By Lundy Bancroft
Multiple studies have established the high overlap between battering and incest perpetration (Herman, 1981; McCloskey et. al.; Paveza; Sirles and Franke; and Truesdell et. al.). These studies, taken together, indicate that a batterer is about four to six times more likely than a non-batterer to sexually abuse his children. These statistics are in line with studies of batterers’ risk to physically abuse children; the largest study of this kind showed batterers seven times more likely than non-batterers to frequently hit their children (Straus) About half of incest perpetrators also batter the children’s mother (Herman, 1981; Sirles and Franke; Truesdell). A recent major publication on family violence recommended that any history of sexual assaults against the mother be treated as a warning sign of possible sexual or physical abuse of the children (American Psychological Association).
The overlap between domestic violence and incest is not altogether surprising to people who work with batterers and incest perpetrators, because of the similarities between the profiles and tactics used by members of the two groups. Clinicians specializing in sexual abuser treatment have often approached me after my presentations on batterers to comment on how similar my clients sound to their sex offender clients.
Public misconceptions are similar between the two forms of abuse. Batterers and child molesters are perceived as mentally ill individuals from particularly disturbing childhoods; the public is always shocked when a man with a highly positive public image is exposed as a batterer or child molester. The nature of the abuse itself is similarly misunderstood; a batterer’s violence and an incest perpetrators sexual violations are just one aspect of their behavior problem. The overtly abusive behaviors are invariably accompanied by patterns of psychological abuse and manipulation that are often as damaging, or more so, than the overt physical or sexual abuse. Attempts to teach a batterer to stop hitting, or to teach proper boundaries to a child sexual abuser, miss the roots of both problems in a way that can leave victims vulnerable to continued psychological abuse and cruelty.
This article looks briefly at some of the similarities between batterers and incest perpetrators, to assist in understanding the nature of both problems and how they can interact.
Both groups are known for exercising a high degree of control over their victims and other family members, through verbal abuse and other strategies. They believe in their right to use increasingly coercive tactics if they are not getting the obedience that they demand. Both batterers and incest perpetrators tend to alternate between periods of loving kindness and periods of harsh emotional abusiveness towards their victims. Incest perpetrators are often harsh and rigid disciplinarians.
Both groups tend to be self-centered in the home and believe that it is the responsibility of family members to make sure that the man’s needs are met at all times. They may become irate when other family members insist on not always being the ones to make the sacrifices. They expect deference to their desires and their opinions. Both types of abusers will justify their actions if caught, insisting for various reasons that they have the right to do what they did. Though they may appear remorseful, they typically have mental systems of seeing their victims as owned objects with whom they have the right to do as they see fit. Just as batterers may be angry at an arrest, saying, “What right do they have to tell me what I can do with my own wife?”, the incest perpetrator may take the attitude, “The way I choose to run my relationship with my own child is nobody else’s business.”
Selfishness and self-centeredness towards family members follow from the abuser’s sense of entitlement. With both batterers and incest perpetrators, these characteristics in the home are products of their attitudes more than of their psychology, and therefore they will not necessarily be found to be narcissistic by evaluators (though evaluators should look carefully for signs of narcissism). People who know either type of abuser in non-family contexts will not generally experience the person as self-centered.
Closely linked to the entitled attitudes of these abusers is the use of family members for the abuser’s purposes. Exploitation can be thought of as the fundamental characteristic of both batterers and sexual abusers, and the problem that most needs to be confronted and changed in the abuser.
It has been common for professionals to assume that the batterer’s problem is his anger, and that the incest perpetrator’s problem is his deviant sexual attraction to children. These are common misconceptions that lead to the overlooking of the key dynamics, which are that these abusers choose to take certain kinds of action, and that these choices are based on deeply-held beliefs and habits that support exploitation.
Denial and Minimization
Both groups are known for their high levels of denial and resistance to change. When they do admit to their actions, they minimize them greatly and play down their negative consequences, insisting that no damage has actually been done. They lie comfortably to cover any actions that are discovered.
