Section 2: Understanding Sexual Assault from a Victim’s Perspective
4 Hours, 40 Minutes
Use Slide #16: Intra–Familial Sexual Abuse
We have discussed in a very general way some of the myths and misconceptions about sexual assault, and the impact of sexual assault on adult and child victims. At this point, we will turn our attention to one of the most common and most complex types of cases facing supervision officers, intra–familial sexual abuse, or sexual abuse that occurs between two or more members of a family. Specifically, we will focus on the scope and dynamics of two types of intra–familial sexual abuse: incest and marital or partner rape.
When sexual abuse is occurring within a family, all family members are affected. The response of the non–offending family members to the abuse (e.g., denial, anger, support, etc.) can have a tremendous impact on the outcome for the victim(s) and the offender(s). Although there is always a violation of trust in cases of non–stranger assault, intra–familial sexual assault creates a very specific set of dynamics of which supervision officers should be aware.
Because we know that victims in general and incest victims in particular take huge risks in disclosing the facts of their abuse, it is particularly important to consider the impact on the victim any intervention with an incest offender may have, and to minimize the trauma to the victim. Practices such as removing a child victim from his or her home to ensure his or her safety may be expedient, but the message to the victim may be that he or she is being punished. Policies around community notification can have a tremendous impact on incest victims. Such decisions may be completely out of the control of the supervision officer, but to the extent that they are able, they should be victim–centered when considering such decisions.
To successfully manage sex offenders and ensure community safety, we must understand the many ways in which the lives of victims of intra–familial sexual abuse and their offenders are inextricably linked. The dynamics of these familial relationships often dictate their interactions, behaviors, actions, and decisions with and towards each other.
In today’s society, the definition of family varies greatly across cultural, religious, ethnic, and class lines. Families today can consist of two same sex partners and children, two opposite sex partners and children, extended families, single parent families, and more. It is important to clarify the victim’s definition and/or concept of family, because the dynamics can apply, in varying degrees, to any set of relationships the victim considers family. While legal options may depend upon statutory definitions of family (and it will be important to be aware of what those are for any individual victim), it is the meaning and emotion attached to the relationships between family members that create and sustain the dynamics we’re discussing today.
Today, professionals in the field of sexual assault recognize that intra-familial child sexual abuse, known as incest is the responsibility of the offending parent or relative and never the fault of the child victim. We have come to recognize that children inherently have less power than adults and are not to blame for their abuse. When offenders describe the seductive behavior of a son or daughter, or insist that the victim sought out the sexual contact, it is important to recognize immediately the cognitive distortions and rationalization at work. It’s also important to remember that the boundaries between right and wrong, and good and bad, are distorted in an incestuous relationship. Children can become confused and may respond in some of the ways we discussed earlier, such as not disclosing or retracting accusations, particularly when the response from other family members to their disclosure is negative.
Note: If you need more information
about cognitive distortions by sex offenders, please see www.csom.org/
train/treatment/long /03/3_3.htm for a discussion about common distortions held by sex offenders and how to address them.
Use Slide #17: Family Dynamics in Parent–Child Incest Cases
Note: Because your audience may have experience with these cases, you may choose to invite them to participate by providing suggestions rather than lecturing from the list. In that case, you can use the list to fill in any points that are not offered by participants. You might pose the question: What are some of the dynamics or behaviors, particularly by the children, that you’ve noticed in families where there has been parent-child incest?
The following is a list of some of the family dynamics that may be present in cases of parent–child incest. Understanding these may help you understand the information you receive from victims and other family members involved in a parent–child incest case.
- It is not unusual for children to feel love towards the offender. This can be further complicated by physical, emotional, and economic dependence. Victims do not necessarily want the relationship to end; they just want the abuse to stop. They are forced to cope with the contradictory feelings that this love, dependence, and abuse evoke. This may manifest itself in ostensibly mixed messages from the child about the perpetrator and their experience of abuse.
- Secrecy is imposed by the perpetrator via threats and coercion. As a parent or parent–like figure, the offender will often enjoy some level of trust from the child. If the offender says that something bad will happen if the child discloses the abuse, it is likely that the child will believe this.
- Children react to the sexual abuse in a variety of ways ranging from acting out to becoming a model child. Some children—especially if they are an older sibling—may also focus efforts on protecting other children in the home.
- Children may prefer the “special” attention of sexual contact—despite its painful aspects—to not getting any attention at all. Children need the attention of their primary caregivers to assist them in mastering essential developmental tasks.
- Some children may not be aware that the sexual abuse they are experiencing is not “normal,” and may be caught in a confusing dynamic when the offender insists that the sexual contact be kept secret.
