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Sibling Sexual Abuse: What the Research Reveals, with Dr. Peter Yates

Sibling sexual abuse is revealed to be every bit as harmful as sexual abuse by a parent and affects the entire family. Yet, it’s not adequately understood or addressed, even by authorities and professionals.

Show Notes

CSA Centre 2021 SSA Report by Yates and Allardyce

Link to report supporting working with families professionals

Enough Abuse


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Episode Transcirpt - Click to expand

Sibling Sexual Abuse: What the Research Reveals with Dr. Peter Yates

Miranda Pacchiana: Dr. Yates, thank you so much for being here. We realize what an important voice you are in the movement to raise awareness and provide practical solutions for addressing sibling sexual abuse.

It’s really an honor to have you here today, and I’d like to start by asking you why this 2021 report was necessary and the goals that you and Stuart Allardyce set out to accomplish.

Peter Yates: Yeah, gosh, I suppose we felt it was necessary because there’s still not a huge deal written about sibling sexual abuse, you know, a reasonable amount, but it’s very disparate and it’s over a number of different years, so there was the seminal paper written by David Finkelhor back in 1980, which still gets referenced.

And then various kinds of papers since then. Um, but you know, over 40 odd years worth of stuff, but really quite hard to pull together. Practitioners find this issue very confusing. They really don’t have enough information and training to guide them in terms of how to deal with and to address this kind of issue when they come across it in families, for all sorts of reasons, not understanding what the difference might be between kind of normal sexual behavior between siblings or when it becomes inappropriate or more problematic, you know, when should they be intervening?

When should they not? So they find the whole issue very confusing and their responses are also pretty confused and confusing. But there was really nothing out there, professionals to guide them through these very often, you know, very, very complex situations. So we thought that it would be a very helpful, valuable, necessary, much-needed resource really to try to bring all that literature together, into a much more manageable form. So, there’s just one thing to read, rather than referring to people to a whole load of different articles, to try and distill it, bring it all together, assimilate it, but particularly to then relate that to practice. So, both Stuart and I come from a practice background, we both worked in this area as social workers, so therefore bringing together the research knowledge that we have, but also our practice experience, to say, what does this literature then tell us about what we should do in these situations? so, that was the impetus for it.

Miranda Pacchiana: I’m so thankful that you have offered this to professionals because it does seem like there’s so much silence around this topic, starting with victims not knowing how to speak up about it or even understand what they’re experiencing, all the way to the probably rare incidents of parents reporting when it happens in their families and then practitioners knowing how to respond in ways that can help the entire family.

So I’d love to hear your thoughts about that in general and about, what we’ve learned about the rates of incidents of sibling sexual abuse. Which I think would surprise a lot of people.

Peter Yates: Yes, so the data on the rates of sibling sexual abuse are not very good and I could probably just keep repeating that there’s so much more research needed in this area and much more up-to-date research as well and high-quality research so I’ll try not to keep repeating that when you ask me questions to say the data is not very good, but as a general rule, it isn’t.

But there are some studies that have been done to try to establish the, the scale, the kind of prevalence of sibling sexual abuse in different ways. Most of them have been, surveys of like university students, university staff. So coming from that rather than general population surveys. But they have a broad, span, but ranging from something like 1.3 percent of those people surveyed right up to about 7 percent of those people surveyed, saying that they’d experienced sibling sexual abuse as children who have been harmed, as children, obviously now adults. So that’s a pretty broad range.

Um, there was also a large, population based survey done in the UK by, Corson and their colleagues in 2000. So it’s quite old now but that found that maybe about one percent of the population had been affected , uh, children who’d been sexually abused by parents, but three percent by other relatives, most of whom had been siblings. And in that report, in terms of the rates of inter-familial abuse, about 38 percent was accounted for by brothers and stepbrothers and about 36 percent by fathers and step fathers.

But therefore that’s not understanding the amount of sexual abuse that’s also caused by sisters. And stepsisters. So the data’s not brilliant. We could do with some really good, robust population based studies. But from the research that’s been done, we would seem to be quite confident in saying that sibling sexual abuse is at least as common as sexual abuse by parents.

And, the suggestions are that it could be, more common than parents. Some people have estimated that it’s three to five times as common as sexual abuse by parents, but I don’t think that the research really supports that. Certainly not yet. That’s based on quite a lot of ifs and ands, all sorts of assumptions around, disclosure rates and so on that assumptions are made for those kinds of figures, but at least as common as sexually abused by parents, I think we can say with some confidence.

Miranda Pacchiana: I think that that fact alone would shock a lot of people because, first of all, we’re trying to move away from the idea of stranger danger when it comes to child sexual abuse. So there has been More awareness of the threat in the home but I just think that there’s so little understanding of the need to pay attention to your children’s behavior and understand that kids are at risk by engaging in this behavior, by one child victimizing another, and that it is at least as common as an adult abusing a child, which I think is where our mind immediately goes when we think of child sexual abuse.

Peter Yates: I think so. Yeah, I think we’ve been on a trajectory really of, first of all, thinking about sexual abuses in terms of stranger danger, just as you’ve said, and then, particularly since the work of Henry Kempe and colleagues in the 1960s, starting to understand that actually, sometimes it’s parents who can be responsible for abusing their children.

It’s not just about stranger danger, but that’s still something that people struggle with. So even though that’s been known since the 1960s, a lot of what we hear in the news is all about adults, you know, inverted commas, predators, or kind of high-profile celebrity cases.

I mean, I know it’s a UK thing, but you’ll probably would have heard of Jimmy Savile. Um, those are the kind of really high-profile cases that seem to get media attention. And so it’s not really very well in public consciousness yet that actually most sexual abuse takes place within the home.

People still think of it as being adult strangers. It’s a bit of a stretch for people to understand that it’s not just adult strangers. It’s adults who are known to the children, um, parents, uh, you know, fathers, stepfathers, uncles, and so on, but actually it’s not even Adults that are often, people who would harm other children through, through sexual behavior, but it’s children and not just stranger children.

So then we get as far as thinking, well, maybe it’s stranger children. It’s boys, out in the community, somewhere, but actually no, it’s children within the family. Not stranger children who are mostly where we would be concerned in terms of sexual abuse. So we’re on that trajectory, I think, from moving away from understanding that it’s not just adult strangers, but known adults and adults within the family tothen thinking it’s not actually just adults, it’s children, but it’s not actually just children, it’s children within the family. And I think that’s very difficult for people to come to terms with. And one of the reasons why I think it’s still, a phenomenon that is very much underground and isn’t really, sufficiently within public awareness. Something that you and others are trying to change, I know, but still very much an underground issue.

