Within the clinical diagnosis of childhood sexual abuse category, sibling incest is a common form of childhood sexual trauma in the United States (Brand & Alexander, 2003), yet often disregarded in public debates. More recently, Lena Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl brought the topic of sibling sexual abuse to the forefront. In her book, Dunham tells stories how using candy she bribed her younger sister into giving her kisses and allowing her to touch her vagina. Public opinion went both ways… some condemned Dunham for her actions and labeled them as abusive, others, including Dunham herself categorized them as normal sexual exploration.
To label a sexual interaction between siblings as either sexual abuse or sexual exploration is complicated and many factors play into how one understands these interactions. Specifically, how both siblings understand and process this interaction is equally important, as well as the family dynamics. Much like childhood sexual abuse, sibling incest is not often addressed in our culture. Oftentimes survivors are reluctant to reveal such a history because of guilt and shame. Research estimates that in the U.S. alone, the rate of sibling incest might be five time the rate of parent-child sexual abuse (Finkelhor, 1980, 1984), yet these rates are based on reports, and often survivors do not report these ordeals.
Some sexual curiosity and exploration is to be expected between children, especially siblings. Sexuality is a normal part of child development, and children will want to explore each other’s bodies and those of their parents, siblings and friends. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has some guidelines for caretakers on how to differentiate normal from abnormal behavior. In simple terms, when exploratory behavior goes beyond exploration and forms a pattern, caretakers should intervene. Questions such as: is there a significant age difference between the children, what are the motives behind this, it is simply exploration, or an assertion of power, or a re-enactment of sexual abuse? In short, coercion is the difference between natural curiosity and abuse. Sexual abuse frequently includes coercion by older or more powerful brothers or sisters. Unfortunately because of our culture’s denial of sexuality in children, sexual exploration between siblings is also something we seldom discuss.
When assessing whether or not one is dealing with exploration or exploitation, issues such as coercion, interpersonal power differentials, family dynamics, and gender based differences need to be analyzed. Sexual contact between siblings is abusive when there is a large age difference between the children, yet sexual interactions between siblings can be harmful even when they are close in age. On average, girls are less likely to be sexually abused by a sister than by a brother. Differences such as sizes, strengths, and developmental stages influence the power dynamic. More studies on the topic reveal that sibling incest often occurs in more patriarchal families, perhaps because of the rigid power structure and the underlying message that the weak is dominated by the powerful. These families are characterized by physical and/or emotional violence, marital discord, explicit and implicit sexual tensions, and blurred intrafamilial boundaries (Asherman & Safier, 1990; Caffaro & Conn-Caffaro, 2005). Also in these families there is often a sexual climate in the home, and parents send double messages regarding sexuality (Daie, Witztum & Ellett 1989; Smith and Israel 1987). Further some research links the incident of sibling sexual abuse with parent-child sexual abuse.
When sexual acts are initiated or conducted by one sibling without the other’s consent, or with coercion, research shows the long-lasting, damaging effects (Carlson, Maciol, & Schneider, 2006; Weihe, 1997). These effects included low self-esteem (Finkelhor 1979; Laviola 1992; Wiehe 1990; Abrahams & Hoey 1994), anxiety, depression, relationship dysfunction, sexual dissatisfaction (Daie, Witztum & Eleff 1989; Wiehe 1990; Laviola 1992), promiscuity, substance abuse and self and body image issues.
Most survivors do not talk or reveal the abuse until later on in life, perhaps because of the negative consequences (disbelief, family repercussions). Survivors are more likely to see themselves as co-conspirators and feel that they should share the responsibility, and the blame, and punishment for the behavior if the “secret” is disclosed.
When the abuse begun, survivors are often children who fail to understand that the relationship between an older brother or sister may be inappropriate. Often couched in the context of play, young victims are likely to find these activities pleasurable and therefore see themselves as co-conspirators. Consistent with other forms of childhood sexual abuse, there is a progressive aspect to the abuse such that in the early stages of the relationship, the sexual nature of the behaviors is less apparent, hidden in special hugs and games and play wrestling. Over time, these behaviors progress to be more sexual in nature. Most survivors report feeling “off” or “wrong” about what was happening, however, the victim’s participation in the activities to that point, the closeness in age with the offender, and the lack of a generational boundary between victim and offender too often lead to the victim’s confusion about responsibility for the behaviors.
As survivors carry this secret throughout their lives, they often remain confused when it comes to healthy boundaries in relationships, or understanding mutuality (Ballantine, 2012; Carlson et al, 2006). The therapeutic relationship can be a place where survivors get to explore their feelings, and make sense of the narrative surrounding their complicated relationship with their sibling. To fully understand the dynamic of such relationship the therapist has to be willing to suspend judgment and be willing to stand with the patient as s/he comes to understand this narrative. Whether or not the relationship started with coercion, or begun as an exploration of sexuality, factors such as: length of time, feelings associated with the incident(s) and the parents’ reaction or inaction need to be considered. Even when sibling incest is mutual, there are feelings of shame and guilt to be processed, and patients often dismiss structural factors, such as patriarchy, family abuse, gender roles that contribute and further complicate what might seem as a simple story. For perpetrators, the story is just as complex, often intertwined with their own history of previous abuse, or neglect. Unlike childhood sexual abuse perpetuated by an adult, these narratives are complicated, as children often rely on their caretakers for guidance and structure.
The secrecy of any childhood sexual abuse contributes to the victim’s inability to move on and to realize that s/he was not at fault. To be able to move from victim to survivor, the victim who has suffered childhood sexual abuse has to understand the trauma, process it, and turn it into a memory. The therapeutic hour can become a space where, we lay the necessary groundwork for victims to reposition themselves regarding the abuse, to process and to understand that they were the victims not the instigators. Further, admitting that it can happen to any of us is important. We all have the capability to be hurt and to hurt others. This admission will create a dialogue rooted in compassion.
Whether or not Dunham’s interactions with her sister were abusive or not, it’s difficult to say, in the absence of family history and the lack of information on how her sister views Dunham’s actions. In short, we would be just speculating. Yet, Dunham’s book Not That Kind of Girl did launch a conversation regarding sibling abuse – an important and often unspoken topic.
Let’s expand that conversation to include analyses of institutions such as: schools, military, family, etc., which promote patriarchy and strict gender roles, the two variables linked to childhood sexual abuse. We can all effect change in these institutions starting with critical self-reflection, and drawing connections between individual acts of abuse and systemic forms of oppression. By analyzing how patriarchy and strict gender roles contribute in a systemic way to the abuse, we can begin conversations that envision egalitarian, nonexploitative relationships with little abuse.
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Ascherman, L. I., & Safier, E. J. (1990). Sibling incest: a consequence of individual and family dysfunction. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic.
Ballantine, M. W. (2012). Sibling incest dynamics: Therapeutic themes and clinical challenges. Clinical Social Work Journal, 40(1), 56-65.
Brand, B. L., & Alexander, P. C. (2003). Coping with incest: The relationship between recollections of childhood coping and adult functioning in female survivors of incest. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 16(3), 285-293.
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Carlson, B. E., Maciol, K., & Schneider, J. (2006). Sibling incest: Reports from forty-one survivors. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 15(4), 19-34.
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Weihe, V. R. (1997). Sibling abuse: Hidden physical, emotional, and sexual trauma. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.