Sexual abuse between siblings must be the most taboo and least- discussed form of abuse that exists. If society has taken 30 years to open its eyes to the fact that parents and adults sexually abuse children, it is only now that we are learning about sexual abuse between brothers and sisters.
A new survey by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, published tomorrow, reveals that children and young people are more at risk of sexual abuse from brothers or stepbrothers than fathers, stepfathers or other male relatives. Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom, based on interviews with a representative sample of 2,869 people aged between 18 and 24, is the most comprehensive research into child abuse ever undertaken in the UK.
It has found that sexual abuse of children within the family is not widespread - it occurs in fewer than four in 100 families - but that, when it does occur, the most likely abuser is a brother or stepbrother, the victim usually a sister or stepsister. Brothers are, in fact, responsible for one-third of all sexual abuse committed by relatives. It is a little-known but disturbing fact that Home Office research shows one-third of all sex crimes are committed by under-18-year-olds.
Mark Dalton, team manager of the NSPCC's Midlands Inappropriate Sexual Behaviour Service, is not surprised by the findings of the survey. He says that of the 70 children or young people who are referred to his team every year - the youngest they have treated is six years old - at least 25 of them have abused younger siblings. The "abusers" are predominantly boys between the ages of 10 and 14 and are usually five years older than their victims.
Kevin Gibbs, project leader of the NSPCC's Coventry service, says: "We find that young boys may abuse brothers, sisters or both. Most of them have no idea that incest is wrong."
In their eight years of working exclusively with young abusers, the team has gained a vital insight into the broader question of what makes one young person sexually aggressive towards another. Mr Gibbs says that all the young people they have treated have been victims at some point of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
"We can begin to make some real assumptions about these children's experiences. We need to address the fact that physical abuse is one of the most significant causes of sexual aggression in young people. Of those we treat, almost all have learning difficulties, poor social skills and, interestingly, very little sexual knowledge."
The team has also found that age rather than social background is a critical factor. They say that before the age of 10, it is sexual abuse rather than physical abuse that triggers abusive sexual behaviour. Indeed, they have never treated a child under 10 who has not been sexually abused. After puberty, those abusers who have been physically rather than sexually victimised are more likely to prey on girls.
The NSPCC says that its latest research shows that physical abuse is by far the most common form of abuse suffered by children. The professionals at the NSPCC projects agree that these young people were not born abusive; rather, that they have experienced traumatic events that have had repercussions not just for them but for others, not least their victims. …