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Brandy's Blog

What to Call It? Words Matter

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 5WAVES.org, 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 https://www.csacentre.org.uk/csa-centre-prodv2/assets/File/Sibling%20sexual%20abuse%20report%20-%20for%20publication.pdf

[3] Grant et al. 2009 https://www.aic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-05/tandi375.pdf


[4] Snyder, 2000 https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/saycrle.pdf



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