Q: Are there warning signs of incest or sexual abuse that people should look out for?
JW: There's no standard or typical symptom of an abuse survivor, but there are things. For example, if the person is withdrawing or having sudden changes in behavior, attitudes and moods. … Also, know that there's not always going to be a bruise or a scratch. If there's no physical trauma, don't automatically assume that nothing's going on. Also, a lot of time perpetrators will tell their victims that it's a secret. "This is just between you and me. You shouldn't tell anybody." So if a child is talking about secrets they have to keep or something like that, that would be a big red flag as well.
Q: How often do nonabusing parents know about incest? And after they find out, how can they help the child and themselves heal?
JW: Unfortunately, I don't think we know or have any type of data on how often the nonoffending parent or family member knows. But we do hear of a lot of situations on our online hotline where a nonoffending parent does not believe the child and either belittles what's happening to them, like, "Oh, that's not that big of a deal," shrugs it off or pretends like nothing happened at all. Sometimes, in more extreme cases, they're willing participants in the abuse.
In terms of positive ways to respond, first and foremost, is to believe your child. It's not an easy thing to come forward and say. Recognize that was very courageous of a kid to do. Then, reach out and try to find help and support. And, obviously, try to minimize contact or eliminate contact with the perpetrator until a long-term safety plan has been established.
Q: Are there support groups for nonoffending parents, as well?
JW: There are and they vary from community to community. That's another piece of information they'd be able to get from their local rape crisis center.
Q: Can incest affect personal relationships later in life?
JW: It definitely can. Especially when they do disclose or if they seek help, they're not supported. Or if they never have told somebody, incest survivors are much more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior, which can include unhealthy relationships. They're also more likely to be revictimized in the future, in terms of sexual violence. And, as Mackenzie Phillips talked about, substance abuse and things like that.
Q: Is there anything you want people to know about incest?
JW: It's important that this is something people really continue the dialogue about. Just know that this isn't something that happens few and far between. This is something that, unfortunately, is common. It's very important to support people who come forward to get help. That means that the next person that this happens to, we'll have resources in place for when they choose to come forward.