The 90s may well turn out to be the decade of disclosure, when long-held family secrets are revealed and both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence are acknowledged as such. In spite of the recent and sudden swell of sexual abuse-related testimonies and literature, one is still greatly challenged to unearth information on what may well be one of the last taboos: sibling sexual abuse — the sexual abuse of one sibling by another.
Regrettably, the whole idea of sibling sexual abuse strikes many as absurd — it is frequently dismissed as age-appropriate, mutually agreed-upon sexual exploration. In rare cases, this may be true. But when one sibling exerts his or her power or applies pressure on a sibling to engage in — or to allow — sexual activity, it is abusive behaviour. According to Dr. Vernon Wiehe, professor of social work at the University of Kentucky and author of Perilous Rivalry: When Siblings Become Abusive (Lexington Books, 1991), parents should take one child’s allegations that another is abusing him or her very seriously, and intervene. “One instance of sexual abuse by a sibling” he states, “is too many.”
In her recently published book, Brothers & Sisters (St. Martins Press, 1991), Jane Mersky Leder estimates that some “23,000 [women] per million in this country may have been victimized by a sibling” before the age of 18. This may be, at best, a conservative estimate when one considers the scarcity of available data — particularly when males are the victims. According to Wiehe, males are prohibited from disclosing sexual child abuse by female perpetrators because of the “macho way men are socialized …. they can’t admit they have problems, that a female was in control.” In addition, while boys who are sexually abused by older brothers — especially if they found it physically pleasurable — may experience confusion about their sexual orientation, many males feel that engaging in sexual activity with an older female, in spite of its negative effects, is an “initiation,” of sorts, into manhood. A feeling of pride may be mingled with any feelings of shame or guilt. The frequency with which females are abused by female siblings is not known. According to Patricia Toth, executive director of the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse in Alexandria, VA, such abuse does occur, but statistics on this form of abuse are not yet available.
Lisa Jones, a statistical analyst at the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse in Chicago, attributes this scarcity of data to several factors. Specifically Jones notes that “some major researchers in this field have lost their funding due to cutbacks in government spending, and, therefore, are unable to continue their work. Another reason,” Jones continues, “is that the research is not sophisticated enough to specifically pinpoint sexual sibling abuse,” (i.e, researchers neglect to ask those questions that would yield the necessary data).
Regardless of the availability of statistics, according to Wiehe, “violence between siblings is far more frequent than between adults or between parents and children.”
A prime contributor to sibling sexual abuse, adds Wiehe, is accessibility to the victim. Parents who are emotionally or physically absent, or who themselves abuse one another or their children, set the stage for sibling abuse. Parents’ refusal to accept reports of this abuse from their children may similarly set the stage for continued abuse. Abusive children may interpret their parents’ behaviour as permission to be abusive and their victims may come to view abuse as normal — if not what they deserve. Fifty-five year old Margareta T., a legal secretary in Washington, DC, agrees. Her older brother –10 years her senior — began abusing her when she was three or four years old. “My mother was not available to me. We never had a relationship. I don’t think we ever bonded.” As far back as she can remember, Margareta has been aware of “hating my mother. There was never any connection….” Her father, a very conservative minister, was not very involved with his children, either. “He [her brother] was the only person who ever touched me,” she recalls.
“Gary,” a married man in his 30s with children of his own, feels that he was more vulnerable to his brother’s assaults because he did not receive the nurturing that he needed from his parents. On a January 1992 Phil Donahue show, Gary agreed with his host that “as horrible and humiliating as it was, in a very strange way this was the only attention I got….”
It is uncertain whether the aftereffects of sibling sexual abuse differ from those of any other form of sexual abuse. Numerous studies have indicated that survivors whose perpetrators have ranged from close family members to strangers generally report that they have suffered from one or more of the following: guilt, shame, substance abuse, revictimization, diminished self-esteem, depression, difficulty maintaining relationships, and/or dissociative disorders.
Wiehe suspects that sibling abuse “probably impacts greatest on self-esteem,” and may, when the perpetrator is close in age to the victim, result in “difficulties in peer relationships, even from childhood.” Survivors of sibling abuse often speak about their inability to establish and maintain friendships and intimate relationships. Gary, for example, attributes his difficulties with intimacy to his inability to trust. That ability to trust is shattered when a young child is betrayed — sexually, physically, or emotionally — by someone close to him, or by someone whose responsibility it is to care for him.
According to Barry M. Cohen, program director of the Center for Abuse Recovery & Empowerment at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington (DC) and co-editor of Multiple Personality Disorder from the Inside Out, “being constantly within reach of an abusive sibling increases the likelihood of the [victim’s] need to dissociate during the course of the abuse….” Cohen also believes that because the abuser is always within close proximity, the victim will often “dissociate the abusive aspect of the relationship with the abusive sibling [in order] to carry on daily life within the family.” Author and California marriage, family, and child counselor Eliana Gil believes that while sibling abuse often goes unrecognized as a “serious” form of sexual child abuse, it “carries similar — or the exact — impact as parent/child sexual abuse.” She attributes the long-term consequences of sibling abuse to the similarity in family dynamics that are present in both parent/child and sibling sexual abuse. “Regardless of who is the abuser in the family,” she continues, “secrecy and shame are present within that family.”
