It's a Tragedy: Impact and Intent
Tragedy (noun): an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe
Sibling sexual trauma is a tragedy.
It is a tragedy because it has a great impact: It breaks people, lives, and families. It creates wide-ranging, lifelong challenges for the sibling who was violated. It haunts the life of the person who caused the trauma. It changes the family forever. It reverberates with impacts on future partners and families, even on friends, co-workers, and communities. Whether or not sibling sexual trauma is ever reported, disclosed, or even remembered by those who experienced it, the effects are lasting.
It is a tragedy because that impact remains no matter the level of understanding, intention, or accountability of the one who is responsible. The damage to the survivor’s body, spirit, and mind was caused by the actions of their sibling. But the extent of the impact is not determined by the age, the motivation, or the culpability of the sibling who caused the harm. The level of trauma any person experiences depends not only on what happened to them, but on their own personality and temperament, as well as the resources for healing and the level of support that are available to them.
In everyday life and thought, we use shortcuts. We assume that a person who hurt us must hate us, must be a “bad” person. The more it hurts, the worse that person must be. Yet we also encounter times when this does not apply. Sometimes the action of a decent person with good intent combines with ignorance or chance to cause great harm. For example, a doctor prescribes medication to a patient who has a severe allergic reaction. Sometimes a person’s carelessness causes much greater harm than anyone could have anticipated. For example, a child swallows a grandparent’s pills, or one person’s distracted driving disables another for life.
It is critical for all adults responding to sibling sexual trauma to keep in mind the distinction between impact and intent, between harm and culpability. It is important to remember that every situation is unique, and to remain open to a wide range of possibilities.
A child who has been traumatized should not be expected to “get over it”, or be ready to live with their sibling, or be pressured to forgive, until they are ready. This is true even if the one who harmed them was also abused, or was acting out of curiosity, or was unable to realize what they were doing was wrong or to anticipate the consequences.
An offending sibling may take responsibility, complete treatment, and be ready for a life free of stigma and restrictions. But if their sibling is not ready to be in contact with them or be in their presence, the family may still need to find a different living situation or celebrate holidays separately.
Even if law enforcement or human services cannot pursue legal consequences due to the age of the offender or a lack of evidence, the individuals involved are likely to need therapeutic intervention to address trauma and promote healthy behavior and relationships going forward. Families with children still living at home will still need education and guidance to make realistic plans and create effective boundaries so their children will be safe in the future. This may not be part of an investigator’s required duties, but in reality it may be the most important role they can play in preventing future abuse. Parents or survivors who feel they need more help than the system has offered can contact the RAINN hotline or chatline or a child advocacy center.
At the same time, it is important to note that the level of trauma the survivor has experienced should not be the sole factor determining the response to the sibling who caused the trauma. It should not be the deciding factor governing what kind of treatment is best, whether they should be held legally responsible, whether they are a threat to others in the future, or whether their case goes to juvenile or adult court.
Children or even teens who sexually violate their siblings rarely realize the extent of the harm they are causing. Their actions are driven more by immaturity and impulsivity than by innate sexual deviance. Depending on their age, maturity, and life experience, they may not have a clear understanding of the boundaries they are crossing or the harm they are causing. Even if they intentionally did something wrong, young offenders often respond well to treatment and/or change their behavior when they mature*.
A youth who has violated a sibling should be allowed to take responsibility, express remorse, and apologize, separately from the question of whether or not they face criminal charges.
*This does not negate the reality that there are young people who do remain a danger to their siblings and others in the future and need boundaries and consequences that fully recognize this.
Some tragedies are crimes. Some are not. The devastating impact is what defines a tragedy. Whether or not it is a crime, sibling sexual trauma is always a tragedy.
The Impactful Parent interview with sibling sexual abuse advocate and survivor Jane Epstein
Dr. Margaret Rutherford Selfwork Podcast: Talking About Sibling Sexual Abuse with Jane Epstein
Column: When Is a Crime Not a Crime? Edward Prutschi, Slaw–Canada’s online legal magazine
Finkelhor, Ormrod, & Chaffin, US Department of Justice, Juvenile Justice Bulletin: Juveniles Who Commit Sex Offenses Against Minors