Incest

Blue and white single family homeIncest 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.

Incest is taboo, or forbidden, in many parts of the world. It is often a form of sexual abuse and carries criminal penalties in most states and in many countries.

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:

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.

References:

  1. An introduction to SIA. (n.d.). Survivors of Incest Anonymous. Retrieved from http://www.siawso.org
  2. Bourke, J. (2007). Rape: Sex, violence, history. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard.
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. Incest. (n.d.). Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Retrieved from http://www.rainn.org/get-information/types-of-sexual-assault/incest
  8. Kluft, R. P. (2011, January 11). Ramifications of Incest. Retrieved from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/sexual-offenses/ramifications-incest
  9. 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
  10. 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

  • 14 comments
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  • Beau

    Beau

    April 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💔

  • Diana

    Diana

    July 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.

  • Virginia

    Virginia

    November 15th, 2016 at 2:42 PM

    Diana,
    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.

    Many blessings,
    Virginia

  • Claire

    Claire

    June 9th, 2018 at 1:08 AM

    Im survivor incest victim also… and trying to cope up with trauma that im experiencing now.. even i lived far from my family as he still living with the rest of my siblings and mother… my friend told me to talk to psychotherapy.. but i still didnt get a psychotherapy

  • Cody

    Cody

    April 8th, 2019 at 4:06 AM

    So.. I have been through something quite similar.. Your sister is having the sign mentioned above. When she first met him hes probably an attractive guy. At this point in time though they had never met… Which comes with all the negative emotional baggage on her end that shes not good enough for her dad. Now this along with the GSA. Sent her spiralling with all kinds of emotions.. I never knew about GSA personally until reading this. But after reading it I now know that is what I struggle with. My story is a little different than hers and I’m not gonna get into details. What I did which helped me get through the depression and fear that my higher power would never forgive me, is I released all the guilt that came along with GSA and my experience. I accepted the fact some things happen for a reason to learn certain things through this puzzle of life. I also learned that just bc other people may have a social stigma against being sexually attracted to a family member doesn’t mean I have to follow what they think or feel the emotions behind what they believe. I had to give it all to my higher power and have faith that we are all surrounded by angels and spirits every day you should just look closer. I went through a lot on my end. Looking gor acceptance I would tell new girlfriends about certain things from my past but I never wanted to hold something back from them so id tell tgem of my experience… Bad bad idea. I finally realized after the 5th one. All I was looking for was the type of acceptance and friendship; the spiritual knowledge and awareness; that no matter the sin we commit we are all redeemable. I feel like i was born this way, or some emotional trauma from watching my mom and my dad growing up and feeling my mom doesn’t deserve that and with that comes the idea that I have to step up.. Be man of house. And dobwhat I can to make my moms wife easier. Allbthings u should be doing for your SPOUSE. Yet society nowadays tells the boys they gotta step up and take care of mom, be the man of the house. And as a child with a developing brain to hear that? Probably actually DEFINATELY could cause weird feelings emotions that you know are wrong but feel right. This time last yr I had no hope. I was miserable. I mentally put myself down to the point I didn’t care if i was homeless out doin drugs. This past yr I have really learned how to combat negative thoughts with positive ones. I will not allow myself to dwell in ANY feeling of guilt bc I KNOW through personal awareness that guilt doesn’t stop growing unless you tell yourself your amazing as your mind is telling u your a piece of shut

