Section 2: Understanding Sexual Assault from a Victim’s Perspective
4 Hours, 40 Minutes

(50 minutes)

(5 minutes)

Use SlideUse Slide #16: Intra–Familial Sexual Abuse

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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.

Characteristics: Parent–Child Incest
(10 minutes)

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
train/treatment/long /03/3_3.htm
for a discussion about common distortions held by sex offenders and how to address them.

Use SlideUse Slide #17: Family Dynamics in Parent–Child Incest Cases

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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.

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.

Non–Offending Parents
(10 minutes)

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 SlideUse Slide #18: Dynamics of Non-Offending Parents and Children

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Disclosure of Parent–Child Incest
(5 minutes)

Use SlideUse Slide #19: Child Disclosure in Incest Cases

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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.

Sibling Incest
(10 minutes)

Note: For more information about sibling incest see, for example, Sexual Abuse by Vernon Wiehe.34

Use SlideUse Slide #20: Sibling Incest

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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 SlideUse Slide #21: Similar Dynamics in Sibling Incest Cases

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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:

Use SlideUse Slide #22: Dynamics Unique to Sibling Incest Cases

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Dynamics that are unique to sibling incest are also worth noting:

Use SlideUse Slide #23: Important Dynamics in Sibling Incest Cases

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For the purposes of supervision, the following dynamics are especially important:

Partner and Marital Rape
(10 minutes)

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:

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 SlideUse Slide #24: Dynamics in Partner Rape

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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.

Use SlideUse Slide #25: Disclosure of Marital or Partner Rape

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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:

Intra–Familial Abuse

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.

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