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Independent medical expert answers on psychiatry and psychology

The Incestuous Family - Roles in Families with Sexual Abuse

This page abstract: The perpetrator, the victim and "the quiet part" constitute three roles in the incestuous family. It is often the father, or the stepfather, in the family who is the perpetrator, and a daughter who is the victim. The mother sometimes - "as if asleep" - pretends not to know what is going on and is for that reason called "the quiet part" or "the third man".

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The Incestuous Family - Roles in Families with Sexual Abuse

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Written by: Lisa Levin, student of psychology, the University of Umea, Sweden, under guidance by Gunborg Palme, certified psychologist, certified psychotherapist, teacher and tutor in psychotherapy.
First version: 22 Jul 2008.
Latest revision: 24 Aug 2008.

What does the incestuous family look like? Can one see any distinct roles within families with sexual abuse?

Answer:

The perpetrator, the victim and "the quiet part" constitute three roles in the incestuous family. It is often the father, or the stepfather, in the family who is the perpetrator, and a daughter who is the victim. The mother sometimes - "as if asleep" - pretends not to know what is going on and is for that reason called "the quiet part" or "the third man".

In some cases both parents are participating but in different ways. A few examples are that one is more active than the other, the perpetrator performs the abuse while the other is without knowledge or silently approves, or that the other is present in the room where the sexual abuse is taking place without interfering.

The situation for possible other children in the family can be that they also are victims, or that they, in one way or another, know about the ongoing incest. On the other hand it is not unusual that the other children are without knowledge, just like many of the mothers.

An explanation to why boys are underrepresented as victims can be that the experience of being a victim is so shameful for boys that they deny that the incest ever happened. The sexual abuse against boys can also be a case of homosexual abuse, which is even more taboo than heterosexual abuse. Men have not formulated and told others how it feels to have been sexually abused as a child in the same extent as women. It is probably easier for girls to talk about the abuse, since there are other girls (girls who have been victims before them) that they can identify with and that actually have dared telling others about it.

Yet another difference between boys and girls is that while girls more often are victims of sexual abuse by a close relative, boys more often are abused by someone who is not a close member of the family. If we think about today's situation, where more and more children grow up without contact with a father figure, many youth leaders and sport leaders become substitute fathers. Therefore, the sexual abuse where such a leader is the perpetrator can, due to its nature, be seen as incest, since the requirement of blood relationship has ceased and been replaced with a focus on the dependency relationship between the victim and the perpetrator. The abuses that takes place at home have, however, a tendency to recur more often and have a more advanced nature.

One can say that there are three types of mothers, or "quiet parts":

  1. Those who do not know about the abuse, but when they find out about it they take the child's side.
  2. Those who do not know about the abuse, and when they find out about it do not have the energy to take the child's side and to risk their own and the family's social and economic safety; the loyalty to the man is stronger than the loyalty to the child.
  3. Those who know what is going on, but nevertheless do not take the child's side.

It is however important to remember that children can be victims of incest in all types of societies, social groups and families. That incest occurs in different contexts does not always mean that it is equally common in all contexts. A certain caution when interpreting information within this area is required in order to avoid generalizing. The fact that most known abuses happen in so called multi-problem families with unemployment, poor economy, addiction and crime, does not automatically mean that the sexual abuse always is most common in these families. Perhaps a possibility is that the sexual abuse more often is detected in such families.

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