2000 Jordan Institute
Vol. 1, No.
Does Early Caretaking Inhibit Incest?
Does early involvement in caregiving activities such as changing diapers and bathing an infant inhibit a father's sexual interest in his child?
Those who support biosocial theory believe it does. According to this theory, involvement in these activities inhibits incest by making the child "familiar" and dispelling any novelty or mystery surrounding the child--qualities thought to be associated with sexual attraction.
In a recent article, researchers Linda M. Williams and David Finklehor set out to test this idea. They interviewed incestuous and non-incestuous fathers who had spent different amounts of time with their infant daughters. If there truly was an inhibitor built into early caregiving activities, the fathers who were not physically present to provide care at an early age would be more likely to abuse later.
What they found confirmed ideas that have been frequently noted in the literature. The incestuous fathers had much higher rates of childhood abuse than non-incestuous fathers; abuse by mothers was particularly predictive of a man's incestuous behavior toward his daughter. Rejection and neglect by their own fathers was another common trait of incestuous fathers. And they were more likely to have perpetrated sexual offenses as teens.
When some of these issues are statistically controlled for, fathers who reported little caregiving activity were two and a half times more likely to be incestuous than were fathers who had engaged in caregiving activities.
This does not confirm the existence of an innate mechanism to ward off incest, however. When the types of activities that fathers engaged in with their daughters were examined, it was not diaper changing, bathing, or dressing that predicted a lack of incest. Rather, activities like playing with, watching over, and reading to their daughters appeared more protective than basic caregiving responsibilities.
Thus, while they did not find that diaper changing inhibits incest, Williams and Finkelhor's research does reaffirm the value of activity that allows fathers to see their daughters as playful, exploring, and growing.
Williams, L. & Finkelhor, D. (1995). Paternal caregiving and incest: Test of a biosocial model. The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 65(1), 101-113.
© 1996 Jordan Institute for Families