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Society not prepared to deal with incest

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

In a Family Feud episode, Steve Harvey posed the question, “We asked 100 people, ‘When you were growing up, tell me, where did you practise to kiss’?” The eager contestant slapped the buzzer and shouted “My sister”, then immediately covered his mouth. Host Harvey looked dismayed, but to his credit he can use humour to diffuse any situation, and he did.

Among the answers was “Sibling” given by 15 people. 

I’m certain that some can attest to a situation from their childhood that may constitute a sexual exchange with a sibling or relative. Such incidents may not even raise an eyebrow because of the innocence in which they were committed. Or maybe they would, as mature people begin to measure them as awkward, illegal and inappropriate.

I remember, from early childhood, my mother dragging me out a crudely built “tent” and giving me a sound cut tail for playing house. It took a while before I realised why she reacted so strongly to my cousins—boys and girls my age, who had invited me to play.

It was confusing because I’d never played house before and didn’t think anything of playing house in hiding. I laugh every time I recall my innocence at the time of this incident in Tantie Mable’s yard. This “kissing practice” among children/siblings was/is real though, I came to understand later.

I recall one account between siblings that was deemed guiltless until much later in life. Then one sibling began to view the childhood “innocent” kissing and touching as a violation and went on to publicly accuse the other of molestation.

That’s how alarmingly thin the line is between childhood experimenting and criminality. Since it’s as adults we begin to make sense of our emotions and of what may have constituted a childhood infraction, most of the guilt is retrospective. It comes when we’re all grown up with careers, families, and respectability. 

And, can you imagine the new wave of trauma caused within a family faced with such accusations? The embarrassment to all? 

Family members begin to take sides and lines of allegiances are drawn, as each sibling presents their position—one holding to the innocence of the moment, the other screaming “infraction.” And the injury is sure to be indelibly set within the circles of family, relatives, friends, and community into which both lives are now intertwined.

Then think how often those issues of shame and embarrassment become so large we forget that the person complaining is himself/herself bearing great suffering, also. That person is at times ostracised depending on what people perceive as motive and also depending on the relational status, respect, and stature that the accuser or the accused holds within the family.

“Few subjects in psychiatry elicit more profound, visceral, and polarised reactions than incest—the occurrence of sexual behaviours between closely related individuals—behaviours that violate society’s most sacred and guarded taboos,” says Richard P Kluft, MD, PhD, in the Psychiatric Times. 

“Furthermore,” Kluft says, “few circumstances confront the psychiatrist with more complex, painful, and potentially problematic clinical dilemmas and challenges than the treatment of the incest victim and/or the management of situations in which incest has been suspected or alleged by one member of a family, and denied, often with both pain and outrage, by the accused and/or other members of that family.”

The close relationship between perpetrator and victim complicates the trauma of the incestuous act or acts with both relational trauma and betrayal trauma. 

Relational trauma leads to “significant loss of trust in others and increased anger, hurt, and confusion about their family relationships, changes in beliefs about the safety of close relationships in general, and negative views of the self in relation to others.” 

While betrayal trauma “encompasses the unique hurt associated with violation by those who have a basic obligation and duty to protect and nurture and extends to those who refuse to believe or help the victim, adding to the victim’s traumatisation. The threat to attachment needs is so profound that the victim may be impelled to disavow the betrayal that he or she has experienced (

If T&T were to open up about incest or even begin a healing programme, many people we hold in high regard may be exposed. Many would be guilty of outright sexual criminality. Many who may have acquiesced to “childhood curiosity” would find their behaviour counted by their “counterparts” as reprehensible sexual acts especially where the latter carries sufficient guilt, shame, hurt, and confusion from the act.

Mia Fontaine, in her article, “America has an incest problem” (2013), posts, “Everyone would be affected, personally and professionally, as family members, friends, colleagues, and public officials suddenly found themselves on trial, removed from their homes, in jail, on probation, or unable to live and work in proximity to children; society would be fundamentally changed, … 

“Consciously and unconsciously, collectively and individually, accepting and dealing with the full depth and scope of incest is not something society is prepared to do.” 


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