What Is Covert Incest?

On May 13th, Seeking Integrity and our free resource website SexandRelationshipHealing.com are sponsoring a free webinar discussing covert/emotional incest and mother-enmeshed men. This one-hour webinar with Q&A is hosted by Jonathan Taylor, a certified facilitator of Dr. Ken Adams’ mother enmeshed men workshops.

It is well understood that addictions tend to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental influences. Among the most potent environmental risk factors is childhood abuse – in particular sexual abuse. What many people don’t understand is that sexual abuse is not always overt and easy to identify. In truth, covert sexual abuse (explained momentarily) occurs just as often as overt sexual abuse, and it is equally devastating.

Overt sexual trauma is exactly what it sounds like: “hands-on” sexual abuse. Covert sexual abuse is more subtle. First written about by Dr. Ken Adams, covert sexual abuse is the surreptitious, indirect, sexualized use/abuse of a child by a parent, stepparent, or any other long-term caregiver. Also referred to as covert incest, emotional incest, and psychic incest, covert sexual abuse involves indirect (not hands-on) sexuality – sexuality that is implied or suggested rather than physically acted out.

With covert incest, the child is used by the adult for emotional and psychological fulfillment. In other words, the child is forced to support the abusive adult by serving as an “emotional spouse” and confidant. Although there is no direct sexual touch, these emotionally enmeshed relationships have a sexualized undertone, with the parent expressing overly graphic interest in the child’s physical development and sexual characteristics and betraying the child’s boundaries through invasions of privacy, sexualized conversations, and the like.

Sometimes covert incest victims feel special and privileged, but also creeped out, by the attention they are given. In therapy, they will say things like:

  • My mother would take me to the movies with her a lot. Not kid movies, either. Date movies for adults. She would always tell me she had the most handsome date there, and she would want me to hold her hand during the show.
  • My father was constantly telling me how much prettier I was than my sisters or my friends. He talked about how nice my breasts were and how I had a “perky little butt.” He told me I should be proud of how I looked, and that I probably drove all the boys at school a little nuts.
  • My mom always sat a little too close to me, and she talked about my body a lot, especially when I was a teenager.
  • My dad would tell me about my mother and how she was frigid. He would tell me that all he wanted was a bit of physical affection, but she wouldn’t give that to him. He talked a lot about his “needs.”
  • I had no privacy. If I was in my room or in the bathroom, my mother would be right outside the door, listening to what I was doing and talking to me, asking if I was OK or if I needed anything.

With covert incest, even though there is no overt sexual touch, the relationship feels “icky” to the child – too close for comfort. The lack of boundaries creates an incestuous experience, and the child feels used and trapped, exactly as he or she would feel with overt incest. In next week’s post, we will discuss the longer-term impacts of covert sexual abuse and emotional enmeshment.