Silences That Prevail When the
Perpetrators Are Our Own
Although the term incest is frequently preferred by criminal, legal, mental health, and media professionals, in my work, I opt for the terms incestuous sexual abuse (ISA) and incestuous child sexual abuse (ICSA). Both labels grew out of the movement to prevent child sexual abuse in the United States. In the early 1970s rape survivors and their allies drew powerful parallels between child sexual abuse and rape and made it a public issue. They pointed out that rape, like child sexual abuse, is not a “singular act of sexuality but rather an expression of power and violence” (Berrick and Gilbert 1991, 10). These early articulations formed the core premise of the anti-sexual violence movement, including the movement to prevent child sexual abuse, which was primarily galvanized by women who were subjected to stranger rape or incest rape in childhood (Berrick and Gilbert 1991).
The terms ISA and ICSA more aptly communicate the violation of a person's human rights, integrity, and wholeness, rather than merely a violation of laws or social mores. Both do not condemn certain customs, such as cousin marriage or uncle-niece marriage, that are practiced in different cultures and communities around the world but do not involve abuse. Instead, by attaching abuse to incest the focus shifts from problematizing the blood relationship to problematizing the dynamics of abuse facilitated by the trusting relationship with the victim and victim's family.
Those who commit ICSA choose to gratify their sexual needs at the expense of someone with very little or no power to give or withdraw consent. They take advantage of family connections where members are related not only by blood but also by marriage and/or historical ties. For instance, in South Asian households, the notions of family include current and past family friends, frequent visitors to the house, distant cousins, and houseguests who may or may not be biologically related or even closely connected to the family. In addition, South Asian children in most parts of the world are in regular contact with people hired by the family, such as priests, doctors, domestic workers, childcare providers, tutors, tailors,