Sibling Sexual Behaviour: how can services respond to the most common yet under-reported form of sexual abuse within the family?

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By Dr Sophie King-Hill, Associate Professor, University of Birmingham & Professor Kieran McCartan, UWE

Sexual abuse is one of the most common and under reported forms of interpersonal violence. Although individuals, communities and society recognise the reality of sexual abuse and its ongoing implications for victims, the people who have committed the abuse, and their friends, families, and peers, it still is not acknowledged or discussed in wider society enough. This is why Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence Awareness Week is essential as the nature of the conversation has to change to result in the reduction of all forms of sexual violence, including that experienced between siblings.

Research indicates that one in five children and young people (CYP) experience sibling sexual behaviour (SSB) and it is thought to be the most prolific form of intrafamilial sexual abuse. However, SSB remains one of the most under-reported forms of familial child sexual abuse (CSA) yet has long lasting impacts on many complex levels.

More research and focus is needed to fully realise the impact in the UK of SSB. It needs to be driven by policy and practice. SSB needs to be understood as a whole family issue that needs bespoke interventions. This has to be a pro-social approach that acknowledges and builds on the strengths that a person has (i.e., what they are good at) rather than just their problem behaviours, which means that we need to recognise that SSB is a complex, multi-faceted issue and needs a systems approach that focuses on partnerships between education, health and wellbeing, and social development.

The impact and lived reality of SSB

Although the term ‘sibling sexual abuse’ is commonly used by professionals and policy makers, we would advocate the use of the term sibling sexual behaviours (SSB), as the sexual abusive behaviours are varied and exist on a spectrum more akin to harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) as set out by the Hackett Continuum. These behaviours can range from problematic and inappropriate to violent and abusive.

Growing evidence from practice highlights that SSB has long lasting impacts upon the trajectory of the victim/survivors and their families. Studies indicate that SSB can have adverse long term negative consequences such as eating disorders, substance misuse, emotional distress, low-self-esteem, relationship difficulties, depression and anxiety. Quite often, due to the fear of the impact of disclosure, many victim/survivors do not disclose their abuse until adulthood. This means that taking a trauma informed approach to understanding, responding to and preventing SSB is essential. This reinforces the current move towards understanding offending behaviour that is rooted in and reflective of health and justice, that is truly supportive while holding people to account for their actions. Positioning sexual abuse, especially SSB, as a health and wellbeing predictor and outcome means that we can better support victims of SSB in the most bespoke and effective way.

The developing research evidence base

Recent research by the authors and colleagues across two research projects has allowed for a better understanding of SSB and its impact to ensure that victim/survivors at any point in their lives can receive consistent, research led support for themselves and their families.

The first of these was the ‘sibling sexual abuse: supporting victims and survivors to recover, heal and rebuild their lives’ which was funded by the Home Office Support for Victims and Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (SVSCSA) fund. The project ran from 2020-2022 and funded two Rape Crisis England and Wales (RCEW) Centres, Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support (SARSAS) and West Mercia Rape and Sexual Abuse Support (WMRSAS)/Purple Leaf to carry out research relating to sibling sexual behaviour. This project explored both the impact of SSB into adulthood and affective assessments and interventions for children, young people and their families experiencing this.

The main outcomes of this research demonstrated that SSB is complex and nuanced with the family system being an important contextual factor with both children involved often having additional adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) that feed into the harmful behaviours. As such SSB is quite distinct from other forms of HSB and CSA and services need to recognise this in their service delivery and planning. Services need to understand those they support, both the children who have harmed and been harmed, so that they can build the correct resource. Therefore, better definitions of SSB are needed, more research on the lived reality, and a better understanding of what service users want. The study also found that specialist services were sporadic and specific support was determined by a postcode lottery. Coupled with this was the lack of professional confidence which often resulted in inappropriate responses such as catastrophising or minimising the behaviours.

Developing resources for professionals

The second project was led by Sophie King-Hill and amalgamated all of the UK research in SSB to create a mapping tool for professionals working with families that are experiencing SSB. This merged research from the initial Home Office project and policy and practice guidance set out by the Centre of Expertise in Child Sexual Abuse (CSA Centre). The mapping tool was then piloted across social services around the UK.

The mapping tool allows professionals to consider the best response to the two siblings and their families, so that the best treatment and support can be provided. This means thinking about them individually, as a family unit, how they interact with their immediate communities and broader society. The tool recognises the complexity of the family dynamics, environment and societal relationships and how this contributes to the abusive behaviour. It also allows the professional space to map out the best response for the child who has harmed, the child harmed, and the family.

The tool is an important planning mechanism for organisations as it also allows professionals to reflect upon their services. It can be used to recognise gaps in provision and where they need to develop and/or partner with other organisations. The tool is not a solution in and of itself but a roadmap to one.

Next steps

Sexual violence is a challenging and nuanced field, which is reinforced by the discussion around SSB as it’s a poorly understood area that needs more research, recognition, and engagement. As better trauma informed approaches are developed in responding to and preventing sexual abuse, SSB needs to be part of this conversation. Now that SSB work is taking place at the individual and relationship levels, it is time to start working on it at a community and societal level.


Additional Support

If you are a young person worried about your own or others’ sexual behaviour you can anonymously contact Shore for support.

If you are an adult concerned about your own or others’ sexual behaviours you can contact the Stop it Now Helpline for confidential support.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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