Sibling sexual abuse
In 1957, on an otherwise ordinary day in Victoria, a boy took his three-year-old sister across the road to a neighbour’s house where the little girl was sexually abused. It was the beginning of a nightmare that lasted until the girl was 16. But it wasn’t her adult neighbour who continued to abuse her. It was her older brother. The boy who delivered her to the paedophile in the first place.
In 1888, in fashionable, upper-crust London, six-year-old Virginia Stephen (later Woolf) and her eight-year-old sister Vanessa (later Bell) were regularly sexually abused by their older half-brothers – George and Gerald Duckworth.
Between 2002 and 2003 in small town Arkansas, Josh Duggar, the oldest son of a family with 19 children, molested five underage girls while they were asleep. Four of them were his sisters.
Sibling sexual abuse is the abuse that we rarely talk about, yet it is remarkably common for something that is so often ignored. A 2002 study by the United States Department of Health and Human services found that 2.3 per cent of children had been victims of sibling sexual abuse. The Australian Childhood Foundation reports that anecdotal evidence indicates more than half of the children attending their service for treatment for sexually problematic or sexually harmful behaviour are involved in this kind of sexual abuse. According to the foundation, this fits with the evidence of other similar services in this country. And this makes sense: younger siblings are easily accessible and often easy to keep quiet.
As we have at last started to acknowledge, child victims of all kinds of abuse are often silent about what has happened to them or, if they do speak up, their stories are either denied or ignored. This is perhaps not surprising. The stories they have to tell are so confronting many of us prefer to turn away. Easier to decide the child is making things up than face the consequences of believing them. How much greater must that temptation be when both the victim and the perpetrator are your own children?
The little girl in Victoria – let’s call her Margaret – did not tell her parents about the abuse her brother inflicted on her until she was a woman in her 30s. When she did finally pluck up the courage to confide in her mother, she received a very unsatisfactory response.
“We all have things we have to deal with.”
But Margaret was not prepared to leave the conversation there.
“It was your son,” she said in frustration. “Your son was a rapist and a cruel bastard.”
Worse was to come. After both Margaret’s parents had died, Margaret ran into a childhood friend she had not seen for many years. As they reminisced, her friend asked after her brother. By this time, Margaret was finished with lying.
“I don’t see him anymore. He abused me when I was a kid.”
It was her friend’s reply that floored her.
Apparently, her friend’s parents had been very concerned about Margaret’s brother’s behaviour and invited his parents over for a chat. They had talked to Margaret’s parents about his inappropriate behaviour.
“They are just kids,” was all Margaret’s mum said in response.
What burns Margaret to this day is not only that nothing was done to try to protect her at the time, despite the warning, but that all those years later, when she plucked up the courage to tell her story, her mother still denied any knowledge. Not only did this refusal to take action further damage Margaret, it also failed to help Margaret’s brother.
There is a frozen quality about sibling sexual abuse. There is a howling silence at the centre of the family. Author Julia Epstein lists some of the images Virginia Woolf used to describe her feelings about the abuse she and her sister suffered as children. They are images that evoke feelings of being muffled, stifled and trapped. “Enclosed in cotton wool”, “inside a grape” or a “ship frozen in ice”. According to Epstein, Woolf referred to this time in her life as her “Greek slave period”.
But it’s not just the fear of tearing their family apart that keeps victims silent. Margaret was also intimidated into silence as a child because her brother actively worked to present her as the bad kid – the black sheep of the family. As a younger sister, her chores involved taking the washing off the line after school and putting the briquettes for the fire in a bucket. She’d do her chores as required but her brother would often go to the trouble of hanging all the washing back out and emptying the bucket just so she would get into trouble and be seen as unreliable and a liar. That’s gaslighting and then some.
Abusers commonly work to undermine the reputation of their victims so they are less likely to be believed. As one of the women I quote in my most recent book, Accidental Feminists, revealed, her abusive adoptive father was quick to publicly and repeatedly label her, her sister and her mother as crazy liars so that he could continue to tyrannise them unchecked. When we routinely call women – or any victims – crazy or accuse them of over-reacting or of exaggerating or lying, make no mistake, we help facilitate continuing abuse.
When Josh Duggar told his parents – reality TV stars and devout evangelical Christians Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar – about the abuse, they tried to keep it as quiet as possible. Instead of getting professional help, Josh was sent to a Christian friend for counselling and the police officer they did contact gave Josh what columnist Jill Filipovic refers to as a “stern talking to”. That cop is now serving a 56-year sentence for child pornography crimes.
At least Duggar was eventually forced to face up to his actions as a result of the family being the stars of reality TV’s 19 Kids and Counting. His sisters eventually took civil action against him.
The damage of sibling sexual abuse is real. Virginia Woolf suffered recurrent bouts of “madness” throughout her life and famously drowned herself at the age of 59, unable to bear the thought of yet another descent into irrational despair. Her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, fared better, but as her daughter Angelica Garnett reveals in her book Deceived with Kindness, the reverberations of unacknowledged muddled sexual boundaries echoed throughout the generations.
Margaret told me about her abuse at the hands of her brother because – although she has repeatedly tried to seek justice through our legal system, including recording her brother confessing to the abuse at the request of the police – she continually comes up against the statute of limitations because the crimes occurred so long ago. In January this year, she received another letter from the Director of Public Prosecutions declining to prosecute her case because, as they point out in the correspondence, the reason they rejected her application in 2004 has not changed. The Victorian DPP concluded “there were no reasonable prospects of conviction”.
Nevertheless, Margaret wants her story told so other women and men who have experienced sibling abuse do not feel so alone. You can’t shatter silence by staying silent. However, as she pointed out to me, it is more vital than that. Any child who lives in an abusive household – be it violent, emotional, psychological and/or sexual in nature – carries the scars for life. Children in such homes live with constantly raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Neuroscience is now beginning to understand how that can affect brain development, learning ability and even the prevalence of inflammatory diseases later in life. As the Me Too movement has made clear, taking the effects of abuse seriously, believing that it has occurred and doing whatever can be done to offer some kind of justice can be healing in themselves.
Sibling child abuse is something we do not want to talk about. As a parent and a grandparent, I can understand the reluctance, but we cannot silence one child to protect another. However painful it may be, we must speak up about abuse wherever and however it happens. To do otherwise is to condemn the abused to further suffering and the abuser to believe that he – or occasionally she – can do whatever they like and get away with it. Expert help is available at places such as the previously mentioned Australian Childhood Foundation.
Parents faced with the horror of such a revelation must continue to be parents to both their children. Because not only is it a tragedy to be abused, it is also tragic to be allowed to get away with being an abuser.
National Sexual Assault and Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 9, 2019 as "Sibling cries".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.