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November/December 2012 Issue

Sibling Sexual Abuse — Uncovering the Secret
By Margaret Ballantine, PhD, MSW, LCSW-R, and Lynne Soine, DSW, MSW, LMSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 12 No. 6 P. 18

Many children do not see themselves as victims of sibling incest, and many families and professionals fail to recognize the abuse.

Their story startled the nation. In February 2011, 19-year-old twins Kellie and Kathie Henderson, sitting on the stage with Oprah Winfrey, told their horrific story of 10 years of sexual abuse by two brothers and, eventually, their father. Motivated by the desire to inspire other incest victims to come forward and report such abuse, the Hendersons revealed the often-shocking details of their experience, six years after a neighbor in whom they had finally confided rescued them.

This story of sibling and paternal sexual abuse reflects a social problem that is far greater than acknowledged by official statistics, policymakers, and service providers (Finkelhor, 1980). Known as incest, family sexual abuse is shrouded in secrecy and social stigma. Hidden from relatives, communities, schools, and neighbors, incest is underreported, underrecognized, and often goes unpunished, leaving child victims to suffer in silence and adult survivors to manifest myriad psychosocial problems (Daie, Witztum, & Eleff, 1989).

Sibling sexual abuse is the least recognized form of incest, while sexual abuse by related adults in a family receives the most attention. Meanwhile, victims of sibling abuse remain unseen, waiting to be found and helped. Social workers are in a unique position to lead the effort to uncover the injuries of sibling incest and promote a climate that supports victims in disclosing their experiences and receiving appropriate services.

The prevalence of sibling sexual abuse in American society is not well documented. Researchers estimate that the rate of sibling incest may be five times the rate of parent-child sexual abuse (Finkelhor, 1980). These rates are based on reported incidence, and incest is known to be underreported. Sibling sexual abuse has been dismissed as “child’s play” in many cases and/or as a normal aspect of sexual development. More recent research has documented the traumatic, long-lasting, and damaging effects of sibling incest (Carlson, Maciol, & Schneider, 2006; Weihe, 1997). When sexual acts are initiated by one sibling without the other’s consent, sibling incest is, most often, a serious and secret problem.

Numerous factors converge to assure that in many instances—perhaps most—sibling sexual abuse remains undisclosed and unaddressed. Victims often do not see themselves as victimized, and families as well as professionals fail to recognize the abuse. The secret remains hidden, camouflaged by play and tangled in the complex dynamics of abusive sibling relationships. Incestuous behaviors are too often invisible in stressed, chaotic families. Additionally, professionals who fail to recognize indicators and opportunities to foster victim disclosure may overlook the presence of sibling incest.

 Failure to Recognize Abuse, Fear of Disclosure
Many children fail to identify themselves as victims of sibling incest. Older brothers or sisters may take advantage of the sexual naïveté of younger siblings to initially trick them into incestuous behaviors. Sexual behaviors are frequently couched in the context of play, and young victims are likely to find these activities pleasurable.

The identification of themselves as victims is further compromised by the complex dynamics of the sibling relationship itself. A same-generation, “special,” affectionate relationship with the offender may be welcomed by a younger sibling in a family typically characterized as chaotic, dysfunctional, and relatively inattentive to that child’s needs.

Consistent with other forms of child sexual abuse, there is an evolutionary aspect to the abuse such that in the early stages of the relationship, the sexual nature of the behaviors is less apparent, hidden in special hugs and games and play wrestling. A young naïve victim is unlikely to recognize these ostensibly benign behaviors as inappropriate.

Typically, there is a progression of the behaviors, evolving over time to increasingly explicit, invasive, and perhaps even coercive sexual activities. These behaviors are more likely to be experienced negatively or as “wrong” by the victim. However, a victim’s participation in the activities to that point, the closeness in age with the offender, and the lack of a generational boundary between victim and offender too often lead to the victim’s confusion about responsibility for the behaviors. Clever offenders can use this sense of complicity to amplify feelings of mutuality and exacerbate feelings of guilt and shame for the victim, inhibiting the likelihood of disclosure and thus maintaining the secret.

As the abuse progresses and a victim grows aware of the meaning of the behaviors, he or she may become a reluctant participant and attempt to resist. However, the secret is protected because offenders use coercive strategies, such as threats of exposure and subsequent punishment and/or physical retaliation for exposure, to ensure the victim’s silence. Victims who feel guilt and shame in the context of a nonsupportive family are unlikely to feel sufficiently safe to confess misbehaviors for which they feel responsible.

There is evidence that many victims carry the secret into adulthood, remaining confused about issues of mutuality and consequently feeling ridden with guilt, shame, and low self-esteem (Ballantine, 2012; Carlson et al). The secret can be so buried that adult survivors fail to connect the incestuous behaviors of their childhood with current life problems such as depression, anxiety, poor job performance, and interpersonal difficulties.

