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Reframing Sibling Sexual Abuse: A Survivor's Perspective

Drawing from my personal journey of healing from sibling sexual abuse and my extensive work on the #SiblingsToo podcast and research project over the years, I have come to understand that the language we use to talk about this topic matters deeply to everyone involved.

Unfortunately, the term "sibling sexual abuse" often fails to capture the complexity and range of behaviors experienced. It can also create stigma for families and be confusing for professionals who are trying to support families, whether through preventative education or post-incident(s) interventions.

To better represent the range of behaviors and equity of impacts, I propose a new set of terms that offer a more nuanced and compassionate understanding.

Introducing New Terminology

As research shows, sibling sexual behaviors exist on a bell curve-shaped spectrum of prevalence that range from no sexual contact to the most heinous forms of sexual abuse. To describe this spectrum more appropriately, I propose the term "sibling sexual behavior" (SSB) be divided into three distinct groups: "none," "normative," and "abusive." Additionally, the phrase "sexual abuse by a sibling" (SABS) should be used to denote severe and predatory behaviors of an abuser who happens to be a sibling.

The Spectrum of Sibling Sexual Behavior (SSB) and Its Impacts

1. No SSB

This refers to the absence of any sexual interactions involving siblings. It is important to recognize that many sibling relationships do not include any sexual behavior at all.

2. Normative SSB (N-SSB)

"Normative" behaviors are those that are age-appropriate, consensual, and part of typical childhood development. These might include mutual exploration driven by natural curiosity with no harmful intent. For example, young children might exhibit curiosity about the anatomical differences between themselves and other siblings and engage in “playing doctor.” There are no negative impacts.

3. Abusive SSB (A-SSB)

Abusive behaviors are non-consensual, harmful, and inappropriate, causing significant distress and damage to the survivor immediately and into the future. Recognizing and categorizing these behaviors as abusive is crucial for mitigating their impact and validating survivor experiences.

These A-SSBs can also be damaging to the perpetrator, who often feels remorse and shame at the time or later in life, creating a range of negative mental health impacts as they mature emotionally and cognitively.

A-SSBs often impact both the survivor and the perpetrator psychologically, physically, spiritually, socially, and in other ways. Recognizing the duality of these profound impacts supports advocating for a public health approach to addressing A-SSBs. For instance, this approach underscores the importance of broadly educating children about consent, health, mental well-being, maturation, sex, identifying abusive behaviors, and so on. Additionally, if A-SSBs occur, public health interventions would focus on safeguarding the survivor, re-educating the perpetrator, and providing support for everyone involved.

At present, “sibling sexual abuse” definitions include the confusing subcategories of “inappropriate” and “problematic” behaviors. The phrase “abusive sibling sexual behavior” would eliminate the need for these sub-categories as all behaviors that are not normative or that would be considered sexual abuse by a sibling (described below) would be classified as “abusive sibling sexual behaviors.” This could be further refined on a case-by-case basis as necessary.

The Importance of Differentiating "Sexual Abuse by a Sibling" (SABS)

While the term "sibling sexual behavior" helps us understand a range of abusive actions, "sexual abuse by a sibling" is needed to emphasize the seriousness of the most harmful types of sexual violations. SABS explicitly denotes instances where an abuser engages in violent acts, repeated rapes, excessive coercion, grooming and/or predatory behavior without any signs of remorse or contrition. It is sexual abuse, often repeated, that just happens to be committed by a sibling rather than any other member of society. This term ensures the gravity of the abuse is fully acknowledged, aligning it with other forms of serious sexual assault and abuse that occurs in society. Sexual abuse by a sibling may best be managed by a criminal justice approach, ensuring the severe nature of these acts is addressed appropriately.

Benefits of the Revised Terminology

1. Comprehensive Recognition

By categorizing “sibling sexual behavior” into three distinct groups, we acknowledge that most behaviors fall on a spectrum from non-existent to harmful. This approach ensures survivors’ experiences are not diminished, while also recognizing that not all sibling sexual behaviors are abusive in nature or intent; some are normative.

2. Clarity and specificity

Each group within "sibling sexual behavior" provides clarity:

No SSB: Indicates no sexual behavior.

Normative SSB: Developmental and age-appropriate consensual behavior.

Abusive SSB: Clearly identifies harmful behaviors, ensuring they receive proper recognition and response. A-SSBs have significant impacts that can potentially be managed through a public health approach that focuses on effective responses for the entire family rather than primarily punitive measures aimed at the perpetrator.

