In his work raising awareness about neurodiversity, Dr. Stephen Shore makes the point, “If you’ve met one person with autism … you’ve met one person with autism.” The same concept is true of sibling sexual trauma. If you’ve met one family affected by sibling sexual trauma … you’ve met one family affected by sibling sexual trauma. If you’ve heard one survivor’s story of sibling sexual trauma … you’ve heard one survivor’s story of sibling sexual trauma. If you have joined in a journey of healing with one person who has caused sexual harm to a sibling … you have joined in one person’s journey. There are commonalities between experiences of sibling sexual trauma but also an extremely wide range of possibilities and variables.
We are on the cusp of an exponential increase in awareness about sibling sexual trauma among social service providers, thanks to the work of the RCEW Sibling Sexual Abuse Project, Brad Watts, and others. This is so needed, and so welcome. If you are a professional doing research in this field, or a practitioner working to educate yourself about this possible trauma in your clients' lives, please accept my gratitude on behalf of all whose lives have been directly affected by this invisible pandemic.
We need well-designed research to understand the reality, the patterns, the risk factors, and the most effective treatments and interventions for everyone affected by sibling sexual trauma. We need practitioners who are aware of the prevalence and dynamics of SST, and we need tools and best practice guidelines. A wonderful free resource for professionals was just unveiled today: content from the February 2022 National Sibling Sexual Abuse Conference for Frontline Sectors in the UK. Session videos and materials will be available until mid-March 2022 at https://www.sarsas.org.uk/conference-information-pack/.
As we all learn together, I offer the following suggestions and cautions.
1) You are more experienced than you realize. You might think you’ve never worked with a client who was affected by sibling sexual trauma. But given the statistics, you almost certainly have. You just don’t know who those clients are. Perhaps they did not feel comfortable talking about it, or didn’t feel it was relevant. Maybe they were so young they didn’t even know it was traumatic, or they had buried it so deep it did not even come to their mind or memory.
2) Take even expert advice and understanding with a grain of salt. (Including this website and blog.) The body of published literature is growing, but every statistic or conclusion comes with a big asterisk. So many studies have had to rely on a very small sample size, or could only access cases that were reported to some kind of authority or families who followed up with some kind of treatment. Longitudinal studies with any valid measure of long-term outcomes for survivor, offender, or family are sparse. The stigma around SST means information collected is especially susceptible to bias, both in self-reporting and in practitioners' perceptions. Population-wide surveys or a comparison to any type of control group are rare.
3) In one sense, sibling sexual trauma is a narrow subject, a specific subset of sexual assault and abuse. Yet it is also a very broad subject, an experience that affects every aspect of life. Siblingsexualtrauma.com is an extensive website, but in reality it only scratches the surface of the topic. It does however offer the beginnings of help to those who have harmed, those who have been harmed, and their parents and family members.
4) Sibling sexual trauma shatters lives. It also shatters our stereotypes about sexual assault, sexual offending, child sexual development, sibling and family relationships, and so much more. Any serious look at the reality of sibling sexual trauma–as a population wide phenomenon or as an individual circumstance–requires us to set aside so many preconceived images, so many assumptions of how the world operates. It requires us to think outside our usual categories and labels. Can a child be a child abuser? Aren’t sibling relationships safe and lasting? Can a girl really sexually assault a brother? Can a prepubescent child actually be aroused by touching a biological sibling? How can a child still love and want to live with the person who sexually violated them? How can another child never want to see their own sibling again? Do children who cause sexual harm grow up to be adult offenders?
5) With so many unknowns, so many variables and such a complex situation, everyone involved in a real life case is going to make mistakes. It’s inevitable. This includes every family member and every professional. We are all learning and adjusting. Try to be gracious to yourself and others. Allow yourself and others to admit mistakes, learn from them, and take corrective action.
Sign up below if you would like to follow this blog, which will include links to future publications on sibling sexual trauma, articles on various facets of SST, and guest blogs offering a variety of stories and perspectives. And don’t forget to check out the wealth of information for professionals from the 2-year Sibling Sexual Abuse Project National Conference.