By Kieran McCartan, PhD, David Prescott, LICSW, and Kasia Uzieblo, PhD
It’s interesting to consider the ebb and flow of academic and professional interest. We have seen on the blog over the years (this is post 510 and the blog has been running since July 2010) different topics come and go, some having periods of significance and periods of dominance. We have seen prevention become established, while risk assessment developments roll along in the background and the polygraph remains controversial, sometimes even divisive.
One topic that seems to have emerged strong and is now dominating the conversation, especially in the UK and parts of Europe, that no one really saw coming is sibling sexual abuse (SSA). This month, the Journal of Sexual Aggression had a special issue dedicated to it, as well as the journal of Child Abuse & Neglect; so why the sudden increase in research (and in some areas, practice like the development of a new mapping tool for assessment and treatment planning) interest when SSA is not a new phenomenon?
Controversies about incest and psychology have been with us since Freud. In the US, sexual abuse within families and among siblings became a focus of mental health interventions in the 1980s. At the time, authors such as Chloe Madanes used techniques for family-based interventions that appear harsh and misguided by today’s standards. Her contemporary, Jan Hindman, wrote at length about clarification of abuse and demonstrated how treating those who abuse can assist the healing of those abused. Within the field of treating adolescents who sexually abused, authors such as Jerry Thomas and Joann Schladale emerged in the 1990s and 2000s and addressed SSA through a family-therapy lens. Much has been written outside of scholarly research about the experience of surviving SSA; much less about those who commit the abuse. And fewer still have conducted scientific inquiry into SSA until now.
While the above practice developments took place in the US, there has been a growing conversation amongst professionals about SSA over the past five years in the UK and Europe. This has often emerged from the study of harmful sexual behavior in childhood, with research by the Centre for Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse developing a range of policy, practice, and research papers that indicate that it’s the most common form of intrafamilial violence.
These papers have started to change conversations and perspectives, particularly away from the typical perspective of father (or male caregiver)-daughter incest being the most prevalent form. This changing conversation has led to scoping studies and emerging research conversations across the UK that have indicated a professional and practice interest in the area. A main driver has been the emergence of SSA as a bespoke form of abuse that is not the same as child sexual abuse, peer-on-peer abuse, or other sexual exploitation. SSA involves a combination of different forms of abuse, neglect, and exploitation (sometimes across multiple contexts), which makes it complicated and nuanced not only for professionals and policy makers, but also for the children being harmed, the children harming, their family, and peers.
The complexity of SSA means that those who are victimized do not always feel seen in the system. They may not recognize themselves in service provision, nor in prevention campaigns against sexual violence, which means that they do not necessarily seek help or support. In many cases, they may not realize that they have been abused. The implications of this are that the true prevalence of SSA is unrecognized and underrepresented in children and adults services; this is a problem because if we truly want to prevent and respond to all forms of sexual abuse we need to recognize and see all forms. This means that professionals need to rethink, reconceptualize and redevelop some of their existing practice in this area.
It is important to state that in the flurry of research and practice activities related to SSA (full disclosure: Kieran and Kasia are researching and publishing in this area while David has produced book chapters and trainings in this area), we must balance the old with the new. It is essential to recognize that we need to look at the full picture and consider existing research and practice from other areas and what role they can play in professional discourse, rather than simply creating new information.
SSA sits at the crossroads of Psychology, Sociology, Social Work, and Children’s Studies. We therefore have to consider what these disciplines say about trauma, family dynamics, abuse, violence, and their interactions with each other. The CSA Centre and special edition of the JSA have done this well. It will be wise to acknowledge and recognize what we know before we adapt and develop it for a new perspective or audience. Additionally, it’s important to look towards other trends and norms that are feeding into the establishment of this emerging topic (particularly in light of what we are seeing with the lingering impact of COVID, lockdowns, the presence of trauma and adversity, and the growing influence of pornography on young people). Regarding this last point, with respect to pornography, practitioners are reporting a rise in brother-sister/stepsibling content on relevant sites. Each of these considerations speaks to how we need a broader social and community recognition of SSA and that conversations around prevention need to happen in homes, schools, and communities.
While we recognize and welcome the increased conversation about SSA in the professional, policy and research arena, we think that it’s important to state that this is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it is a shift in focus regarding a long-existing concern, and a need to address a real issue in the lives of individuals and families. Sadly, this problem receives scant attention in the media and that it is not a topic regularly discussed in clinical practices outside our field. It thus remains taboo. Nevertheless, we hope that with increased scientific attention to this topic, interest from the community, counseling, policy etc. will also significantly increase. Because there are still so many questions that remain unanswered, such as, what interventions are adequate with this group? What prevention measures can make a real impact? How can we also better support adult victims of SSA? To answer these, we need input, insights, and expertise from all services providers and users. Let’s not wait until a serious case appears in the media before we really start investing time, money, and efforts to prevent sibling sexual abuse.