Claimed Loss of Control
Both groups assert that they lost control when they acted abusively, but close examination of their actions reveals calculation and forethought. The batterer may claim to have “a bad temper,” just as the incest perpetrator claims that he just lost control of his sex drive, perhaps blaming it on his wife by saying that she has not been giving him sex. Both groups work hard to distract attention from the surrounding pattern of conscious activity.
Both groups assert that the victim provoked their actions, and therefore they themselves are not responsible. The sexual abuser will say that a young child “seduced him” and “really wanted it,” just as the batterer states that his partner “set him off” and “knew that she was going to make me violent.”
Grooming or Seasoning
Both groups work to build trust and closeness during the early part of a relationship. Batterers are known for being charming, kind, and attentive during the first months or even years that a couple is together. An incest perpetrators may lay the groundwork for years as well; he works to build a special relationship with the intended victim, and strives to gradually break down her or his boundaries with slowly escalating invasiveness. The victim is often his “favorite,” to whom he gives particular kindness and attention, but often also particular harshness and control. Batterers are known for often being unusually appealing superficially, and sexual abusers are similarly often people who are identified as especially “good with children.” In both cases, the victim is often quite attached to the abuser, because of the manipulation and the many positive-seeming periods in the abuser’s behavior.
Positive Public Image
Members of both groups are typically well thought of in their communities. They may be professionally successful or socially popular, and may be involved in charitable or civic activities that make them appear outstandingly kind and responsible. Victims of both kinds of abuse face disbelief because “he’s just not the type.”
Batterers and child sexual abusers tend to have strong capacities for mentally dehumanizing or depersonalizing their victims. They both use degrading language aloud and in their own minds, and see their victims as inferior to them in sensitivity, competence, and humanity. They are able to shut out any awareness of the victim’s feelings, and even to convince themselves that the victim is happy in the relationship. This is an important underlying factor in their exploitative behavior.
Sowing Divisions Within the Family
Both groups have a large impact on the overall functioning of their families, including using many behaviors that turn mothers and children against each other and that sow other types of divisions among family members. (For an excellent discussion of how child sexual abusers do this, see Leberg.) Both types of abusers are frequently effective at getting the family to focus on the victim, or on some other family member, as the target of all of their negative attention, thereby distracting the focus from the abuse.
Confusion of Love and Abuse
Both groups confuse loving and abusive behavior. Batterers may say, “I hit you because I love you so much,” and even use their passion as an excuse for killing. An incest perpetrator will describe incidents of abuse as moments of loving intimacy, or refer to “those things that happened between us,” as if they were moments of mutuality. Both groups call the feeling of possession or domination “love”.
Threats and Imposition of Secrecy
Both groups commonly require their victims not to tell other people about what has occurred, and threaten dire consequences should the secrecy be broken. Such threats are sometimes carried out in practice when secrecy is broken. The secrecy itself becomes an important aspect of the trauma for victims of both kinds of abusers.
Both groups are known for their outstanding manipulative skills, which contribute to their ability to keep their victims frightened, confused, and self-blaming. Victims of both types of abuse tend to be manipulated into feeling responsible to take care of the abuser’s feelings and to believe that his suffering is greater than their own. Both batterers and incest perpetrators manipulate individuals and systems with whom they come in contact to escape accountability for their actions and to create negative impressions of their victims.
Promises to the victim, or to others, that he will stop the abuse is frequently reported in both groups of abusers. They can often sound sincerely remorseful and serious about changing, but it is highly unusual for these promises to lead to anything other than a brief respite from the abuse. Only profound acceptance of responsibility for past actions leads to significant change in either group, as is mentioned repeatedly in the literature on offender and batterer treatment.
Under confrontation, both groups of abusers switch erratically back and forth between appearing remorseful and sounding highly justified and victim-blaming. The underlying attitudes that drive both forms of abuse take a long time and hard work to change.
