Psychological Effects of Covert Incest

Individuals often seek out intimacy disorder treatment after experiencing sex addiction or being the victim of sexual abuse such as overt or covert incest. There is no doubt that sexual abuse involving physical contact can have extremely harmful effects on a child or adult; but what about when there is no physical contact?

What Is Covert Incest?

There are two forms of incest recognized by mental health professionals: covert and overt. Overt incest occurs when there is physical sexual contact between two people who share a common ancestor, such as a father and daughter, mother and son, or brother and sister. Covert incest, on the other hand, occurs when there is non-physical sexual behavior between two relatives. Examples of covert incest include a lack of privacy boundaries when individuals are nude or engaged in sexual activity, deliberate exposure to pornographic material or frequent sexually explicit comments. Voyeurism (spying on others while they are nude) and exhibitionism (intentionally allowing oneself to be seen nude by others) between family members may also be considered covert incest.

What Are the Psychological Effects of Covert Incest?

The psychological ramifications of covert incest are numerous and pervasive. Covert incest that occurs during childhood or adolescence may lead to sexual addiction, intimacy disorders, relationship problems and emotional distancing. Childhood is a time for kids to learn how to manage their own emotions and behaviors. Often times, children will use self-soothing techniques (e.g., thumb sucking, cuddling a blanket, rocking back and forth, etc.) or hobbies to gain control over inner turmoil. But a child will more often seek out comfort from a trusted family member. However, when a child is abused through covert incest, sexual activity becomes the primary form of contact with a trusted family member and replaces appropriate means of soothing the child. In adulthood, the drive to engage in sexual activity is heightened and becomes the answer for dealing with any form of stress, which can lead to sexual addiction. Victims of covert incest often develop problems with intimacy, relationships (romantic and non-romantic), trust or closeness. Children who are exposed to sexual experiences with an individual who is not meant to be a sexual figure (e.g., a parent) have a difficult time establishing boundaries between sexual and non-sexual relationships. Covert incest also damages an individual’s ability to trust and can create confusion about the proper way to relate to another human being. Covert incest is an extremely damaging and unhealthy experience. If you or someone you know has experienced covert incest and is now suffering from emotional, behavioral or relationship problems, ask a mental health professional about intimacy disorder treatment. It is possible to heal and reestablish healthy relationships in your life.   Sources: “Covert Incest” – “Understanding and Managing Compulsive Sexual Behaviors” – Psychiatry (Edgmont), 3(11), 51-58.

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