Intervention is key to preventing sibling sexual abuse

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In our last column, we wrote about incest, sexual abuse by a family member, and how hard it is to talk about it. This week, we focus on an even more taboo topic: sibling sexual abuse.

Regular readers of this column know that in more than 90 percent of all child sexual abuse cases, the child knows the offender, and 70 percent of the time, it’s a family member.

Did you know that as much as 30 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone under 18 years old? In some cases, the offender and victim are siblings. Sibling sexual abuse is incredibly underreported, and some think it is rarely disclosed or addressed outside of the family.

Sibling sexual abuse happens when one sibling exerts psychological or physical power over another sibling to get them to engage in sex or to allow sexual activity. It is not about children willingly showing each other their private parts. That would be natural curiosity among similarly aged preadolescents.

As in all forms of child sexual abuse, often the increase in sexualized behaviors by one sibling toward the victim is gradual. I have often written about how perpetrators use grooming to gain the victim’s trust, create a special secret relationship and test the victim’s ability to keep sexual abuse secret by gradually increasing sexual behavior.

Child victims may not identify as being abused because they may be confused and feel some responsibility for it. Older siblings may prey on naïve younger siblings and trick them into sexual behavior.

Victims can start out cherishing the attention, especially in homes that may be chaotic due to substance abuse or absent parents. The older, or more powerful, sibling may act out sexually and teach their victim that it is their special secret playtime and use the victim’s confusion to make them believe they are complicit.

This can be especially confusing for the victim who may have some pleasurable sensations even when sexual contact is inappropriate and abusive. Victims often love the sibling who is offending and don’t want anything bad to happen to them.

Research of reported cases of sibling sexual abuse indicates it is more likely to happen in large families where physical and emotional violence is going on. Emotionally checked out or physically absent parents and socially isolated families are also risk factors.

When a child discloses, in whatever way, or sibling sexual abuse is suspected, it is important to appear calm and contact child protective services immediately. Once a report has been made, intervention can help stop the abuse and get the family to a therapist or counselor.

Significant research shows the recidivism rates for youth who sexually offend is substantially lower than that of adults. The vast majority of these youth do not go on to become adult sexual offenders.

It is crucial to intervene as early as possible to get intensive treatment using counselors trained to understand sibling sexual abuse. Many siblings with problematic sexual behaviors were victimized by older siblings or relatives before they became the aggressor with other children.

If you or someone you know is concerned sibling sexual abuse or other child abuse is happening, you must report (and you can report anonymously) to CYFD (#SAFE on a cell, or 1-855-333-SAFE), tribal child protective services or law enforcement. CAV is available 24/7 for additional information and services.

Malinda Williams is the executive director of Community Against Violence, Inc. (CAV) which offers free confidential support and assistance for adult and child survivors of sexual and domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking; community and school violence prevention programs; re-education BIP groups for domestic violence offenders; counseling; shelter; transitional housing; and community thrift store. To talk with someone or get information on services available, call CAV’s 24-hour crisis line at (575) 758-9888. Find out more at TaosCAV.org.

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