Incestuous Abuse Continuing into Adulthood: Clinical Features and Therapists’ Conceptualisations

Kate McMaugh, Louise Roufeil, Michael Salter, Warwick Middleton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Prolonged incest, where children are sexually abused by familial perpetrators into adulthood, has been documented in clinical and criminological scholarship, however it is often overlooked in research, policy and practice approaches to familial sexual abuse. This article draws on interviews with ten Australian therapists about their clinical work with clients subject to incestuous abuse continuing into adulthood. It outlines their descriptions of these cases, the nature of the reported abuse and factors that facilitated prolonged and ongoing incest, including at the time of therapy. The therapists and their clients were female. The clients were highly dissociative and experienced significant psychiatric and medical comorbidity, and extensive socio-economic disadvantage. Reported abuse was sadistic, ongoing, often involved multiple perpetrators, and sometimes had links to organized abuse. Therapists’ conceptualizations of the factors related to the abuse included: enmeshed and disorganized attachment to the perpetrator; symptoms of severe dissociation; having absent, abusive or non-protective mothers; and social isolation which limited help-seeking. The study concludes that attachment, trauma and dissociation-informed therapy is essential, while further research is needed to further explore effective interventions and responses to this clinical cohort.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Trauma and Dissociation
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Apr 2024


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