Kathryn Robb: You know, I’m in the legal world, mostly legislative writing, any type of abuse, prevention, legislation. So I’m always interested in causes and prevention, and I try to read whatever I can get my hands on about this epidemic across the globe.

And then of course, my personal experience of being a survivor of sexual abuse in the family by an older brother. Sibling sexual abuse, is, Oddly fascinating to me. But like you said Peter, there’s not a lot of research out there. But, what I read is the prevalence and then some responses and how to characterize that response on the continuum of less serious to more serious slash perhaps even criminal. And I see that that makes sense. So my interest lies in causes and prevention, and specifically, the gender component of this epidemic, and I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts on that. Thoughts on what you see, what’s available in terms of our overall understanding and what we can do to be more, preventative action based and then what may be out there in the future.

Peter Yates: A few things I’ll say to, that first, which is to go back to prevalence, actually, cause I know that we kind of throw these numbers around and say that, well, you know, the lowest estimates around 1. 3 percent up to about 7%. And, you know, sometimes that sounds quite low. I think for people, 1. 3 percent doesn’t sound very much, but if we took a very But let’s say 2%, because it’s just the maths is easier, but with a range is 1.3 up to seven, that’s what we have at the moment.

Um, so if we just took it as two, which is pretty low in that range, I don’t know what the sizes are of, high schools within the US, but in the UK, typically around about a thousand kids would be in a high school. So if we’ve got a rate of 2%, that means that we’ve got 20 kids in that high school who have been sexually abused by a sibling, the chances are that sibling’s going to be going to the same school. So we could be filling a classroom full of kids in every single high school up and down the UK, a whole classroom full of kids who’ve been affected by sibling sexual abuse. And that’s not to mention maybe other siblings within the family who have not necessarily been directly involved in the abuse, but are nonetheless very significantly affected as well as their, parents, wider family and so on and so forth. So whilst I think these, numbers sometimes it’s hard to get your head around and they maybe don’t sound so high, but if we’re thinking that we’ve got a whole classroom full of children in every single high  school, that’s a lot of people.

Miranda Pacchiana: I actually pulled some stats also from the Sibling SexualAbuse Project out of, the UK from 2022. So I’m going to give you a chance to share your thoughts about that. I think this is a quote that I pulled from them, that sibling sexual abuse is the most common form of child sexual abuse in the UK. They say a child is two 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. And I don’t know a whole lot about where that research comes from, but I know that it made a big impression. Not as big as it needed to probably, but…

Peter Yates: Yeah, I think the two to five times more, those are some estimates that, are based on, what we understand about the prevalence in terms of the hard data that we have, but then also making some assumptions around disclosure rates, how much it’s a kind of a hidden form of abuse and so on.

And therefore starting to say, well, maybe it’s even higher than, you know, but I don’t think that we have solid evidence. to support the idea that it’s two to five times as common as abuse by a parent. The most robust data that we have, um, but it’s a bit old, as I say, and we could do with much more up-to-date population based studies, but the data that we do have that’s the most robust would say that it’s at least as prevalent as sexual abuse by a parent.

Um, but we might talk about this in relation to other things that there are lots of comparisons in the literature around, you know, is it as common as sexually abused by a parent? Is it as harmful as sexually abused by a parent?

I think these are kind of old debates as far as I’m concerned. What we do know is that it’s really common. It’s really widespread. It’s extremely harmful. Isn’t that enough? Do we need to make comparisons? Because we know that it’s really common. We know that it’s really harmful. Why do we need to be making comparisons to other things because I think it’s enough to know that it is in its own right. So that’s what I would say about that two to five times um, kind of statistic.

In terms of the freedom of information requests that you mentioned, that was put out to all of the police forces across England and Wales they were, asked for the numbers of sibling sexual abuse cases that had been reported to those police forces over a three year period. Um, and what they found was that roughly half of the police forces responded. And for those police forces that did respond, 24%, so nearly a quarter of intrafamilial sexual abuse cases were sibling cases. So that’s really significant. So a quarter of those cases were sibling cases.That’s a lot. Um, but also what’s, noteworthy about those figures is that for, for sibling cases to come to the attention of the police and to be reported as crimes, they typically have to involve, very serious sexual assault and usually rape.

Miranda Pacchiana: Yes,

Peter Yates: Um, for them to be reported as a crime and other kinds of sexual behaviors that are extremely harmful, don’t necessarily get reported and recorded as crimes.

Whereas when it’s parents abusing children, much lesser forms of sexual behavior are reported to the police as crimes. So everybody knows that if a parent does a sexual thing to a child, that that’s, that’s a crime and it gets reported. Whereas.

What people don’t tend to know, or get confused about, is that when a child does something sexual to another child, or if a sibling does something to their brother or sister, is that normal? Is that alright? Or is that not alright? Is that something we should be concerned about or not? Very often these things are either just not reported at all, or if they’re reported, they’re dealt with as, you know, kind of family matters or not as necessarily as problems of, of child protection, let alone warranting police involvement, but just something that we need to sort out as an issue of kind of social care within the family.

So the threshold for reporting to the police for sibling cases is much higher if you like than it is for parents for those reasons. So I think therefore that figure of 24 percent is pretty significant, pretty telling that that’s, that’s the scale of things that we’d be talking about, even just in terms of, what is regarded as criminal, sexual behavior between siblings.

Kathryn Robb: I wonder if it’s taking the same track as domestic violence in terms of law enforcement responses to domestic violence. You know, in the fifties and sixties, it was like, Oh, this is a family matter. And the police would really not take action. And I just wonder if that’s, a response that, is creating inaccurate numbers, perhaps.

Peter Yates: Yeah, I think there’s probably a few things sibling sexual abuse tends to be underreported and to kind of minimized. So when it comes to the attention of services, it still tends to be minimized. Um, there’s some recent research actually by Sophie King Hill as part of the National Sibling Sexual Abuse Project in the UK that you referred to earlier. So as part of her research, she found that it is very often but sometimes is also catastrophised. By social workers or exaggerated to try to get services involved. So probably, you know, minimized most often, catastrophized to an extent, exaggerated sometimes, none of those responses are helpful, but in terms of the minimizing responses, which I think is the most kind of common form of response that we’ll typically see from families, from parents, but also from professionals.

