It's not a big deal...is it???
Updated: Jul 14, 2022
This is a joint blog by Brandy Black, and fellow 5WAVES member Jane Epstein. Jane recently gave the first talk on the TEDx platorm on the subject of sibling sexual trauma. Here she shares a critical point in her journey as a survivor.
It was the morning I’d typed the words in my journal, “I want to die, die, die.” I felt small. My life felt out of order, and I could not understand why. What was wrong with me?
I had tried marriage counseling. I had tried one-on-one counseling and antidepressants. I gave up alcohol. Nothing was working.
The marriage counselor had said at a recent session, "Jane, your anger does not match the circumstances." I have had a temper all my life. I thought it was just part of my make up. All my screaming and anger at my husband and the kids.
My life was like a puzzle. The pieces were there, but they just didn’t fit. One by one, I started to turn over every painful moment in my life, scrutinizing them for answers. But there were so many! I was overwhelmed.
There was one piece that I’d kept off to the side. I was sure it didn’t fit. It wasn’t a big deal. It couldn’t possibly be the cause of so much anger and suffering. But I had tried every other piece already. So I scheduled a one-on-one with the marriage counselor.
I struggled to find the words to use. “My brother messed with me when I was 6 years old until I was 12.” I stated it matter of factly, thinking this would prove to him and myself that it was not a big deal, that it was not affecting me.
The therapist remained seated and did not move. Perhaps he was trying to conceal his surprise. He asked me questions, gently. “How long did this go on? How did it start? Have you ever told anyone?”
I looked down at the floor, avoiding eye contact. “It's not a big deal, is it? He was my brother. I mean, it never went too far, and he apologized. I've dealt with it.”
The therapist tilted his head to the left and leaned in towards me as though he was about to break out in prayer for me. He kept his composure, trying not to alarm me.
I started to feel like I had just leaked a big secret, and I wanted to take it back. “I was never afraid of him. I mean, he never threatened me.”
“This is kind of a big deal.”
“Are you sure this is a big deal? Aren't kids curious?”
He reassured me. “Yes, kids are curious. Once or twice. Curiosity does not span the course of six years.”
“But I'm guilty. I sought him out....I...even tried to, um, seduce him. I asked for it, so who am I to be fucked up over it?”
“Your body reacted the way it was designed to react. The touch may have felt good. It explains why you became hypersexual. It's what you were taught. It made relationships and sex transactional.”
I kept fighting back. “But it was just my brother.”
“Yes. It's a complex relationship and situation.”
I didn't want to go there. But there was a grain of truth here, small as a grain of salt, but still, something to look at. Could this be why I’d always felt full of shame, not worthy of love?
“You need to tell your husband.”
“No, I can't! He will blame all of our marital problems on me now for sure!”
“He loves you. He is loyal to you. He would want to know.”
There are generally two reactions to harmful sexual contact between siblings. One is to deem it too repulsive to consider, too shameful to acknowledge. The other reaction is to minimize it–it’s not really sexual assault; it’s “not a big deal;” it’s “just kids being kids.” To be clear, a bit of mutual sexual curiosity or exploration between peers or siblings is considered normal. But ironically, this reality is too often used as a route to reaction number one–an excuse to deny the existence of real harm, real abuse, real trauma.
Children who are subjected to abusive sexual behavior by a sibling experience every bit as much harm, trauma, and shame as those who experience other types of sexual abuse and assault. Consider these factors:
Sibling sexual trauma tends to start at a younger age and last for a longer time than any other type of sexual abuse.
Siblings are likely to spend a lot of time together–so there are frequent opportunities for abusive behavior
Children who are being harmed are living in constant contact with the person whose abusive behavior is causing the harm, thus their sense of safety is constantly compromised.
The betrayal of trust and safety when a child is sexually violated by a sibling is on par with parental incest.
Sibling sexual trauma is so taboo that people who have been affected by it experience extreme isolation. Many survivors live decades without even knowing what to call it or realizing it has happened to anyone else.
The ongoing and hidden nature of sibling sexual trauma very often causes survivors to experience dissociation, amnesia, PTSD, and other physical and behavioral conditions caused by stress and shame turned inward.
Weeks later, I was back in the marriage counselor’s office, this time together with my husband. Again, my eyes were on the floor and my heart was in my throat. I somehow got the words out. “My brother messed with me when I was a kid.”
Would he mock me? Blame me? Turn on me in disgust? Accuse me of being overdramatic?
Thankfully, none of the above.
“Jane, I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
That wasn’t the end of my troubles. My life and my marriage weren’t “fixed” that day. But my therapist’s and my husband’s supportive responses allowed my journey of healing to begin.
My husband had lived for eight years with a survivor of sibling sexual trauma–and he had no idea. With sibling sexual trauma suspected to be the most common form of child sexual abuse, there is a very good chance that either you or someone you know well has been affected by it. Even if you don’t know who they are, you can still let them know they are not alone. Simply share this blog. Watch and share my TEDx Talk about sibling sexual abuse. Connect to me at complicatedcourage.com
Learn more and find more helpful resources at www.siblingsexualtrauma.com, such as:
Where is the line between normal curiosity and abusive behavior?
How is sibling sexual trauma different than other child sexual abuse?
What should I do if someone tells me it happened to them–adult or child?
What if I think I might have crossed the line myself?
photo: Maria Socolof