
ashleySeptember 12th, 2016 at 10:06 PM
I know my daughter was drugged and raped by her father, friend and girlfriend and it happened more than once when she was 12. She would always have headaches , nausea and then really bad nightmares, afraid to be alone, afraid of dark. she was always out of it when I called her . even by sunday after being dropped off, she was out of it. She went straight to her room. Then at age 13 anxiety attacks, panic attacks, eating disorder followed by self-harm. I was finall able to cut off access through use of childrens lawyer at 14. The longer she is away from him, the better she does. She made comments about hating basements(I never had one) and that they terrify her and she is afraid of penis’s yet, never had boyfriend or relations. I could not go to authorities without proof that was concrete without looking like the vengeful x. She has started to have periodic flashbacks and refuses to see him. There was so many signs, no one would listen and he has friends in police department that are corrupt. Feel so helpless. I did finally at 16 yrs of age find a really good counselor and hopefully we can get to the bottom of this. She is terrified of her father yet from time to time will have lunch in a public place, just to keep peace. Otherwise she gets texts and calls of toxic guilt!
Warren G.January 22nd, 2017 at 3:01 AM
My wife is a victim of incest and it has affected our marriage tremendously I’m just finding out that she still has sex with her father and I don’t know what to do she has booth at the house and we are separated I believe the whole time we’ve been married for 4 years that she’s been having sex with her father who I find out who’s had sex with all three daughters and they all still have sex with him as adults he has been able to manipulate them and control their minds even in their other relationships I have no idea what to do my wife drinks she does drugs and we have a six-year-old stepson who does not know nothing my wife has been exposed by her older brothers and younger brothers but the family keeps it a secret for very long time until recently when the uncle has found out and wants to file charges but I don’t think none of the three girls on women will file charges against him because they still have love for him as their father and lover this is some Jerry Springer message I have never dealt with in my life I have no idea what to do my wife won’t ever really talk to me now expecially while this is BET on exposed I had a feeling this was still going on because I told her why do you go see your father and you know he’s molested you but she said it was in the past and he’s changed but I just recently found out she was still sleeping with him for money or for whatever I am so devastated over this and hurt
WilliamApril 9th, 2018 at 7:28 PM
I would like to know the signs because my girlfriend is 53 and her son is 25 and things just isn’t right I think they is having sex
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