Sanctuary for the Abused

Friday, January 06, 2006


by R. Lundy Bancroft
c 1997

Multiple studies have established the high overlap between battering and incest perpetration (Herman, 1981; McCloskey et. al.; Paveza; Sirles and Franke; and Truesdell et. al.). These studies, taken together, indicate that a batterer is about four to six times more likely than a non-batterer to sexually abuse his children. These statistics are in line with studies of batterers' risk to physically abuse children; the largest study of this kind showed batterers seven times more likely than non-batterers to frequently hit their children (Straus) About half of incest perpetrators also batter the children's mother (Herman, 1981; Sirles and Franke; Truesdell). A recent major publication on family violence recommended that any history of sexual assaults against the mother be treated as a warning sign of possible sexual or physical abuse of the children (American Psychological Association).

The overlap between domestic violence and incest is not altogether surprising to people who work with batterers and incest perpetrators, because of the similarities between the profiles and tactics used by members of the two groups. Clinicians specializing in sexual abuser treatment have often approached me after my presentations on batterers to comment on how similar my clients sound to their sex offender clients.

Public misconceptions are similar between the two forms of abuse. Batterers and child molesters are perceived as mentally ill individuals from particularly disturbing childhoods; the public is always shocked when a man with a highly positive public image is exposed as a batterer or child molester. The nature of the abuse itself is similarly misunderstood; a batterer's violence and an incest perpetrators sexual violations are just one aspect of their behavior problem. The overtly abusive behaviors are invariably accompanied by patterns of psychological abuse and manipulation that are often as damaging, or more so, than the overt physical or sexual abuse. Attempts to teach a batterer to stop hitting, or to teach proper boundaries to a child sexual abuser, miss the roots of both problems in a way that can leave victims vulnerable to continued psychological abuse and cruelty.

This article looks briefly at some of the similarities between batterers and incest perpetrators, to assist in understanding the nature of both problems and how they can interact.


Both groups are known for exercising a high degree of control over their victims and other family members, through verbal abuse and other strategies. They believe in their right to use increasingly coercive tactics if they are not getting the obedience that they demand. Both batterers and incest perpetrators tend to alternate between periods of loving kindness and periods of harsh emotional abusiveness towards their victims. Incest perpetrators are often harsh and rigid disciplinarians.


Both groups tend to be self-centered in the home and believe that it is the responsibility of family members to make sure that the man's needs are met at all times. They may become irate when other family members insist on not always being the ones to make the sacrifices. They expect deference to their desires and their opinions. Both types of abusers will justify their actions if caught, insisting for various reasons that they have the right to do what they did. Though they may appear remorseful, they typically have mental systems of seeing their victims as owned objects with whom they have the right to do as they see fit. Just as batterers may be angry at an arrest, saying, "What right do they have to tell me what I can do with my own wife?", the incest perpetrator may take the attitude, "The way I choose to run my relationship with my own child is nobody else's business."

Selfishness and self-centeredness towards family members follow from the abuser's sense of entitlement. With both batterers and incest perpetrators, these characteristics in the home are products of their attitudes more than of their psychology, and therefore they will not necessarily be found to be narcissistic by evaluators (though evaluators should look carefully for signs of narcissism). People who know either type of abuser in non-family contexts will not generally experience the person as self-centered.


Closely linked to the entitled attitudes of these abusers is the use of family members for the abuser's purposes. Exploitation can be thought of as the fundamental characteristic of both batterers and sexual abusers, and the problem that most needs to be confronted and changed in the abuser.

It has been common for professionals to assume that the batterer's problem is his anger, and that the incest perpetrator's problem is his deviant sexual attraction to children. These are common misconceptions that lead to the overlooking of the key dynamics, which are that these abusers choose to take certain kinds of action, and that these choices are based on deeply-held beliefs and habits that support exploitation.

Denial and Minimization

Both groups are known for their high levels of denial and resistance to change. When they do admit to their actions, they minimize them greatly and play down their negative consequences, insisting that no damage has actually been done. They lie comfortably to cover any actions that are discovered.

Claimed Loss Of Control

Both groups assert that they lost control when they acted abusively, but close examination of their actions reveals calculation and forethought. The batterer may claim to have "a bad temper," just as the incest perpetrator claims that he just lost control of his sex drive, perhaps blaming it on his wife by saying that she has not been giving him sex. Both groups work hard to distract attention from the surrounding pattern of conscious activity.

Claimed Provocation

Both groups assert that the victim provoked their actions, and therefore they themselves are not responsible. The sexual abuser will say that a young child "seduced him" and "really wanted it," just as the batterer states that his partner "set him off" and "knew that she was going to make me violent."

Grooming or Seasoning

Both groups work to build trust and closeness during the early part of a relationship. Batterers are known for being charming, kind, and attentive during the first months or even years that a couple is together. An incest perpetrators may lay the groundwork for years as well; he works to build a special relationship with the intended victim, and strives to gradually break down her or his boundaries with slowly escalating invasiveness. The victim is often his "favorite," to whom he gives particular kindness and attention, but often also particular harshness and control. Batterers are known for often being unusually appealing superficially, and sexual abusers are similarly often people who are identified as especially "good with children." In both cases, the victim is often quite attached to the abuser, because of the manipulation and the many positive-seeming periods in the abuser's behavior.

shared by Barbara at 2:07 AM



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