This paper will be focusing on sexual abuse among siblings, also known as sibling sexual abuse (SSA). The paper will discuss the lack of research regarding sexual abuse between siblings, the impact the abuse has on the survivor and the relationships between family members afterwards, what society can do to help, and what should be further researched regarding this topic. Sibling sexual abuse includes intercourse, attempted intercourse, oral-genital contact, fondling of genitals directly or through clothing, exhibitionism, exposing children to adult sexual activity or pornography, and the use of the child for prostitution or pornography (Caffaro, J., 2016).
The current research regarding the topic of sibling sexual abuse is very limited and minimally looked into. An article on the topic talks about how rarely SSA is discussed in literature even though according to statistics this form of abuse is one of the most common types in childhood sexual abuse. They found that the abusers were often not prosecuted in situations of SSA, only about one third, versus abuse from outside the family three quarters were prosecuted. Three types of SSA were discussed and explained starting with harmless sex play, sexual behaviour initiated by both parties involved, and sexual behaviour that is not the norm and would be classified as harmful. This study found that there are no set criteria to define abuse between siblings versus harmless sex play or sexual behaviour initiated by both parties (Yates, P., 2016). The survivor of the abuse is most often women who have been abused by an older sibling, often a brother (Mcdonald, C., & Martinez, K., 2017). The research shows that siblings can act as buffers between parents when attachments are no secure, and therefore can lead to siblings becoming close (Caffaro, J., 2016).
Research by Yates talks about how there are many stereotypes related to siblings and their sexual behaviour starting with the idea that young siblings engage in playful sexual behaviour to explore and that this type of behaviour is harmless. Some families kiss each other on the mouth while others think this is unacceptable. Topics such as bathing together and sharing a bed are talked about regarding what is acceptable and at what age these are acceptable. Sibling incest is a topic that people do not talk about which impacts that amount of research completed on the topic. The lack of research can lead to people believing that nothing is wrong with these behaviours and encourage social workers to continue with the thought process that siblings cannot be abusive to each other and that the survivor is making it up. This can lead to many emotional hardships for the survivor of the abuse in the future due to a lack of support, belief, and reassurance (Yates, P., 2016).
Risk and Causes of Sexual Abuse
An article by the Journal of Sexual Aggression published an article that discusses the risk factors for those who become abusers. Those who abused were often found to feel rejected by their parents, have poor family relationships, lack positivity, be physically disciplined, and have parents with problems in their marriage (Yates, P., Allardyce, S., & Macqueen, S., 2012). Other risks associated with becoming an abuser were having parents who were absent and had a sexual environment at home, parents who treated siblings differently, used power imbalances, and blurred boundaries (Caffaro, J., 2016).
A different article talks about how personal trauma and family dynamics can affect the way that the abuser reacts to the situation creating jealous anger which led to the abuse of a sibling. The parents of the children did not want to come forward to authorities because they feared what would be done to the child who was caught abusing their siblings which may have led to the continuation of the abuse or the thought of this being okay for the siblings survivor (Yates, P., Allardyce, S., & Macqueen, S., 2012).
Yates discusses how siblings may be caught using threats towards other siblings such as manipulation to regain power in the sibling dynamic. The abused sibling is not likely to come forward due to fear of what will happen to themselves and their family. Children often felt they may not be believed and were afraid of getting their sibling into trouble and upsetting their parents. Some signs of a child who may become an abuser are those who are distant, families who have open sexual boundaries, siblings who are often left alone without supervision, and those with parents who were distant. This article found four main factors that led to potential sibling abuse which were nudity in the family, parents who were physically violent to each other, sharing beds with siblings, and incest between a child and parent already occurring in the family (Yates, P., 2016).
Research on the impact of parental domestic violence on children shows that the inability to properly express and deal with intense feelings, depression, anxiety, aggression, interferes with exploratory behaviours, (Jenney, Angelique and Ramona Alaggia. “Children’s exposure to domestic violence: Integrating policy, research, and practice to address children’s mental health.” CBNU ch. 11, pp. 303-329.)
Some theories discussed in the literature revolving around sibling sexual abuse were the attachment paradigm and social learning theory. Social learning theory was used to describe how children who became abusers generally learned from being personally abused before, having a family that was dysfunctional, or having access to and watching pornography that involved violence (Mcdonald, C., & Martinez, K., 2017). The attachment paradigm is used to help the person who was a survivor of SSA to help them rebuild relationships in the future and see their perspective on self-blame and how the family reacted after finding out about the abuse. This helps to find what area to focus on for the survivor to get the proper help they need. The last theory discussed is cognitively oriented interventions. This is thought to help survivors look at the blame they have placed on themselves and dive into why they feel this way to allow them to forgive themselves and form a better self-image (Caffaro, J., 2016).
Impact on the Survivor
The impact on the survivor of the abuse can vary from person to person but throughout research studies showed that most survivors did not seek help for the sexual abuse they experienced, but instead tended to seek help for the after-effects such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Survivors of sexual abuse were often diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and some became pregnant or contracted a sexually transmitted disease from their sibling along with physical injuries (Yates, P., 2016) Many survivors had no contact with their abuser in the future and had experienced strained relationships with their families after coming forward about the abuse. Relationships in the future with other people were often reported as difficult especially when it came to intimacy (Mcdonald, C., & Martinez, K., 2017). Survivors reported being confused about the situation, embarrassed to come forward, and fearful of what would happen to their family and abuser which prevented them from coming forward to report the abuse (Caffaro, J., 2016).
Health Care Teaching
As a health care provider, it’s very important to look for signs of abuse and be able to appropriately treat patients. The literature regarding the topic of sexual abuse among siblings is very scarce which impacts the knowledge given to health professionals about the signs to look for and how to handle the situation. As a professional who works with someone portraying harmful sexual behaviour, it is asked that they properly assess whether that child is a risk to others in the community or their family members (Yates, P., Allardyce, S., & Macqueen, S., 2012). When discussing sexual abuse among siblings, many professionals did not believe the survivors of the abuse, believing that siblings could not harm each other and that it was just children experimenting with each other which was deemed normal. It is important for future health care works to educate themselves on the statistics of sibling sexual abuse and train themselves to be sensitive to the care they provide the survivors and learn to take the statement as the truth. This will allow the survivor to appropriately disclose the information and begin to receive the help they need. When a sibling abuse is reported, the health care team should investigate further due to the possibility of more than one survivor being in the family or community as well as the possibility of parental abuse. During checkups with children questions about siblings should be asked regarding the relationship they have to give a safe opportunity for survivors to come forwards (Yates, P., 2016).
Further research needs to be done regarding risk assessment tools to assess for survivors of abuse as well as potential children who are at risk for becoming the abuser (Yates, P., Allardyce, S., & Macqueen, S., 2012). Literature should discuss more openly the topic of sibling sexual abuse to bring more awareness to the topic to educate health care professionals on the rates of sexual abuse between siblings and to uncover the stereotypes about sibling abuse. More awareness of the topic will also provide others with the ability to come forward about speaking about the abuse, allowing them to understand that it is not uncommon, and it is not okay. Health care providers should integrate a routine screening tool into their assessments of every patient to help identify patients who experienced adverse events as children (Yates, P., 2016).