Abuse Obscured in Chaotic Families
Sibling sexual abuse victims often live in dysfunctional family environments that subtly foster incestuous behaviors and are not conducive to disclosing the secret. Sibling incest appears more likely to occur in large families characterized by physical and emotional violence, marital discord, explicit and implicit sexual tensions, and blurred intrafamilial boundaries. Emotionally and/or physically absent parents may empower older siblings to assume parental roles. In short, these families are chaotic and unlikely to recognize the significance of behaviors occurring between siblings. If sexual behaviors are noticed, they are likely to be minimized and misinterpreted as a normal aspect of childhood development. Lack of adequate parental supervision provides perpetrators with ongoing opportunities to offend and protects the secret, leaving the victim vulnerable to continuing abuse (Asherman & Safier, 1990; Caffaro & Conn-Caffaro, 2005).

Professional Failure to Identify Sibling Incest
While conducting comprehensive assessments of dysfunctional families, professionals are likely to focus on the more salient aspects of family dynamics, with only a superficial examination of sibling relationships. Similarly, when specific presenting problems are identified, professionals may not consider deeper exploration of sibling relationship dynamics as especially relevant. Because young sibling victims often appear free of trauma effects or other evidence of abuse and because they are likely to feel at least partially complicit with the behaviors, the indicators of sibling incest remain buried.

Today, teachers and medical professionals are better trained to recognize indicators of sexual abuse and manage aspects of reporting. However, most attention is focused on adults as perpetrators with less awareness of the possibility of same-generation abuse. Teachers may have more opportunities to observe sibling dynamics in school settings, but unless they are sensitized to the dynamics of sibling incest, they are unlikely to discern indicators that could lead to uncovering the secret.

Similarly, professionals who work with troubled adults are likely to overlook the possibility of sibling sexual abuse as a contributing factor because the victims themselves fail to connect their current problems with their previous, and possibly ongoing, incestuous sibling relationship. It is not uncommon for victims to minimize the importance of the incestuous behaviors as an embarrassing part of childhood. Consequently, professionals fail to assess for sibling sexual abuse because adult survivors are reluctant to relinquish this shameful and seemingly irrelevant aspect of their childhoods. Since sibling sexual abuse may not be on the radar for the client, professionals aren’t cued to its existence as part of the client’s experience and consequently fail to reach for it.

The Role of Social Work
The hidden nature of sibling sexual abuse, coupled with the importance of early disclosure to achieve effective treatment outcomes, suggests that social workers are in unique positions to respond to this serious social problem. Helping victims of sibling incest acknowledge and reveal their secrets is the first step in a recovery process. Because victims are prone to silencing their abusive histories, this step often requires proactive intervention on the part of social workers. Because protection of the secret is often instrumental in maintaining individual and family equilibrium, disclosure may not occur until years after the abuse begins or ends. Since social workers interact with people across the life span, they are positioned to assist victims in disclosing sibling incest at any age, thereby initiating the recovery process.

Proactive intervention by social workers to facilitate victim disclosure of sibling incest requires acceptance on the part of social workers that sibling sexual abuse is a prevalent social problem that may be affecting the populations they serve. As noted previously, sibling incest is underreported, rarely publicized, and not often included in formal assessment processes. Perhaps the very nature of sibling incest is discomforting, prompting some social workers to inadvertently avoid it in routine provision of services. In this context, it may be that sibling sexual abuse is not on social workers’ radar. Proactive intervention requires social workers to acknowledge the possibility that sibling incest is occurring, or has occurred, in the lives of clients they serve.

Once social workers acknowledge the possibility of sibling incest as a factor in a client’s life, efforts to promote disclosure can commence. Clearly, these efforts must be beyond a typical question-answer assessment process. As described previously, there is considerable pressure on victims to maintain the secret of sibling sexual abuse, and in cases involving young children, awareness of sibling incest as a problem may not yet exist. Adult survivors of sibling incest may not connect problems they are currently experiencing with their abusive history, rendering self-disclosure unlikely. Efforts to promote disclosure must be indirect, supportive, and relevant to the client’s age and the setting in which services are provided.

If a disclosure of sibling sexual abuse is made, timely, coordinated responses are important. In cases of child disclosure, reports to Child Protective Services (CPS) must be accompanied by therapeutic services. Involvement of both CPS, and potentially the criminal justice system, can disrupt the family, cause the child to engage in self-blame, and/or result in the removal of the offending sibling. Without competent therapeutic services throughout the aftermath of disclosure, a child can be further damaged by the disclosure. Ideally, a child advocate or case manager can ensure that the process of legal and therapeutic intervention is coordinated and responsive to the multiple needs of the child victim. At the same time, child offenders require specialized services and assistance through legal and treatment systems.

