Family Research Laboratory, University of New Hampshire

Incest is a sub-type of child sexual abuse, referring to sexual abuse that occurs within the family. For girls, 33% to 50% of perpetrators are family members, whereas for boys, only 10% to 20% are. The most common perpetrators of intra-familial abuse of girls are fathers, step-fathers, uncles or cousins, brothers, and grandfathers. The vast majority of perpetrators are male, but mothers and other female relatives can also abuse. Fathers’ involvement in early caretaking may make them less likely to sexually abuse their daughters (see Finkelhor, 1994; Kendall-Tackett & Marshall, 1998).

Unique legal issues occur when a child is abused within the family. The non-abusing parent may have to choose between the child and the abuser. A separation or divorce may ensue. The most high-profile cases are those in which allegations of abuse are made during a custody dispute. For all their visibility, however, false allegations appear to be fairly rare. In one study of 9000 divorces, only 2% (N=180)had allegations of sexual abuse. Of those 180 cases, only 9 to 14 were determined to be false reports--less than 1% of the total number of divorces studied. Further, professionals who regularly evaluate children report that only a small percentage make false allegations of abuse, with the smallest percentage occurring among pre-school age children. (see Kendall-Tackett & Marshall, 1998).

Many factors contribute to severity of the abuse experience. Abuse by a biological relative is not automatically more severe than abuse by a non-blood relative, especially if the victim is emotionally close to the perpetrator. For example, girls might be seriously affected by a step-father’s abuse even though he is not related to them by blood. Other factors that make the experience severe include sexual penetration (oral, vaginal or anal), use of force, long duration and frequent contact, and lack of support from a non-abusive parent. Many of these factors relate to each other, and are related to whether the abuse occurs within or outside of the family. For example, abuse that occurs within the family may start earlier, go on for a longer time, and have increasingly more serious sexual acts.

There is a range of symptoms that occur among sexually abused children and adults. Severity of the experience is related to the severity of the symptoms. Symptoms of abuse that occur among preschoolers include anxiety, nightmares and inappropriate sexual behavior. Among school age children, symptoms include fear, mental illness, aggression, nightmares, school problems, hyperactivity and regressive

behavior. For adolescents, symptoms include depression, withdrawn, suicidal or self-injurious behaviors, physical complaints, illegal acts, running away and substance abuse (see Kendall-Tackett, Williams, & Finkelhor, 1993).

Among adult survivors, depression is the most commonly reported symptom—with a four-time greater lifetime risk. Also too are relationship problems, which could have an impact on parent-child relations, relations with partners (including increased risk for re-victimization), and availability of effective social support. There may also be such serious behaviors as substance abuse, dissociative behaviors and eating disorders (see Briere & Elliot, 1994).


Briere, J.N., and D.M. Elliot, 1994. Immediate and long-term impacts of child sexual abuse. The Future of Children, 4 , 54-69.

Finkelhor, D., 1994. Current information on the scope and nature of child sexual abuse. The Future of Children, 4: 31-53.

Kendall-Tackett, K.A., and R. Marshall, 1998. Sexual victimization of children: Incest and child sexual abuse. In Issues in intimate violence , edited by R. Bergen. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Kendall-Tackett, K.A., and A. Simon, 1992. Comparison of the abuse experiences of male and female adults molested as children. Journal of Family Violence , 7: 57-62.

Kendall-Tackett, K.A., L.M. Williams, and D. Finkelhor,1993. The impact of sexual abuse on children:

A review and synthesis of recent empirical studies. Psychological Bulletin, 113: 164-180.