Covert Sexual Abuse
Covert sexual abuse or covert incest is a form of sexual abuse that’s not obvious because it doesn’t involve the genitals. Non-contact sexual abuse is specifically sexual abuse where no touching is involved, and it’s also sometimes categorized as covert sexual abuse, so I’m going to include it as part of that concept. I decided to write about this because it leaves us wondering if something’s really wrong or if we’re imagining it, which is a typical reaction to any emotional abuse.
Denying Covert Sexual Abuse
Some will argue that in order to call something sexual abuse, there needs to be sexual intent. I don’t agree. A parent who sexually abuses covertly can simply consider their behavior as their way of expressing love. The important thing is that it leaves their children feeling no less dirty, used, and dehumanized than if they had performed overt sexual abuse.
Consider this: If you experienced any of the behaviors I describe below and they left you feeling bad or uncomfortable, but you really believe that your parent didn’t have a sexual interest in you, then what would you call it? Since the behavior left you feeling weird, it’s clearly inappropriate. Call it emotional abuse if you prefer, but it’s important to recognize it as wrong and as having an effect on you.
Some will argue that allowing for covert sexually abusive behaviors makes sexual abuse seem more prevalent than it really is, but I think this is an attempt to deny that it’s as prevalent as it really is. Sexual abuse is so ugly that society prefers to spread the myth that it’s rare. My stance on it is uncompromising because sexual abuse of any kind is damaging. Even if the abuser never touches you, it can interfere with your relationships. I believe there shouldn’t be much leeway when it comes to sexual abuse of any kind. Lack of awareness that it’s happening, even for years, doesn’t keep the internal scars from forming.
Covert Sexual Abuse Behaviors
Perhaps the least covert is inappropriate touching. If it’s of the genitals then it’s already considered overt sexual abuse. That’s important because there isn’t the level of mystery in identifying it as something wrong. When the touching, however, involves other sensitive parts of the body, some of which are sexually stimulating, we might wonder if we’re just being over-sensitive.
For instance, the neck, stomach, breasts, and feet are very sensitive, and touching them can lead to sexual arousal. Some will argue that this isn’t true for all people, but I believe there’s something very disturbing about a parent touching you in any of these places (apart, of course, from bathing you in these places as a small child). Some people are more sensitive to touch than others, so some might argue that deciding whether a parent’s touch is sexually abusive is an individual thing. The point is that not all touch from a parent has to be accepted. If it feels uncomfortable then it’s inappropriate.
An abusive parent may say things to us that draw attention to our sexuality and make us feel uncomfortable. The things said may be out of line or only appropriate when talking to a lover. This can include comments on our sexuality, body parts associated with sexuality, and even flirtation. My mother, for instance, once wrote a letter to me where she said, “I think about you every day. I can even smell you.” Words like this make us feel creepy. It’s as if we’re being raped with words.
It would be difficult to argue that French kissing is appropriate between adults and children. I personally don’t think mouth kissing between adults and children is ever appropriate, though some would disagree. Kissing can also be inappropriate on certain parts of the body, such as the neck, breasts, and stomach, which again are especially sensitive and even sexually stimulating. My mother would sometimes playfully bite me, which is a modification of kissing and is also too intimate, in my opinion, to be appropriate between an adult and a child.
Looking can involve seemingly innocent things like walking in on us while we’re bathing or dressing or keeping us company in a dressing room. Obviously there are times when parents need to do this, especially when their children are young. Covert sexual abuse, however, involves repetitive times when it’s inappropriate. For example, when I lived with my parents as a college student, my mother would come into the bathroom almost every time I bathed. As adults, we have the right to privacy when undressed. The fact that the person watching us is a parent doesn’t cancel that right out.
Sexual abusers can also give us inappropriate looks. A father, for instance, may closely watch his daughter’s development through puberty. He may never say anything or touch her in inappropriate ways, but it’s clear that he’s looking at her as a woman, not as a daughter. Our brain picks up on subtle changes in our environment. Part of the way we interact effectively with other people is by picking up on nonverbal cues, including the intention behind a look.