I think it comes from a number of sources, partly because I think that there was an idea again, going right back to Finkelhor in 1980, that this is somehow children just experimenting exploratory kind of behavior. It’s nothing serious. And even if it’s not really experimentation, there was, just a belief that it couldn’t be as harmful as behavior that was carried out by parents. So a general belief that it’s not so harmful or, even harmless.

And I think that also relates to the kind of stereotypes that we have of, sex offenders, that these are adult strangers that look weird and are kind of monstrous predatorial beasts that are out there in the community somehow that we’ve got to be really frightened of. We don’t think of People who are capable of sexually abusing children as actually being your mum or your dad or your really kind, friendly, lovely uncle.

Miranda Pacchiana: Or the pillar of the community, which they often are.

Peter Yates: The pillar of the community. absolutely. absolutely. That doesn’t fit within our conception of what a sex offender looks like or is like.

The idea that a sex offender, I don’t like the term sex offender, I have to say. So I want to maybe come back to that and start to recorrect the language a little bit. But, um, but our view of people who sexually abuse other children, is certainly not another child. So children are generally seen as angels, kind of sweet, innocent, vulnerable, they’re the victims of abuse. They’re not, people who would be responsible for abusing others.

So I think the idea of child sexual abuse by other children really challenges our views of children, really challenges our views of those people who we would tend to think of as being capable of sexually abusing children, sex offenders for sure.

And I think beyond that it also challenges our ideas of siblings. So all of the language of brotherhood and sisterhood is about. people being equals, looking out for each other, nurturing each other, maybe being rivalrous, maybe being, you know, competitors and so on, but, um, maybe a bit jealous, but otherwise they’re people who look out for each other and above all their equals, that’s all of our language and all of our archetypes around siblings.

So I think sibling, sexual abuse really challenges our archetypes of siblings and sibling relationships, our ideals of childhood, our stereotypes of sex offenders, and our ideals of family. So children, I’m on a roll now, but If we have two adults in an intimate kind of romantic relationship, we tend to refer to them as a couple. They’re a couple. And if they have a dog and a cat, they’re a couple with a dog and a cat. But as soon as we introduce a child into that situation, then they become a family. So it’s the children that transform this intimate relationship, this romantic relationship into a family relationship. And we tend to think of families as places of safety and of nurture and of belonging.

So if there’s abuse within that relationship between those children, between the siblings, it really challenges our ideals of what families are supposed to be like. Sibling sexual abuse cuts across all of these things and I think it’s very, very difficult for people then to, take in, to accept that it happens and to accept the seriousness of when it happens.

Kathryn Robb: That certainly makes sense. That it really challenges our beliefs and assumptions. What I was curious about is, is there any data on…First of all, we have to understand what a child is, and sometimes that’s a legal, either civil or criminal definition. Generally speaking, it’s someone under 18, right? I think that would be true, both in the US and the UK. Um, but is there data on children that cause harm, if we’re not going to say sex offender, that continue to cause harm? And I’m not saying I have a hard time with that necessarily, that continue to cause harm when they’re 18, 19, 20.

Because there are children that continue to live in the home beyond 18, 19, 20, maybe even perhaps go to college and then come back.

Um, certainly in our crazy economic times where it’s. More financially challenging for children to go out and be able to afford rent or mortgage or whatever you’re seeing more older children live at home. And of course, the pandemic increase that I’m just curious if there’s any data on that at all.

Peter Yates: There isn’t very good data, no, unfortunately. So, there’s a few things to try and address that question as well, Kathryn. In terms of the language, maybe that’s worth starting with in terms of why I tried. Not to say things like sex offenders or refer to children as sexual abusers and these kinds of things that these are first and foremost children.

So, typically I’ll talk about the age spans and how long it may continue and so on and so forth in a few minutes, because that would be relevant to your question. But typically we’re talking about, early adolescent children, who have been responsible or have caused harm through their sexual behavior, um, and younger children typically who, have been harmed through their sibling’s sexual behavior.

But these are children, and they are typically, normally, not always though, and that’s another caveat that we might want to come to, children who have experienced significant forms of harm themselves. So they very often will be coming from families and from situations where they have, been exposed to significant levels of domestic abuse, um, you know, conflict between, the parents, physical abuse, very often within the context of, parents who are quite unemotionally unavailable, to their children, a whole host of things, but these are traumatized, vulnerable children who for various reasons, which we can try and explore and try and tease out, um, sexually abused their siblings, but their children, first and foremost, who need a lot of support in order to help them to, process and recover from the trauma that they have experienced as well as the harm that they’ve caused.

What we don’t want to do, I think, is create a label for them during this kind of phase of adolescence where they’re really developing their sense of themselves and their identity. What we don’t want to do is to create a label for them and an identity for them of a sexual abuser or of a sex offender. That’s what we don’t want them to be.

Kathryn Robb: In fear that it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy or, yeah. Mm-Hmm.

Peter Yates: We know that from lots of research, which I can’t quote, but lots of research and kind of labeling theory that if you give a dog a bad name, things go pretty badly for the dog. Um, if you label children as troublemakers, they will be troublemakers and, and you can see that happening very, very quickly.

If you go into any kind of classroom, in any school and you see a teacher starting to create an identity for a child as being difficult and troublesome, they will. very quickly become difficult and troublesome. If you start praising them for the things that they do well and the times that they are behaving really responsibly, they will respond well to that and start behaving more responsibly.

That can be very powerful. What we don’t want to do is start to create identities for these children, which is the very, things that we don’t want them to become. So that’s partly why I like to avoid things like sex offenders or, those kinds of terms, that do label people in that way and therefore would be counterproductive.

They’re also sometimes inaccurate because, actually a lot of the children, particularly when we’re talking about sibling sexual abuse, they haven’t necessarily been charged with any offense. So anyway, that’s in terms of the language. Do we have data on the extent to which that may continue or not continue? We don’t have very good data on that. A number of things that we could say is that for children who have displayed harmful sexual behavior more generally. So we’re thinking about children who have sexually abused other children, but not necessarily brothers and sisters.

