4 siblings, 3 brothers and 1 little sister, standing in a lake

Sibling Sexual Abuse: What Everyone Needs to Know

My new book, Everyone Was Silent, is now available! Purchase it here.

Are you familiar with the phrase sibling sexual abuse? The term is sometimes referred to as SSA.

Many people know of the issue thanks to the Amazon Prime original documentary, “Shiny Happy People,” featuring the Duggar family of  “19 Children and Counting” fame. Josh Duggar, one of the Duggars’ 19 children, was reported to have sexually abused four of his sisters, sometimes while they slept, and other times while they were awake. This very public scandal introduced America to the topic of sibling sexual abuse.

Let’s dive deeper into the topic: its definition, some of its risk factors, and how to prevent it.

What is sibling sexual abuse?

According to this article from The Learning Network, “Sibling sexual abuse is sexual behavior between siblings that is:

  • not age-appropriate
  • not transitory
  • not motivated by “developmentally-appropriate sexual curiosity.”

What is meant by “not age-appropriate?”

According to John Woodhouse at the safeguarding.network website, one of the concerns of sibling sexual activity is that these situations often involve, “Children at different ages and stages of sexual development with strong power differentials.” The article goes on to say, “…the average age gap between siblings for abuse reported to law enforcement was 5.5 years, with 8 being the average age of the younger siblings.” With that said, there are many cases where siblings are much closer in age.

I would also add, that though some individuals experience sibling sexual abuse one time, in most cases, 

Sibling sexual abuse often continues for years.

Why might that be? I can weigh in here.

When I speak to groups of adults on the topic of child sexual abuse prevention, or at body safety assemblies in public schools in West Virginia, I always mention I’m a CSA survivor, that the abuse was familial, and that the sexual harm was child on child sexual abuse (aka COCSA). The one thing I’ve kept quiet about until recently is the fact:

I’m also a sibling sexual abuse survivor.

 

Front cover of the sibling sexual abuse memoir, "Everyone Was Silent"

In my recently released memoir, Everyone Was Silent, I tell of the sibling sexual abuse I suffered growing up. Here are some of the reasons I kept quiet for so many years:

  • I didn’t want to “blow my family up.” Suffice it to say, our family had lots of stuff going on. I didn’t want to make things worse.
  • I was afraid my brother would go to jail. While I hated what he was doing, I didn’t hate him.
  • The most powerful person in our home, my abusing brother, was frequently volatile and sometimes violent. I didn’t want his physical aggression aimed at me.

As I mentioned above, there are many stand alone incidents of sibling sexual abuse. However, even a solitary experience of sibling sexual harm can traumatize an individual for life. I learned that reading The Invisible Key, the memoir of Maria Socolof, one of the founding members of 5WAVES, an organization dedicated to sibling sexual abuse prevention.

For clarity,

What does “developmentally-appropriate sexual curiosity” between kids look like?

 

I had the opportunity to hear Brad Watts speak at the 2023 conference of  Penn State University’s organization, SAPEN: Sexual Abuse Prevention and Education Network. Watts is a licensed professional counselor and a Certified Sex Offender Treatment Provider. Watts also specializes in working with individuals and families where sibling sexual abuse has occurred. In addition, he wrote an excellent book on the topic titled, Sibling Sexual Abuse: A Guide for Confronting America’s Silent Epidemic. 

Front cover of the book, "Sibling Sexual Abuse"

In his presentation on SSA, Watts said markers of normal sexual curiosity between kids include:

  • The behavior typically occurs only 2-3 times.
  • No penetration is involved.
  • Giggling is often part of the process.
  • When “caught in the act,” the activity stops.

How is sibling sexual abuse different than curious sexual exploration?

Watts agrees with the source quoted above, that normal sexual exploration such as “playing doctor” or “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” is often transitory, tending to only happen a few times.

However, whereas Watts says normal sexual curiosity does not involve penetration, according to The Learning Network, sibling sexual abuse may include sexual touching, rape (FYI: The U.S. Department of Justice defines rape as, “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”), or forcing siblings to watch sexual activity or pornography. The abuse may also include one sibling watching another dress, bathe, or use the toilet.

Lastly, where giggling may be a part of mutual curious sexual play, it is not usually a part of sibling sexual abuse. Instead, the child causing harm will strive to avoid detection by being very quiet and requiring their victim to do the same.