  • Cody

    Cody

    April 8th, 2019 at 4:59 AM

    Plz ignore my spelling errors above… Also I’m just wondering u ecer think it may have been consensual but she felt her family would not or could not forgive her for something like that ( which will definately cause tons of trauma when trying to accept it and move on) so instead of taking responsibility for her role, she played victim? Plz try not to get offended at this question. Only reason I ask is bc recently I kind of sid the exact same thing. I wasn’t ready to take responsibility for my actions as a 25 yr old adult bc I didn’t want to face the negative thoughts or consequences of what I did bc they do not match my morals; Morals also are learned through social stigma btw, so I had a small month long mental breakdown where I played victim. I was angry, and confused, and had to requestion a lot in my life during that month. Eventually I realized the only way for me to heal to to 1 accept responsibility for the part I played in the event. E.g.. Should I have been where I was, could I have left before things got worst. In doing that u can forgive yourself bc every human is flawed. And more importantly u can forgive the other person bc no one should let that weight of not forgiving someone bog them down and trust me… Thats all its doing
    2. From this moment forward I will choose to not allow negative thoughts or feelings of shame in my life. How does any form of negativity serve my mind. I have become a MUCH happier person when focusing all the RIGHT things I’m accomplishing now and in the future than focuaing on what a shitty past I had and how I didnt deserve it why why why.. All the anxiety u feel bc I don’t feel you’ll ever move towards something better until u work through the baggage of the past! Heres a secret u don’t need anyone but yourself and maybe one other person u can tell absolutely anything to to move past the guilt and shame. Its all in the mind. For me personally that guilt and shame would have lilled me had I held onto it. For I realized as an addict, well aware of addictive behaviors and triggers, that when I was using heaviest was when I would wake up every morning feeling shameful and guilty.

  • ashley

    ashley

    September 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!

  • Claire

    Claire

    June 9th, 2018 at 1:13 AM

    sad to hear that… now 2018 im now starting to cope up with it…. and realize that im not alone and theres alots of incest victims..

  • Warren G.

    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

  • William

    William

    April 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

  • Connie

    Connie

    July 13th, 2019 at 3:16 AM

    Help

  • The GoodTherapy Team

    The GoodTherapy Team

    July 17th, 2019 at 8:17 AM

    Hi Connie,

    Thanks for your comment. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your postal/zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

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  • Jason

    Jason

    August 8th, 2019 at 1:28 PM

    SO i have a question… what if you are a child who grew up with incest happening daily around him? What if you have a father who was trying to groom you as a child to think it was ok while he was having his aunt live with us , as if she was his wife? What if when everyone found out about them being incestuous, destroyed your childhood, by means of bullying, trauma, etc etc? that is where im at , and i dont have any clue who to talk to about it, but im 44 now, and it still effects me, not the fact that my father was incestuous, but the manipulations of doing so are grotesque. I feel i was abused, but it was a silent abuse, and went on for years. Now that im older, im dealing with alot of trauma related stuff from my past in regards to this. I didnt have a childhood, it was taken from me in a form of “keep our secret from everyone” when i was age 7-14. I didnt understand why or what was going on , and openly told ppl she was his aunt, and i was shamed for it by everyone. BUt it wasnt my fault! I didnt choose there behaviours, they did. It has caused alot of problems in my life, yet no one seems to get it. My whole family on my dads side of the family knows what went on , and approved of it even. I feel very cheated out of alot of life because of this shame ive had to carry of what he did, and him never having to carry anything from it. In canada i know its illegal , incest i mean , and is punishable by up to 14 yrs in prison …and where its an indictable offence, there is no statute of limitation on it. I am currently seeking legal help in the matter, it is not fair what ppl like this do , the manipulation it plays on ppl to keep this kind of secret, the grooming, its really sick, and alot of ppl dont understand how sick , unless they have been there themselves. Its not always sexual incest, im proof if that, sometimes you can be a victim of incest, and not be the one perpetrating it or be some sort of sexual abuse victim… sometimes its the manipulative behaviours of the perpetrators that is the abuse in itself…. that is where i am.

  • The GoodTherapy Team

    The GoodTherapy Team

    August 9th, 2019 at 8:14 AM

    Thanks for your comment. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your postal/zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list, you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information.

    The GoodTherapy Blog can also be a valuable resource for finding some of the information you are looking for. Please feel free to browse our thousands of mental health and therapy-related articles.

    If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, in danger of hurting yourself or others, feeling suicidal, overwhelmed, or in crisis, it’s very important that you get immediate help! Information about what to do in a crisis is available here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

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