Just as a sexually abusive parent can maneuver themselves so that they can look at you naked, they can maneuver it so that you see them naked repeatedly and in inappropriate contexts. The poet Anne Sexton, for instance, who according to her eldest daughter was a covert sexual abuser, would encourage her husband to walk around the house naked. Her excuse was that she wanted her two daughters to get used to a man’s naked body, supposedly to prepare them for their future as girlfriends and wives. This kind of exposure between parent and child is completely inappropriate.
A parent who shares pornography with their child is also committing covert sexual abuse. It doesn’t matter if both abuser and child are adults and the abuser has no sexual thoughts about the child. Pornography is about sexual pleasure, and that’s a topic that’s not appropriate conversation between parents and their children, including adult children. Most of us realize this and don’t feel comfortable talking about it with our parents. By sharing with us pornography, abusers force us to violate what feels natural and venture into territory we shouldn’t have to venture into with them.
Games that involve nakedness or inappropriate touching or kissing are also covertly sexually abusive behaviors. Though seemingly innocent, they put the child in an inappropriate situation. Strip poker, for example, may be innocent enough fun among consenting adults, but it’s decidedly weird between adults and children or parents and their adult children.
Spousification sets up a dynamic where an abusive parent uses us as a replacement for their spouse. Often this happens when the abuser’s relationship with the spouse is unsatisfying. This might make us feel like we have a special understanding of our parent, but it’s really another way to manipulate us.
In spousification, for instance, a parent might talk about their unsatisfying sex life or come to you for advice on their marriage. Even as an adult, it’s not your role to be a sex therapist or marriage therapist, so this is really inappropriate. The abusive parent may also confide in you in ways that would be appropriate for their partner but not for their child. They essentially ignore who you are and make you into a mockup of the spouse they wish they had.
Effects of Covert Sexual Abuse
One way to tell that you’re being or have been covertly sexually abused is by the effects sexual abuse typically leaves. The effects of sexual abuse are many, so I’m just going to highlight some common ones.
Feelings of Worthlessness
Sexual abuse of any kind is dehumanizing. It makes us feel like we’re just a body that our abuser can use at will. Any time they want pleasure, they can just reach out and do what they want with our bodies. Dehumanization leads to all kinds of emotional problems that come from feeling worthless. We may feel like we don’t deserve to succeed, be happy, be loved, or enjoy life.
All abuse is dehumanizing, but sexual abuse is especially so because it adds so much more confusion to what’s going on. If we can justify emotionally and physically abusive behaviors like criticism, humiliation, and beatings over misbehavior, there’s really no way to justify sexual abuse. It’s the purest kind of exploitation. I think that’s why the worthlessness that comes from sexual abuse, and that means even just one episode, is so acute. It knocks out any kind of logical rationale for what happens to us.
The depth of shame at covert sexual abuse can be no less damaging than that from overt sexual abuse. This is especially true when we only realize that we were sexually abused after years of accepting it or when we feel like we can’t protest because that would make things too messy. It never occurred to me, for instance, to push my mother away when she kissed me aggressively on the neck or to tell her not to walk in on me when I’m bathing. Covert sexual abuse is much easier to explain away than overt sexual abuse, so when we try to make it stop and are accused of being over-sensitive or imagining things, it makes us feel even more ashamed.
Because of the covert nature of this type of sexual abuse, it leaves us confused as to what’s really going on. We might first wonder how we really feel about the way we’re being spoken to or touched or kissed. It feels wrong, yet we can’t definitively say it is. We may also feel confused about our reaction to it. Unlike overt sexual abuse, there may not be a blatant feeling of sexual pleasure, which is a source of great confusion for so many sexual abuse survivors. However, we may believe that the touching and kissing is a sign of deep affection and be drawn to that affection, and that leads to even more confusion about what we’re experiencing.
Anger Management Problems
Covert sexual abuse is no less a betrayal of our trust than overt sexual abuse. It’s just less obvious. We trust our parents to respect the boundaries of our bodies. We understand that no one has the right to make us feel uncomfortable. We’re frustrated because it feels like there’s this great wrong that was done to us but that’s difficult to impossible to make anyone else understand. We might carry that anger into other areas of our lives.