- Some children may experience sexual gratification, intensifying their shame and self–blame.
- Anger, rage, and helplessness may overwhelm victims, leading to self–abusive and/or outwardly destructive behaviors.
In addition to helping you process the information you receive from or about the family, your understanding of these issues may help you develop a rapport with the child victim. It may also help you to assist others in the family who are having a difficult time coping with the aftermath of sexual assault within the family.
Note: While women do commit acts of incest, most of the offenders under supervision are men, and therefore most of the non-offending parents the officers encounter will be female. For this reason, we use “she” when referring to non-offending parents.
When supervision officers work with an incest perpetrator, the individual they are most likely to have contact with is the non–offending parent. The disclosure of the offender’s behavior may be a surprise to a non–offending parent who was unaware of the abuse. Parents who were aware of the abuse may experience relief that the issue is finally out in the open. It may generate feelings of horror, rage, sadness, and/or guilt.
Regardless of the reaction, disclosure of the sexual abuse will signal major changes in the family, and non–offending parents may welcome the changes or forcefully resist them. If the non–offending parent is in denial about the abuse, the offender may find an ally in minimizing his behavior to himself and others (including supervision officers). That alliance may extend to disobeying the conditions of supervision. The impact on the victim can be enormous when the non–offending parent withholds support or refuses to believe the abuse occurred.
Supervising officers working with families in this situation may find that they represent the major changes the family must undergo and, as a result, may be treated according to whether these changes are welcome or not. The non–offending parent may welcome supervision officers as rescuers, or may treat them with contempt, or as a necessary but unwelcome presence. The observations a supervision officer makes in this situation may be very important both to the victim and to the success of supervision. For example, if notice is taken that the victim is not getting sufficient support, a supervision officer can provide referrals and/or access to appropriate victim services. Likewise, recognizing that an offender’s partner is in denial regarding the abuse can prevent the partner from being able to undermine supervision and help keep child victims safe.
When working with families under these conditions, supervision officers must take care to notice and interpret the behavior of non–offending parents. Understanding why non–offending parents exhibit certain behaviors can enhance the ability of the supervision officer to make decisions about how to work with the offender.
The following are some of the dynamics supervision officers may encounter in working with families where there is intra–familial sexual abuse:
Use Slide #18: Dynamics of Non-Offending Parents and Children
- The victim may feel very angry towards the non–offending parent for not protecting him or her or, alternatively, for being the one to call in the authorities.
- The victim may experience feelings of divided loyalty between the offending and non–offending parent. Again, attachment to the abuser does not mean the abuse did not occur.
- The non–offending parent may be the victim of physical or sexual abuse perpetrated by the same offender. Many cases of incest involve concurrent battering of the non–offending parent. This experience will make the non–offending parent particularly vulnerable to threats and coercion by the offender. Coercion may be used to prevent disclosure of the abuse (the non–offending parent may have been threatened with harm if she disclosed what she knew) or to prevent disclosure of violations of the conditions of supervision. Non–offending parents who are victims of battering will benefit from referrals to domestic violence services.
- Non–offending parents may be victims of incest and their own victimization may make them unable to identify the signs of sexual abuse in their child. This is not something that a supervising officer would be expected to be able to detect, but it is important to recognize that this inability to identify the abuse is not necessarily a willful form of denial.
- Despite the sexual abuse, the emotional ties among family members are strong.
- The non–offending parent may be dependent upon the offender (e.g., financially, emotionally, etc.). This may make leaving the offender difficult. By understanding the nature of the dependence, and being ready to provide referrals and resources to the non–offending parent, supervision officers can help minimize fear and denial and pave the way for a more successful supervision experience and better support for the child victim.
Use Slide #19: Child Disclosure in Incest Cases
Incest is exceptionally difficult for children to deal with and causes them great emotional distress. As we discussed earlier when we spoke about child victims in general, supervision officers are likely to witness a range of responses by any given child to the abuse they have experienced. The following are some of the issues related to a child’s disclosure in incest cases.
- Children disclose at great risk to themselves and their families. Children often will not disclose for fear of breaking up their families. The trust of children who are being sexually abused is damaged, making disclosure that much more unlikely. Because their experience has taught them that they cannot trust the perpetrator—a family member whom they should be able to trust—they may no longer believe that anyone is trustworthy, including you, or other professionals to whom you refer the family.
- The pressure to recant following disclosure may be intense, as the child observes the disruption resulting from disclosure of the abuse, or the alleged perpetrator may be putting undue pressure on the child victim to recant. Though supervision officers are unlikely to be involved with the family at this stage unless they are doing pre–sentence investigations, recantations may come up later as an argument for loosening the restrictions on an offender’s behavior under supervision. Supervision officers should be aware that this is a common response by child victims, but should also be careful to ensure that the child is not being pressured by the perpetrator directly, or by someone else on the perpetrator’s behalf.
