Sibling relationships are some of the most powerful yet undervalued in the family lives of children and adolescents. Not only are sibling relationships often the most enduring in the family, but they also play a significant role in identity formation, attachment, as well as social, cognitive, and emotional development.[i] The benefits derived from healthy sibling relationships, both in the short and long-term, have been well documented, but the issue of abusive sibling relationships, in particular sibling sexual abuse (“SSA”), is rarely considered in the professional literature. Historically, society has dismissed a lot of damaging sibling behavior as harmless childhood sexual exploration. This collective failure to recognize SSA minimizes its effect on victims and the seriousness of the offense, causing many victims to suffer in silence. To tackle this public health crisis, we must address existing gaps in the knowledge and understanding of SSA and make effective prevention a priority for parents, professionals, and lawmakers.
There Is No Single, Universally Accepted Definition of Sibling Sexual Abuse
Our knowledge and understanding of SSA are largely constrained by the lack of a clearly articulated description under the law. For one, the definition of child abuse under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), the key Federal legislation concerning child abuse and neglect, does not align with analysis of SSA in that it assumes the perpetrator is a parent or caregiver.[ii] Many states also exclude sibling sexual abuse from their definitions of child abuse, or refer to it only indirectly.[iii] The absence of a clear statutory definition may have policy, direct-service, and/or legal implications. For example, differences in terminology complicate reporting practices as individuals, including child protection workers, are forced to apply their own definitions to determine what acts or behaviors constitute as sibling abuse.[iv] While researchers and mental health practitioners have similarly struggled to develop a universally accepted definition of SSA, the general agreement in the literature is that SSA includes sexual behavior between siblings that is “not age appropriate, not transitory, and not motivated by developmentally, mutually appropriate curiosity,” and which often involves the exploitation of a power dynamic and some degree of forced or coercive activity.[v] However, identifying which specific acts and behaviors constitute abuse still requires a subjective analysis. Without a clearly articulated and nationally adopted description of sibling sexual abuse, it will remain difficult for child protection workers, researchers, and mental health clinicians to identify the problem in the populations they work with.
Sibling Sexual Abuse Is a Common Phenomenon That Is Rarely Disclosed or Reported
Although it is difficult to reliably establish its prevalence, SSA is believed to be the most common and longest-lasting form of intrafamilial sexual abuse, occurring at an estimated rate of approximately five times the rate of parent-child sexual abuse.[vi] Additionally, SSA is more likely than any other form of child sexual abuse to include physical force and to involve sexual intercourse.[vii] It is also the least reported, studied, and treated.[viii]
There is a wealth of evidence which suggests that SSA, in particular, is rarely disclosed, and is less likely to be reported to law enforcement or child protection than sexual abuse by an adult.[ix] For one, sibling sexual contact is often couched in the context of play such that young victims are unlikely to recognize these behaviors as abusive. Even if victims understand that they have been abused, many do not disclose due to fears of blame, punishment, or disbelief, while others fear disclosure will disrupt family dynamics.[x] Because many victims believe that secrecy is vital to preserving family harmony, disclosure often does not occur until many years after the abuse, with most victims carrying the secret well into adulthood.
Even when the victim does choose to disclose, their abuse may still not be reported to authorities and captured in data reviews. Often, the only way to bring sibling abuse to the attention of law enforcement is for a parent to file charges against the sexually abusive sibling on behalf of their victimized child. A child may tell their parent what happened, but parents may not recognize the disclosed behavior as abusive, or they may feel it best to address the matter privately – both of which contribute to their reluctance to report SSA to the proper authorities.[xi] Not only is SSA less likely to be reported to police, but also cases that are reported are less likely to move further into the criminal justice process to prosecution, conviction, or sentencing.[xii] This is explained, at least in part, by the fact that only children 10 years and older can be held criminally liable for their sexually abusive behavior in most states, and even adolescent perpetrators are afforded certain graces under the common law concept which considers developmental immaturity as a mitigating factor in the assessment of culpability.[xiii] Unfortunately, one of the only ways offending siblings are able to access treatment for their abusive sexual behaviors is through adjudication in the juvenile justice system. Thus, SSA is not only frequently unpunished, but it is also frequently untreated.
