“Covert incest occurs when a child becomes the object of a parent’s affection, love, passion, and preoccupation. … The boundary between caring love and incestuous love is crossed when the relationship with the child exists to meet the needs of the parent rather than those of the child. … The child feels used and trapped; these are the same feelings overt incest victims experience.”
– Dr. Kenneth Adams in Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners
In a previous posting to this site I wrote about the link between childhood sexual trauma and adult-life sexual addiction and other psychological disorders. I did not, however, discuss the differences and similarities between overt and covert sexual abuse.
Overt sexual abuse of a child is fairly simple to define; it is hands-on sexual behavior that violates the rights of a child. Such abuse is rarely violent (as in adult rape). Typically, perpetrators are known by the victim (parent, uncle, babysitter, coach, family friend, etc.) Covert sexual abuse, sometimes referred to as covert incest, is more subtle, occurring when a young person is sexualized and/or romanticized by a primary caregiver. Even though there is no overt sexual touch, the relationship feels too close for comfort to the child. The boundaries are such that there is an incestuous feeling. Victims of covert sexual abuse often say things like, “My father/mother never tried to touch me sexually, but the way that he/she looked at me and talked to me felt icky, like he/she was thinking about me as a sexual object.”
Examples of covert incest include:
- A stepfather commenting on his stepdaughter’s “great butt and boobs,” thereby eroticizing and objectifying her developing body.
- A mother, in her bra and panties, who asks her son which outfit she should wear, or how her legs look in one dress versus another.
- A father asking his daughter for frequent back massages. These experiences may not seem overtly sexual, but they nonetheless feel icky to the child.
- A mother who walks in on her adolescent son while he is showering or getting dressed, not respecting his desire for privacy.
Covert incest can also be more of an emotional enmeshment. This occurs when the parent or caretaker uses the child (instead of an adult romantic partner) as a way to fulfill unmet emotional needs. For example, a mother might talk to her 14-year-old son about her marriage and sex life, complaining about her marriage to the boy’s father and how the father doesn’t satisfy her sexual needs. This lack of healthy parent-child boundaries on the part of the adult, where the adult’s wants, needs, and desires are given more weight than the child’s, is typical of covert incest.
Consider the words of Mark, a 38-year-old mortgage specialist currently in treatment for depression, anxiety, and sexual compulsivity:
My mom didn’t really have any boundaries with me. When I was little, she would pull me out of school “just because,” and we would go to lunch and shopping. It was nice to get out of school, and I liked that she would buy me clothes, but it felt weird because I knew that all the other kids were in class. Plus, she would talk a lot about how my dad didn’t love her, and he was having sex with other women, and he drank too much, and all sorts of other stuff that a little kid really shouldn’t hear. When I got older, she always wanted me to go to the movies with her—date movies, not the stuff that I wanted to see—and during the show she’d snuggle and hold my hand and whisper about how handsome I was. She commented a lot on my developing body, too, which made me really uncomfortable. And she completely invaded my privacy, walking into my room or the bathroom without even knocking. By the time I was 16, just being anywhere near her made my skin crawl. The worst part was that I didn’t understand why. I mean, she never actually touched me, so why did being around her feel so gross?
Mark is hardly alone in his ambivalence toward the covertly incestuous parent. In fact, many covert incest victims vehemently deny they were abused, insisting instead that their overly close relationship to a parent caused them to feel special and loved. I have actually had covertly sexually abused clients say things like, “I wish I had been physically abused, hit or raped or something. At least then I could point to what happened and say there it is, that’s my problem. But with this I have to separate the good parent from the bad parent, the one who cared for me from the one who used me.” But even these men and women will generally acknowledge that things felt icky to them and they experienced a great deal of emotional discomfort because of that.
Whether a covertly incestuous parent expresses overly graphic interest in the child’s developing body or betrays the child’s boundaries through voyeurism, exhibitionism, sexualized conversations, and/or inappropriate sharing of intimate information, the child is “promoted” from kid to adult far too soon—turned into an emotional spouse and expected to meet the needs of the offending parent, instead of the parent meeting the needs of the child. As a result, the child’s development is ignored, and emotional growth, particularly in the areas of sex and romance, is stunted.
Essentially, when a child is sexualized and treated as an adult partner by a primary caregiver, that child is deprived of healthy attachment bonds, stable emotional growth, and many other basics of childhood development. In lieu of healthy development, the child is taught that his or her value is based not on who he or she is as a person, but on how much he or she can please, amuse, and/or bond with the abusive parent. For obvious reasons, the child becomes externally focused, looking to his or her environment to determine how to best react/feel/behave instead of looking within the self for guidance. As a result, survivors of covert sexual abuse, regardless of whether they understand and accept that what happened truly was abusive, typically respond in the same ways as survivors of overt sexual abuse, with one or more of the following adult life reactions:
- Addiction (especially sex, porn, and love addiction)
- Depression, anxiety, narcissism, and other mood or personality disorders
- PTSD, often manifesting as intimacy avoidance, or, conversely, as an overbearing need to control every aspect of a relationship
- Love/hate relationships, especially with the offending parent, but also with others
- Over-enmeshment in romantic relationships (and friendships)
- Difficulties with self-care, both emotional and physical
- Repetition of the abuse (intergenerational abuse)
- Confusion about what defines and how to conduct adult romantic and sexual relationships
- Stalking and hypervigilant behaviors toward adult sexual and romantic partners
- Being sexual with friends without regard for consequences
- Painful attempts to turn casual sex into committed romantic affairs
As pervasive and damaging as covert sexual abuse is, it frequently goes unrecognized in treatment settings. As my colleague Debra Kaplan writes, “The obvious signs are obscured from plain view. It is like the air in the room—it’s here, but you can’t see it.”
Sadly, this obfuscation and confusion affects survivors and therapists alike. In general, the thinking seems to be that if there’s no actual physical sexual contact, then no harm has been done. It is only when we dig beneath the surface that we see the connections between covertly incestuous behaviors and later life problems, in particular sex and love addition.
Recognizing this, therapists must be willing to ask deeper questions about the parent-child relationship, and also about the client’s adult-life sexual and romantic behaviors. If you only ask half the questions, you’ll only get half the story, and you might end up treating half the problem. And most likely you’ll end up treating the symptoms rather than the underlying cause.
For more information about trauma driven intimacy disorders and how they can best be treated, check out my recently published book, Sex Addiction 101, and the accompanying Workbook. For intimacy disorder treatment referrals, click here or here.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Love, and Porn Addiction. For more information please visit his website at robertweissmsw.com or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.