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Incest Warning Signs: Q&A With Incest Researcher and Social Worker LeslieBeth Wish

LeslieBethDr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D, MSS is a social worker based in Sarasota, FL. She has been a speaker for non-profit, corporate and university organizations. Dr. Wish offers sound, research-based relationship advice that makes sense — specializing in issues such as smart dating, women’s relationship advice, career coaching, healthy families, sexual dysfunction, and leadership training.

Dr. Wish is the author of Incest, Work and Women: Understanding the Consequences of Incest on Women’s Careers, Work and Dreams.


Q.   Actress Mackenzie Phillips announced that she had incestuous relationships with her father John Phillips.  How common is this situation?  Do most of these relationships involve father-daughter rather than mother-son?

A:  Although childhood sexual abuse includes mother-child incest, more men commit child-family member sexual abuse.  The most frequent male family offenders are step-fathers, fathers, uncles and grandfathers.

Q.  What are the warning signs?

A:  From a child’s perspective, warning signs include sudden or increased physical contact that might pass as acceptable with a family member.  For example, suddenly Grandpa wants you to sit on his lap more often.  Or, an uncle wants to caress a child’s hair or cheek more often.

Other forms of physical contact are more blatantly sexual, such as Mackenzie Philip’s intercourse with her father.  Childhood sexual abuse can also include fondling of breasts, rubbing up and down against a child and sexual comments.  Children often have a good sense that something is “wrong,” but they may not tell anyone about these sexual experiences.   Children learn rather quickly that the sexual activity with a family member is not normal.

Some offenders make it very clear that if a child reveals their “secret,” the offender will harm the child and/or the family.   Children also come to realize that telling someone puts the family in terrible jeopardy.  What, for example, would Mom do if she knew about it?  Would the family break up?  How would the family get along without Dad?  A great deal is at stake, and no child wants the responsibility of causing a crisis in the family.  If a child does reveal “the secret,” it is not uncommon for other family members to deny or not accept that sexual abuse occurred.

Some siblings, for example, side with the offender, saying that no evidence or hints of abuse exist.  To be fair to these supportive siblings—and even spouses—it is highly possible that the offender kept the secret very well-hidden.  Often, the abuser selects one or two favorite children for sexual and emotional gratification and never violates the other siblings.  As a result, the other siblings never experience or even suspect that abuse is occurring.

Finally, when a family member abuses a child sexually, the abuse is not solely about sex.  Offenders are often looking for comfort, closeness and approval from someone whom, in the mind of the offender, offers an opportunity for unconditional love.  The closeness and need for comfort can rapidly become sexualized.  Many offenders are, however, also looking for sexual gratification, power and control.

Q.  What can be done to protect the child?

A:  All parents and caregivers should talk with each child about sexual behavior that is “wrong.”  Children should be taught early about unwanted touches.  Parents and caregivers should let children know that they want to know about any kind of touching or interaction with someone who makes them feel uncomfortable physically and emotionally or who touches them.

When parents set the emotional rules and establish an environment of care, children are more likely to let a family member know.  Parents can also tell a child that if they are afraid to tell a family member that they can tell another adult whom the child trusts such as a teacher, minister, etc.  (And no jokes, please—yes these two groups have a history of being sexual predators, but there are still good teachers and religious leaders who can help a child in need.)

Q.  What is the likelihood that an incest victim will eventually seek counseling?  Also, when victims seek help do they immediately admit the incest or rather do they come to treatment for issues like alcohol or drug abuse which they’ve sought to cope with the pain of the incestuous relationship?


A:  Statistics can vary about the incidence of abuse, but roughly one in twenty-five women will experience some kind of sexual abuse by the time she is 18.  For men, the numbers are about one in seven or eight.  Since sexual abuse carries such a high degree of shame, it’s highly likely that clients will not mention it.  Substance abuse, as well as suicide attempts, is a failed effort to manage the emotional pain of sexual abuse.

Q.  What type of therapy/counseling is typically used in these cases?

A:  There are many therapeutic treatments, including medication for depression, cognitive therapies and emotional reprocessing therapy where the client learns to come to different conclusions and understandings about the self and the experience.  There are excellent training programs for therapists to learn about these therapies.

Q.  What are the long-term effects of incest?

A:  Every person is different, but common, long-term effects include suicide attempts, depression, substance abuse, fear of both emotional and sexual intimacy, promiscuity, prostitution and runaways, lack of career identity, inability to function at work.

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  1. This is kind of shocking. As a forensic social worker dealing with sexual crimes, it’s interesting to note that all the years of research and training have been wrong. Had no idea that the percentage of male victims was nearly triple that of female.

    One in twenty-five female victims is bad enough, but one in seven male victims by the age of 18? – has anyone double-checked that?