3. Reinforces that not all who cause harm are predators or abusers

A-SSB acknowledges that the acts by the perpetrator are abusive and harmful to the survivor. However, it is important to note that the term “abusive,” when used as an adjective, refers to the behavior itself rather label a perpetrator who demonstrates remorse as an “abuser.”

4. Appropriately sets sexual abuse by a sibling apart

SABS highlights severe and predatory behaviors committed without remorse, often warranting intervention through the criminal justice system.

5. Validation for survivors of SABS

The term “sexual abuse by a sibling" ensures that survivors of heinous experiences are acknowledged and taken seriously. It prevents the minimization of their trauma and aligns it with broader understandings of sexual abuse in society.

6. Professional and therapeutic implications

This refined terminology can help professionals accurately assess and intervene with the whole family:

- Tailored interventions: Professionals can customize interventions effectively based on whether behaviors are normative, abusive, or classified as sexual abuse.

- Support and treatment: Ensures survivors receive appropriate support and enables remorseful perpetrators to receive rehabilitative responses for their abusive behaviors rather than punitive ones.

Legal action: For cases of SABS, legal action can be pursued when deemed appropriate.

7. Reducing stigma

These updated terms could play a vital role in diminishing stigma by offering clarity on the spectrum of behaviors without “monsterizing” all children. This shift is likely to encourage more open societal discussions on critical related topics, such as improving sex education and bolstering funding for research and prevention / intervention strategies.

Challenges and Considerations

1. Consistency in Use

Adopting these terms across various contexts will require education and advocacy. It is important for families, professionals, and society to grasp and use the language correctly.

2. Cultural Sensitivity

Terms should be adaptable and culturally sensitive, recognizing diverse interpretations of normative and abusive behaviors.

3. Ongoing Evaluation

Continuous evaluation is necessary to ensure these terms effectively serve and empower all parties involved. Embracing feedback and adjustments is paramount to their ongoing relevance and efficacy.

Despite potential “grey areas” in categorizing behaviors, further research, especially from those with lived experiences, is imperative to refine the language describing these behaviors and their impacts. While no single term may perfectly capture this complex subject, the importance of exploring and debating language use is clear. Language shapes our reality, and finding the right words is crucial for validation, education, and healing.

Rationale for a Comprehensive Framework

Refining the terminology to "sibling sexual behavior" with qualifiers and "sexual abuse by a sibling" for the most egregious actions creates a nuanced framework. This approach respects the seriousness of the topic by recognizing a spectrum of behaviors that identifies all non-normative behaviors as abusive to varying degrees without labelling all perpetrators as abusers. It promotes empathetic understanding, accurate assessment, tailored interventions, and validation of survivors' experiences to ultimately support healing, reduce stigma, and improve societal responses.

To prevent any form of non-normative sibling sexual behavior, the education and mental wellbeing of potential perpetrators needs to be the primary focus. If A-SSB or SABS occurs, providing support and effective interventions to the survivor must be the main objective. Reframing the current term of “sibling sexual abuse” to “abusive sibling sexual behavior” and “sexual abuse by a sibling” deserves further consideration if it facilitates these priorities.

Personal Reflections

As a survivor, I know how critical it is to have language that accurately reflects and validates my experience. It recognizes the harm done and helps me feel seen and heard. At the same time, I understand that not all sexual acts by a sibling are abusive. For those that are, many are perpetrated by children who do not fully comprehend the severe consequences of their actions, not only for their sibling but for themselves and the entire family.

The proposed new terminology seeks to highlight that many children who engage in abusive sibling sexual behavior are not necessarily "predators in training" and may feel genuine remorse for their choices and actions, either immediately or in future. This contrasts with the more universal term "sibling sexual abuse" which implies all children who cause sibling sexual harm are "abusers," potentially inaccurately describing many perpetrators in a way that leaves lasting negative effects on them. Focusing on the behavior of remorseful individuals rather than their character traits allows for more suitable support and rehabilitation while also paving the way for a public health approach to prevention and intervention.

NOTE: Another ongoing language debate concerns the use of "survivor/perpetrator" versus "person harmed/causing harm," the latter aimed at avoiding labeling a child as an "abuser." Throughout this article, I intentionally use "survivor/perpetrator." "Perpetrator" refers to someone who inflicts harm. While we all engage in harmful actions in other contexts, few would be labeled as “abusers” solely based on this behavior. However, using “person harmed/causing harm” to avoid the possibility of such a label dilutes the seriousness of abusive sibling sexual behavior. Using "survivor/perpetrator" also encourages a remorseful individual to recognize their responsibility for engaging in A-SSBs, as seen in the stories shared at the #SiblingsToo story portal.

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