The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women

By Diana E. H. Russell | Go to book overview
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4
The Prevalence of Incestuous Abuse in Contemporary America

The percentage of women who have ever been sexually abused by a relative in this country--or any other country--is unknown. Kirson Weinberg, in his classic study originally published in 1955, estimated that there were 1.1 cases of incest per million persons in 1930 in the United States ( 1976, p. 39). Franco Ferracuti ( 1972) estimated that between one and five cases of incest per million persons occurs every year throughout the world.

Most other estimates have focused on the prevalence of incest and/or other child sexual abuse, rather than the incidence. (Prevalence refers to the percentage of girls who were victimized by incest at some time in their lives. Incidence refers to the number of cases that occurred within a specified period of time--usually one year.) Our study was specifically designed to try to ascertain the prevalence of all kinds of sexual assault, including incestuous abuse. Our definition of incestuous abuse was narrower than many others, since it excluded verbal propositions and exhibitionism. Since the precise definition used is so crucial to any discussion of prevalence, it will be repeated here.

Incestuous abuse includes any kind of exploitive sexual contact or attempted sexual contact that occurred between relatives, no matter how distant the relationship, before the victim turned eighteen years old.

Experiences involving sexual contact with a relative that were wanted and with a peer were regarded as nonexploitive. (For example, sex play between cousins or siblings of proximate ages.) A peer relationship was defined as one in which the age difference between the participants was less than five years.

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