This is when it’s been discovered, you know, people have found out about it in whatever way. The data that we have would suggest that their recidivism rate, so the rates at which they would do that behavior again, once it’s already been found out, and dealt, would be around about 16 to 18 percent.

So about 16 to 18 percent of children who have sexually abused another child may go on to repeat that once it’s been discovered. So that’s nowhere near as high, I think, as a lot of people would think. A lot of people would think that as soon as somebody has behaved in a sexually abusive way, they’re just going to go on to do that forever.

You know, they’re going to be prolific kind of sex offenders, right throughout their lifetimes. That’s really not the case by any manner of means. So actually only a small proportion of children And those are even the children who have not received any kind of formal help or intervention.

Once they’ve received some form of help or intervention, that figure comes right back down to sort of four or five percent. So the re-offending rates are low.

Miranda Pacchiana: That’s good to know. And this is why it’s so important for you to put out this information and offer solutions to professionals. I do think there’s also a really strong stigma and taboo to familial sexual abuse. And even the word incest, I think, is hard for people to say or use in any professional context.

Um, so, But I do think that children, who are harming other children, there is a trauma even in that experience for them. And they are much more likely to respond to intervention to other children. developing empathy in them and helping them understand how that caused harm, understanding where their own impulses came from, um, having empathy for themselves and what they’ve experienced, but these things are so key to stop it in its tracks for everyone involved.

Um, I do separate an adult who, because so much of my life, sibling sexual abuse is disclosed later in life by victims. It’s something that you don’t even have language for or necessarily know how to recognize, let alone put words to. And so when an adult who has sexually abused their sibling is confronted

I do believe that they have a responsibility to address it, and, try and make some kind of reparation. And there’s so much that depends on how old the child is, what is the nature of the abuse when it happens, but I also think that we do need to hold people responsible as adults.

Peter Yates: Yeah, I agree. I do agree. Absolutely. I’ll go back again a little bit over, Kathryn’s question and come to that as well. So, that’s what we know about the reoffending rates or recidivism rates, they’re low numbers.

Most of the children don’t go on to continue to behave in sexually abusive ways. Once it’s been. discovered. And they’ve been challenged in some way around that and it’s been brought to attention. So, that’s kind of good news in a way.

Um, there are nonetheless a small proportion of those children who will go on to continue abusing, despite the fact that it’s been discovered, or despite the fact that they’ve had some interventional treatment. And they may be some of the children who, as adults, that we would be most concerned about.

And five percent, that’s very low rates, but it’s still a significant number of people who would, potentially go on to abuse other children in their adulthood, that would be causing very significant harm. So, we do need to be concerned about that, not just to say, it’s only 5%, let’s not worry.

It’s still 5%, you know, that’s still significant. But what we also know, which relates back to some of your question, or both of your questions really is that only a tiny minority of sibling sexual abuse is disclosed. during childhood. I would have to go back and look up some of the statistics, I’m afraid, to remember what that is, but I could do that easily whilst we’re on, if you like, and to see the data that we have.

But certainly only a very small proportion of sibling sexual abuse is disclosed during childhood, and sometimes not even until really quite late into adulthood, if ever. And what we do know from the reports and the testimonies of survivors is that it very often is frequent, regular, repeated behavior, often over months and years,10 years or more, it may cease and often does cease perhaps at the point when one of the siblings leaves the family home, but that means that it will have endured for, a good number of years before one of the children has left the family home. So we are often talking about really extensive repeated patterned behavior with a high frequency high duration behavior.

And we also have testimony from survivors where, it does continue into adulthood, either because they continue to live together as adults, or just exactly as you were saying that, you know, children go off to university, they come back, and then the abuse continues once they come back home, or they attend, family events. weddings, funerals, and so on. And the fallout from the abuse and the tension, and the stress, and the fear can be there anyway, irrespective of whether further sexual abuse happens in those circumstances. But they also provide, situations which can be, unsafe for people. So, we do have testimony from survivors that in some situations it does continue on into adulthood.

What I can’t tell you is how often, what the proportion is. We don’t know that. We just know that it does in some situations. That’s clearly a huge issue for adult survivors. Carrying the harm that they have experienced. into those future situations. They may or may not want to keep up with family relationships as a result of what they’ve experienced, whether they’ve disclosed it or whether there is a secret that they’re still holding, which therefore may create some distance from other family members. Cause there’s a big part of people’s history and experience that they’re not shared, but it’s clearly important and significant, or maybe have shared it, but very often, typically again, the response is unhelpful.

Miranda Pacchiana: Yes.

Peter Yates: from family members, minimizing, blaming, ostracizing, so there are lots of very good reasons, I think, when sometimes children or adults will decide, actually, I don’t want to I don’t have so much to do with my family members anymore, or certain family members because of what’s happened andbecause of the response, to that news when it’s told.

Kathryn Robb: Even without the response, without disclosing, I mean, my personal experience was every time I had to go to a family event and I knew that he would be there, I had intense anxiety it was very, very hard for me to be because it was this situation that whether it was before it was disclosed within my family or even after, it just so, cuts at those Bonds and that safety and that trust. And if it was not taken very seriously at times, it wasn’t until I fully revealed what happened, but, , boy, it definitely made me want to run the other way. Yeah.

Miranda Pacchiana: Well, once you are no longer able to rely on dissociation to protect yourself and you’re more in touch with the trauma that you’ve experienced, it’ll be so activating to come face to face with the person who offended against you. And I think it’s a really hard thing for families to handle because they are ill-equipped.

Most families are ill-equipped. Some families do their best. A lot of families that I see, and this is why I created my whole website, their response is as painful or more than the abuse itself. because you end up getting treated like you’re the one who caused harm. Because you brought it up and you didn’t let it go.

And it’s something that’s very, very difficult for the family to address. And if professionals can get better at understanding all of this, and helping families through that and it does impact everyone in the family. It puts parents in a bind. It affects siblings, whether they’re abused or not. Um, so this is something that I do think is really important to examine.

Peter Yates: Absolutely. Totally, totally agree. And the ways that you’ve described, the impact is so much more eloquent than I would ever manage. But very much echoed and borne out by all the research, into this area as well, that those situations that you described them, it’s how it is for a lot of people. And often also, and I think this isn’t necessarily talked about very much, but the child who’s caused the harm often also carries huge amounts of turmoil and guilt and stress and anxiety around what they’ve done. If they can acknowledge it, you know, and often they won’t acknowledge it or acknowledge the  full extent of it and will minimize it because taking on board what they’ve done fully is tough. To really acknowledge, psychologically, the guilt and shame that’s associated with those kinds of behaviors is, pretty huge. So for, children and adults to admit What they did is a real challenge. Um, but they can also be affected, right through into adulthood as well.

