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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Q. Where can I find articles on the after effects of incest? I want to know about how one perceives relationships between adults and children and if people who experienced incest are likely to abuse.

A. There are many articles bearing on the traumatic complications of incest. See, for example, Kinzl J, Biebl W. in : Child Abuse Negl 1992 Jul-Aug;16(4):567-73. These authors studied 33 female psychiatric patients who had been victims of incest. Abuse was almost exclusively severe and prolonged. Three quarters of the female patients had been abused by their biological fathers or stepfathers. Sexual abuse experiences in childhood were connected with later feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and powerlessness.

Another study by Brunngraber (ANS Adv Nurs Sci 1986 Jul;8(4):15-35) looked at long-term after effects, and methods of adapting to father-daughter incest. Twenty-one women with a past history of childhood or adolescent paternal incest were interviewed. The findings suggest that the female victim of paternal incest may endure emotional, social, physical, self-identity, familial, and interpersonal difficulties during and shortly after the incest has been terminated. Relationships with men and sexuality were more adversely affected as time went on. There are other factors besides the incest itself that may affect long-term outcome, however.

For example, one study found that some symptoms, such as those of post-traumatic stress disorder, may be most influenced by the abuse itself; while others, such as depression and low self-esteem, may be more influenced by lack of parental warmth (see Wind & Silvern, Child Abuse Negl 1994 May;18(5):439-53). You may also be interested in a new professional book, "Betrayed as Boys", by Richard B. Gartner PhD (Guilford, 2001). This describes the psychotherapeutic treatment of sexually abused men.

As to the issue of whether those who perpetrate incestuous sexual abuse were themselves victims of abuse, there is some evidence of this, but it must be put in context. To quote Dr. Robert Simon, in his book, "Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream": "...studies show that 70% to 90% of abused children do NOT abuse their children as parents. But...the vast majority of abusers were themselves abused as children." (p. 191, emphasis mine). Thus, statistically, it is not likely that people who experience incest will commit abuse themselves; but among those who do commit abuse, most have been abused themselves.

June 2001

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