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"Incest / Sexual Abuse of Children"

By: Patricia D. McClendon, MSSW candidate

Date: November 23, 1991

"If you have been sexually abused, you are not alone. One out of three girls, and one out of seven boys, are sexually abused by the time they reach the age of eighteen." (Bass and Davis, 1988, p. 20) The traditional definition of incest is sexual intercourse between blood relatives: it is illegal to marry because of such a close relationship.

There is now an evolving definition of incest that takes into consideration the betrayal of trust and the power imbalance in these one-sided relationships. One such definition is: "the imposition of sexually inappropriate acts, or acts with sexual overtones ... by one or more persons who derive authority through ongoing emotional bonding with that child." (Blume, 1990, p. 4) This definition expands the traditional definition of incest to include sexual abuse by anyone who has authority or power over the child. This definition of incest includes as perpetrators: immediate/extended family members, babysitters, school teachers, scout masters, priests/ministers, etc. "Incest between an adult and a related child or adolescent is now recognized as the most prevalent form of child sexual abuse and as one with great potential for damage to the child". (Courtois, 1988, p. 12)

With the increase in the divorce rates, more children are at greater risk than ever. Women, in their attempts to find a mate, may unwittingly be putting their children at greater risk for sexual abuse from the men they date. If the mother remarries, according to a survey done by Russell, the "stepdaughters are over eight times more at risk of sexual abuse by the stepfathers who reared them than are daughters reared by their biological fathers." (Russell, 1986, p. 103) "As some researchers have begun to suspect, it may be the case that a growing number of stepfathers are really 'smart pedophiles', men who marry divorced or single women with families as a way of getting close to children." (Crewdson, 1988, p. 31)

In the Finkelhor study, "Boys' experiences are somewhat different from girls'. They are primarily homosexual (experiences), and they less often involve family members. However, boys do seem to be victims of force and coercion just as often as girls. Both girls and boys report that in over half the incidents some form of coercion was used." (Finkelhor, 1979, p. 143)

According to Diane Russell (The Secret Trauma) and David Finkelhor (Child Sexual Abuse) 95% of the perpetrators of girls are men and 80% of the perpetrators of boys are men. (Bass and Davis, 1988, p. 96) This may be the major reason why talking about incest is a bigger taboo than incest itself! Who hold the power in our society? Men. The majority of judges, police, prosecutors and others responsible for protection and enforcement are men.

Freud, in 1896, was the first to recognize the connection between adult survivors' mental health problems and their past histories of child sexual abuse, thus explaining the problem of hysteria. This led to his seduction theory. After much uproar by his contemporaries (many of whom were implicated as perpetrators), Freud denounced the seduction theory and replaced it with the oedipal theory. The oedipal theory viewed incestuous accounts by victims as mere sexual fantasies. (Russell, 1986, p. 4-6)

The largest number of incest cases from the population at large comes from the Kinsey studies in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Even though the women in his studies said that their experiences of childhood sexual abuse was traumatic, "Kinsey cavalierly belittled these reports. He hastened to assure the public that children should not be upset by these experiences. If they were, this was the fault not of the sexual aggressor, but the prudish parents and teachers who caused the child to become 'hysterical' ... By contrast, this group (the Kinsey group) demonstrated a keen sensitivity toward the adult offender ... Ignoring issues of dominance and power, they took a position that amounted to little more than advocacy of greater sexual license for men ... The public, in the judgement of these men, was not ready to hear about incest." (Herman, 1981, p. 16-18)

In the 1970s, the incest issue was once again brought forth, this time by women themselves. It was during the explosion of the women's liberation movement that subjects like rape, wife- battering, and sexual abuse of children were brought to the front. In 1979, Diana Russell interviewed "more than nine hundred randomly chosen San Francisco women about their childhood sexual experiences ... she found that 38% of those questioned ... had been sexually abused by an adult relative, acquaintance, or stranger before reaching the age of eighteen." (Crewdson, 1988, p. 25) There were some flaws to her methodology but not enough to dismiss her study as worthless. Bud Lewis of the Los Angeles Times conducted a poll in July, 1985 to determine the extent of sexual abuse. He sampled 2,627 men and women from every state in the union. The results showed that "27% of the women and 16% of the men, said they had been sexually abused as children ... applied to the current population, it meant that nearly thirty-eight million adults had been sexually abused as children." (Crewdson, 1988, p. 27-28)

