Incest is just one kind of abuse. For information about the general topic of abuse, see the module Abuse.

Awareness of incest and child sexual abuse is increasing as more people are sharing what has been a shameful secret. The actual incidence is unknown, and results of studies to determine its prevalence vary, sometimes because of the def1nition of incest. It is common enough in addicts that it should be considered essential in any assessment. It is important to have skilled, trained therapists who know the right questions to ask their clients, and have at their disposal options for recovery.

At one time, incest referred to sexual activity or intercourse between close blood relatives. In the work done with incest survivors, a more useful definition has emerged that helps explain the trauma and its effects.

The elements that are significant are that there has been a violation of trust between a caregiver and a child. It is abusive because of the power an adult has over the child. It involves sexually inappropriate acts or those with sexual overtones involving a child and a person who has authority by virtue of an ongoing emotional bond.


While it is possible to look too hard for incest, it is much more likely for incest victims to deny it or try to explain it away. Survivors of Incest Anonymous (SIA) defines incest very broadly to include any sexual abuse by a family member, extended family member, or other person known to them whom they were led to trust.

Blume (1990) has developed an Incest Survivors Aftereffects Checklist, not considered exhaustive, that can assist in the assessment of incest or child abuse. Some characteristics are fear of the dark, alienation from one’s body, covering one’s body excessively, eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, self-mutilating behaviors, perfectionism, depression, rigidity, serious trust issues, boundary issues, shame and guilt, patterns of being a victim, not meeting one’s own needs, abandonment issues, blocking out memories of a period of early years, feeling crazy or different, denial, sexual issues and problems, serious problems of intimacy, the desire to change one’s name, difficulty in tolerating or seeking happiness, stealing, and multiple personality disorder.

Blume makes the point that incest frequently coincides with an alcoholic environment, and many ACoA (adult children of alcoholics) characteristics overlap with those of incest survivors. Blume believes that studies on incest should not assume that incest caused all the trauma.

Recovery from incest is essential if addicts are to experience the emotional, mental, and spiritual freedom of recovery. It may be a major piece of the work many have to do. Since it affects the very essence of who you are, it interferes with sanity, joy, relationships, self-esteem, and spirituality.

Bass and Davis (1988) offer a helpful guide for the recovery process. It involves getting in touch with reality about what happened, as best you can — remembering, feeling, believing, and grieving about what happened. Survivors need to learn to trust themselves and to express their anger. Healing from the shame and guilt (knowing it was not your fault), and reaching forgiveness at your pace, are all part of the process.


Incest is a major trauma. Personality disorders, dissociation, and other dramatic survival mechanisms may result. Recent research is finding that victims often develop multiple personalities as a coping mechanism. Survivors generally need competent professional treatment.


Many incest victims find themselves in AA or in other Twelve-Step recovery programs. There they are often told to focus only on the alcohol, or food, or addictive behavior, to make amends to others they have hurt, and to forgive. They may be told that they could not be hurt unless they allowed it to happen. Especially for incest Victims in early recovery, the strategies that worked for many people in alcohol or drug recovery simply reinforce the shame, guilt, and denial of the incest and the victim’s feelings.


Members of Survivors of Incest Anonymous learn that the anger they feel is part of the healthy process of recovery. They are innocent victims, they did not seduce their abuser, and they are survivors. They learn that stuffing the feelings does not bring healing. They confront the abuser without necessarily reaching a reconciliation. They rock the boat. “In SIA, we learn we can lose our families and still recover,” says an excellent SIA pamphlet called Bittersweet: For Those in Other Twelve Step Programs. SIA also strongly suggests that members see a professional counselor while attending SIA.


SIA says that acceptance is necessary but forgiveness is optional. We still believe that forgiveness is necessary for healing from any addictive process, but we do agree with SIA that forgiveness cannot be forced. It must come about through contact with a Higher Power and working the Steps of the Program, one day at a time. A support group like SIA, along with professional therapy, can help that process happen gradually.

Survivors of Incest Anonymous
PO Box 190
Benson, MD 21018-9998
(410) 893-3322

Incest Survivors Anonymous
PO Box 17245
Long Beach, CA 90807-7245
(562) 428-5599

Incest, see also: Abuse, Adolescents, Al-Anon & Alateen, Amends, Anorexia nervosa, Behavior, Children of addicts, Codependency, Control, Detachment, Enabling, Family, Family of origin, Forgiveness, Grief, Intimacy, Other support groups, Power, Relationships, Resentments, Self-image, Survival roles.

Updated 11 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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