Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology



First Advisor

Henry Biller


The major goal of this project was to review the empirical literature concerning the short and long term adjustment of childhood incest victims. An evaluation of the relevant research, with respect to a five level scale, revealed that few of the studies reached more than a minimal degree of methodological adequacy. In order to further specify both necessary methodological improvements and promising research directions, there was an attempt to analyze the existing research in terms of seven basic "questions".

The first question related to the relative developmental impact of intrafamilial and extrafamilial sexual abuse. The empirical literature does suggest that incest, on average, is more potentially detrimental than extrafamilial sexual abuse, particularly when the former is long term and the latter has a more limited time frame. However, much of the existing research does not precisely define type of sexual abuse or sufficiently consider the quality of incest victimization. Question 2 concerned how the risk of particular developmental problems might be related to the context of the incestuous relationship. There is evidence that when incest victims also suffer physical abuse, or another type of maltreatment, they are at greater risk for low self esteem, depression, and interpersonal and psychiatric difficulties. However, much of the research is lacking in terms of specification of family characteristics, including the relationships the victim has with other members of the household in addition to the perpetrator. Also, child-specific factors such as temperament, level of cognitive competence and pre-abuse functioning, need to be looked at much more carefully in order to understand how specific types of incest impact on the victim's development. With respect to question 3, analyzing research relating to the impact of the child's phase of development during the incestual experience, it was clear that the victim's maturational level could play a role in later adjustment. Much more attention needs to be given to follow-up studies assessing individual differences and long-term developmental outcomes.

In terms of questions 4 and 6, there was support relating to the detrimental effects of other family problems, especially various forms of paternal inadequacy. There was evidence suggesting that paternal incest, involving a son or daughter, was more potentially destructive than other types of incest. Much research indicates that various forms of paternal inadequacy put the girl or boy at risk for sexual maltreatment, both inside and outside of the home, whether or not the father engages directly in an incestuous relationship with his child. Questions 5 and 7 pertain to the sex of the victim and sex of the perpetrator. Male incest victims are likely to suffer at least as much as their female counterparts. Sexual identity conflicts, and the risk of victimizing others in the future, seem especially prevalent among boys who have been sexually and physically abused by an adult male member of their family. Boys and girls who become enmeshed in extrafamilial sexual exploitation, as victims or perpetrators, are particularly likely to have come from paternally deprived households whether or not they have previously been victims of paternal incest. There is a great need to do careful comparisons of the developmental impact of different types of intrafamilial sexual abuse with other kinds of difficult family situations, including those involving divorce, parental death and substance abuse.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.