Again, we don’t have very good research on it, but what we do have suggests that for some of these children, at least as adults, they can be continuing to engage in, you know, substance misuse, terrible long-term feelings of, guilt and shame, lots of difficulties around, adult relationships and so on and so forth.

The outcomes for children who have caused harm from what we understand are often really not great as well as clearly those children have been harmed. As you’ve just said, the significant kind of long term consequences, throughout adulthood of those experiences. So it really needs to be addressed from everybody’s perspective.

Miranda Pacchiana: I’m also very curious, and I don’t think that this has been studied, but what kind of rates you might see in the parents in the family of their own history with sexual abuse? And they’re, maybe perpetuating it within the household, whether it’s poor boundaries or, even just setting up power dynamics in the house.

Thanks. Carrying on a legacy of abuse that they perhaps experienced and haven’t come to terms with, because that is something that I see signs of in a lot of families. And one thing I say too is that sometimes the most vocal and angry people who come out against, survivors who want to address their abusive past are people who have this in their own past as well and haven’t addressed it. So I wonder if that also plays into the other members of the family.

Peter Yates: Yeah, for sure. Um, I’ll go back to just a little bit of what we were talking about earlier, just in terms of, the child who’s caused harm taking responsibility for what they’ve done,

Miranda Pacchiana: As an adult,

Peter Yates: As an adult and saying that they really should, you know, they have a duty and a responsibility to do that. And I agree. So I just wanted to support that really, that adults who have caused this harm, adults who as children cause this harm, I believe do have a responsibility for what they did. They have responsibility as children. You know, they can’t say, Oh, well, it wasn’t my fault. You know, I just had all this trauma in my life. And they say, well, you did have all this trauma in your life. And you therefore deserve to have a lot of sympathy around that and to be supported around that trauma, but that doesn’t excuse or absolve you from responsibility for your behaviors.

And actually, all of the interventions that we have developed are all based around the idea that children. can take responsibility for their behaviors. We have ages of criminal responsibility. This is all predicated on the idea that children can make choices around what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s harmful, what’s supportive to people.

So we do need to be holding children accountable for their behaviors. And certainly when they reach adulthood, then yes, they should be taking responsibility for what they did.

Absolutely. Um, whether they’re punished or that’s a whole different argument, but taking responsibility. Uh, and accepting what they did and acknowledging what they did and the harm that that caused.

I think absolutely I would support that. And the research that we have, and I’ll be interested to know whether yourself and Kathryn would echo this or not, but from the research that we have one of the most significant factors in survivor’s recovery is that what happened is acknowledged and believed within the family.

And ideally what’s happened is acknowledged and accepted by the child who caused the harm. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I would I would totally endorse that.

Miranda Pacchiana: And I’d like to add that that’s not such a simple statement because you can get people to say, Yes, it happened. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you as a parent. I didn’t recognize it. I have seen several written, handwritten letters from people who abuse their siblings who acknowledge that it happened, might even formally apologize.

But that isn’t necessarily fulfilling what a survivor needs because some people apologize to get off the hook. It needs to be followed up by behavior, and I feel very strongly that the survivor is the only authority on what the survivor experienced, how they feel about it, how it affected them, and what they need. And I really want to just drive that home that you as a survivor, a lot of people are going to tell you, you got what you asked for, you got more than other people, you know, if you have any kind of attempt at, reparations.

You know, it’s time for you to forgive, you need to have empathy for them. That is up to the survivor

Kathryn Robb: ‘Move on, get over it.’ There can be a lot of that. I’ve heard it from a lot of survivors in specifically abuse in the family, just like move on, get over it. Like, come on, we’ve already talked about this.

Miranda Pacchiana: Exactly. And that is, yet again, putting the lens on survivors, from why were you walking down that street at night, when we’re talking about sexual assault to why aren’t you forgiving in your heart because it’ll be good for you. Well, let’s turn a lens on why did someone cause this harm, right? I think that’s really important. And how are they responding now? That is. A responsibility that they do carry and I just think we lose sight of that.

Peter Yates: Maybe it’ll be different for different people. I don’t know. I’d be interested again in your, view, but my sense would be that every survivor will have different needs. There’ll be different family dynamics, different things will have happened, that will be different for different people.

There’ll be lots of things that people will have in common. I’m sure there’ll be common stories and things that people can relate to, but people will be different too. People can recover and recover very well from sibling sexual abuse without this ever having been acknowledged or admitted within the family. Whether or not they choose to maintain contact with family members or not, people have amazing resources of recovery and there are ways of accessing support to be able to recover from this abuse as there are other forms of abuse. I’m not in any way saying that to minimize it or say it’s easy.

I’m just saying that people have a capacity to recover. Um, I don’t like some, statements when people talk about children who have been harmed sexually, that they’ve been damaged or damaged permanently, that feels very disempowering to me that people can’t recover and lead, healthy, fulfilling lives, despite what they’ve experienced. But again, I’d be interested in your view though that people can have that capacity to recover, but if family members can acknowledge it and believe what happened, and ideally, if the child who’s caused the harm can acknowledge and accept what’s happened, that can be a very helpful starting point.

This isn’t something that people are making up. They’ve not, imagined it it’sactually believed and acknowledged. You’re saying, Miranda, sorry, that that can’t be the be all and end all, it has to go beyond that. They should be taking more responsibility for it and changing their behaviours, not just a kind of lip service apology. I would totally go along with that. But at least if it is acknowledged and believed, and everybody understands that that’s what happened, that can be a helpful first step, at least. Would that sound reasonable to you?

Miranda Pacchiana: I think it depends on if it’s followed through. I think to get an acknowledgement and then have it brushed right back under the rug and subtle ways of showing the survivor that they’re now making a problem for the family, I think that is actually in some ways more harmful than denying it.

I don’t know. I shouldn’t compare. It doesn’t matter, but It’s harmful.

Peter Yates: It is harmful for sure. Yep. Ongoing minimization, blame, get over it, move on. The things that you’ve been saying, of course, those things are going to be harmful. Yeah.