Discrediting of Disclosures
Both groups characterize their victims as dishonest, as hysterical, and as vindictive when disclosures do get made. The incest perpetrator says, “She was angry at me because I wouldn’t buy her a Nintendo, and she told me she’s get me back for it.” The batterer says, “She is getting me back because I won’t always give her every dime of my money.” Both groups make the victim sound like a troubled, unstable individual (which at times may have some truth to it, largely because of the abuse itself).
Lack of Mental Health Diagnosis
Most batterers and most child sexual offenders show normal results on psychological testing. Mental health evaluations provide very little information about likelihood to reoffend. Both problems can therefore be concluded to have their roots primarily in attitudes and belief systems, reinforced by peers and by cultural messages, and cannot be defined as psychological or sexual illness or “deviance.” Even clinicians who specialize in offender evaluation have limited ability to assess accurately who is an incest perpetrator and who is not. Evaluations thus have to include the element of investigation, as with domestic violence.
Some of the confusion in this area comes from mixing different types of problems together. The generally violent man, who is largely involved in male-on-male violence, does often have psychological problems, unlike the batterer. Similarly, the so-called predatory child molester, who offends against large numbers of children and often prefers boys, often has mental health issues; the incest perpetrator, who generally offends against children with whom he has a trusted or caretaking relationship – often his own child or step-child – and tends to prefer female children, usually will not have any clear mental health problem.
High Recidivism and Resistance to Change
Both groups are highly resistant to change and are difficult clients in counseling programs that demand change. They may be quite comfortable in supportive therapeutic relationships that do not require change, however, and receive glowing reports in these cases about their progress. Professionals in both areas believe that stricter criminal and civil sanctions are necessary, and that change cannot come without full disclosure and acceptance of responsibility, through a mixture of education, confrontation, consequences, and accountability.
Because of the high statistical overlap between domestic violence and incest, and the similarity of the profiles and tactics of the perpetrators, service providers and court officials should assess carefully for the possibility that children of batterers are being sexually abused.
Such an assessment is necessary even if the batterer does not use high levels of physical violence; in fact, two studies (Truesdell et. al., 1986, and Herman, 1981) mention the tendency of batterers who perpetrate incest to use low levels of physical violence towards the mother. The literature on incest perpetrators indicates that the best predictors of which batterers will sexually offend against their children are the batterer’s level of manipulativeness, entitlement, or self-centeredness; his history of expecting and requiring that the child meet his needs; and past behaviors of his that introduce a sexual or romantic element to his relationship with the child (Bancroft, 1996, and the various sources listed below on sexual offenders). Substance abuse is also positively correlated with sexual abuse.
Children of batterers should be monitored for symptoms of sexual abuse or any indications that they are being required or manipulated to keep secrets. Preventive education on sexual abuse should be done with abused women and their children, whether or not the batterer is still in the home. Although female children appear to be at a greater risk statistically for incest, the danger to male children is substantial. The rate of confirmed allegations of sexual abuse during custody and visitation disputes stays at roughly the same level as those arising at other times (Thoennes and Tjaden, 1990), contrary to widespread beliefs; court personnel in particular need to be aware of this reality.
Finally, professionals working in any capacity with domestic violence should seek training on the warning signs of child sexual abuse and the profile and tactics of the incest perpetrator, in order to increase the level of support and assistance available to victims of any type of abuse within the home.
Many additional sources are listed in Chapter 4, “The Batterer as Incest Perpetrator” by L. Bancroft and M. Miller, in Bancroft, L., & Silverman, J. (2002). The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family Violence and the Family American Psychological Association, 1996 Discusses the overlap among different forms of family abuse.
