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Imporant Note: If you have had a negative or confusing sexual experience, you have the right to use any words you choose to describe it. The right words for you may also change over time as you go through various stages of healing. It is also OK, and normal, to have a hard time finding words to describe your experience.

If you are listening to someone else describe their own experience, do not try to correct the language they are using. They are the one and only expert on their own experience, and they are using the best words they can find to describe their own truth. Focus on giving them your attention, understanding and support.

Sibling Incest? Sibling Sexual Abuse? Harmful Sexualized Behavior? Sibling-Caused Sexual Harm? Sibling Sexual Trauma?

No one really knows what to call it. Many people who have experienced it struggle to find the words to describe it, even when they reach adulthood [1]. Social workers and researchers cannot agree on a definition [2]. Dictionary and even legal definitions vary from place to place and from decade to decade.

And what do you call the person who caused it? Is it different if they acted before they themselves reached the age of consent? A juvenile sexual offender? The perpetrator? A child who has caused sexual harm? The offending child? The initiator?

Even within our tight-knit group at, we struggle with language. We are trying to address something complex, with myriad facets and many possible variations, involving many people whose needs and wounds do not easily align.

Writers who published their stories or research in the 1900’s usually used the word “incest” to describe sexual activity between people of any age who were closely related, genetically or legally. Some legal codes dating from this time include the word incest, often defined with words like penetration or intercourse.

There has been a long history of believing that some, or even most, sibling incest was mutual. This myth was likely promoted by adult or older teen offenders. It fed their wish or image that the child they were exploiting “wanted it too.” Thanks to the voice of courageous survivors, it is now known that incest, whether across generations or between siblings or cousins, is almost never truly consensual.

Some survivors, such as the founders of Incest AWARE, find the term “incest” to be uniquely accurate in describing the shame and horror they experienced. Others are moving toward the term "intrafamilial child sexual abuse".

Starting around the year 2000, researchers and practitioners began to use the term “sibling sexual abuse.” This is the most common term used in current research. This change followed greater awareness of the power imbalances that allow for coercion or exploitation of one sibling by another. By the beginning of the 21st Century it became more widely understood that sibling sexual abuse can cause as much harm as child sexual abuse by an adult. The word “abuse” appears in criminal and child protection law, but overwhelmingly these laws were written with adult exploitation of children in mind. The legal definition of abuse may include words like “caregiver” which do not represent the realities of sibling sexual trauma.

Many survivors find that the term “abuse” is an important and accurate description of the way they were treated. Others (particularly some males) bristle at the connotation that they were abused. Some feel the situation was murky, without clear markers or boundaries of consent or who started it. Adults, including parents and child protective workers, often find it difficult to distinguish between normal curiosity and abuse that causes harmful consequences.

Those who are concerned about the sibling who is responsible for the harm bring up another concern. If we call it abuse, does that make one of the children an abuser? Is it appropriate to use that term to describe a child who is still below the age of consent, who still has potential to learn and grow and change?

It is estimated that half of children who act out sexually are themselves victims of sexual exploitation [3]. With 11-14 as the peak age of offending [4], many are too young, too cognitively or socially immature to understand the depth of consequences or bear full adult-like responsibility for their actions. Yet others continue sexually exploiting a sibling into their late teens or beyond, intentionally planning and repeatedly carrying out coercive, violent or even sadistic acts. How can it be possible to choose any one term that fairly encompasses both of these extremes?

Some practitioners advocate naming the action without labeling the person. They say there is a difference between calling an action abuse or describing a behavior as abusive, vs. labeling the person who did it as an abuser. In other words, you can do a bad thing without being a bad person. Others find this distinction too delicate to stand up to social stigma and personal shame.

Some terms and labels are categorically inappropriate for a young person, no matter how destructive their behavior. Many social workers and therapists involved in their treatment use person-first language, such as “children who have sexually harmed others” or “teens with problematic sexual behavior.” They point out that shaming labels only reinforce the cycle of social isolation and self-loathing that increases the risk of future offending.

But does the term “sexual harm” minimize the deep pain that has been inflicted on the other sibling? Does “problematic behavior” capture the moral injustice of the act and the rage felt by the survivor?

The people who have been most directly affected also choose different words to refer to themselves. Some people describe themselves as a victim and find it validating. Others find the term disempowering and prefer to describe themselves as survivors, or overcomers, or thrivers. Some identify as the one who was harmed or abused. Many change their preferred term as they mature or move through their healing journey.

