Sibling Sexual Abuse: why is this hidden?

 

It’s a game. “Doctor- Doctor”  Brother and sister or brother/brother , sister/sister hanging around at home, both are  curious human beings.  They compare genitals. They may even touch and feel to fully understand their uniqueness and differences. It’s innocent as they are both under the age of 7, close in  age and they are familiar with each other. There is mutual agreement , one child is not forcing the other . Secrecy is part of the game, sensing parental disapproval, they retreat into a bedroom.

They grow tired of this game, or have vigilant  parents who walk in, and with positivity and confidence, distract their children from their “show and tell “game, provide them with an in the moment sexual education lesson , and place boundaries around siblings exploring each other sexually.

Then there is the other game that crosses the line from childish mutually consenting genital play into Sibling Sexual Abuse. And there is nothing fun about this game. A game that is so complex it remains well hidden in the mind of the perpetrator, survivor, the parents and authorities.

While there is no universal agreement over its definition, sibling sexual abuse (SSA) is acknowledged internationally as a prevalent form of child sexual abuse but tends not to be recognised by health professionals.

Sibling sexual abuse  captures a broad continuum of sexual behaviors in childhood and adolescence that exceed the threshold of age-appropriate curiosity. Ranging from an older sibling  forcing non consensual activities  onto a younger naive sibling,  to a full on mutual relationship between siblings, SAA may be a  once off encounter at any age, to ongoing abuse through a younger sibling’s teen years.

As I said, this is no game.  The common theme in all this variance, is when sexual acts are initiated by one sibling without the other’s consent. These are unpredictable and relentless acts of intimidation. It is a harsh “break up” if an older sibling sexually rejects his/her sibling as she/he grows into womanhood./manhood.  No matter where on the continuum this abuse is positioned, . a relationship  exists between these siblings, For the abused sibling, the abuser  may be called the  “identified perpetrator” and for others it may be conceptualised as a  “routine relationship,”

Sibling incest is, most often, a serious and secret problem. An untenable  conspiracy of silence  that has the potential to devastate the sexuality and intimacy of the survivor.

I invite people who are survivors of sibling sexual abuse and parents who may be experiencing this in their families now, to comment. 

Im going to get a little graphic so  if you are reading this,  take care of yourself  and any potential triggers that may occur.

The initiated sexual behaviors  by the older sibling are frequently  initially couched in the context of play, and young victims are likely to find these activities pleasurable. The early stages of the relationship, the sexual nature of the behaviours is less apparent, hidden in special hugs and games and play wrestling. A young naïve victim is unlikely to recognize these ostensibly benign behaviours as inappropriate.

There is a progression of the behaviours, evolving over time to increasingly explicit, invasive, and perhaps even coercive sexual activities. These include forced oral sex,  both giving and receiving ; anal penetration , vaginal penetration and masturbation of the perpetrator and survivor.

Consider that the average age that  direct sexual arousal is experienced is about  8 years old and at puberty, 11-12., children feel sexual attraction .  All children   come out of the womb already capable of experiencing sexual arousal and sexual attraction. Sexual curiosity exists naturally in most everyone. Having genital stimulation causes physiological arousal , pleasurable sensations , even if they are coming from a sibling. Sometimes even under coercive circumstances.

Imagine a child experiencing genital arousal and psychological warfare simultaneously.  The brain and heart are scramming NO and the body responds with arousal. Nasty outcome. It results in confused sexuality as an adult . How to integrate the heart and mind sexually , as an adult , is a challenge .

Where are the parents, I hear you screaming.. or perhaps it is my projected scream .. Where is the research ?  Where are the health care providers, who are trained to protect children and facilitate sensitive parental care?  Why the silence around this form of childhood sexual abuse? 

SSA is under‐represented within the literature in comparison with other forms of intrafamilial sexual abuse. Understanding why this is may help to illuminate the potential barriers to effective professional responses. Two explanations which emerge strongly are the existence of a sibling incest taboo and a prevailing belief that sibling sexual behaviour is largely harmless.

Parental attitude :  reveals 2 main initial parental attitudes after the disclosure of  SSA. The first is the attitude that no sexual acts took place at all. The second is that they did occur, with 3 different variations: the sexual acts as “not serious,” as a “rupture in the family’s ideal narrative,” and as “another tragic episode in the family’s tragic life story.”

Also victims often do not see themselves as victimized. This may happen as they have their own children , begin, or attempt to begin,  adult sexual relationships, and other forms of adult  intimacy ,that trigger memories of this very toxic form of  childhood sexual abuse.

There is evidence that many victims carry the secret into adulthood, remaining confused about issues of mutuality and consequently feeling ridden with guilt, shame, and low self-esteem (Ballantine, 2012; Carlson et al). The secret can be so buried that adult survivors fail to connect the incestuous behaviors of their childhood with current life problems such as depression, anxiety, poor job performance, and interpersonal difficulties.

An abhorrence at the thought of sibling sexual activity and a prevailing view of its harmlessness , even naming it as “non abusive” by parents/caretakers,  hinders health care professionals  detection of and appropriate responses to, sibling sexual abuse.

Based on a sample of 15 adult survivors of SSA, this qualitative study examined experiences of relationships with perpetrating siblings during childhood and adulthood. Thematic analysis of semistructured qualitative interviews revealed two continua that characterize SSA survivors’ lives: the “reciprocity–coercion” continuum in childhood and the “distance–closeness” continuum in adulthood.

Findings reveal that regardless of how the relationships were perceived in childhood, most participants chose to distance themselves from their perpetrating siblings as adults. Thus, even in cases where the relationships were considered mutual during childhood, reconceptualization of the abuse in adulthood led to renewed understanding of its meanings and implications for the survivors’ personal lives.

 

SSA Risk factors : 

  • Incestuous behaviors are too often invisible in stressed, chaotic families
  • More likely to occur in large families characterized by physical and emotional violence, marital discord, explicit and implicit sexual tensions, and blurred intrafamilial boundaries.
  • Emotionally and/or physically absent parents may empower older siblings to assume parental roles.

 

My plea: 

Parents and care givers need to heed signs of their own distress when they feel their children’s  relationships are turbulent . Shutting down your own discomfort , awareness , and  choosing to ignore when your body screams “danger”,  as calling it out is too difficult for you, is negligent and criminal.

Get the support you need in order to be a functional parent. This is your duty to your children .

Contact me here for more information.

 

 

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