“I love and hate him in the same breath”: Relationships of adult survivors of sexual abuse with their perpetrating siblings

  • Dafna Tener


Sibling sexual abuse (SSA) is considered the most prevalent and longest lasting type of interfamilial sexual abuse. At the same time, it is also the one least reported to authorities (Bass, Taylor, Knudson-Martin & Huenergardt 2006; Cyr, Wright, McDuff & Perron, 2002; McNevin, 2010). Self-disclosure of SSA, whether within or outside the family, is rare: it ends usually because the perpetrator matures and leaves the family home, hence its typically long duration (Caffaro & Conn-Caffaro, 2005; Finkelhor, 1980). Moreover, in fact, SSA survivors receive the lowest amount of therapeutic attention compared to other forms of interfamilial sexual abuse (Snyder, Bank & Burraston, 2005). Popular myths concerning SSA include assumptions of normality, harmlessness and mutuality, but these have been challenged by recent research (e.g. Ballantine, 2012; Tapara, 2012). According to these studies, the psychological implications of SSA may be at least as severe as the implications of other types of intrafamilial sexual abuse and may be felt throughout the survivors’ lifespan (Cyr et al., 2002; Monahan, 2010; see Tapara, 2012, for a review). Also, despite the long duration and often lifetime implications of SSA, relationships between adult and minor siblings involved in SSA as children have rarely been studied.  

The purpose of the present study was therefore to analyze adult SSA survivors’ experiences regarding their relationships with the perpetrator during childhood and adulthood. It addresses the following questions, motivated by the lack of research on the topic, and the need to better understand survivors to ensure adequate treatment and policy: (1) How do SSA survivors experience and perceive the sexual relationships with their siblings during childhood? (2) How do they perceive their current relationships?

The sample consisted of 15 adult survivors of SSA (13 women) , recruited through organizations treating survivors of sexual abuse and by posting notices on websites specifically aimed at this group. The ads were drafted using general and broad terms (“looking for adults who were sexually abused by siblings/had sexual relationships with siblings”) in order to include multiple experiences and perceptions. Semi structured qualitative interviews were conducted in the participants’ homes or wherever else they chose, and lasted between 60 and 90 minutes. The content categories in the interview guide included the SSA event (e.g., Tell me your story; Tell me about the sexual abuse you experienced as a child); perceived effects of the abuse in the short and long term (e.g., How do you think the abuse affected your growing up? How do you think it affects your life in the present?); and the relationship with the perpetrator in the past and present. The interviews were taped and transcribed, and were analyzed using a qualitative thematic analysis approach (Braun & Clarke, 2006), which included several interrelated stages. Before beginning the analysis, the interviews were read several times in order for the author to become familiar with the data and to identify initial ideas.

In the first stage, each interview transcript was entered as a case into the computer program (Atlas ti.5).

In the second stage, all transcripts were divided into meaningful and manageable chunks of text, such as passages or quotations. Each segment was then coded with one or more codes that represented salient core issues arising from the text itself (Attride-Stirling, 2001). In the next stage, codes or group of related codes were synthesized into themes and subthemes based on their salience or frequency. In the final stage, the selected themes were further refined into themes specific enough to be discrete and broad enough to cover a set of ideas contained in numerous text segments (Attride-Stirling, 2001; Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

At this stage, the author referred back to the transcripts to retrieve additional information as required to develop the themes (Maykut & Morehouse, 1994). In the last two stages, themes were further reviewed, refined and named.

The themes were identified using inductive, data-driven analysis, a process of coding the data without trying to fit it into a preexisting coding frame or the researcher’s analytic preconceptions (Braun & Clarke, 2006).

Thematic analysis of semi-structured qualitative interviews revealed two continua that characterize SSA survivors’ lives: the “reciprocity-coercion” continuum in childhood and the “distance- closeness” continuum in adulthood. On one end of the “reciprocity-coercion” continuum in childhood participants described reciprocal and mutually initiated sexual acts. On the other, they described coercive and intrusive acts initiated exclusively by the other sibling who was clearly perceived as abusive. In the middle of the continuum were non-reciprocal acts that were not perceived as abusive or coercive; rather, they were described as part of everyday life. For all participants, the sexual acts with their siblings ceased at some point in childhood or adolescence. All left their parents' home and were now living on their own or with spouses. Some had children. Adult life brought new perspectives on their childhood experiences. Some felt that they were carrying the SSA with them into adulthood and that it continued to affect their lives, making it difficult, for example, to form, maintain or physically enjoy intimate relationships. Others felt that the SSA no longer affected them in the present – it was like “their eye color”, as one participant described it. The “distance- closeness” continuum characterized participants’ relationships with the perpetrating sibling during adulthood. At one end, they were described by few participants as normal, with the past sexual relationships having no effect on the present. At the other end, most participants described having no contact with their siblings, and usually as a result of that, with the family as a whole. Thus, Findings reveal that regardless of how the relationships were perceived in childhood, most participants chose to distance themselves from their perpetrating siblings as adults. Even in cases where the relationships were considered mutual during childhood, reconceptualization of the abuse in adulthood led to renewed understanding of its meanings and implications for the survivors’ personal lives.

The literature is often concerned with the need to protect child SSA survivors. Contrary to the scholarly interest in child survivors, however, there is almost no references in the literature to the safety needs of SSA survivors as adults, and hardly any on relationships between victims of intrafamilial child sexual abuse and perpetrators in adulthood. The findings indicate the need for more profound understanding of SSA survivors’ experiences in childhood and adulthood. Understanding the complexity of SSA as experienced in childhood is important for formulating interventions better tailored to the emotional needs of the survivors, as opposed to the rather restrictive approach of treating them exclusively as “victims”. In addition, the findings indicate the need to consider the relationship with the perpetrator sibling in adulthood. A significant proportion of the participants in this study are struggling to keep a physical and emotional distance from the perpetrator sibling, and experience him as intrusive and deeply affecting their current lives.
Understanding this in the therapeutic and professional context may be useful for helping survivors cope with their conflicting emotions toward the actual or virtual perpetrator.