Perhaps the toughest challenge facing parents of abusive children is accepting the reality that “abuse,” according to Wiehe, “is not inherited. It is a learned behaviour.” Other experts concur, including Carolyn Cunningham and Kee MacFarlane. In their book, When Children Molest Children Orwell, VT: Safer Society Press, 1991), they maintain that “of all the potential contributing factors in the development of a child who molests other children, we continue to return to the presence of some form of maltreatment or traumatic influence during the early years of these children’s lives.”
For example, one 15-year-old boy was found to be molesting his two younger brothers. According to his mother, he had apparently learned this behaviour as a result of his grandfather sexually abusing him. She is “certain if he hadn’t been [sexually] abused by his grandfather that he wouldn’t have molested my other children.” In an effort to separate him from the siblings he was abusing, she requested that the state place him in foster care and an intensive treatment program for adolescent offenders. Now, two years after the state granted her request, he is in recovery and has returned home to live with his family.
In another case, a 39-year-old woman remembers thinking when her older brother abused her, that “my parents think it’s OK when my father does it [fondles/molests her], so it must be OK with my brother.” Her father, to this day, claims that his fondling was merely “showing affection.” Although many abusers claim this is so, victims know differently.
In fact, more and more data seem to support the claim, as does Tarah Brown in a recent Washington Post article, that “even though we are talking about children abusing children … you’re [sic] talking about behaviour that has been going on for generations in certain families.”
Both Alice Miller and J. Stettbacher argue, in their books, that children who are loved and nurtured will not abuse others. Likewise, adults abused as children, who seek healing and find — within themselves or in therapy — the loving nurturing relationships they were denied as children, will not teach patterns of abuse to their own children.
Wiehe refers to the “power motif,” as a means of explaining why siblings molest one another. This should come as no surprise to students — or survivors of sexual abuse. “It [power],” Wiehe argues, “is common to child abuse, spouse abuse, sibling abuse, and, arguably, numerous other crimes committed by strangers instead of family members … Abuse is the awful fast-track,” he continues, “to achieving power and control, and it lies at the heart of … sexual abuse.”
Many survivors regain that sense of power by gaining control over the abuse’s aftereffects and in some cases, confronting their perpetrators. Survivors who choose to confront abusers, can expect responses ranging from flat-out denial and anger to heartfelt apologies — or no response at all. It is nearly impossible to know how an individual perpetrator of abuse will respond to the charges. [HAVOCA have a whole section to help you decide and plan whether or not to confront your abuser]
Gary, when he confronted his brother, was met with an “Oh, that.” Although that response may seem negative, Gary felt that his brother’s comment at least confirmed that the abuse really happened.
Margareta had a somewhat better experience. She had sent her brother a letter “forgiving” him, years before she actually began to deal with her abuse. He responded by admitting that he “was the bad person.” When she later confronted him — at a family gathering — he stormed out of the room saying “You already forgave me, why are you bringing all of this up now?” But, before he actually got out of the room, she heard him add, “Of course, its the older person’s responsibility — the child is not to blame.”
A perpetrator’s admission of guilt and acceptance of blame can give a survivor great strength — as in Margareta’s case but they are not necessary. Mental health professionals recommend that before taking the emotional risk of confronting an abuser, survivors should first carefully assess their own recovery, and consult with their therapists.
Listening to and believing reports of sexual abuse validate any victim’s perceptions as well as his or her sense of self-worth. It may be especially important to express this validation to survivors of sibling sexual abuse. Furthermore, according to Gil, “during the initial assessment, therapists need to ask if the client has been sexually abused by anyone — we need to look at sibling abuse as seriously as we would any other form of abuse.” She stresses that “in the past, society has tended to romanticize sexual activity between siblings. We now know that this form of abuse has very serious consequences.”
Andrea L.T. Peterson, M.Div., is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently seeking a Master’s degree in Religious Ethics from The University of Virginia, and is an associate editor of Moving Forward.
Perilous Rivalry: When Siblings Become Abusive by Vernon R. Wiehe with Theresa Herring.
Brothers and Sisters: How They Shape Our Lives by Jane Mersky Leder.
When Children Molest Children by Carolyn Cunningham and Kee MacFarlane.
Steps to Healthy Touching by Carolyn Cunningham and Kee MacFarlane.
D. Finkelhor, “Sex Among Siblings,” Archives of Sexual Behaviour 10 (1980): 171-194.
Marsha L. Heiman, “Untangling Incestuous Bonds: The Treatment of Sibling Incest,” in Siblings in
Therapy, ed. Michael D. Kahn and Karen Gafl Lewis (New York: W.W. Norton, 1988), p. 165.
H. Smith and E. Israel, “Sibling Incest: A Study of the Dynamics of 25 Cases,” Child Abuse & Neglect 11 (1987):101-108.