5 Tips For Talking About Incest...From A Survivor Herself

Forgiveness is one option for incest survivors, but it isn't a requirement.

While TLC isn't exactly known for learning programming these days, recently it has found itself embroiled in conversations about incest. Two of its most popular reality TV shows (Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo and 19 Kids and Counting) were yanked off the air after news broke that their stars had been involved in incest scandals and subsequent cover-ups.

Reactions have run the gamut from shock to schadenfreude to support for the sexual abusers themselves. Yet, in almost every case, the victims themselves have been an afterthought. Should Josh Duggar be forgiven? Was Mama June wrong to date the man who molested her child? These questions have become the center of the debate while the girls who were abused remain at the fringes.

I am an incest survivor, my mother is an incest survivor, and some of my children are incest survivors. When I share my story, I am often met with similar reactions: What happened to the abusers? Why didn't they go to jail? Even my own psyche has fixated on what I could've done better to protect my daughters instead of the culpability of the man who abused them.

It's not surprising that, in our society of rape culture, there is a similar de-emphasis of the responsibility of those who commit incest. If we aren't sure whether Josh Duggar was really responsible for his actions, it's no wonder that we focus our conversations there rather than on the victims themselves. While he should have been held legally and morally accountable for his crimes, the statute of limitations in Arkansas has already expired — and very few cases of incest are prosecuted, anyway. Our unwillingness to prosecute incest cases illustrate our own underlying hesitancy to label incest a crime.

Unfortunately, incest isn't confined to reality TV stars. It's an epidemic in America that is estimated to impact nearly 1/3 of girls and 1/6 of boys. Yet, it's an epidemic that no one wants to talk about unless it's happening to someone in the news.

Today I want to change that. But what I want to talk about is the victims.

1. Incest Isn't Just a "Family Affair"

It's long been said that incest is a "family affair." Certainly, the fact that it happened in the family is what makes it a familial crime, but it doesn't remove the criminality of the abuse. Incest is a crime. Full stop.

If you have been sexually abused by a family member, it is important to recognize that what was done to you was both immoral and illegal. While it occurred within the context of your family, it happened to you, and only you have the right to decide how it should be handled.

2. Incest Humiliates Only the Abuser

Much of the coverage of recent incest cases has touched on how "humiliating" it must be for the victims to have their abuse publicized. I am here to remind us all that the only person who should be humiliated by incest is the person who committed it (and perhaps anyone involved in failing to prosecute it and covering it up).

There is no humiliation in being abused, whether at the hands of a stranger or a family member. Victims of incest did nothing wrong, have nothing to apologize for, and certainly have nothing to be ashamed of. Making the decision to speak out is a personal one, and no survivor has the responsibility to do so, but there is also no shame in choosing to go public.

3. Incest Happens in All Kinds of Families

While it may be tempting to chalk up incest to certain demographics, it simply isn't true. Rates of abuse may vary across demographics, but incest happens in every type of family: gay, straight, Christian, atheist, poor, or wealthy. There is no one "type" of family where incest occurs, and pretending that there is further invalidates the experiences of victims from other family types.

Families aren't "bad" or "good," and the only thing that incest tells us about a family is that incest occurred in that family. The fear of labeling their family as "bad" often keeps victims silent, and perpetuates cycles of abuse.

4. Forgiveness of Incest is Irrelevant

Much has been made of the fact that Josh Duggar was "forgiven" by his sisters and by God. While I can't speak to God's feelings about Josh Duggar, it is safe to say that the act of being forgiven by his sisters in no way alleviates the gravity of his crime or removes the consequences of his actions.

Contrary to popular belief, forgiveness belongs to the wronged, not the wrongdoer. If the Duggar girls chose to forgive Josh, that was their decision, and it is theirs and theirs alone. Forgiveness can be a valuable step in the healing process, but it in no way absolves an abuser of his responsibility. Rather, it can allow victims to move past their hatred and begin to heal.

That said, forgiveness isn't the end of the journey and it may need to be revisited many times. Some victims try but never feel that they have fully forgiven their abusers, and some never want to try at all. All of these are valid responses to abuse, and should not be used as evidence of the severity of the crime itself. The crime is the same no matter how the victim reacts to it.

Forgiveness is one option for incest survivors, but it isn't a requirement.

5. Every Victim's Response is the Right Response to Incest

Incest is a crime that strikes at the heart of a victim's sense of safety and relies on their trust of the abuser. It can be devastating to the victim, and it can take many years or even decades to rebuild what was destroyed by the abuser.

All responses by victims of incest are valid. Fear, anger, and rage are often the most understandable, but victims often love their abusers, too. That love doesn't always vanish the second that abuse occurs, and in fact many abusers rely on that love to conceal and even continue the abuse. Abuse victims may feel everything from anger to love to a desire to protect their abuser and preserve their family -- and each of these feelings are equally valid and legitimate.

As difficult as these feelings can be to understand, belittling their feelings is invalidating and doesn't provide the support victims need to heal. It is through validation of their feelings that victims ultimately find the strength to speak out and take action against their abusers. That is how cycles of abuse end, and how our cultural consciousness eventually begins to shift.

Much like rape, the most important thing to say to an incest survivor is "I believe you, I hear you, and I am sorry that happened to you."

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