"Approximately 40% of all victims/survivors suffer aftereffects serious enough to require therapy in adulthood. (Browne and Finkelhor, 1986)." (Courtois, 1988, p.6) Some of the aftereffects can include: inability to trust (which effects the therapeutic relationship), fear of intimacy, depression, suicidal ideation and other self-destructive behaviors, and low self-esteem, guilt, anger, isolation and alienation from others, drug and alcohol dependency, and eating disorders.

"Briere questions the use of psychiatric labels (for victims of sexual abuse). He suggests instead that the psychological disturbances experienced by survivors of sexual abuse be considered post-sexual-abuse trauma. This term refers to symptomatic behaviors that were initially adaptive, but that over time have become `contextually inappropriate components of the victim's adult personality'." (Gil, 1988, p. 28) This view gets away from stigmatizing and blaming the victim. The person responsible for inflicting the trauma is to blame - the perpetrator. Children are never responsible for their sexual abuse, adults are the ones responsible. At the turn of the century, Freud labeled victims of sexual abuse (predominately women) "Hysteric". For the next 70 to 80 years society has labeled these victims as "mentally ill". It is now understood that survivors of sexual abuse are actually suffering from the aftereffects of the trauma.

Traditionally, sexual abuse of children was considered either incest or pedophilia. Now, it is viewed as being on a continuum. While some incestuous men have sex only with their own children, according to one study (Abel, 1983), "at least 44%, abuse children outside the home during the time they are having sexual contact with their own children," and other men have sex with children they aren't related to. Characteristics that offenders have in common are: "dependent, inadequate individuals with early family histories characterized by conflict, disruption, abandonment, abuse and exploitation." (Encyclopedia of Social Work, 1987, p. 256) Not all offenders are men. While some offenders were sexually abused as children, they still need to be held accountable for their abuse of children and receive sex offender treatment. Unfortunately, court action may be the only way to assure offenders' participation in treatment programs.

The social work profession is dedicated to the values of human dignity, personal autonomy, self-realization and self- determination. These are the very areas that victims are the most severely damaged.

In order to be effective in identifying and treating victims of child sexual abuse, the social worker needs to be knowledgeable about the characteristics, aftereffects, and treatment strategies relevant to this issue. Intervention activities should ideally include the victim, the "silent partner", and the perpetrator. Intervention activities may include referral to appropriate individual and/or family counseling services, securing emergency shelter if necessary, referral to medical and legal services, and advocacy for clients. Because it is a very complex issue, the social worker needs to be able to coordinate an array of community services.

In the area of prevention, the social worker can provide education to the community and work with citizens groups for legislation to address child sexual abuse. Educating the child to say "no!" is not enough. "Finally, the responsibility we all bear to protect the defenseless falls on the shoulders of the recovering incest survivor as well. She (he) must face the reality that she (he) holds information whose withholding keeps others at risk. No perpetrator stops on his (her) own. In breaking the secret, she (he) has finally, the power to break the chain." (Blume, 1990, p. 72-73)


Bass, Ellen and Laura Davis. 1988. The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, NY

Blume, E. Sue. 1990. Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women. John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY

Courtois, Christine A. 1988. Healing the Incest Wound: Adult Survivors in Therapy. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY

Crewdson, John. 1988. By Silence Betrayed: Sexual Abuse of Children in America. Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, NY

Finkelhor, David. 1979. Sexually Victimized Children. The Free Press - a division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, NY

Encyclopedia of Social Work - Eighteenth Edition. 1987. NASW, Silver Spring, MD

Gil, Eliana. 1988. Treatment of Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse. Launch Press, Walnut Creek, CA

Herman, Judith Lewis. 1981. Father - Daughter Incest. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

Kroll, Paul. "A Conspiracy of Silence: Sexual Abuse of Children" in The Plain Truth, July 1990, pgs. 16-20.

Russell, Diana E. 1986. The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women. Basic Books, Inc. Publishers, New York, NY

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