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the challenge: incest

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In the last issue of TeenMatters, FATHER CHRIS
received a letter from a young woman who had been Often the father is totally absent, or else
a victim of sibling abuse. She said ’I am writing in is himself abusive.
Detachment and unavailability affect
response to an article about sexual abuse in the the children on at least two levels.
Often the older children have a great
Autumn 2005 edition. I was sexually assaulted by deal of responsibility for looking after
my brother who was five years older than me. The the younger children and this can
lead to incestuous activity; and also
effect on my life was very serious. I was drinking and traditionally a younger female child has
less status than an older male and any
smoking at eleven, promiscuous, raped while drunk complaints she may make are unlikely to
at fourteen. I then managed by nineteen to get myself be believed.
Victims reported that offenders often
together only to fall into depression and seriously

had a privileged position with a parent
contemplate suicide before getting professional help.’ — usually the mother. An older son may
have been given surrogate authority
Father Chris promised that he would discuss sibling over younger sister(s) when the father or
both parents are absent from the home
abuse, as it is a significant problem in our community. or when supervision is lax.
One study found that 58 percent of
sibling incest cases had been disclosed
to the family, but that months — and
Sibling incest is still something we range from five to eleven years. The often years — passed before intervention
hope does not happen often — and average duration of abuse is twenty-two or treatment took place. In many cases
therefore it has not been taken serious- months. the initial response of the parents to the
ly by professionals. However, a growing Sibling incest has been identified by sibling incest was to yell and scream
body of research points to the dark reality professionals as being very different about the problem, to lecture the children
that it is far more common than we think from non-sibling abuse and abuse by on appropriate behaviour, and to tell the
or want to believe. Some professionals adults. One significant difference is that siblings to stay away from each other.
have asserted for years that it is as in sibling incest victims are commonly These reactions did not work and the
common as, and possibly much more kept quiet by fear, threats and violence. abuse usually continued.
common than, parental abuse. The victims also indicate that they The third type of family environment
Many parents dismiss it as benign are made to feel responsible for the is determined by the attitude to sexual
exploration or sex play, a normal part abuse. When an adult assaults a young matters. This can be manifested in three
of children’s psychosexual develop- person sexually, the victim is usually ways: (a) open and frank discussion
ment. But sexual exploration and game- enticed, given presents, and made to and behaviour among family members;

playing are very different from sexual feel ‘special.’ (b) sexual rigidity, where sexual topics
abuse, and the effects of sibling incest cannot be discussed, and (c) mixed
on the victim are severe. THE FAMILY CONTEXT messages about appropriate sexual
In many families in which sibling behaviour in the home. The first type
DEFINITION incest occurs, parents are caring and of climate has included exposure to
Sibling incest can include inapprop- loving and have no idea of the existence pornography, to nudity, or to sexual acts

riate fondling, touching or sexual con- of abuse in their homes. However, by between parents or toward children.
tact: indecent exposure, masturbation, building a profile of the family context The second characterized families in
exposure to pornography, oral or anal in which sibling abuse is likely to which sex was seen as dirty and was
sex, digital penetration, and actual inter- happen, we can be more easily not discussed. The third type of family
course between brother and sister or forewarned and may be able to intervene climate blurred the boundaries.
Photography: Getty Images; posed for by models same-sex siblings. in a timely manner.
Two categories have been highlighted. Sibling incest usually occurs in families EFFECTS OF INCEST