- Upon disclosure, a child’s style of accommodation or preferred coping mechanism(s) may be used to discredit his/her disclosure. For example, someone may suggest that a model child “couldn’t possibly” have been sexually abused. For purposes of effectively supervising the offender, supervision officers need to know that any reaction by a child victim of sexual assault is plausible.
- If the non–offending parent is placed at risk (risks to economic and/or physical safety, for example) by the child’s disclosure, she may not believe or support the child’s report of sexual abuse. When this dynamic is observed, supervision officers should be aware that this victim may be in particular need of outside support and services. Supervision officers should also be aware that the non–offending parent may need referrals and resources to address her dependence on or fear of the offender.
Note: For more information about sibling incest see, for example, Sexual Abuse by Vernon Wiehe.34
Use Slide #20: Sibling Incest
Supervision officers who work with juvenile offenders are probably already aware that many of them choose their victims opportunistically. This means that the victims of juvenile offenders are often family members, including siblings. Although statistics that document the incidence of sibling incest are not available33, it is likely that sibling cases are largely unreported and that families choose to address them (or not) without outside intervention.
For those supervision officers who do not work with juvenile offenders, it is still important to be aware that sibling incest can often be a response to other forms of abuse being perpetrated against the juvenile offender. This other abuse may or may not be sexual in nature, even though the child acts out sexually. At the very least, sibling incest usually occurs in families where there is a significant amount of ongoing emotional dysfunction within and between various family members. Sibling incest may also be a sign of an unhealthy sexual environment, which may have implications for working with the adults in the household.
Use Slide #21: Similar Dynamics in Sibling Incest Cases
Some of the family dynamics in cases involving sibling incest with an older perpetrator and younger victim are similar to parent–child incest, and include:
- The victim typically has less power;
- The offender may use force or coercion against the victim, and may use threats to enforce secrecy;
- The victim may prefer getting special attention to getting no attention at all;
- The victim may not disclose for fear of what would happen to the offender or to the family, or out of fear that the family will not believe them;
- Parents may feel they are being forced to choose between the victim and the offender in responding to the victim’s disclosure. This can be very difficult for parents who continue to feel love and affection for both their children;
- The victim may not be aware that the situation is abusive—it may seem normal; and/or
- Non–offending family members can collude with the offender, reinforcing the denial or minimization.
Use Slide #22: Dynamics Unique to Sibling Incest Cases
Dynamics that are unique to sibling incest are also worth noting:
- Like many juvenile offenders, sibling incest offenders are very likely to be victims of abuse themselves, sometimes from an offender within the family. In some cases, the victim of sibling abuse has also been a victim of parent–child incest.35
- Sibling incest perpetrators and victims are often residing in environments that are highly sexualized and are exposed to adult sexual behavior.
- It can be very difficult to distinguish sexual exploration or sex play from abuse, particularly when force or coercion is not explicit and the behavior is occurring among children close to the same age. This can lead to denial and minimization of the behavior, especially by the adults in the family. It is important to remember that just because force or coercion is not explicit and/or the children are close in age does not mean that the behavior is not abusive. Further investigation is necessary.
- Parents are often reluctant to recognize abusive behavior by one of their children or to take steps to address it. These parents may respond by “attacking the messenger” (i.e., blaming the victim, accusing the victim of lying, or acting angrily toward the victim).
Use Slide #23: Important Dynamics in Sibling Incest Cases
For the purposes of supervision, the following dynamics are especially important:
- Parents of sibling incest perpetrators and victims can become extremely resentful of the intrusion of protective services, clinicians, and/or law enforcement into what they may view as a private family matter. This resentment may lead to minimization of the abuse. Parents may deny that they need outside help to stop their child’s sexually abusive behavior or that the behavior is sexually abusive at all.
- It is essential to involve parents in the treatment of both the offender and the victim. This will help parents to overcome their denial and their sense of being split by supporting one child over another. Ultimately, this can create the conditions for family reunification, if reunification is considered to be a viable option.
Note: States typically use one of three strategies to address the issue of spousal or marital rape: the majority removed the marital rape exemption from their rape laws; others replaced the exemption language with language stating that marriage is not a defense; others created a new offense called “spousal rape.”38 In some states, spousal rape parallels non-spousal rape, but in others there are differences, such as the ones mentioned in the text here. Attitudes, however, have been even slower to change than laws, and marital rape victims still face obstacles in using the criminal justice system to address their victimization. For more information, see the Web site of the National Center for Victims of Crime: www.ncvc.org.
