By Fr. Moses Tazoh
Among the vices that plague the present day family and society, especially in the area of sexuality, is incest. The Bishops of Cameroon, in their recent communiqué, denounced vehemently the practice of incest. Incest is sexual relationship between siblings, immediate and extended family members. They may be by blood, adoption or marriage or members of the same household (house helps or relations of spouses) or clan or lineage. Incest becomes sexual abuse when it occurs without consent, between an adult and a minor or as a result of force.
Incest is evil
The case of Lot is staggering. Lot and his two daughters survived the flood that destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The two girls planned to put their father to sleep through drunkenness. Their unconscious father slept with each of them so that they could propagate the race. These were the only righteous people on earth and God had sworn to cleanse the human race. Could this be the principle of lesser evil or because of the hardheartedness of a perverse people, like the case of divorce dispensed by Moses? (Gen 19:32-36)
Incest is an abomination in the Bible and a taboo in nations and cultures. “None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness. “ (Lev. 18:6) It is punishable by death when a man lies with his father’s wife. (Lev. 20:11) If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death: they have wrought confusion; their blood shall be upon them (Lev. 20:12) Incest corrupts family relationships and makes man beastlike. (CCC 2388; 1 Cor. 5:1, 4-5)
The most disturbing and dreary tale of incest is that practiced by occult movements and some religious sects. An incident has been reported in Bamenda involving a sect that practices this perverse trade as a way of cleansing, we are told. On 12 March the Police arrested seven men, eight women and 30 children who preach strict seclusion from the rest of the world and practice incest. They consider the rest of the world evil and live a vegetarian life. Only men are allowed out of the compound which is guarded by dogs of different breeds. Suspicious deaths have been registered. Away from this heinous incident we daily come across families where children are abused compulsively by their parents who are involved in occult worship. They do it for money or power.
Why is incest so common?
Incest is widespread, but rarely taken note of for obvious reasons. Since it involves families they would rather hide their shame and even spend money to cover it up than care about the victim’s welfare. Most victims are children who are scared of exposing the adult. Incest is common in families where one or both parents are often absent or emotionally unavailable. Abusive siblings also use incest as a way to assert their power over a weaker sibling. In the absence of the father, a female sibling is often abused by the brother who wants to take the father’s place.
In the case of a father violating the daughter, it could be when there is an estrangement between the mother and the daughter or the father is extremely domineering. It occurs too when the mother reassigns to her daughter some of her traditional major family responsibilities. And the likely victim is the oldest and only daughter.
Incest is on the increase because the crime is hardly reported due to false beliefs or ignorance. The victim is often told that what is happening is normal or happens in every family, and not regarded as a form of abuse. The victim may not know that help is available or who he or she can talk to. He or she may be afraid of what will happen if the case is told to someone. The abuser may be threatening the victim. The victim may also care about the abuser and not want to wash his dirty linens in public. The survivor may be afraid of his own fate being exposed. The victim may also be concerned about how many people will react when they hear about the abuse. The most common fear is that no one will believe the victim. Victims fear they may be accused of having done something wrong by expressing their feelings.
What are the effects of incest?
The devastating effects of this cankerworm are little known or felt because the perpetrators and the victims operate and live in silence and secrecy. Incest is especially damaging because it disrupts the child’s primary support system, the family. When a child is abused by someone outside the family, the child’s family is often able to offer support and a sense of safety. That shelter is absent when the abuser is a family member. Since the children, especially younger children, often have limited resources outside the family, it can be very hard for them to recover from incest. Incest can damage a child’s ability to trust, since the people who were supposed to protect and care for them have abused them. Survivors of incest sometimes have difficulty developing trusting relationships.
It can also be very destructive for a child if a non-abusing parent is aware of the abuse and chooses, for some reason, not to take action to stop it. The rest of the family may be dependent on the abuser for shelter or income. If this parent was not a victim himself as a child, he may think this is normal for families. Maybe the only way to keep the partner is to allow the incest to continue. The parent not responsible for the abuse may think it was the child’s fault who ‘asked for it’ by being provocative and seductive.
The way the child dresses or makes up at home can give wrong signals. Unfortunately, many non-abusing parents are aware of the incest and choose not to get their child out of the situation, or worse, to blame their child for what has happened. This makes the long-term effects of incest worse.
Incest is psychologically harmful to a woman in later life. She suffers from low self esteem, unhealthy sexual activity, contempt for other women and other emotional problems. Adults abused as children suffer from difficulties in interpersonal relationships and sexual dysfunction, and are exposed to high risk of many mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, phobic avoidance reactions, substance abuse, borderline personality disorder and complex post-traumatic stress. Were the parties engage in marriage there could be genetic unhealthy disorders. The abused child grows up to hate the opposite sex and may get into homosexuality or lesbianism. Victims have committed suicide when they cannot continue living with people who have betrayed trust.
What is the way forward for survivors?
Assistance to someone who has survived incest is rather difficult. A child molested by a stranger can run home for help and comfort. A survivor of incest cannot. Professional help from a counsellor or therapist is rare and expensive. A support group of people who have had the same experience would be good. Sharing their stories, especially with some guidance of group therapy could help. The feeling of not being alone is very consoling.
Survivors should be encouraged to speak out. Truth heals. Breaking the silence helps the survivor and others as a kind of warning or precaution. When an authority abuses a child and tells him to keep quiet, it traumatises the child and makes him more helpless. Children should be empowered to question things that breach their rights and dignity. This is evident in our Western society, though sometimes exaggerated, where children can call the police at will.
Abusers are usually respectable people, those we trust and confide in. Without being too pessimistic or judgemental, care should be given and nothing taken for granted. Despite the fact that incest is a taboo, it is just another rule to be broken, and another boundary to cross. There might be a hidden agenda which can be power and not sex. Emotions play a big part. Consent can rise from genetic sexual attraction whose pleasure gives the lie that it is the right thing to do. In some cases traditional rites are carried out to cleanse the genes or rid the family of subsequent curses. Suspected significant adults should therefore be kept away from vulnerable children.