Now that you know a little bit about the problem of sibling sexual abuse, you may wonder:

What are risk factors for sibling sexual abuse?

According to LCSW Hillary Carmona, several situations can contribute to the problem of sibling sexual abuse. For example, gender, age, and power dynamics often come in to play.

For the record, the most often cited gender pairing for sibling sexual abuse is older brother and younger sister. This was my circumstance. However, there are other scenarios, ie. same sex siblings, an older sibling sexually abused by a younger sibling, or a male sibling abused by a female sibling.

Whatever the ages of the children involved, a difference in power is typically involved. The power differential  is often due to a difference in physical strength or intellectual ability, but it may also have to do with one child being perceived as the parent’s favorite.

Carmona also reports,

Family dysfunction can lead to sibling sexual abuse.

Carmona says, “research has demonstrated families with disrupted living situations, poor relationships, and unstable parental backgrounds are more prone to (SSA) incidents.”

This was the case in my childhood home. As far back as I can remember, my mother managed chronic mental health conditions. Knowing we could “get away with it,” we kids pranked our mom and ignored her efforts at discipline. Sadly, our father didn’t often defend her, a fact that did not escape the attention of my brothers and me.

In addition, what I once considered “roughhousing,” I’ve recently learned is sibling abuse, and it was the norm in our home. According to Jonathan Caspi, author of the book, Sibling Aggression, sibling abuse is “unidirectional hostility where one sibling seeks to overpower the other via a reign of terror and intimidation, and reflects an asymmetrical power arrangement.”

Two sibling brothers fighting

Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW, suggests another risk factor.

“A lack of parental supervision or involvement can provide fertile ground for sibling abuse to occur,

as parents enforce fewer restrictions or consequences for aggressive behavior.” 

My familial situation lines up with this theory. During the day, my mother dealt with our sibling aggression by having me call my father at work and ask him to come home, which he rarely did. And in the evenings, when we kids got out of hand–even cruel to one another or our mother–Dad’s typical response was to order us to run around the outside of our house three times.

With respect to the child experiencing harm and the child who does the harming,

Health challenges—physical and mental—can come into play with sibling sexual abuse. 

According to Beverly Engel L.M.F.T., “While an age difference can certainly be a factor, the power imbalance can also be created by other factors such as cognitive ability or physical disability.”

In addition, LCSW Hillary Carmona says, “In one study of adolescent sex offenders, 74% (of abusers) had one or more psychiatric diagnoses and higher rates of neurological impairment.”

Now let’s examine one of the more oft-cited risk factors for SSA.

Pornography has been known to incite sibling sexual abuse.

When a young person views pornography, they may decide to try out what they’ve seen in sexually explicit materials (also known as SEM). I talked about that scenario in this blog post.

In his book mentioned above, Brad Watts states,

“Pornography is a gateway to sexual offending for a staggering number of SSA sexual offenders.” 

Though the internet didn’t exist when I grew up, pornography still found its way into our home. Early on I came across a smutty graphic novel featuring an uncle abusing his niece. And in recent years, during discussions about the sexual abuse our family experienced, my non-offending brothers frequently mentioned a stash of pornographic magazines hidden on the second floor of our home.

Since we now have some understanding about this issue,

What are best practices for prevention of sibling sexual abuse?

In a blog post for 5waves.org, LMFT and SSA survivor Brinn Lingdale recommends the following safety tips to prevent sibling sexual abuse:

  • Educate your children from an early age about body safety
  • Consider parental controls on all your family’s digital devices to limit access to pornography
  • Limit siblings sleeping with one another
  • Establish rules about household nudity

Amy Morin, LCSW,  also recommends adequate supervision of children by a responsible individual, as well as daily conversations between parents and kids.Set aside time each day to discuss the events of the day and address any questions or concerns your children may have.”

To read my blog post about six strategies that help children disclose child sexual abuse, click here. These strategies may be helpful for families whose circumstances necessitate siblings sleeping in close proximity, children not having constant adult supervision, etc.. In addition, regular conversations about “all the things,” including sex, have a significant protective factor for kids which I discuss in this blog post.

In closing, since we now know so many child sexual abuse incidents are initiated by another child,

Let’s educate ourselves and our children about taking precautions when kids are alone together, siblings or otherwise.

 

To read about my sibling sexual abuse experience, buy my memoir today.

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