Kathryn Robb: So we’re still in the land of responses, and I kind of would like to focus back on prevention and causes only because I’m interested in protecting children. That is my work, is to write child protection legislation. And I cannot escape, and Miranda knows this very well, looking at the data, the notion of the gender factor.

Peter Yates: Hmm.

Kathryn Robb: So when I’m thinking about prevention and causes, I’d be curious, What you see as the causes, or potential causes, there are probably many of them, and if you believe that gender is a factor, and how.

Peter Yates: Yes, number of things in there. Just to gender, to start with, what we understand from the research is that official records will underestimate the levels of sibling sexual abuse that have taken place. So depending upon how you go about the research and how you gather your data, you’ll get higher figures around, you know, kind of scale, frequency, duration, and so on and so forth when you ask people what happened to them compared to what you’ve got recorded in your social work file or on a criminal record or whatever, um, So that’d be the first thing to say, and I guess related to that, which is where it comes to the idea’s agenda, that when we look at criminal data, the vast majority of children who are responsible for causing harm through their sexual behaviour are boys.

So the Creanert and Walsh study, that was about 13, 000 incidents of, sexual offenses. Um, it was about 92 percent of those offenses were committed by boys and 8 percent by girls. But when you look at other forms of data that aren’t criminal data, then the proportions of girls who are responsible for causing the harm go up significantly. Um, we don’t have very good figures, but something like 20%, of incidents of sexual abuse carried out by girls. 80% by boys. So it’s still a

Kathryn Robb: Still a gender imbalance.

Peter Yates: A very gendered phenomenon. And I and I think if we’re gonna have a good explanation for why is it that children sexually abuse other children, and why do they abuse their brothers and sisters?

Then you’ve got to have some understanding of gender as part of that, given those kinds of proportions that the majority of children who cause harm are boys and the majority of children who have been harmed are girls. All the data says that. So, gender has got to be part of the picture. And at the same time, Then we also need to develop our understanding of why is it that there are actually a significant minority of girls who do get involved in harmful sexual behavior as well. We know very, very little about girls. The information that we have is that it can be every bit as harmful as sexually abused by boys.

And that girls do get involved in this behavior in terms of abusing brothers as well as abusing sisters. It’s not something that we should be dismissing or minimizing any more than we should be dismissing abuse by brothers, but beyond that we know very little about it really in terms of are there differences in causes and so on and so forth. So in terms of why does it happen, again, this is a very under-theorized area. The research that we have suggests that for most children, but not all children, we’ll need to come back to the not all children in a minute, but for most children, They, often have backgrounds of abuse and trauma in their own lives.

So maybe roughly 40 to 50 percent of them will have been sexually abused. Again, similar numbers who have been physically abused, similar numbers who have been exposed to domestic abuse, other kinds of forms of significant parental conflict. Again, similar numbers, maybe even higher numbers who have, experienced parents who are really emotionally unavailable to them. And then poor sexual boundaries within the home is also very common. Whether that’s around very loose sexual boundaries or sometimes overly restrictive kind of sexual messages. We don’t have very good information about where it’s reported. So where people talk about, you know, Sexual boundaries in the home and sexual messages in the home.

They tend to be either very loose or very overly restrictive, but we don’t necessarily know about all these other families where maybe it’s somewhere in the middle, but so when it’s loose, it will be talking about things like, children witnessing their parents having sex with each other.

Um, parents walking around without any clothes on, parents watching pornography within communal areas. Sometimes parents sexually abusing their children, whether it’s the child who’s caused the harm or sometimes a parent, for example, if it’s a case of a brother abusing a sister in a significant minority of those cases, the parent has sexually abused that daughter before the brother has abused their sister, if you like.

Miranda Pacchiana: Mm

Peter Yates: Um, so, we’ve kind of got a picture of, quite high levels of abuse and stress, trauma, conflict, domestic abuse. within the families,

Miranda Pacchiana: Mm hmm.

Peter Yates: Low levels of emotional availability. So children can’t turn to their parents for emotional support to talk things through to seek help. And also difficult sexualization experiences, whether that’s about having been sexually abused or viewing pornography or viewing their parents viewing pornography. very often difficult sexualization experiences.

So that seems to be the sort of cocktail of, backgrounds, I guess, within which sibling sexual abuse can then emerge. And that may be, again, there could be a number of different pathways, but for example, it may be that in that context of abuse and emotional unavailability, that those children turn to each other for some kind of support and nurturance., In some cases, maybe that becomes, you know, physical nurturance that is experienced as helpful and supportive, but possibly within the context of difficult sexualization experiences, or when children hit adolescence and start to have sexual feelings, that some of that physical support, emotional closeness, and emotional nurturance becomes sexualized and there’s a sexual component to that.

It may be that from the very outset that that was not wanted by one child but was wanted by the other child. Or it may be that they both experienced that as wanted and as supportive and as pleasurable for a period of time. Maybe one of the children then starts to not want it. Or maybe one of them wants it, the other one doesn’t, and that flips back and forth for a bit between the children. But maybe over time, one of the children starts to want that behavior and want that kind of physical sexual contact more than the other child. And starts to demand it. Maybe their, experience within their families, is if you want to get your needs met, you have to stamp your feet and shout.

If parents are not very emotionally available to you, and if you say, I’m hungry, I would like something to eat. But parents don’t listen to that, so you have to shout and scream to get something to eat. If what you learn in your childhood is the way to get your needs met is through coercive means, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising that when you have sexual needs in adolescence that you would also try to get those needs met through coercive means, um, or would therefore start to behave in coercive ways in order to get your brother or sister to go along with the sexual things that you want them to go along with.

So that might be, one of the pathways, that would help us to understand and explain why, or how sibling sexual abuse may come about. But for other children, it’s not necessarily that. For other children, we understand that again, yes, within a context of emotional unavailability, perhaps witnessing, you know, pornography, lots of unsupervised time with their siblings, you told just go off and play, we haven’t got the time or the energy to supervise you. Go off and spend time together, sometimes older siblings being put in positions of authority, you know look after your little sister or look after your little brother.