  2. I believe that the statistic is 1 in 4 females experience some type of sexual abuse in their lifetime, the author may have mistyped 25%. In my practice it’s not uncommon for someone to seek treatment for anxiety, depression or relational issues then later disclose history of abuse. I would sadly estimate that of the children who are victims of child sexual abuse more than half of them have mothers that were also sexually abuse (most of whom never got treatment). Talking out loud about sexual abuse and sexually inappropriate play/touch/talk is important to breaking the stigma so more people seek treatment. Treatment for victims of abuse helps to break the chain of abuse.

  3. I feel that this Q and A with incest researcher, Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D., MSS is outstanding in its description of the complex dynamics that occur in families where incest is taking place. I’ve worked with incest survivors in both civilian and military populations and continued to be astounded by the magnitude of frequency with which women report that they are incest survivors. As a man, I sometimes actually feel a degree of embarassment and shame that members of my gender can inflict such horrendous emotional and physical pain upon young female toddlers, children, adolescents and women. The severity of damage these “men” do to females within their own family is all too often life-long. The entire psychological foundation of a woman’s life can be set by the trauma that she was subjected to in childhood. Some of the women incest survivors I’ve worked with are so thankfully, among the most resilient and perservering women one could know. They are doggedly determined to recover from their abuse and often do so in support systems that are mutually emotionally supportive. I pray for the day when “men” who do this will be non-existent.
    We have to improve what seems to be a worldwide epidemic of this most cruel and destructive behavior. The enormity of suffering that countless women endure worldwide mandates dramatic improvement in the way we raise our sons.

    Ernest A. Wahrburg, MSW, LCSW (NC, NY)

  4. I have also worked with survivors of incest and have found it to be the most painful and challenging work in my practice. Not only does the patient feel shame and humiliation admitting this to the therapist but also to themselves.Two of my female patients had totally repressed being sexually abused or incested by their fathers and it was only after several years of treatment for severe mood disorders (with Borderline Personality Disorder) that it came out with such devastating emotional consequences.Another patient had to be hospitalized repeatedly for Dissociative Identity Disorder after being violently raped in childhood by her grandfather. I found that each patient who ultimately came to reprocess their trauma had had relational problems most of their life, and their character formation had been formed around defending against this memory and having extreme rage when confronted with an emotional reminder of the unconscious event.
    It is very sad to see your patient decompensate, though temporarily, but then watch them reevaluate all of their issues and come out stronger. I have found that there will be some women whose trauma was so great that they never really achieve their life goals and suffer chronically. Oher women will only temporarily decompensate when there is a major stressor in their life, like a significant loss, a death (even of a pet), or an emotionally abusive experience with a significant other.

  5. My sister and I are incest victims. My sister profited socially and financially from her consensual incest. I rejected my father because of unjust physical abuse at his hands during preadolescence. The physical abuse became sporadic after I promised physical retaliation the next time he was passed out drunk. The malevolent and vicious verbal abuse continued. My sister is filled with rage which she projects onto me. My mother tries to do “nice” things for me, but favors my sister and refuses to admit the incest. At 62, I have had enough of the madness and am in the process of breaking all ties with my extended Southern Gothic family. Please continue studies of all aspects and nuances of this family problem.

  6. I just ended a relationship with a man whom I now believe is or was involved with his daughter. Looking back at things that didn’t make sense at the time, now do make sense. She was his mistress, his puppetier, his precious angel. During our break-up we were arguing about the way he refused to share with me that his daughter was pregnant again. Every question I asked was met with some strange excuse which made me angier. Frustrated at him I just blurted out, “were you ever inappropriate with her?”. He became enraged. He went looking for an apartment immediately. He started selling off things to get the money to move out. He told me that by my accusing him of such a thing was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. Then I called his ex-wife and she confirmed that their daughter was taken out of the house as a child by DSS, but returned to them when nothing was found. I confronted him with this one phone when he called to collect some of his belongings. He said they didn’t prove anything. That’s all he had to say. They didn’t prove anything. Sick. What a sick, sick mind. And, his daughter is sick now also. Sick and consensual. Sick and abiding. Sick and living the same kind of duplicitous life as he.

  7. Hi, I have had a suspicious feeling about my wife’s family for quite some time now. My wife has 3 sisters (1 older and 2 younger). When I met her some 10 years ago, her family seemed like a very tight knit family, with possibly an overprotective mother who always made it look like it was my wife’s fault for marrying me and later moving out. All her 3 sisters went back to their home after graduating college, and none got married even till now.
    But that didn’t seemed too odd to me until her mother passed away 3 years ago. It was then that things got weird. Her sisters would sleep with their father (even though they are well over 20 years old with the eldest at 33 this year and youngest at 25 now). My wife told me that this happened almost every night because they said their father could not sleep alone… I was like “what is this”????. I love my wife, but I have to admit that our sex life has never been great cause she seem “afraid” of physical intimacy.
    The last time we visited them, the sisters were even casually talking about sleeping on their fathers NEW BED that night, which I found quite “unacceptable” but kept quiet as not to show disrespect. My wife even took her father on a trip with both of them sharing a room (which didn’t seemed too odd that time but is getting on my nerves now as I slowly try to dissect what is happening).
    I know some people will tell me that this is just father-daughter love. But I have a sister too, and at no point would I ever see it fit for her to sleep with my father alone in a room. I have a close family too~!!! Neither do I see myself sleeping with my mum alone for no good reason (unless she is sick and I need to take care of her)
    The worst part is, I recently came to Hong Kong to further my studies and my wife had to wait a year before she could join me. During that time, she had an affair with a man 10 years older than her. When the affair was discovered, her dad protected and wanted her to go back to stay in his house (with all her sisters and him).
    The affair tore me up. but what I am truly worried about is this unhealthy Father-Daughter thing they have going. Am I paranoid? Is it natural for father-daughters to sleep together often? Is the father just over-caring or over-protective. My wife suffers from depression, sexual frigidity, and now an affair with an older man (fatherly figure maybe????). And the father immediately sees it as a chance to get her back in the house.
    Anyway, I really tried to save our marriage, partly because I really love her and now, partly because I’m afraid of what would happen to her if she moves back.

