Sibling sexual trauma can happen in ordinary families.
Do you find this hard to believe? Is it an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms? Is this something so revolting that it could only happen among “those kind of people”?
Can it really happen in loving families? Intact families? Families who teach their children right from wrong?
Like most people, I assumed sibling sexual trauma couldn’t possibly happen in an utterly typical family like mine. Until I discovered it already did. Until I found myself joining groups where new members introduce themselves with words like “I can’t believe I have to be here.” Groups with other parents who can no longer bear to look at family photos of movie nights and ball games and kids playing with the new puppy.
A parent* from one of those groups expressed it in this way: “Who will find out? What will they think of us? We are normal people, really!”
5WAVES parent Hope Sittler phrased it this way in a conversation on Nancy Morris’ SiblingsToo podcast, describing the evening her son disclosed to her: “Two hours earlier, my life was completely 'normal.' If you had taken a video, it would have looked like Joe Smith, Wednesday Night Dinner, Anytown, America.”
It’s what BBC reporter Livvy Haydock also believed, until she was assigned to investigate for BBC File on 4’s exclusive story Sibling Sexual Abuse, the Last Taboo. In an interview with BBC Women’s Hour on June 14, 2022, Haydock shares: “Before I started working on this story, I had no idea. [Then] we spent months talking to parents from all classes and all backgrounds and I was really struck by how ordinary these families were … I might have thought that this was really an extreme, families-on-the-edge type of thing … but soon we learned that it was really quite common. Every time I told someone I was working on it, they knew someone or of someone who had experienced it … So if it’s happening all around us, why aren’t we talking about it?”
Social workers who spend their days working with at-risk, troubled or dysfunctional families, who find sibling sexual trauma there, can easily assume that it can only happen in at-risk, troubled, or dysfunctional families. Research that is based on social workers’ perceptions, or that looks only at cases that are reported and substantiated, runs the risk of over-representing sibling sexual trauma that happens in families where something else has already gone obviously, terribly wrong.
Make no mistake–when a sibling sexually traumatizes another sibling, something has gone obviously, terribly wrong. The family is now dysfunctional in at least that way. They need to face it and get help.
But are families where this trauma happens necessarily more dysfunctional than other families where this particular trauma does not occur? If you picked a random person off the street and dug into their family history, wouldn’t you be likely to find some kind of dysfunction fairly quickly?
Finkelhor and Baron (1986) asked a similar question in their early research about Risk Factors for Child Sexual Abuse: “If most reported child sexual abuse victims are from impoverished, disorganized families, is it because these children are at higher risk or simply because these victims are more readily detected?”
They reviewed a dozen studies which randomly sampled the general population. Their conclusion surprised many: “The most notable findings of the large-scale surveys do not concern who is at high risk but rather how large and widely distributed the risk appears to be. At one time it may have been thought that sexual abuse was confined to a small number of children in certain unusual family and social circumstances that might be readily identifiable. However, the findings from the surveys establish conclusively that this is not the case; sexual abuse is prevalent in remarkably large quantity in individuals from virtually all social, socioeconomic, and family circumstances.”
We need new, large, population-wide surveys that investigate the true prevalence and risk factors for sibling sexual trauma. But Finkelhor’s conclusions about child sexual abuse as a whole, replicated in the decades since, echo the sentiments of many with professional or lived experience of sibling sexual trauma: “The high rates across all social classes, ethnic backgrounds and family types is more notable than the differences within these subgroups.”
In other words, it does happen in ordinary families, of all types.
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