Disclosing Sexual Abuse by a Family Member

Disclosing sexual abuse by a family member is entirely up to the survivor and can be extremely complicated. Remember, deciding to disclose doesn’t have to mean sharing every detail—a survivor can decide how much or how little they want to share with another person. There is no timeline for disclosing incest and there is no right or wrong way to disclose.

What is disclosing?

After experiencing incest sexual abuse, there often comes a time when a survivor considers disclosing to a trusted person. Disclosing means that a survivor is informing a trusted family member, friend, or the authorities that abuse took place. It can be extremely hard to talk about a traumatic experience with sexual violence.

Why is it difficult to tell someone about sexual abuse by a family member?

Most children, and children that become adults, are oftentimes entirely dependent on their families for economic, emotional, physiological, and psychological support. If they are trapped in an abusive environment throughout development, they come to believe that the abuse is normal, that they are the problem, and that there is no way out. Perpetrators often use threats of violence and intimidation to prevent a child from disclosing which is considered emotional abuse. These feelings can become so ingrained that they sometimes linger into adulthood. Some examples of emotional abuse are below:

  • Insults. A perpetrator may insult a survivor by constantly criticizing them or by making fun of them with demeaning words.
  • Intimidation. This can be any form of verbal or physical actions that instill fear in a survivor. Examples include pounding a fist, slamming doors, throwing things at the wall, or leering looks.
  • Stalking. Examples include making threats against someone, or that person's family or friends, non-consensual communication, repeated physical or visual closeness, and any other behavior used to contact, harass, track, or threaten someone.
  • Threats of violence: Perpetrators may frighten, control, and manipulate the survivor into compliance.

Questions to consider asking yourself when deciding if you are ready to disclose.

  • Do you feel ready to discuss your abuse with someone? While we might not always be 100% ready, you can always take your time with disclosure, even if you tell your story over time and only share details of your abuse that you choose. A safe person will always be supportive with how much you decide to tell them and will never make you share more than you want.
  • Does this person believe and support me? Have they previously believed you and supported you or did they discredit your experiences? You can think through the times that you told this person something personal in the past and how they reacted. It can also be helpful to create a space for you to be yourself and to speak without judgment and interruption.
  • Do I feel like I have to disclose or do I feel like I want to disclose? Try to come to a grounded place where you feel comfortable disclosing your experiences at your own pace and on your own terms.
  • Does this person foster compassionate responses? Have you previously told this person intimate details about your life? Was their response compassionate and gentle? Did you feel and sense support and kindness in their response?

The person, family member, or trusted friend that a survivor may have told or is deciding to disclose to may not be providing the needed support, but remember that nobody has to go through this alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org (y en español rainn.org/es).

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