By Maham Majeed

July 16, 2009

Let’s picture a scenario: A man locks his daughter in the basement of the apartment house where his family lives and over the course of the 24 years in which he holds her in captivity in the windowless cellar, he repeatedly rapes his daughter, who gives birth to seven children. It definitely sounds sick, disgusting and disturbing. However, there is more to this particular scenario. The man allows one of the children to die due to lack of medical attention. Bizarre as it sounds, this is a genuine incident. The man is Austrian Josef Fritzl, 73, who has been sentenced to life in prison, and found guilty on all counts, including rape, incest, imprisonment and enslavement in March 2009.

This is one of the few cases related to incest that has gotten media coverage and has come to light. Many go unreported undetected. Incest is a betrayal of trust through sexual activity between biological or marital relatives. It manifests either in the form of a consensual relationship, or in the more common form of non-consensual abuse. The term "incest" encompasses sexual behavior with a variety of patterns, variations, causes, types, relationships, and effects. In general, incest laws prohibit marriage, cohabitation, and sexual relations between individuals who are closely related by blood, marriage, or adoption. Incest is in fact similar to rape in many cases. The differences are found in three areas: the duration and progression of sexual activity over time; coercion and consent.

Perpetrators of incest are men and women, the majority being men. Both girls and boys are victimized, with the majority of victims being girls. Incestuous abuse may start as early in a child's life as a few months old and may last throughout the teen years and into adulthood. In fact many victims of incest may not have memories of it ever happening. Some will not have these memories because the abuse occurred while they were young. Others may have pushed the memories from their conscious mind. Indications are that incestuous abuse usually does not commonly involve physical force or violence. Verbal or implied threats are more often used to ensure the child's silence and compliance. The child may be threatened with family breakup, shame, or blame. The perpetrator may also threaten to commit suicide, harm the victim or other family members, or valued possessions if the incest is revealed or ended.

Why is incest ‘forbidden’ and considered so wrong? Historically the taboo has had a scientific rationale: that inbreeding drains the gene pool, greatly increasing the chances of mental and physical defects in offspring. Highly inbred populations have diminished reproductive capacity and have higher risks for hereditary disorders. But modern geneticists have found that such dangers are overstated; it would take generations of inbreeding for such problems to surface regularly. A more important reason for the incest taboo is cultural: incest has been banned to preserve family harmony by preventing disruptive (sexual) rivalries and jealousies. It has also helped to strengthen kinship clans; by forcing members to marry outside the group. Another theory, emphasizing socialization, argues that the incest taboo is an important method of regulating the erotic impulse in children, preparing them to function with mature restraint in adult society.

Here are possible aftereffects survivors may experience for years into their adult life and are clearly serious issues:

Low self-esteem
Self-blame, guilt, shame (The burden of having kept such a thing a secret)
Vulnerability toward re-victimization
Difficulty sustaining relationships and building trust
Substance abuse (alcohol, drugs)
Anxiety, the need for control in relationships
Post-traumatic stress reactions
Eating disorders
Dissociative reactions
Sexual dysfunctions
Flashbacks and bad memories

People who experience incest have experienced violation of trust and sexual exploitation, but they can survive. Many will heal with the help of a counselor/therapist and/or support group and others will heal on their own. It may take an average of 3-8 years of therapy to heal. The basic goal of therapy is to help the survivor, in a safe and controlled way, and to recall the abuse and the original feelings associated with it. The work of therapy is, rather, to reclaim that traumatic past as part of his or her history and identity. With this kind of understanding, the abused patient will be able to grieve and to let go of the trauma and eventually move on. Adult survivors of incest who wish to take legal action against their perpetrators must do so in a civil law suit.

Here are a few shocking statistics that we need to acknowledge:
4.5% of women report an incestuous experience with fathers or stepfathers before the age of 18. 4.9% of women report an incestuous experience with an uncle before the age of 18 (The Secret Trauma).

A random survey of 2,627 women and men conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that 27% of the women and 16% of the men had been incestuously abused as children (By Silence Betrayed, John Crewsdon)

When incest occurs between siblings, 26% of the cases are same sex, with 16% between brothers and 10% between sisters (Healing the Incest Wound, Christine Courtois)

66% of all prostitutes were sexually abused as children. 66% of sexually abused prostitutes were abused by fathers, step-fathers or foster fathers. (Treatment of Prostitution Victims of Sexual Abuse, and Victims of Sexual Aggression)

68% of incest incidents take place in the home of the victim. (Russell, 1986)

The statistics are truly shocking. It is obvious that incest does not just end when the relationship/activity ends. It has huge, disastrous consequences. The victim suffers life-changing effects which are mainly psychological. Children born as a result of incest can be mentally and physically scarred, and may have to lead damaged lives. The Fritzl case is just one of many. Some well-known incest cases such as the Sheffield case in Britain, the Mongelli case in Italy and the Alvarez incest case in Columbia clearly show that incest is not a thing of the past. Who knows the number of cases that go unreported? When will this taboo end?


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