When the monsters under your bed are real: The social construction of incest

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Marriage and Family Therapy


Linda Stone Fish


childhood sexual abuse

Subject Categories

Family, Life Course, and Society | Social Psychology | Social Psychology and Interaction


The focus of the study was the meaning which incest has in the lives of women who identified as having experienced it and the meaning it has for their partners and their relationships. A definition of incest was not imposed by the researcher nor solicited from the participants. All the participants who identified themselves as having incest histories were required to be in therapy at the time of the study. Thus, inclusion criteria was defined as any woman who believed herself to have experienced incest, and was in therapy. Additionally, partners were required to know about her incest history and only women and their partners who were eighteen years of age and above could participate.

Informed by social constructionism and symbolic interactionism, a qualitative approach was utilized. In-depth interviews were conducted with ten heterosexual and lesbian couples in which at least one partner reported experiencing intrafamilial sexual abuse (incest) as a child. Each partner was interviewed separately at least one time. The following major topics were explored: Description of the overall context of the family of origin of both those with sexual abuse histories and their partners; how each viewed these contexts and coped with them as children and in their adult relationships; factors which have facilitated healing from the residue of these contexts; and ways in which sexual abuse and early family experiences have impacted their present couple relationship and relationships with families of origin. The participants with incest histories spent significant portions of the interviews detailing their experience of "healing". Due to the broad nature of this research a deconstruction of what was meant by healing and how this meaning was established and influenced was not attempted, though descriptions of the things which the participants describe as "healing" is offered.


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