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

By Diana E. H. Russell | Go to book overview

6
The Tip of the Iceberg: Reported Cases

This chapter focuses on cases of child sexual abuse that were reported to the police--not to parents, other adults, or peers.

In our probability sample of 930 women, 648 cases of child sexual abuse before the age of eighteen were disclosed to our interviewers. Of these, only 30 cases--or 5 percent--were ever reported to the police: 4 cases of incestuous abuse and 26 cases of extrafamilial child sexual abuse. This represents 2 percent of all incest cases and 6 percent of all cases of extrafamilial child sexual abuse. These extremely low figures provide powerful evidence that reported cases are only the very tip of the iceberg.

These findings are all the more alarming since in 32 percent of the cases of incestuous child abuse, the respondent reported knowing that the perpetrator had also sexually abused one or more other relatives.*

The fact that the report rate for incestuous abuse is even lower than that for extrafamilial child sexual abuse may be due in part to our more stringent definition of the latter (i.e., more serious cases are presumably more likely to be reported). On the other hand, it would not be surprising if incestuous abuse were even more rarely reported to the police than extrafamilial child sexual abuse, given what is known about power relationships within the family, the secrecy that commonly surrounds the breaking of the incest taboo, and the realistic fear that reporting the incest could result in the breakup of the family unit.

Of the thirty reported cases, all of which involved male perpetrators, only seven were known to result in convictions. In two additional cases,

____________________
*
Sixteen percent of the respondents said they did not know if the perpetrator had sexually abused another relative, and 53 percent said that another relative had not been sexually abused by the person who abused them.
As mentioned, our definition of incestuous abuse included any kind of exploitive sexual contact that occurred between relatives, but extrafamilial child sexual abuse was limited to unwanted sexual experiences with persons unrelated by blood or marriage, ranging from petting to rape before the victim turned fourteen years, and completed or attempted forcible rape experiences from the ages of fourteen to seventeen years.

-85-

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