Sibling sexual abuse (SSA) is a deeply sensitive and stigmatized issue that needs careful consideration. While any form of child sexual abuse is tragic, research suggests SSA may be more preventable than other forms due to several unique factors.
Understanding these factors can guide efforts towards prevention, intervention, and support for affected individuals.
The Important and Enduring Sibling Relationship:
The sibling relationship is the longest-lasting connection in our life, shaping our perceptions of family and interpersonal bonds. By emphasizing the importance of this relationship early in a child’s life at home, school, and society, we can potentially alter the dynamics that lead to SSA. Encouraging a positive view to children that their siblings are important and valuable individuals can foster a sense of respect and understanding that prevents harmful behavior.
Lower Recidivism Rates:
Studies indicate that SSA perpetrators are less likely to repeat the behavior outside the home or beyond a certain age compared to those involved in other forms of child sexual abuse. Broader research certainly needs to be done, but this trend suggests those who cause harm as adolescents do not usually grow into adult sex offenders. It also reinforces the concept that SSA is a temporary behavior, possibly in response to brain development issues and/or a lack of life coping strategies on the part of the sibling causing harm. This is certainly no excuse for SSA, but recognizing this unique aspect can contribute to minimizing the fear of parents and society that perpetrators of SSA are all just “pedophiles in training”. In fact, a sibling causing harm is more likely to go on to hurt themselves through hidden shame, guilt, addictions, PTSD, dysfunctional relationships and even suicide.
Stigmatization of Survivors:
Unfortunately, the stigma associated with SSA often extends to the survivors, leading to societal misconceptions and blame. Acknowledging this stigma is crucial in changing the narrative of SSA and shifting societal perspectives to view survivors as victims rather than complicit individuals. This can help break down barriers to reporting and seeking support after SSA occurs. As survivors and even perpetrators step forward, we will come to further understand SSA and create more prevention tools and resources.
When SSA occurs within a family, parents often find themselves in a unique emotional challenge. The dual role of being caregivers to both the harmed and the perpetrator complicates the situation, leading to denial or an inclination to "keep the problem in the family." However, their dual role also lends itself to being a primary source of support to children before SSA even occurs. By being comfortable speaking with their children about consent, sexuality, body safety and the like, and being open to having difficult conversations about a spectrum of life topics, parents can potentially stop the behavior before it occurs. Providing a safe space to talk about tough topics can help a struggling child seek support before causing harm without fear of rejection or judgement. At the very least, being seen as a safe haven for disclosure is paramount if the behavior does occur.
The "Grey Area"
There can be a degree of normal and healthy sexual curiosity between siblings, “the innocuous “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine”. This so-called "grey area" doesn't exist in other forms of CSA or sexual abuse generally. The lines are much clearer. Because of many internal and external pressures already mentioned in this article, the family may simply misunderstand the behavior extended beyond natural curiosity or use the "grey area" phrase to downplay what has happened.
Society’s Crucial Role:
Society’s stigma of SSA as a taboo topic restricts opportunities to create change. It is such an uncomfortable subject that most people shy away from having it. This is despite strong evidence that shows SSA is at least three times more common than parent-to-child sexual abuse and its impacts are just as harmful, if not more so, than other forms of child sexual abuse. Plus, society's interpretation of the term "child sexual abuse" has a limited definition that generally only includes the stereotypical adult-to-child abuse, elements of force, stranger danger, or the pejorative term "molestation." This mindset doesn't take into consideration the breadth of sexual behaviors between siblings that can cause harm. Different world regions view SSA in varied lights, ranging from a criminal act to a mental health concern. Some approach SSA as more of a brain development issue for the sibling causing harm, emphasizing a health-centric approach. This perspective has encouraged parents to seek help for their children even before SSA occurs, fostering a more supportive environment. Plus, societal stigma of SSA reduces the political will of our local and national officials to invest the time, energy, and resources needed to better understand and prevent SSA.
Sibling sexual abuse, while a challenging and sensitive issue, presents opportunities for proactive prevention through education and awareness. By focusing on nurturing healthy sibling relationships, discerning the factors that lower recidivism, mitigating stigmatization, offering support for potential perpetrators, guiding parents, and reshaping societal perspectives, we can create an environment where SSA is better understood and, most importantly, prevented. It is through these preventive measures that we aim to build families and communities where every child can grow up in a safe and supportive environment.