Surviving Sexual Abuse by a Family Member

What is sexual abuse by a family member?

Much of the sexual abuse of children is committed by a family member of the victim; this is sometimes referred to as incest. Family members aren’t always related by blood — they can also include others in a household, such as an adopted sibling.

Sexual abuse by family members can take a number of forms, including:

  • Rape
  • Molestation
  • Unwanted touch
  • Grooming behaviors
  • Exposure of genitalia
  • Masturbating in front of a child
  • Forcing the child to masturbate and/or touch the perpetrator

Sexual abuse impacts the developmental years of a child where they are supposed to feel and experience safety and protection. Experiencing abuse can damage the child’s perception of family, of their bodies, and of safety in the world. The abuse that an individual experienced is not okay, and just because someone "had it worse" never means that the abuse suffered isn’t important. It is important to recognize that all abuse, including sexual abuse by a family member, is never a survivor’s fault.

What is covert incest?

Covert incest is when family members lean on children, to an inappropriate degree, to meet their emotional needs. Covert incest, or emotional incest, happens when a parent treats their child as a surrogate spouse, often coercing them to meet their emotional needs. Although there is often no overt sexual touching in the dynamic, the child can feel trapped or too close in the relationship.

Who can be a perpetrator of sexual abuse by a family member?

Sexual abuse within families can be committed by anyone within the household, such as parents or siblings, or even by outside family members such as cousins or aunts and uncles. There are many family structures in place, and sexual abuse can take place in any of them. Perpetrators can include foster parents or members of blended families, such as stepparents or those related by marriage.

I'm a survivor of sexual abuse by a family member—now what?

Sexual abuse by a family member is traumatic and can shake the faith of your outlook on life and on the world because it happens during the formative years of life. Safety, security, and protection are vital elements for a healthy child's development. Having safety and security creates and produces play and the ability to thrive in the world. However, when you experience sexual abuse by a family member, it can affect your mind, body, and spirit and can damage your perception of safety in the world.

The abuse may not have felt abusive because the person was someone you trusted and believed cared for you. For some, it may be hard to recognize your experiences as surviving something traumatic, and so you may not notice that you are experiencing the effects of sexual abuse. You may experience dissociation like feeling unreal or detached from your whole being. If you are questioning your experience such as, "Did I really experience sexual abuse by a family member?", oftentimes practicing grounding exercises like saying out loud, "I did experience sexual abuse by a family member," can build an awareness of how the abuse may have impacted you over time.

It can be frightening and difficult for you to look at yourself through that lens; “I survived sexual abuse by a family member.” It is important for you to be open and non-judgmental with yourself and understand how the abuse may have shaped your behaviors, emotions, and coping mechanisms. Sexual abuse by a family member can affect areas of life such as:

All of the behaviors, emotions, and coping strategies that you have developed up to this point helped you survive. Upon recognizing that and finding support, you can go from surviving to thriving. You can move again and live fully again. You can create a space that is safe and you don’t have to do that alone. You have come to the right place and there are resources for you to realign yourself in your mind, body, and spirit again.

Where can I get more resources about sexual abuse by a family member?

  • To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org. The services are anonymous and confidential.
  • For additional resources in your local community, visit Survivors of Incest Anonymous, an organization that can help you find survivor support groups in your area.

RAINN would like to give a special thanks to our Speakers Bureau members who contributed information and resources to this page: Suzanne Isaza, Josephine Anne Lauren, and Rona Brodrick, founding members of Incest AWARE, and Jane Epstein from Complicated Courage and siblingsexualtrauma.com.

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