Ayoub, C., Grace, P., Paradise, J., and Newberger, E., “Alleging Psychological Impairment of the Accuser to Defend Oneself Against a Child Abuse Allegation: A Manifestation of Wife Battering and False Accusation” in Assessing Child Maltreatment Reports Haworth Press, 1991, pgs. 191-207
Bancroft, R. Lundy “Assessing Risk to Children from Unsupervised Visitation With Batterers” 1996 Available from the Resource Center on Domestic Violence: Child Protection and Custody at (800) 527-3223 Discusses overlap between battering and various forms of risk to children, including sexual abuse.
Crites, Laura and Coker, Donna “What Therapists See that Judges May Miss” in The Judges’ Journal Spring 1988 Describes batterers’ style and tactics.
Groth, Nicholas “The Incest Offender” In Sgroi, Suzanne, M.D., Ed. Handbook of Clinical Intervention in Child Sexual Abuse Lexington Books, 1982 Role of entitlement in incest perpetration, particularly for the “aggressive-dominant” type of perpetrator (in other words, the batterer)
Herman, Judith, M.D. Father-Daughter Incest Harvard University Press, 1981 50% of incest perpetrators in this study also abused the mother; provides an introduction to the tactics and style of incest perpetrators.
Herman Judith M.D. “Considering Sex Offenders” in Signs, Vol. 13, No. 4, Summer 1988 Looks at studies indicating that a high proportion of sex offenders are psychologically normal.
Leberg, Eric Understanding Child Molesters: Taking Charge Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1997 Profile of child sexual abuser, including denial, manipulativeness, grooming of the victim, and careful preparation of the social environment, often including abuse of the child’s mother
McCloskey, L.A., Figueredo, A.J., and Koss, M. “The Effect of Systemic Family Violence on Children’s Mental Health” Child Development No. 66, pgs. 1239-1261 This study found batterers more than six times as likely as non-batterers to perpetrate incest; incest was present in almost 10% of the battering homes in their study
MacFarlane, Kee, and Waterman, Jill Sexual Abuse of Young Children The Guilford Press, New York, 1986 Contains an excellent discussion of sexual abuse allegations that arise for the first time during custody or visitation disputes.
Myers, John Evidence in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases New York: Wiley and Sons, 1997 Citing many sources, attorney Myers demonstrates that there is no psychological profile of the sexual offender, and that most courts agree.
Paveza, G. “Risk Factors in Father-Daughter Child Sexual Abuse” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 3 (3), Sept. 1988, pgs. 290-306Paveza found domestic violence to be one of the top four predictors of child sexual abuse.
Sanford, Linda The Silent Children Garden City: Anchor Press, 1988 Explains the cultural supports for child sexual abuse, making a compelling argument for understanding incest perpetration as largely a cultural problem rather than a psychological one (as with battering).
Sirles, E. and Franke, P. “Factors Influencing Mothers’ Reactions to Intrafamily Sexual Abuse” Child Abuse and Neglect Vol. 13, pgs. 131-139 44% of the incest perpetrators in this study battered the child’s mother.
Straus, M. “Ordinary Violence, Child Abuse, and Wife-Beating: What Do They Have in Common?” In D. Finkelhor, R.J. Gelles, G.T. Hotaling, and M.A. Straus (Eds.) The Dark Side of Families: Current Family Violence Research Beverly Hills: Sage, 1983 Over 50% of batterers had physically abused children more than once in the last year in this large-scale study, vs. 7% of non-batterers
Thoennes, Nancy and Tjaden, Patricia “The Extent, Nature, and Validity of Sexual Abuse Allegations in Custody/Visitation Disputes” in Child Abuse and Neglect Vol. 14 (1990) A national study of over 100 cases found that sexual abuse allegations arising in custody/visitation litigation are found by child protective services to have roughly the same rate of reliability as those arising under other circumstances
Truesdell, D., McNeil, J. and Deschner, J. “Incidence of Wife Abuse in Incestuous Families” Social Work March-April 1986, pgs. 138-140 Over 70% of the incest perpetrators in this study also battered the children’s mother. Most of the violence was at lower levels.