It is also important to remember that intra–familial sexual abuse is not limited to abuse perpetrated by adults against children, or by children or adolescents against each other. Adults are also victims of intra–familial sexual abuse, perhaps better known by the phrase “marital rape” or “partner rape.”
Historically, marriage was considered to impart universal consent to engage in sex, whenever one of the marital partners demanded it. In more recent years, this belief has also been applied to couples that are not married but have an intimate relationship. The underlying assumption is that once an individual has consented to an ongoing sexual relationship, the right to decline sexual intimacy is forfeited.
These assumptions have been changing slowly. Although marital rape by force is now a crime in all 50 states if the offender used force or threat of force to gain the victim’s compliance, 33 states still allow husbands exemption from prosecution under certain conditions, such as if the wife is mentally or physically impaired, unconscious, asleep, or legally unable to consent.36
As we discuss the dynamics of what we are calling “marital rape,” keep in mind that these dynamics also apply to sexual assault occurring between co–habiting partners who are not married. While there are fewer legal barriers to obtaining a criminal justice response to sexual assault between non–married domestic partners, many of the same dynamics exist in non–marital partnerships, and may interfere with prosecution of the offense or the effective supervision of the offender.
It is worth noting that this form of intra–familial sexual abuse intersects in significant ways with domestic violence. Not only do victims of domestic violence report a high incidence of sexual abuse in their relationships37, but sexual abuse victims who are abused by their intimate partners are often subject to the same types of isolation, control, and threats that exist in domestic violence relationships. It is important that strategies for working with offenders in this category address both the sexual abuse and the dynamics of power and control that are present and that can present real danger to the victim.
Use Slide #24: Dynamics in Partner Rape
The following is a list of some of the dynamics of partner rape. If you have experience working with domestic violence perpetrators, these will probably be very familiar to you.
- Offenders utilize a variety of methods to control the victim, from threats and coercion to restricting access to the outside world, by limiting access to phones, cars, TV, newspapers, etc.
- Efforts to isolate the victim and demands on the victim to maintain secrecy often intensify over time, leaving a victim with fewer and fewer options and resources, less information, and less support.
- The pattern of abuse inflicted often includes periods of extreme violence followed by periods of calm, during which the victim may receive the offender’s loving attention, sincere apologies, and promises to stop the violence. This pattern can be extreme to moderate in its swings, leaving the victim confused, hopeful for change, and in a constant state of fear and anxiety. The pattern tends to accelerate and intensify over time.
- The abuse can last for a long time, which can erode the victim’s sense of self–esteem, control, and power over her own life.
- Options for escape become more and more remote over time as the victim’s resources and connections with others decrease.
- Children witnessing the abuse will also be required to keep the abuse secret, but may act out their feelings in self–destructive or other destructive ways.
- Offenders are often very successful at presenting themselves as upstanding citizens outside the abusive relationship, which can make disclosure extremely difficult and vulnerable to discredit.
Use Slide #25: Disclosure of Marital or Partner Rape
Marital or partner rape, as well as other forms of abuse, may be occurring in a relationship with someone who has been convicted of another type of sexual assault.39 The following are issues relating to a woman’s disclosure of marital or partner rape, something to be aware of if you are noticing potential indicators of domestic abuse, or if you are trying to encourage an offender’s partner to speak openly with you:
- Threats and coercion are used to keep a woman in an abusive relationship, making it difficult for her to disclose the abuse. These threats are real and usually specific to that woman’s situation. They may include threats to economic security, to reveal a woman’s immigration status, to have her children taken away, or to hurt the children if she doesn’t comply.
- Victims may believe that enduring the abuse is an easier or better choice than experiencing financial ruin, homelessness, or social isolation.
- Women may be more likely to disclose that their husband is physically abusive than to disclose sexual abuse or rape in the relationship because of the stigma associated with disclosing sexual assault. The sexual abuse can be a source of profound shame and embarrassment for victims, more troubling and difficult to reveal than the non–sexual physical assaults.
- Some women view sex in their marriage as their “duty” and may not even consider violent or harmful sexual contact as sexual abuse. This sense of duty varies in intensity depending upon cultural values and expectations, which are some of many factors.
From the victim–centered perspective, the most important thing to remember about intra–familial abuse is that what happens to the perpetrator directly affects the victim and other family members. Unlike the stranger assailant, or even the acquaintance assailant, the incest perpetrator is part of an ongoing network of kinship relationships, and most likely has played a significant role in the victim’s life beyond engaging in sexually abusive behavior. Decisions about contact and other supervision conditions will have important and long–lasting effects on the victim, the perpetrator, and other family members.