Sibling Sexual Abuse Uniquely Impacts the Victim & the Family System
The impact of SSA is different for every victim depending on the nature, severity, and duration of the abuse, as well as the family’s response to the victim-child and initial disclosure. Generally, the effects of SSA mirror those of other forms of child sexual abuse, however, the impact may be even more acute in the context of SSA.[xiv] Children who are sexually assaulted by other children present with higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems, with SSA victims as a group exhibiting the most severe forms of mental distress and antisocial behavior.[xv]
The developmental consequences for children who have experienced SSA are particularly striking. Due to the longevity and severity of SSA, victims usually experience a disruption of 2-3 developmental stages, as energy that would otherwise be used to accomplish developmental tasks is instead directed toward survival.[xvi] This developmental disruption is linked to a host of negative effects (distinct from those associated with SSA) including premature sexualization, difficulty with peer relationships, and identity disturbances.[xvii] Risk-related behaviors, including substance abuse, self-harm, and delinquent/criminal behavior, is also uniquely severe in child survivors of SSA.[xviii] Because SSA victims are among the least likely to receive professional intervention, most continue to experience these problems into adulthood.[xix]
The consequences of SSA are not limited to the individual victim. SSA is commonly experienced as a family crisis when it becomes known.[xx] This loss of family identity is particularly acute in cases where a child must be temporarily removed from the home.[xxi] While parental support—which includes believing the child, providing emotional support, and taking protective actions—has consistently been associated with improved outcomes for victims, the dynamics of SSA often complicate parents’ ability to provide such support.[xxii] For one, the denial, shame, and stigma experienced by parents and caregivers may be heightened immediately following disclosure.[xxiii] Understandably, many parents and caregivers feel torn between the needs of the victim-child and the child who perpetrated the harm, and some parents may respond by minimizing the behavior and delay seeking professional help.[xxiv] Families who dismiss the abuse or who misplace responsibility for the abuse can significantly compound the abuse’s impact.[xxv]
Dysfunctional Family Environments May Subtly Foster Sibling Sexual Abuse
While there is no single risk factor for SSA, the best science stresses the family environment as one of the main factors contributing to this phenomenon.[xxvi] Although SSA can occur in any family, most SSA victims live in dysfunctional family environments that subtly foster abusive behaviors. Studies have identified common factors in the family backgrounds of children who have experienced SSA including, but not limited to, domestic violence and abuse, poor sexual boundaries within the family home, parent–child sexual abuse, and a lack of parental supervision. [xxvii]
Family dysfunction may be compounded by wider environmental stressors which are also believed to impact the emergence of SSA. For example, researchers know that intrafamilial sexual violence tends to increase during and after major disasters or crises.[xxviii] In the context of the recent COVID-19 pandemic and attendant lockdowns, factors such as lack of adequate parental supervision, increased caregiving responsibilities being delegated to older siblings, and increased use of technology—and therefore access to inappropriate online content—have significantly increased the risk of abuse. Concerns have been raised that this time period has been detrimental to the disclosure of intrafamilial sexual abuse, including SSA.[xxix]
Looking Ahead at Cross-System Responses
SSA is one of the most complex and emotionally charged problems facing many families. Because of the scale of the problem, all professionals working in the legal, social, and health care fields, need to be prepared to work with individuals and families affected by SSA. Part II of “The Hidden Crisis of Sibling Sexual Abuse,” will explore how SSA is addressed at the intervention and prevention levels and will also present recommendations for managing and responding to SSA across systems to ensure the best outcomes for individuals and families affected by SSA.
i Kramer, L., & Kowal, A. K., Sibling relationship quality from birth to adolescence: the enduring contributions of friends, 19(4) J. OF FAMILY PSYCH. 503 (2005); Lynne White, Sibling Relationships Over the Life Course: A Panel Analysis, 63(2) J. OF MARRIAGE & FAMILY 555 (2001).
ii U.S. DEP’T. HEALTH & HUMAN SERV., What is child abuse or neglect? What is the definition of child abuse and neglect?, available at https://www.hhs.gov/answers/programs-for-families-and-children/what-is-child-abuse/index.htm
iii JOHN CAFFARO, SIBLING ABUSE OF OTHER CHILDREN, HANDBOOK OF INTERPERSONAL VIOLENCE ACROSS THE LIFESPAN at 7 (2020).
v Caffaro, J. V., & Conn-Caffaro, A., Treating sibling abuse families, 10(5) AGGRESSION & VIOLENT BEHAVIOR 604 (2005); Carlson, B.E., et. al., Sibling incest: Reports from forty-one survivors, 15(4) J. OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE, 19 (2006); John Caffaro, Sibling abuse trauma, 2nd ed., New York (Routledge, 2014).
vi Margaret Ballantine, Sibling incest dynamics: Therapeutic themes and clinical challenges, 40(1) CLINICAL SOCIAL WORK J., 56 (2012); Krienert, J. & Walsh, J., Sibling sexual abuse: an empirical analysis of offender, victim, and event characteristics in National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) Data, 2000-2007, 20(4) J. OF CHILD ABUSE, (2011).
vii Tener D., Tarshish N, & Turgeman S., Victim, Perpetrator, or Just My Brother? Sibling Sexual Abuse in Large Families: A Child Advocacy Center Study, 35(21-22) J. OF INTERPERSONAL VIOLENCE, 4887 (2020).
ix Supra n.5.
xAlaggia, R & Kirshenbaum, S., Speaking the unspeakable: exploring the impact of family dynamics on child sexual abuse disclosure, 86 FAMILIES IN SOCIETY, 227 (2005) (noting that victims of SSA are more likely to feel like they were co-conspirators and take responsibility for post-disclosure disruptions to the family including any removal or punishment of the abusive sibling).
xi Amy Meyers, Notes from the Field: Understanding Why Sibling Abuse Remains Under the Radar and Pathways to Outing, Faculty Works: Social Work at 2 (2015).
xii Supra n.6.