Where is incest in conversations about rape?

Rape is coming out of the shadows to occupy more and more public discussion, changing the way we think about and conceptualise sexual assault. The fight to destigmatise rape and refocus the problem on the people who commit it, rather than victims, is important, as is the opening up of some discussions that have historically taken place behind tightly closed doors. More victims feel more comfortable about telling their own stories, and we’re facilitating an environment where reporting is slowly becoming easier, and where victims are better able to come out to friends and family.

Which by no means that we live in a golden era when it comes to addressing rape — to begin with, rape still happens and is a pressing social problem. Victim-blaming and judgmental attitudes continue to be a serious issue, and every time we take steps to fight things like campus rape we’re thrown back by tactics like attempts to pass legislation that would defang the ability to hold judicial hearings on campus to address rape accusations. Sexual assault when it comes to certain groups of people in largely ignored, and conversations about the unique needs of some populations aren’t being had.

Incest, in particular, is an issue that remains largely unspoken in conversations about rape. For many, it’s one of the most horrific violations imaginable — it’s rape or molestation committed by a family member, upending the order of how we think families and relationships should operate. It’s a breach of trust that turns familial relationships unsafe and often splits families when victims do speak out, as some people may be caught in denial and refusal to acknowledge what is happening while others may rise to the defense of the victim. And it’s a deeply taboo subject, so many people feel extremely uncomfortable when it’s brought up. Rape on its own makes some people feel unsettled, and the issue of rape by family members touches upon a live wire in Western culture.

Victims of incest often feel extremely isolated. Being sexually assaulted by a family member is an experience that carries huge, loaded implications that are incredibly difficult to deal with. You can’t go to your parents for help if they are the ones who are hurting you. You can’t seek help from a family member if you don’t know whether that family member might side with your rapist. As a young child, if you ask a teacher or other adult authority figure, you might run up against social attitudes about incest — a refusal to believe, reluctance to engage with your case, even dismissal after talking to the accused or other family members, who may say that you’re ‘dramatic’ or you ‘make things up.’

This is especially true in small towns, where the tightknit nature of communities makes it extremely hard to report rape but especially difficult to report incest. When family members are respected and beloved members of the community, the idea that they might violate their own children, nieces, nephews, cousins…is something that people turn away from, because ignoring it is less frightening than acknowledging that someone they thought they knew actually carries an extremely sinister, dark, loaded legacy — of note is the fact that many people who commit incest and child molestation are themselves victims, though that in no way excuses or justifies their behaviour.

It’s further isolating to see that your story is never told in the media. As the news discusses rape and the fight against rape, incest is a silent subject. As groups organise around the rights of victims and fight for a better culture — a world without rape in the long term, a world where people can safely report and see justice in the meantime — they don’t engage with the issue of incest very often. The topic rarely surfaces, and usually only when victims of the crime are brave enough to speak out, putting themselves out there as victims of a crime so taboo that they’re targeted with a very unique form of victim blaming. By refusing to stand in solidarity with incest survivors by acknowledging that they exist, movements fighting rape leave an awkward lacuna that no one is willing to occupy.

Addressing this problem dovetails with rape and sexual assault, but it has some unique characteristics that need to be viewed on their own. That requires specifically talking about it to welcome survivors, and creating a safe space to discuss the issue. People can’t advocate if they fear being outed when they’re not ready to talk about their experiences, or if they sense that their sexual assaults are considered secondary to the cause — ‘wait your turn’ is an achingly familiar refrain in social movements. Survivors don’t know if a movement is friendly if it doesn’t explicitly invite them to attend and ask for their input and participation: Incest survivors must be a part of any effective movement that fights sexual assault and molestation.

Creating safe environments is challenging — I don’t deny that. It starts with approaching people who openly discuss their experiences to ask them what they need from the movement, and to work with them to create a more inclusive environment. Someday, hopefully, open discussions about incest will be a part of discussions about rape, and survivors will feel comfortable participating in the movement as a whole, rather than feeling forced to search out niche groups or to try to carve out a place for themselves in spaces that remain conspicuously silent on the subject of incest.

I have the privilege of being able to say that I grew up in an incredibly loving, supportive home with a father who cared for me and always fiercely looked out for me. Others cannot say the same — and I stand in solidarity with them.

Image: wedding prep, cher, Flickr