Cedar Rapids, Iowa (population 136,467) is the unofficial capital of eastern Iowa. The city experiences periodic, sometimes massive floods from its namesake Cedar River. Like all Iowans, Cedar Rapids residents are familiar with the threat of tornadoes. The risk of a tornado hitting any given spot in any given year is exceedingly small. Many people live their whole lives in the central United States and never see one. But the risk that someone will be in the path of a tornado each year is almost guaranteed. So schools have drills, warning sirens get tested at noon the first Wednesday of every month, weather service and media team up to educate the public and issue tornado watches and warnings.
But before August 10, 2020, not a single resident of Cedar Rapids had heard the word “derecho” (unless they were giving legal advice in Spanish). The city was focused on the threat of Covid-19, not the weather forecast. “Chance of thunderstorms” was nothing unusual for a summer morning. No one got a cell phone alert for the storm. Sirens didn’t go off until the wall of clouds had arrived and the wind had begun. It blew continuously for 45 minutes, with gusts as powerful as a Category 4 hurricane, in an area several counties wide.
People emerged from their basements to find their neighborhood or workplace destroyed. Those who could get service called 911 and reported what they assumed was a tornado. But downed trees, power lines, and debris blocked nearly every road in the city. Residents were left to improvise, to clean up, to find food, water, shelter, medicine, and loved ones on their own.
With all power and communication towers down at once, it took hours for the rest of the world to learn that Cedar Rapids needed help. It took days to comprehend the scope of the devastation and to have it declared a disaster. Reporters and even weather service personnel struggled to describe it with the only words they knew: “an inland hurricane,” “the most destructive thunderstorm in Iowa history.” For years, residents struggled with insurance companies to cover claims for a disaster unimagined when their policies were written.
The Cedar Rapids derecho is an example of a city devastated by something so unimaginable that it had no name, and no disaster readiness plan. Sibling sexual abuse is a family disaster that is actually quite common, yet falls so far outside our societal expectations that it goes unnamed, unspoken, and unrecognized. So it hits without warning, without an infrastructure prepared to understand it or respond.
There are many reasons children do not report their sibling’s harmful sexual behavior right away, but one reason is that no one has talked about it or told them it is wrong. Likewise, even if the sibling who harmed them feared getting in trouble for what they were doing, it is possible that child did not have a clear understanding of why it was wrong.*
When children do tell a parent or other adult what is happening, too often their parents have no concept that sibling sexual abuse is a real thing. They may remember or have heard of sexual curiosity in children. So they do not comprehend the full impact of their child’s traumatizing sexual behavior on their sibling, and they fail to take the steps necessary for protection and healing. Or at the other extreme, they have heard about child sexual abuse caused by adult sex offenders or pedophiles. So they demonize the young person whose sexual behavior was tragically out of line, not realizing that, given proper treatment, support and supervision, the child has a good chance of growing into a sexually healthy and responsible adult.
Still, sometimes children do talk about what has happened, and their parents realize it is serious and look for help. They report the behavior to child abuse authorities or law enforcement, or they call a therapist or crisis center. More commonly, children do not tell anyone what they have experienced until adulthood, at which time they may seek out a therapist and talk about the abuse they endured or the behavior they displayed as a child. Too often, however, even the professionals who respond to reports of child sexual abuse have not been trained to recognize and respond appropriately to sibling sexual trauma. Legal frameworks, organizations, and resources designed to respond to adult-to-child sexual abuse, or adult-to-adult sexual violence, may be inappropriate or insufficient when both victim and offender are, or were, children living in the same home.
No one is prepared for a disaster that has no name.
Better responses to sibling sexual abuse, including researching the most effective interventions, changing laws, lobbying for funding to respond to sibling sexual trauma, will all take time. But the first steps toward all of those goals may also have the most impact:
Talk about it.
Have a disaster plan.
We need to name sibling sexual trauma, and prepare for it. Not because we expect it to happen, but because we live in a world where it can happen to anyone, and it will happen to someone, so everyone should be prepared, including parents, social service workers, therapists, educators, and medical professionals.
If you are reading this blog, you might be the first in your community to speak of the reality that we call sibling sexual trauma, sibling sexual abuse, sibling incest, or harmful sexual behavior toward a sibling. One of the simplest ways to raise awareness is to share a 5WAVES contact card or flier** with the people and organizations in your life: your local schools, hospitals and doctors offices, sexual assault and child advocacy centers, mental health providers. Say something like, “I know someone who was affected by sibling sexual trauma. I had no idea how common it was until then. I want you to have this information if anyone ever needs it.”
In this simple act, you will have both named and talked about sibling sexual abuse. If nothing else, one more person has heard that it exists–the first step to recognizing it is real if they ever encounter it. And if that person keeps the card or flier, they will be prepared with a disaster response plan. If they are a professional, they will be able to direct families or clients to the immediate need-to-know information and resources to respond when sibling sexual trauma strikes. And if it hits them personally, they will know what to call it and be able to find help.
*This is true in some cases, but certainly not all. Older teens in particular may be quite aware that what they are doing is devastating to their sibling, not to mention illegal, and often use coercion or threats to keep their sibling quiet.
**These files may be shared electronically, copied, or printed in any quantity, as long as they are distributed for free and unaltered.