One type occurs when siblings provide described as dysfunctional and chaotic, ■ Poor self-esteem: sibling abuse is
mutual nurturing and protection in in homes having a volatile emotional the most shaming form of abuse.
abusive and painful family conditions. atmosphere characterised by extreme ■ Problems in relationships with the
A second type of incest involves the physical reactions to ordinary events. opposite sex: women who were physic-
use of power, threats, and force by The second characteristic is the phys- ally, emotionally, or sexually abused by
the offender. ical and emotional absence of parents. their brothers report difficulty in forming
It has been reported that the age range Parents are not available to supervise relationships with men.
of offenders is from thirteen to nineteen their children, for example because of ■ Difficulty in interpersonal rela-
years; whereas the victims’ ages usually work commitments or substance abuse. tionships: survivors report difficulty
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in forming relationships with anyone CHECK LIST
■ It is never a good idea to leave
acknowledging who was responsible for
— men or women. For example, the in- the experience; teaching control of self-
ability to control anger is a significant older children in charge of their destructive behaviours; and developing
problem. younger siblings for long periods. a support network with other survivors.
■ Repeating the victim role: as adults, ■ Don’t routinely use older children Over the past decade, a significant
survivors often enter into relationships in as baby-sitters. trend has been to engage all the family.
which they are re-victimized. This is the ■ Parents need to listen to their Counsellors adopt this model as it takes
product of low self-esteem. children when they reveal that the focus off the victim and implies that
■ Continued self-blame: the victims they have been abused by an if one member of a family is in trouble,
often blame themselves for the abuse, older sibling. Take it seriously and then the whole family is in trouble.
frequently because they have been told investigate it, as the effects of Disclosure of sexual abuse is traumatic
over and over by the perpetrators or the sibling incest are very serious and for the family unit as well as the victim.
parents that it is their fault. long lasting. Sibling incest, like all sibling abuse, is
■ Anger towards the perpetrator: ■ Don’t blame the victim. especially difficult for parents because
survivors report that the abuse they ■ Get professional help both the victim and the offender are their
experienced as children has particular immediately. children, yet one or both parents often
effects on their adult lives because of feel they have to choose which child to
the anger they repeatedly experience. support.
■ Problems in sexual function: Once a professional has been con-
survivors reported problems in sexual you write or telephone? Where should tacted, a treatment plan will be set up.
function resulting from their abuse. you meet with your sibling? Will you be The first step is to put into place a safety
Two kinds of dysfunction are reported: alone, or have someone to support you? protocol: the victim should never be left
avoiding all sexual contact, and being What are you going to say? How might alone with the offender.
compulsively sexual. your sibling react? What are the possible Parents must take responsibility for
■ Addictions: survivors reported that outcomes? decision-making and compliance with
their abuse had affected their adult lives ■ Ignoring the abuse rules. The family needs to realign its
in the form of addictions such as eating While we might like to think that ‘time structure so that the offender is removed
disorders, alcoholism, and drug abuse. cures all,’ the reality is that this is simply from the position of power over the
■ Depression: survivors reported ex- not true in many cases and is not true victim even in everyday routines.
periencing depression as adults, directly when it comes to incest abuse. Given Victims can seek help from a psy-
associated with the abuse they suffered all the serious effects that come from chiatrist. However, this is not the only
as children. It is probable that this stems this type of abuse, victims need to heal, option — victims can also contact a
from the sense of powerlessness they rather than carrying the weight of this clinical social worker or licensed psy-
felt at the time of the abuse. abuse around with them for the rest chologist. Look in the Yellow Pages
■ Post-traumatic stress: survivors of their lives. The quality of a person’s under ‘Counsellors,’ ‘Marriage and Fam-
often experience severe anxiety at family life can be significantly enhanced by ily Counsellors,’ or ‘Community mental
gatherings, when they are once again in healing. health.’
the presence of the abusers. ■ Seeking healing Or contact local Councils to get a list-
Australians often seem to believe that ing of available community services. The
MOVING FOR WARD seeking professional help is admitting mental health team attached to local
■ Confronting the abusive sibling weakness. Even worse, we often believe hospitals can also be contacted to ask
In our society, we think that confron- we are ‘mental’ if we seek professional for a referral. t
tation is always a positive thing, that help. Victims should never let these
getting things off one’s chest will solve fallacies creep into their thinking.
all problems. However, when it comes If you have been the victim of incest, READING LIST
to sibling abuse, this is not necessarily please seek help. You do not have to The Feminist Bookshop, Lilyfield,
the correct or only way to go. Survivors struggle alone with this type of problem NSW, Telephone (02) 9810 2666, is a
must be cautious about whether to and must understand that you can regain good starting point for information
confront the perpetrator. control of your life. Life and relationships and resources on this topic.
Many survivors have reported that can be fulfilling and the pain and anger ■ Wiehe, V. R., The Brother/Sister
when they confronted their abusers they can be dealt with. Hurt: recognising the effects of
were again victimized in the interaction. Many treatment strategies have proved sibling abuse, Safer Society Press,
Healing can take place without directly useful for treating abuse victims. These Brandon, VT.
confronting the perpetrator, because the include building self-esteem; increasing ■ Phillips-Green, M. J., ‘Sibling
healing is about what happens inside ability to identify feelings and to express Incest,’ in The Family Journal
the victim, not about how anyone else anger and other emotions constructively; Counselling and Therapy for Couples
behaves or reacts. increasing understanding of family rela- and Families, Vol. 10, No. 2, April,
If a victim decides to confront the per- tionships; developing confidence to 2002.
petrator, the meeting must be planned confront family members about incest; ■ Kahn, T., Pathways: guide for
very carefully. Some serious questions allowing victims to relate their experience parents of youth beginning treatment,
need to be asked beforehand, e.g. How at their own pace and in their own way; Safer Society Press, Brandon, VT.
will you approach your sibling? Will detoxifying the guilt, shame, and fear by

Spring 2005 Te e n M a t t e r s