Fear of Physical Intimacy
Because covert sexual abuse can be pervasive, it can lead to a fear of physical intimacy with anyone and even to something called haphephobia, which is a fear of being touched. Covert sexual abuse doesn’t have to be hidden, like overt sexual abuse, which may make it more frequent. Things that are appropriate for a lover may make us feel uncomfortable because they were done by our parents. I can’t, for instance, tolerate being touched or kissed on the neck because this was a prime target for my mother’s inappropriate affection. Even the thought of being touched there makes me sick. I think this fear of physical intimacy is perhaps the most obvious legacy of sexual abuse, so if you don’t have memories of overt sexual abuse, covert sexual abuse might be a factor.
Promiscuity Accompanied by Shame
The opposite reaction to fear of physical intimacy is promiscuity. I include here touching and kissing of non-genital areas of the body that are sexually stimulating. This can feel like a hunger for the same kinds of uncomfortable feelings we experienced from our sexual abusers. There might be some underlying rage involved, as if we can conquer the discomfort by having it done over and over again. It’s like seeking to kill the shame by flooding ourselves with it. If we can have a sexual experience where we don’t feel ashamed, we hope it can “cure” us of the shame from all sexual experiences. Of course that doesn’t happen because the shame goes way deeper than just a specific kind of behavior.
As I’ve said multiple times on this page, covert sexual abuse is no less damaging than overt sexual abuse. My opinion is that any type of abuse requires therapy, at least initially, to get the healing process going or to get it moving on a firmer foundation. This is especially true of sexual abuse. I’d even go so far as to say that any sexual abuse survivor who thinks they can heal from sexual abuse without any therapy is deluding themselves.
There are therapists who deal specifically with sexual abuse. It’s also important to educate yourself about it. Here are some resources specifically about covert sexual abuse that I’ve found helpful:
Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners by Kenneth Adams, PhD: There’s a special focus in this book on spousification.
When He’s Married to Mom: How to Help Mother-Enmeshed Men Open Their Hearts to True Love and Committment by Kenneth Adams, PhD: This book has a specific focus on spousification experienced by men and aims to help them deal with relationship problems.
The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to Do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life by Dr. Patricia Love: This focuses more on enmeshment, which isn’t necessarily sexual, but enmeshment and covert sexual abuse often go together.
CovertIncest.org: Here’s an entire site on the subject, including articles and forums.
Emotional Incest by Debra Kaplan: This article is from a psychotherapist.
Covert Incest from Fort Refuge: Fort Refuge is an online abuse survivor community. There is no author for this article, but there are some comments where people share their experiences.
Covert Incest by Kenneth Adams (PhD) & Associates: This is an article from the site of the author of Silently Seduced, a well-known book on the subject written by a psychologist.
Sexual Abuse–Covert (Subtle) Forms by Dorothy Neddermeyer, PhD: This article is from a therapist.
My Mom from an abuse survivor: This is an articulate blog post on what it’s like to deal with a covertly sexually abusive mother even in adulthood.
In addition, books on overt sexual abuse can help because they address the effects of any type of sexual abuse. Do be prepared, though, for triggering material, even if you never went through overt sexual abuse. Here are some resources that address overt sexual abuse that can help in the healing process:
The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis: This is a classic text. It focuses on women who experienced sexual abuse as girls and includes many case studies.
The Courage to Heal Workbook: A Guide for Women and Men Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Laura Davis: This can be used as companion workbook to the previous book or on its own. It’s geared to both men and women whereas the previous book appears to be geared only towards women.
The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Wendy Maltz: Only the first quarter of the book describes the sexual abuse experience. The rest focuses on healing.
Surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse: Practical Self-Help for Adults Who Were Sexually Abused as Children by Carolyn Ainscough and Kay Toon: Written by clinical psychologists, this book includes exercises and anecdotes from both female and male survivors. There’s a companion workbook with even more structured exercises available called Surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse Workbook.
Victims No Longer: Men Recovering from Incest and Other Sexual Child Abuse by Mike Lew: This book focuses on men who experienced sexual abuse as boys.
I again want to emphasize that if you’ve never gotten therapy for sexual abuse then that’s really important to do. Even covert sexual abuse isn’t something to be taken lightly. The resources can help, but the pain of sexual abuse of any kind goes very deep, and we need the support of a professional, at least initially, to get the wheel of healing going.