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Profile Of Offenders

Efforts to conceptualize incest before 1980 led to it being categorized as a subcategory of pedophilia (Stoller 1975). Since then, the trend is to describe incest in terms of interaction factors in the family context (Bentovim 1992; Trepper and Barrett 1986). Some researchers believe that incest does not have a single cause; rather it develops from a combination of influences (Finkelhor 1986; Friedrich 1990; Maddock and Larson 1995; Trepper and Barrett 1989). Incest is a complex and varied family dynamic, although at the same time some patterns of sexual abuse may be predictable and reflective of general disturbances in family patterns of interactions (Maddock and Larson 1995). Some of the systemic factors that influence whether or not incest will occur in a family include intrapsychic influences, relational variables, developmental variables, and situational or circumstantial that make incest more or less likely to occur.

Researchers agree that perpetrators of incest are more likely to be males than females, although plenty of evidence has emerged since the 1980s that shows that some mothers do sexually abuse their children. Fewer female offenders are willing to admit to committing incest (Allen 1991), and society may consider women to be sexually harmless. But it is important to recognize the increased opportunity that women have to perpetrate incest as primary caretakers of children ( Jennings 1993). Women in all societies are given a great deal of responsibility of raising children, and with that comes control over their dependents. They are more often in charge of many intimate activities surrounding the care of the child, including things such as breastfeeding, putting to bed, and bathing. Some cultures where mother-son closeness is the norm may have more occurrences of incest. For example, some Japanese mothers initiate sexual acts with their sons after witnessing their sons masturbate for the first time in order to teach him about sex (Katahara 1989). One very small Australian study of a clinical sample of male incest survivors found a number of factors most likely to influence the occurrence of sexual abuse of young males (Harper 1993). Those include living in a single-parent family headed by a woman of low socioeconomic status where the mother suffers from a schizophrenic illness and/or abuses drugs or alcohol, and where there is a history of violent parental behavior.

Women may commit incest for different reasons than do males. Gender expectations and socializations may vary for males and for female perpetrators, but this does not mean that one form of incest is less harmful to the victim than the other. Regardless of the type of perpetrator, incest perpetrators commit incest for a variety of reasons. They often have poor skills in dealing with their emotions, demonstrate poor empathy skills, and display a marked inability to observe the behavior of others. These perpetrators are often emotionally in a developmental stage equivalent to that of the child they are assaulting.

In a study of seventy-five male and sixty-five female sexual abuse perpetrators, the men and women showed no difference in educational levels, both reported that their marriages as less stable than their parents', and both reported their need for emotional fulfillment is greater than their need for sexual fulfillment (Allen 1991). Both offenders report the least intrusive form of offending (exhibitionism, voyeurism, touching) to be more frequent than oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse. At the same time, women offenders were less likely to report committing sexual activities with children, more likely to report their own experience as victims of sexual abuse, and reported lower marital satisfaction. Women reported greater satisfaction with the relationship with their children, more sexual satisfaction with their spouses/partners, and reported having more sexual partners than the male perpetrators. Women offenders reported significantly higher need for both emotional and sexual fulfillment. Women offenders report more physical abuse by their partners and family of origin. Many more women than men sexually abuse with another (usually male) person whereas men are more likely to commit their offense alone ( Jennings 1993). Females tend to use violence less often than males during their offending (Krug 1989). Females are more likely to know their victims; the abuse is usually less frequent and shorter in duration; and female offenders usually have fewer victims ( Jennings 1993).

Men as incest perpetrators are not a homogeneous group. In a study funded by a grant from the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, researchers identified five distinct types of incestuous fathers: sexually preoccupied, adolescent regressive, instrumental sexual gratifiers, emotionally dependent offenders, and angry retaliators (Williams and Finkelhor 1992). This typology helps to foster better understanding of the motivations for abuse and may enable better treatment for incest perpetrators. It should be kept in mind that an offender may not fit perfectly into one type; most offenders are a combination of one or more types.

The first type, the sexually preoccupied offenders, is characterized by a sexual interest in their victim, usually from an early age. This offender usually begins molesting the child before age six and continues the molestation past puberty. The second type, the adolescent regressive offenders, has a conscious sexual interest in their victims but usually do not begin molesting until the victims approach or reach puberty. The third type of offenders, the instrumental sexual gratifiers, uses the victim as a vehicle for sexual fantasy. These offenders are more sporadic in their offending, and they often associate the action with remorse. The fourth type, the emotionally dependent, is often lonely and depressed, sex is not a primary motivator, and they often romanticize their need for closeness and intimacy. Fifth, angry retaliators demonstrate low sexual arousal toward their victims but instead use the sexual assault to focus their anger. Often, the assault on the victim is in retaliation for a real or imagined infidelity or abandonment by a spouse.

Besides there being some risk factors for becoming an incest perpetrator, the authors of one Swedish research study suggested there may be protective factors that prevent some victims from entering the victim-to-abuser cycle (Glasser et al. 2001). Those include: (1) positive self esteem; (2) the presence of other important adults in the child's life; (3) religious education stressing positive development and forgiveness rather than sin and damnation; (4) success in school, sports, or other activities; (5) personality, strengths, and social situations that promote long-term goals; (6) parental monitoring reducing the frequency of abuse; and (7) age-appropriate sexual knowledge prior to abuse.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Social IssuesIncest - Prevalence Of Incest, Effects On Victims, Profile Of Offenders, Treatment