September 4, 2020

When Sexual Abuse is Covert.

Many have likely never heard of covert sexual abuse, but its ramifications are often just as traumatic as overt sexual abuse.

These could be body image disturbance, eating disorders, sexual addiction, difficulties with intimacy in adulthood, emotional distancing, and some personality disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder.  

Covert sexual abuse, also referred to as covert incest, is the objectification of children by their parents in which they are turned into partners. The parent often treats their child as a confidant and crosses the boundaries that should be present between parent and child.

Often, a codependent relationship is created. The relationship formed by the parent is created not to meet the needs of the child, but rather, the parent. It is not the child’s fault, and often, the child feels that something isn’t right as they age.

Covert sexual abuse can take many forms. It is subtle and confusing. There may be a belief by the parent that the child belongs to them, and only them.

It can take many forms, but some examples include discussing bodies in a way that is disrespectful, dressing a child in a way that is deemed sexy by the parent, and exposing a child to sex on television. It may also be the creation of a partner relationship with a child by making them into a confidant and/or best friend.

While covert sexual abuse does not include physical contact, it harms a child’s sense of self and negatively affects future relationships.

Some parents will share about their sex lives openly with their children or will speak to their child as if they were their partner.

Covert sexual abuse is not obvious. It may be any of the following:

1. Spousification: Replacing a spouse with a child.

2. Words: Making sexual comments about a child’s developing body.

3. Looking: Walking in on children when they are naked.

While many are not aware of covert sexual abuse, the effects are often severe. Many may experience feelings of worthlessness, shame, and anger. Fear of intimacy in adulthood is common, as well as eating disorders, sexual addictions, and emotional distancing.

If you have experienced covert sexual abuse, seeking help from a licensed professional who is trauma-informed and trained in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), Internal Family Systems (IFS), and Somatic Experiencing (SE) may be helpful.

Just because you weren’t physically touched does not mean what you experienced wasn’t sexual abuse.


For more information regarding covert sexual abuse, please refer to http://covertincest.org/content/our-mission 

If you need immediate support, please reach out at https://www.rainn.org/about-national-sexual-assault-telephone-hotline


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