Adult disclosures rarely involve the criminal justice system and often occur in the context of therapeutic services. Issues of mutuality, self-blame, guilt, and intricate family relationships must be addressed in a sensitive, supportive manner that follows the survivor’s readiness to undertake active resolution of relationship issues with the offender, parents, and other family members. Effective treatment typically involves mobilizing survivor strengths and social support networks. To ensure maximum effectiveness, clinicians serving adult sibling incest survivors should avail themselves of the growing body of knowledge and skills specific to this population.

Final Thoughts
Sibling sexual abuse is an insidiously destructive social problem characterized by secrecy, shame, and concealment. As the horrific story of the Hendersons was widely broadcasted, viewers were made aware of the problem and the human toll it takes. Increasing public awareness of the problem to encourage other victims to disclose their secret spurred the Henderson sisters to appear on national television. They were trying to help other children avoid the damage that they experienced.

While it is likely that public awareness was increased somewhat by the Henderson twins telling their story, it also is likely that such awareness will be short lived. The very nature of sibling incest is so abhorrent to much of the public and to many professionals who could play a significant role in realizing the goal of helping victims and survivors that they don’t want to believe it exists. By incorporating heightened awareness of sibling incest with proactive approaches to intervention, social workers can begin to combat this hidden social problem. Victims can be helped to disclose their secrets earlier, leading to better treatment outcomes, and survivors can be helped to resolve mental health and behavioral problems. Social workers can be instrumental in uncovering sibling incest on both societal and individual levels. As historical advocates for populations with problems that society ignores, social workers can be the leaders for the hidden population affected by sibling sexual abuse.

— Margaret Ballantine, PhD, MSW, LCSW-R, is an assistant professor of social work at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Plattsburgh.

— Lynne Soine, DSW, MSW, LMSW, is an associate professor and chair of the social work department at SUNY Plattsburgh.


Settings and Prevention Strategies
The following are proactive strategies to promote and support disclosure of sibling sexual abuse according to service settings.

Preschools, Head Start, Schools
• Include the concept of sibling perpetrators in “good touch/bad touch/secret touch” lessons.

• Promote the establishment of appropriate interpersonal boundaries.

• Routinely explore sibling relationships and types of play with siblings through the use of puppets, student artwork, and storybooks about siblings.

• During interactions with parents, ask about siblings and their relationships.

• Be sensitive to family dynamics, especially regarding parental roles and supervision.

Child Welfare Services
• Fully explore family context, parental relationships, and the extent of chaos and/or emotional volatility in a family, family functionality, and the presence of implicit or explicit sexuality.

• Be alert to cues such as special bonds, wariness to discuss relationships, efforts to protect another sibling from criticism, or avoidance of focusing on sibling relationships.

• Explore the types of sibling play and where it occurs.

• Explore sleeping arrangements.

• Explore parents’ physical and emotional availability.

• Recognize older siblings’ parentification.

• Fully explore family context, boundaries inside and outside the family, extent of chaos and/or emotional volatility in family, parental roles and supervision of children, and the presence of implicit or explicit sexuality.

• Conduct an in-depth examination of meaningful childhood experiences.

• Reach for and normalize connections between current problems and childhood sibling relationships.

• Explore self-esteem issues with clients, keeping in mind the possibility of sibling incest and the legacy of shame and guilt derived from perceived mutuality in the incest behaviors.

• Create environments and opportunities to foster disclosure of sibling incest.

• As much as possible, protect victims from trauma effects following disclosure.

Policy, Program, and Advocacy Settings
• Promote increased awareness of sibling incest as a pressing social problem.

• Create and disseminate information regarding sibling incest to relevant service settings.

• Develop and implement training for staff of a wide range of agencies regarding sibling incest.

• Promote the development of coordinated services for victims of sibling incest.

— MB, LS


Ascherman, L. I. & Safier, E. J. (1990). Sibling incest: A consequence of individual and family dysfunction. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 54(3), 311-322.

Ballantine, M. (2012). Sibling incest dynamics: Therapeutic themes and clinical challenges. Clinical Social Work Journal, 40(1), 56-65.

Caffaro, J. V., & Conn-Caffaro, A. (2005). Treating sibling abuse families. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 10(5), 604-623.

Carlson, B. E., Maciol, K., & Schneider, J. (2006). Sibling incest: Reports from forty-one survivors. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 15(4), 19-34.

Daie, N., Witztum, E., & Eleff, M. (1989). Long-term effects of sibling incest. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 50(11), 428-431.

Finkelhor, D. (1980). Sex among siblings: A survey on prevalence, variety, and effects. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 9(3), 171-194.

Weihe, V. R. (1997). Sibling abuse: Hidden physical, emotional, and sexual trauma. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.