5Waves has chosen to use sibling sexual trauma as an umbrella term. We value its focus on the harm that was done and the need to heal it. We hope it can be understood to be inclusive of any level of harm, regardless of the intention of the person who inflicted it. But it is a compromise, not a perfect or precise term. It will not resonate with every person or every situation at every point in time. We also realize that sibling sexual abuse is currently the most commonly used term. So we use it as well, for purposes of clarity and recognition.

In addition to helping survivors and families, 5Waves’ mission includes help and healing for those who have sexually violated a sibling. We believe this approach is important to recognizing the complexity of the situation, the needs of the child who caused the harm, and reducing the number of future offenses and future victims. In line with this, we have chosen to use person-first language that respects the inherent human value of everyone, even those who have committed wrong and harmful sexual acts. Part of being human is holding the responsibility for one’s actions and the potential to make healthy choices in the future. Yet we recognize that many victims, survivors, and overcomers will need to use stronger language to convey the truth of their stories.

[1] Tener D, Tarshish N, Turgeman S. “Victim, Perpetrator, or Just My Brother?” Sibling Sexual Abuse in Large Families: A Child Advocacy Center Study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 2020;35(21-22):4887-4912. doi:10.1177/0886260517718831

[2] Yates & Allardyce, 2021

[3] Grant et al. 2009

[4] Snyder, 2000

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"How much of the cave hasn’t been discovered yet?" It’s actually one of the top questions asked at Carlsbad Caverns National Park–and one that not one ranger can answer.

How common is sibling sexual trauma? How many people’s lives have been forever changed by it? How many children don’t tell anyone? How many people don’t even remember what they went through themselves?

We know sibling sexual trauma happens. A lot. But the numbers that we do have need to be qualified. They are estimates, based on limited and incomplete information. Where do they come from?

The entry room of the cave represents official crime data: the cases that get reported to police, and recorded by police. These can give a raw number of reports of criminal sexual activity against a sibling that were investigated, charged or convicted. But sexual violation by a child within the family is the type of sexual offense least likely to be reported to police. Many cases that are reported are not seriously investigated, because the legally admissible evidence to prove a crime of this type is so difficult to obtain. The likelihood that harmful sexual activity will be reported or recorded as abuse is also influenced by unconscious bias on the part of both mandatory reporters and investigators. Even when they do file a report, police do not always record the relationship between the victim and the offender. A recent report in the UK has advocated for reporting sibling sexual abuse as a separate category so that it can be seen and measured.

More of the cave comes into view when adults are surveyed anonymously, asking about their childhood experiences. Most researchers survey a “convenience sample,” a relatively small group of people who are easily accessible. Frequently-cited samples have included students taking a psychology class, inpatients in a psychiatric setting, even girls in an internet chat room. The data from these should not be assumed to apply universally.

A few studies have sampled an entire population as best they can–for example, by randomly telephoning thousands of households over a large area. Population-wide surveys of adults give us our best estimates of how much of the cave is hidden. The surveys consistently include significant numbers of respondents who say they were sexually abused as a child but have never told anyone about it before. In the largest study to report specifically about siblings, only 12% of college students who identified any kind of sexual experience with a sibling had ever told anyone else about it.

It is important to note that studies asking adults about their childhood experiences may not reflect today’s rates or risk factors for being harmed by a sibling’s abusive sexual behavior. Even a well-designed survey of young adults can only reflect what was happening in the society and technology 10 to 20 years past. It is also important to note that surveys must be very carefully worded and conducted if they are to truly include sibling-caused sexual trauma. The UK’s Sibling Sexual Abuse Project 2020-2022 found that many survivors of sibling sexual abuse do not identify as having experienced child sexual abuse. And few surveys will reach the people whose lives have been most devastated by their trauma–those who are incarcerated, or homeless, or too physically ill or mentally distraught to participate.

The deepest, unexplored part of the cave represents the victims of sibling sexual trauma who do not have any memory of the abuse to report. Intrafamilial sexual abuse, including sibling sexual abuse, is especially shocking and traumatic, which makes it particularly prone to becoming at least temporarily inaccessible to conscious memory (dissociative amnesia). Some of these survivors find their memories triggered later in life–a jarring experience to say the least. Currently it is conservatively estimated that at least 10% of children who are sexually abused will experience a time of not remembering the abuse, followed by delayed recall.

Based on the information we have now–the small portion of the cave that has been explored–5WAVES estimates that at least 3-5% of all children are affected by sibling sexual trauma. But the true extent of the problem and number of children affected remains a deep secret, one no one can answer, but one that cries out for more exploration, more research.