    Is this a sign of incest? None of her sisters who stayed back ever had any successful relationships with men. Her elder sister is terribly hot tempered. My wife’s taking meds for depression and would not want to discuss this issue with me. I tried talking to my wife’s cousin, but I doubt he believes in what I say. My wife and I are still together.

    Can anyone help?

  8. I need to find a published book and/or article that explains not only the symptomology (sp?) of incest but also what is called the Child Sexual Abuse Syndrome. I have found some web info that states the symptoms for both interlap (delayed outcry, promescuity (sp?), substance abuse), but are the warning signs necessarily identical? After all, incest necessarily involves familial relation but sexual abuse need not. Is there such thing as a professional association/organization of therapists, psychologists, etc., who handle cases involving one or the other, or both? Please respond. I am thinking of writing my Master’s thesis on this matter. John, 210-307-0336

  9. As a survivor of incest, many of the symptoms are exacerbated by difficulty finding adequate support and help when a person seeks treatment. A classic warning sign is an authoritarian parent who appears dependent on HIS family for emotional support but unable to offer affection or intimacy or regulate his emotions or sexual impulses himself. Incest is a universal taboo, and a parent who overrides this basic law has major problems and causes major stress and damage to his family. Sexual abuse comes from an inability to control sexual urges as well as a sense of entitlement to use other people as objects to satisfy physical needs or use sex as a source of self-soothing and exerting a sense of power and control instead of finding more viable methods. Healthy parents are loving and protective, those who abuse their positions of authority seek to abuse their position of trust to gain a sense of power and control or self-validation. this brings me back to the trouble finding adequate help. The psychiatrists I saw used verbal and emotional abuse to weaken my defenses. Likewise, no intimacy could be created as the relationship was based on me divulging shameful facts about myself which they in turn used to dominate and humiliate me further. A sense of warmth and genuine concern was missing in the offices where I was treated as a sick object rather than a person who had been damaged by someone else’s abusive behaviour. The process of being systematically criticised for drinking heavily (I rarely drink), being too sick to work ( I function well, even under stress), too stupid to study and therefore depressed (I received a Commonwealth scholarship to complete my Ph D) made me increasingly frustrated and left me far more confused and depressed than when I had entered for help. Added to this, the sexual propositions, romanticising of what should have been a professional relationship, and the denial by medical colleagues that certain psychiatrists were mentally ill and too sick to be treating patients, left me increasingly isolated, infuriated and incapable of trusting in the supposed helpers. Therapy wasted much time, money, physical and emotional energy. Until patients or clients can tape sessions to off-set the notes or no-documentation of those who are paid to treat them, I wonder whether standards will improve. Sexual abuse stigmatises the victim and leaves the offender above reproach as most abuse occurs in private and speaking out is met with disbelief or accusations of deceit or seduction. Now women are trained to keep safe, rather than men being trained to avoid violating other people. Sexual abuse is rife in any relationship where one partner is emotionally immature or ruthless and self-serving and feels entitled to use another person for sexual gratification without offering emotional connection or protection of consideration for the other person’s needs and feelings. Once sexual abuse is viewed through such a lens, then the problem is seen to be far more prevalent and difficult to erase and treat. incest is an extreme example of a society where men are encouraged to act out sexually as a sign of virility and self-esteem. what feels good to a man may feel terrifying to the victim of their sexual urges. And God help a woman who rejects a man’s sexual overtures…she always has to be so careful not to hurt his ego by coming up with excuses rather than feel entitled to be honest and state that she finds him sleazy, boring, ugly or stupid. Men, however, have no problem calling a woman a dog, a slut or desperate. The double standard keeps women locked in denial of their sexual desires to maintain their reputation while men feel entitled to hunt for more bodies to fill their growling hunger to get a high form sex. Few men are capable of the level of intimacy and emotional connection that would satisfy a woman, and women make excuses for this refusal to be vulnerable or open by stating that he’s a man and can’t be expected to be needy or vulnerable or emotionally open like a woman. no wonder the gender wars continue and sexual abuse is seen as a man’s right and a woman’s problem.

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