Hobhouse on sibling sexual abuse

Speaking yesterday in Westminster Hall, Wera Hobhouse tackled the “hugely difficult and harrowing” subject of sibling sexual abuse which, she said, can have “devastating, lifelong consequences”. The child who has harmed often has to deal with the dichotomy of their actions as a child and who they are now as an adult. Parents are often faced with the “double dilemma” of trying to support both of the children involved, dealing with school, social services, children’s services and police investigations, as well as unaffected siblings, friends and extended family. Criminal justice is not the answer to tackling sibling sexual abuse; we need health and education to work together and take a trauma-informed approach.

This is a hugely difficult and harrowing subject…

The relationship between siblings is one of the most important we will ever form in our lives. There are many different forms of sibling relationship: biological, step, half, adoptive and social. In all those contexts, siblings share an enduring bond. When that relationship goes wrong and one sibling sexually abuses another, it can have devastating, lifelong consequences.

Telling MPs that there is no universally accepted definition of sibling sexual abuse, Hobhouse said:

It is critical that we do not view sibling sexual abuse through an adult gender violence lens. The reasons that children sexually harm siblings are complex and different from those associated with adult violence. In many cases, the child who harms is a victim and has experienced neglect, witnessed domestic abuse or experienced some form of childhood trauma. We cannot judge children’s harmful sexualised behaviour without first understanding the context of the family situation they are living in, and we cannot assume that someone will become an adult sex offender because of their behaviour as a child…

This is a type of abuse that affects thousands of children, adults and families. Its impact on the entire family is not only devastating but lifelong. As one survivor said:

“It is not just the abuse. It’s the family ramifications, too, that can last for years and tear survivors away from the family.”

Sibling sexual abuse has been described as a hand grenade going off in the family. One adult who was harmed as a child said:

“I have been fumbling around in the dark for so many years trying to understand myself, my reactions, relationship difficulties. Feeling the way I do about myself—totally inferior with nothing to offer anyone. Worthless, in other words.”…

The child who has harmed often has to deal with the dichotomy of their actions as a child and who they are now as an adult…

Parents are often faced with the “double dilemma” of trying to support both of the children involved, dealing with school, social services, children’s services and police investigations, as well as unaffected siblings, friends and extended family. Some parents never accept that abuse has or is still taking place. Many families instinctively close ranks, never sharing what has happened with anyone outside the family…

Research shows that sibling sexual abuse is the most common form of child sexual abuse in our homes. Estimates suggest that a child is three to five times more likely to be abused by their sibling under the age of 18 than by a parent or adult living in their home environment… Nearly a quarter of incidents of intrafamilial sexual offences reported to the police are sibling sexual abuse, yet there is systemic silence.

Local and national safeguarding policies and strategies do not name, measure or prioritise sibling sexual abuse.

It is almost unbelievable that an entire strategy on child sexual abuse not only fails to recognise the primary type of child sexual abuse in our homes, but fails even to acknowledge its existence…

How can we make things better? How can we help to safeguard thousands of young children and properly support survivors to seek help?…

Things must change. The only thing that will make things better for thousands of families is acknowledgement that sibling sexual abuse exists. This is about language. It is about five simple words that must be included in every document aimed at tackling child sexual abuse: “brother”, “sister” and “sibling sexual abuse”.

Criminal justice is not the answer to tackling sibling sexual abuse; we need health and education to work together and take a trauma-informed approach.

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4 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 23rd Mar '22 - 5:39pm

    “Criminal Justice is not the answer…” Im afraid that in situations such as where a 15 year old boy sexually abuses a 7 year old sister – possibly rapes her – the criminal justice system may not be ‘the answer’ but it is part of an appropriate consequence. I know there are many in the Liberal Democrats who believe that children under 16 should never face criminal consequences for their actions – I actually believe that they should. And I don’t believe that a 15 year old boy abusing his 7 year old sister should be treated less seriously or with different consequences to if he were to abuse a 7 year old girl who lived in his street.

  • This post is very thought provoking. It challenges all our presuppositions about age of responsibility and motivations for abuse.

    Bard Barrows – I’m not sure that it helps the argument to focus on 15 year olds who are only just below the threshold, and should have some understanding of morality, responsibility and harm. I think the issues become clearer when we consider an 8, 9 or 10 year old who abuses a sibling. At that age they may well not understand that what they are doing is harmful, abusive or wrong, especially if they have been treated in the same way themselves. They will need as much support as the victim.

  • Brad Barrows 24th Mar '22 - 7:32am

    @Mary Reid
    I agree with your comments about 8, 9 and 10 year olds – but children of that ago do not face criminal responsibility for their actions anyway so I do not believe Wera Hobhouse was not referring to children as young as this when stating “Criminal Justice is not the answer..” Therefore, as we start considering the group aged from 12 years old to adulthood, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that there is no place for criminal consequences for what can be very serious criminal actions.

  • Wera raises an important and largely overlooked issue. Therapists know that sexual abuse within families is a huge, well-kept secret, and lies at the root of many of the psychological problems which manifest in adult life.
    The difficulty it presents, as do most forms of criminal or anti-social behaviour, is how to make sure it is sufficiently ‘demonised’ to deter it, while at the same time treating the people caught up in it with compassion and understanding. Wera, quite rightly, does not advocate criminalisation, but the education route is probably easier said than done. I’m not sure how easily primary school teachers would take to such a delicate task.
    There are even wider implications of her thoughtful contribution on this subject. As a country, we favour locking up people who have done wrong, rather than trying to find out what can be done to help them.

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