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Updated: Sep 12, 2022

It’s not often we hear the voices of young people who have sexually harmed others. Many people are not interested in paying attention to them. But there is one topic that we should all turn to them to learn about: How can we prevent other children and teens from making the same destructive mistakes that they did?

This blog will highlight one published study which asked exactly that question, of fourteen young people who completed an Australian treatment program for harmful sexual behavior. They also interviewed six staff members who worked with them. The results give us important insights to consider. They also help us to see and understand the humanity of the children who offered their insights.

McKibbin, G., Humphreys, C., “Talking about child sexual abuse would have helped me”: Young people who sexually abused reflect on preventing harmful sexual behavior Child Abuse & Neglect 2017, 70:210-221

These young people collectively identified three things that would have helped most to prevent their tragic behavior:

  1. Earlier and better education about sexuality

  2. Addressing their own victimization

  3. Help in managing online sexual images.

All three suggestions are supported by other evidence, cited in comments below each.

1. Earlier and better education around sexuality

The teens expressed a need for education around body safety and sexuality starting early, definitely before puberty. They needed it to include specific help to deal with difficult situations and challenges–“more than periods and condoms.” Most of the respondents were boys, and they suggested the education for them would be more effective if delivered by a male adult. One respondent noted that he received no sexuality education after he had been transferred to a school for children with intellectual disabilities.

Early, frequent, comprehensive school-based education is the most effective known approach to prevent child sexual abuse, and to prevent children from sexually harming others

Prevention | Crimes against Children Research Center Finkelhor, 2009

It is unfortunately common for children with intellectual, social, behavioral, or physical delays to be excluded during body safety and sexuality education, despite their increased vulnerability to be exploited and in some cases, an increased risk to harm others without full understanding of what they are doing Advocating for Inclusive Sex Education for Students with Disabilities | Online MSW Programs

Rock the Talk® – Children With Disabilities - The Mama Bear Effect

2. Addressing their own victimization

Of the fourteen teens interviewed, twelve reported experiencing some type of previous sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. They felt that if their own maltreatment had been recognized and addressed, if someone had made it clear that what happened to them was not OK, it may have given them the knowledge and emotional stability to avoid passing on the hurt. One described wondering why anyone would want to do what was done to him. He immaturely and tragically reasoned that if he tried it on his brother, then he might finally understand.

Past abuse or witnessing of abuse, whether sexual, physical, or emotional, has been found in approximately half of all children with problematic sexual behavior–particularly those who offend at an early age and within the family.

Intrafamilial adolescent sex offenders: psychological profile and treatment | Australian Institute of Criminology Grant et al, 2009

School-based body safety education and discussion of appropriate sexual boundaries has been shown to increase the likelihood that children will disclose sexual abuse. When disclosure does occur, and it leads to appropriate intervention and treatment, it decreases the risk of them experiencing and causing future sexual abuse.

The Prevention of Childhood Sexual Abuse | Crimes Against Children Research Center Finkelhor, 2009

3. Help in managing online sexual images

Twelve of the fourteen teens reported that they had been exposed to pornography before their problematic sexual behavior started, and three said it played a direct role in their path to offending. One was a boy who wanted to try out what he had seen online, and did it with his sister.

The reach of online pornography has increased faster than the ability to study and publish research on the topic. Even research from the pre-smartphone era has shown that the average child comes into contact with pornography prior to puberty and that exposure to pornography increases the risk of carrying out harmful sexual behavior against other children. It is reasonable to assume that this is currently one of the biggest factors influencing children to act in ways that sexually harm their siblings or other children close to them. Therefore, another important step adults can take to prevent child-on-child sexual trauma is to minimize early exposure to pornography. As children grow, adults need to give them tools to understand that porn is not reality, to resist addictive habits, and how to report concerns or get help. This will not only reduce harmful behavior by children, but will also reduce their risk of being exploited by others online.

Psychological and Forensic Challenges Regarding Youth Consumption of Pornography: A Narrative Review Gasso et al, 2021

Young People, Sexuality and the Age of Pornography Massey et al, 2021

Child and Adolescent Pornography Exposure - Journal of Pediatric Health Care Hornor, 2020

Talking to children sooner and more frankly about sexuality, addressing childhood trauma, protecting children from early exposure to harmful sexual images and giving them tools to manage porn exposure as they grow. These steps will not prevent all problematic sexual behavior toward siblings or other children. But it will prevent some–and that is reason enough to do it.

stock image; does not represent images of adolescents participating in the study

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