So they have power and authority because that’s what they’ve been given, in terms of kind of childminding kind of babysitting responsibilities, but quite often, for various reasons to do with the whole family dynamics, very jealous and very angry with their sibling, which could be for a number of reasons that we could go on to. And it might be that it’s not to do with a nurturing kind of relationship that’s become sexualized and has become abusive. It may be that that it starts out as being abusive from the outset, as again, from, these other kinds of pathways of jealousy, anger, difficult family, histories, and so on. But there are probably as many different pathways and theories as there are children who get involved in it, but those are typically the kind of common waysin.

Miranda Pacchiana: I know also that domestic violence is a risk factor when it’s happening within the family, and children imitate what they see, and I would imagine that for children to, watch most likely a father dominate a mother, then they would imitate that and also, the family is a microcosm of society and culture, and we do live in a culture that is very gender imbalanced. So it does stand to reason to me that that power imbalance would exist within the family, and it would exist between siblings of different genders.

Peter Yates: Absolutely. Yep. That kind of behavior is modeled or the power relationship. The way that you resolve conflict to get your needs met is modeled through the parents. Yeah. And very often in the gendered ways that you’ve described, which is also then pretty prevalent in society is prevalent in pornography that children may watch, you know, it’s kind of everywhere really.

Miranda Pacchiana: And narcissism, we see it in much higher rates in men and boys. And I do think it comes withthis sense of entitlement that is encouraged in the culture. You know, I sometimes work with parents whose children, one has sexually abused the other and they come to me for help and how to handle it and oftentimes families just naturally get into a pattern of excusing the boy’s behavior and thinking, well, they tried their best and they’re not good at that, but they have very different standards for their girls, even though they don’t philosophically believe that.

But I think it’s so easy to drift into that kind of parenting and perpetuation of behaviors that can also contribute to this kind of tragic situation.

Peter Yates: Yeah, totally. And those very. outdated anachronistic views that, you know, boys should be strong and, you know, masculine and be the breadwinners and provide for families. They have sexual needs and urges that are quite difficult to control that have to be satisfied. Girls, you know, should be that, you know, the homemakers and domestic shouldn’t have, or don’t have sexual feelings or desires. Um, they should be pleasing their male, all of that stuff horrible. Um, I’m trying to think of the right word for it.

Kathryn Robb: Sexism,

Peter Yates: Well, sexism, yeah, um, pernicious, really damaging.

Kathryn Robb: Very much so. For both boys and girls.

Miranda Pacchiana: Exactly. For all genders, we do tend to suppress boys’ needs to understand and express their own feelings as well. And that’s very harmful too.

Peter Yates: Yeah, absolutely. So I do think that if we’re going to have a decent theory as to why this happens. We need to understand these kind of family backgrounds. That’s very often the kind of picture that we’ll see has to be understood within the context of gender for all the reasons that you’ve, said, but we also need to, start to join the dots a little bit as to, okay, so if we understand that these are the factors, what is the theory that would connect, if a child has witnessed domestic abuse, why do they go on to sexually abuse?

What are those kinds of pathways? Now we’ve got some ideas and you’ve rehearsed them just now in terms of what some of those ideas would be, but I think that, that needs to be, Clearly articulated in the research literature, so that, we can start to address it in more meaningful ways.

Because all of this, in the end, goes back to what you were asking earlier, Kathryn, is about prevention. So, if we understand that these are some of the background factors that lead to sibling sexual abuse, then we need to address all those things. You know, that will be part of the picture for not only addressing the sexual abuse that’s happened, but from stopping it from happening in the first place.

And you were saying, Miranda, that there is data on the rates of parents and often mothers who have been sexually abused themselves. Again, we don’t have great data on it, but maybe something around 20 to 25%, maybe something like that of mothers of children who have been involved in sibling sexual abuse will have been sexually abused themselves.

But what we clearly know from what we’ve understood there about, poor sexual boundaries and, domestic abuse and physical abuse, that very often, again, not always, and we do have to bear in mind, again, that this isn’t describing every family in which sibling sexual abuse takes place, but it’s describing maybe most families, but if that’s the caregiving environment that parents are providing for their children, which provides the conditions in which sibling sexual abuse can emerge, then we need to understand what has happened to those parents for them to be providing that kind of caregiving environment.

What’s the parenting that they’ve experienced? You know, we need to go back another generation, I think, to say, well, what’s been their experiences in the past. And when we’re working with those parents, then. How do we address some of their own childhood experiences that helps them to understand the ways in which they’ve gone about their own parenting that then in turn helps us to understand the sibling sexual abuse. But prevention therefore is all about what do we need to put in place in society that stops all of these forms of abuse? And if we can do that, that will clearly be a huge step forward in preventing sibling sexual abuse. You know, this isn’t new stuff. We know all this, we’ve known all this for decades.

And we know what to do about it as well. It’s just that we need to actually have the political will to put some money behind it to get on and do something about it.

Miranda Pacchiana: Dr. Yates, what gives you hope going forward that we’ll accomplish these things?

Peter Yates: Oh crumbs, uh, well, there’s a number of things I think that gives us hope. There might be reasons to counter it as well, depending on how things go politically. There are worrying political things that are going on at the moment, not least in the States.

Uh, I do wonder how many decades we’ll go back depending on what the outcome is for the next presidential election. Anyway, I probably shouldn’t get too swayed into that, but, um, I don’t want to alienate too many of your listeners.

Kathryn Robb: No. No. We, we have the same concerns. For all the obvious reasons.

Peter Yates: I should probably say what we do understand having described this kind of background of families, there can be a little bit of a stereotype view saying, well, it’s therefore going to be families living in kind of poverty or families of a particular kind of social class. And that is not the case. The research that we have is that sibling sexual abuse can affect any family from any kind of social

Kathryn Robb: or political

Peter Yates: social background or political background. So whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, you know, whether it’s black, Asian, white, Hispanic, rich, poor, all families of all backgrounds may experience, sibling sexual abuse. It’s not just certain kind of pockets of

Miranda Pacchiana: Thank you for that. Such an important point.

Peter Yates: All the research bears that out. So yeah. Um, so when we’re talking about prevention and what we need to do to prevent these forms of abuse. That’s prevention across all strata of society, you know, this is for everybody. It’s not just for, certain sectors of society, I suppose. Um, but what gives me hope? Sorry, that was your question. Sorry, Miranda. I’ve gone off on a tangent again. What gives me hope? I think partly what gives me hope is that, so much more is known about now than it was 40 years ago. There’s an awful lot more interest in this area now than there was. So this kind of podcast, we wouldn’t have had that. Even five years ago, we wouldn’t have had this kind of podcast.

