A view of the Houses of Parliament over the Thames

25 Mar 2022

Guest posts

Have we finally reached ‘the next hinterland’?

This week the issue of sexual abuse involving siblings was debated in parliament for the first time, in this guest blog Dr Peter Yates reflects on the journey to bring this form of harm to light.

Sibling sexual abuse is debated in the Westminster Parliament for the very first time.

Sibling sexual abuse is a term used to describe ‘harmful sexual behaviour with a victimising intent or outcome between children who self-identify as siblings’. Until recently it has remained a largely hidden phenomenon, under-researched and rarely discussed. This is despite its prevalence. Data are limited, but it is estimated from a range of studies that perhaps around 5% of children may be involved in sibling sexual abuse (Yates & Allardyce, 2021). Even the more conservative estimates of 2% would suggest that in the UK, a country with a population of just over 67 million people, around 1.3m people would be directly affected. This is not to mention children’s parents, other siblings, grandparents and wider family members. Sibling sexual abuse is thought to be up to three times as common as sexual abuse by a parent (Krienert & Walsh, 2011; Stroebel et al., 2013), and the impact may be just as severe. The possible short and long-term consequences of sibling sexual abuse include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance misuse, eating disorders and relationship difficulties throughout life (Yates, 2017). Given these figures and this level of impact it is hard to fathom how it has remained under the radar for so long.

Perhaps we can look to history. In the ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’, Krafft-Ebing (1914) provided two examples from the late nineteenth century of sexual behaviours between a brother and a sister, presented as isolated cases of individual psychopathy. Since then only a small handful of studies were published from the 1940s onwards regarding children’s harmful sexual behaviour towards other children, in which brothers and sisters were occasionally mentioned (e.g. MacLay, 1960). It wasn’t until the 1980s that more started to be written on the subject (e.g. Bank & Kahn, 1982; Finkelhor, 1980; Smith & Israel, 1987). Hacking (1991) argues that the ground for discussing sexual behaviours between siblings was prepared in the 1960s by publication of the Battered Child Syndrome (Kempe et al., 1962). This brought to public attention the idea that parents may not only be strict or even cruel to their children, but may actually abuse them. The language of ‘child abuse’ that then followed allowed for the taboo subject of parent-child ‘incest’ to be discussed, therefore paving the way for sibling incest, which Hacking (1991: 277) considered at the time to be ‘the next hinterland’.

But this journey has not been smooth. Understanding that parents may physically abuse their children, and then that parents may sexually abuse their children, has not stopped the international media from persisting in portraying child sexual abuse as a problem of ‘stranger danger’ (Weatherred, 2015) – a problem of particularly heinous individuals who are so very different from ourselves. It remains hard for us to accept that the majority of sexual abuse is actually most often carried out by people known to the child, by family members, by uncles, fathers and mothers – and, of course, by brothers and sisters.

Sexual behaviour, and especially abusive sexual behaviour, is still regarded as adult behaviour. This is not behaviour we associate with children (Gittins, 1998; Jenks, 2005). If child sexual abuse by another child does come to the media’s attention it is most often in the mould of ‘stranger danger’ – mini-adult sex offenders, dangerous monster children. Children being sexually abused not by adult strangers, but by adult family members, is a stretch. Children being sexually abused not by adults at all, but by other children, is more of a stretch. The idea of a child being sexually abused not just by another child, but by their brother or sister, is for most people just a step too far beyond our collective conception of what child sexual abuse is.

And yet it happens, and it is widespread. And over recent years there seems to be a growing willingness to countenance the idea. Over the last ten years or so there has been a small but steady stream of publications on the subject. In 2018 the Scottish Government commissioned a report on intra-familial sexual abuse as part of their Expert Working Group on preventing harmful sexual behaviour by children and young people, culminating in sibling sexual abuse being named for the first time in the National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland (2021) along with specific guidance on the subject and reference to further resources. In 2020 the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse commissioned a Sibling Sexual Abuse Knowledge and Practice Overview, published in 2021, and the Home Office together with the Ministry of Justice have also funded the National Project on Sibling Sexual Abuse, the largest UK study to date on sibling sexual abuse carried out by Rape Crisis England & Wales along with the Universities of Birmingham and the West of England, Bristol. This ended with the first UK conference on sibling sexual abuse, attended by over 600 delegates.

Fleur Strong, National Project Manager for the National Project on Sibling Sexual Abuse, has tirelessly pursued the need for due recognition of sibling sexual abuse as a distinct form of child sexual abuse. Wera Hobhouse MP, alive to these issues as the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Childhood Trauma, has worked in partnership with Fleur to call for a debate in Westminster specifically on the subject of sibling sexual abuse. In the last 220 years there have been only 12 Parliamentary references to sibling sexual abuse, and none at all since November 2000. This is despite 2,451 references to ‘child sexual abuse’ more generally between 2000 to 2021. To hold a debate specifically on the subject of sibling sexual abuse would therefore be a momentous achievement, but this debate was indeed held on March 22nd 2022, in which Wera Hobhouse MP set out a very clear case, calling on the Government first of all to name sibling sexual abuse when it updates its 2021 Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, and secondly to speak to the Departments for Education and for Health and Social Care, asking them to update their safeguarding and commissioning approaches to respond specifically to sibling sexual abuse. You can watch this debate here.

Whilst Rachel Maclean MP, the responsible Minister, did not commit to the requests made, she did agree to work further with Wera Hobhouse MP to continue to improve the ways in which sexual abuse involving siblings is tackled. This is a huge achievement for Fleur Strong and others who have worked on the National Project on Sibling Sexual Abuse.

Perhaps we have now finally reached the hinterland. Perhaps we are now beginning to see some chinks in the wall of silence surrounding sibling sexual abuse. We need to keep chipping away, and perhaps some further cracks will emerge through which we can find ways better to support the children and families affected by this most complex and challenging form of harm.