There was a radio four program, um, in the UK. I keep talking about the UK cause that’s where I’m from. But, we had a program on radio four, which is a kind of national, BBC, radio, just a few, years ago.

Kathryn Robb: We listened to it, the one on sibling sexual abuse. We both listen to it. Yeah.

Peter Yates: So that’s the BBC radio, very mainstream program that was made about sibling sexual abuse. There was an article in the Times, was it? Decker Aitkenhead’s article, the Times, Decker Aitkenhead’s article fairly recently. There’s a storyline in Hollyoaks, which is a British soap opera around sibling sexual abuse at the moment. Um, there are good aspects to that. There are unhelpful aspects to that as well, I should say, but at

Miranda Pacchiana: Okay.

Peter Yates: It’s starting to be talked about in the public domain, there was a debate about sibling sexual abuse within the Westminster Parliament a few years back. There’s going to be a debate about sibling sexual abuse within the Scottish Parliament shortly.

So it’s starting to get talked about in, arenas beyond Parliament. Social work, yeah. More people are getting involved in wanting to investigate the area of research.

So I suppose all of that gives me some hope and because it ties so much together with all these other kinds of forms of abuse. This isn’t some isolated thing. It happens within the context of other forms of abuse that we’ve been speaking about. We’ve also advanced our understanding in those kind of areas as well.

Where we’ve come to in relation to domestic abuse that you mentioned earlier has been massive advances, in our understanding of domestic abuse, understanding coercive control, legislation around coercive control. Way more understanding now about children’s rights and children’s rights being spoken about within schools.

Um, we’re still having to fight a big battle around sex education so there’s lots of work to do, but I think there are really encouraging signs, that could be quite hopeful.

Miranda Pacchiana: Yes, that’s so true. I’m just thinking as you’re talking, I was thinking about how I happen to be a fan of The Archers, uh, podcast.

Peter Yates: Uh,

Miranda Pacchiana: And I know they had a pretty thorough plot about coercive control and a good friend of mine who introduced me to the archers told me that was how she learned about it. And she’s a very well-educated person. Um, and then my mind goes to like Game of Thrones had a sibling incest plot that was just sort of titillating, which really disturbed me. You know, why would you throw that in there?

It’s really actually destructive. Um, but I love what you’re saying that we have so much more information out there about these important subjects And the more we know, the more empowered we are to address it.

Kathryn Robb: Knowledge is power and the more knowledge we have and the more voice we give to this, that leads to a preventative element, which is what I’m hopeful for.

Peter Yates: For sure. Yeah, absolutely. And we want to stop it from happening in the first place, of course, that would be our ideal, but, as a secondary prevention, the more it’s known about out there and the more that people understand that this is a form of abuse and is being spoken about then hopefully that will encourage people who have experienced sibling sex abuse to feel that they can come forward and tell somebody about it.

Kathryn Robb: Mm-Hmm.

Peter Yates: And disclose it and seek some support and help around it, and to stop it from continuing. That will be the other hopeful thing is ideally we would be stopping it from happening in the first place. But the more it gets known about, at least we could stop it from continuing once it has happened more effectively.

Miranda Pacchiana: Yes, which is why it’s so important to have you both talking with me today, and I am so grateful for the work both of you are doing, and we’ll just keep at it and keep supporting each other.

Peter Yates: We will. Yes. Thanks ever so much. for inviting me along, Miranda and Kathryn.

Miranda Pacchiana: Oh, it’s our pleasure. I was thrilled when you said yes.

Peter Yates: Uh, so no, it’s a huge honor for me to be asked to talk about these things with you.

Miranda Pacchiana: You did a beautiful job. I’m so interested in picking your brain and hearing your perspectives and your experience. One last thing. I’m just thinking real quick. I know we got to sign off, but is there anything that you want to tell me And Kathryn or our audience that we can do aside from putting out a podcast, which not everyone can do. Just in our daily lives, even.

Peter Yates: I’m going to say two things. One thing I would say is, listen to children.

Kathryn Robb: Yeah.

Peter Yates: Spend time with children and really listen to not only what they’ve got to say, but also how they behave and to understand that all of their behavior is a form of communication. They’re telling us things by what they say and how they behave. And if we could really pay attention to that, give children our time, I think that could go a long way. We often will think of children as being, you know, they’re acting out and they’re troublemakers and they’re misbehaving in class. And wetry and put behavioral controls on them. Maybe we need to do that, but maybe at the same time, we should be thinking, what are they communicating to us about their needs and what they are needing at this timethrough these behaviors and really take the time and trouble to listen to children. That would be my main thing.

Miranda Pacchiana: I’m so glad I asked. That is beautiful. Thank you. And I’m just thinking back to the little girls that we were and the symptoms that we had and even probably the things that we said out loud. I wish that they had been heard, you know.

Kathryn Robb: Yeah. You know, if you think about babies, they communicate through crying or certain different ways, right? Their facial expressions and that really does evolve, as the baby grows into toddlerhood and elementary school, you’re so right that children do talk through their behavior. And I think to really listen to children’s, communication, the different ways that they communicate is so profoundly important. Listen.

Peter Yates: They’re often dismissed as attention-seeking, I say, well, let’s turn that around and say, exactly, they’re not attention seeking, they’re seeking attention. Why are they seeking attention in this particular way? How do we understand that? So that we can support them rather than just dismiss them as. Being attention seekers. Yeah.

Miranda Pacchiana: Well, this has been fantastic. I guess it’s time to wrap it up. It was really a pleasure meeting you. And I hope that we can keep in touch because I think all of us could boost the work that each other are

Peter Yates: Absolutely. I would be really, really keen to keep in touch. That would be terrific.

Miranda Pacchiana: Yeah, it’s one of the best things about this podcast is the network that Kathryn and I have been building, you know, each of these conversations. feel so powerful and we connect with people and then we’re able to connect people with each other to just amplify the work that we’re doing and we’ve made friendships and it’s been really great. So we’ll just

Peter Yates: Brilliant. Terrific work. Thanks so much for all that you’re doing. It’s terrific work. Yeah. Brilliant. Really nice to meet the both of you. Thanks ever so much for your time.

Kathryn Robb: Thank you.