Have we finally reached ‘the next hinterland’? Sibling sexual abuse is debated in the Westminster Parliament for the very first time.

Dr. Peter Yates, University of Edinburgh

this guest blog Dr Peter Yates reflects on the journey to bring this form of harm to light.

Sibling sexual abuse is a term used to describe ‘harmful sexual behaviour with a victimising intent or outcome between children who self-identify as siblings’. Until recently it has remained a largely hidden phenomenon, under-researched and rarely discussed. This is despite its prevalence. Data are limited, but it is estimated from a range of studies that perhaps around 5% of children may be involved in sibling sexual abuse (Yates & Allardyce, 2021). Even the more conservative estimates of 2% would suggest that in the UK, a country with a population of just over 67 million people, around 1.3m people would be directly affected. This is not to mention children’s parents, other siblings, grandparents and wider family members. Sibling sexual abuse is thought to be up to three times as common as sexual abuse by a parent (Krienert & Walsh, 2011; Stroebel et al., 2013), and the impact may be just as severe. The possible short and long-term consequences of sibling sexual abuse include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance misuse, eating disorders and relationship difficulties throughout life (Yates, 2017). Given these figures and this level of impact it is hard to fathom how it has remained under the radar for so long.

Perhaps we can look to history. In the ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’, Krafft-Ebing (1914) provided two examples from the late nineteenth century of sexual behaviours between a brother and a sister, presented as isolated cases of individual psychopathy. Since then only a small handful of studies were published from the 1940s onwards regarding children’s harmful sexual behaviour towards other children, in which brothers and sisters were occasionally mentioned (e.g. MacLay, 1960). It wasn’t until the 1980s that more started to be written on the subject (e.g. Bank & Kahn, 1982; Finkelhor, 1980; Smith & Israel, 1987). Hacking (1991) argues that the ground for discussing sexual behaviours between siblings was prepared in the 1960s by publication of the Battered Child Syndrome (Kempe et al., 1962). This brought to public attention the idea that parents may not only be strict or even cruel to their children, but may actually abuse them. The language of ‘child abuse’ that then followed allowed for the taboo subject of parent-child ‘incest’ to be discussed, therefore paving the way for sibling incest, which Hacking (1991: 277) considered at the time to be ‘the next hinterland’.

But this journey has not been smooth. Understanding that parents may physically abuse their children, and then that parents may sexually abuse their children, has not stopped the international media from persisting in portraying child sexual abuse as a problem of ‘stranger danger’ (Weatherred, 2015) – a problem of particularly heinous individuals who are so very different from ourselves. It remains hard for us to accept that the majority of sexual abuse is actually most often carried out by people known to the child, by family members, by uncles, fathers and mothers – and, of course, by brothers and sisters.

Sexual behaviour, and especially abusive sexual behaviour, is still regarded as adult behaviour. This is not behaviour we associate with children (Gittins, 1998; Jenks, 2005). If child sexual abuse by another child does come to the media’s attention it is most often in the mould of ‘stranger danger’ – mini-adult sex offenders, dangerous monster children. Children being sexually abused not by adult strangers, but by adult family members, is a stretch. Children being sexually abused not by adults at all, but by other children, is more of a stretch. The idea of a child being sexually abused not just by another child, but by their brother or sister, is for most people just a step too far beyond our collective conception of what child sexual abuse is.

And yet it happens, and it is widespread. And over recent years there seems to be a growing willingness to countenance the idea. Over the last ten years or so there has been a small but steady stream of publications on the subject. In 2018 the Scottish Government commissioned a report on intra-familial sexual abuse as part of their Expert Working Group on preventing harmful sexual behaviour by children and young people, culminating in sibling sexual abuse being named for the first time in the National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland (2021) along with specific guidance on the subject and reference to further resources. In 2020 the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse commissioned a Sibling Sexual Abuse Knowledge and Practice Overview, published in 2021, and the Home Office together with the Ministry of Justice have also funded the National Project on Sibling Sexual Abuse, the largest UK study to date on sibling sexual abuse carried out by Rape Crisis England & Wales along with the Universities of Birmingham and the West of England, Bristol. This ended with the first UK conference on sibling sexual abuse, attended by over 600 delegates.

Fleur Strong, National Project Manager for the National Project on Sibling Sexual Abuse, has tirelessly pursued the need for due recognition of sibling sexual abuse as a distinct form of child sexual abuse. Wera Hobhouse MP, alive to these issues as the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Childhood Trauma, has worked in partnership with Fleur to call for a debate in Westminster specifically on the subject of sibling sexual abuse. In the last 220 years there have been only 12 Parliamentary references to sibling sexual abuse, and none at all since November 2000. This is despite 2,451 references to ‘child sexual abuse’ more generally between 2000 to 2021. To hold a debate specifically on the subject of sibling sexual abuse would therefore be a momentous achievement, but this debate was indeed held on March 22nd 2022, in which Wera Hobhouse MP set out a very clear case, calling on the Government first of all to name sibling sexual abuse when it updates its 2021 Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, and secondly to speak to the Departments for Education and for Health and Social Care, asking them to update their safeguarding and commissioning approaches to respond specifically to sibling sexual abuse. You can watch this debate here:


Whilst Rachel Mclean MP, the responsible Minister, did not commit to the requests made, she did agree to work further with Wera Hobhouse MP to continue to improve the ways in which sexual abuse involving siblings is tackled. This is a huge achievement for Fleur Strong and others who have worked on the National Project on Sibling Sexual Abuse.

Perhaps we have now finally reached the hinterland. Perhaps we are now beginning to see some chinks in the wall of silence surrounding sibling sexual abuse. We need to keep chipping away, and perhaps some further cracks will emerge through which we can find ways better to support the children and families affected by this most complex and challenging form of harm.

Bank, S. P., & Kahn, M. D. (1982). The sibling bond. Basic Books.

Finkelhor, D. (1980). Sex among siblings: A survey on prevalence, variety and effects. Archives of sexual behaviour, 9(3), 171-194. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf01542244

Gittins, D. (1998). The child in question. Macmillan.

Hacking, I. (1991). The making and molding of child abuse [Article]. Critical Inquiry, 17(2), 253-288. https://doi.org/10.1086/448583

Jenks, C. (2005). Childhood: 2nd edition. Routledge.

Kempe, C. H., Silverman, F. N., Steele, B. F., Droegemueller, W., & Silver, H. K. (1962). The battered-child syndrome. journal of the American medical association, 181, 17-24.

Krafft-Ebing, R. v. (1914). Psychopathia sexualis. Enke.

Krienert, J. L., & Walsh, J. A. (2011). Sibling sexual abuse: An empirical analysis of offender, victim, and event characteristics in national incident-based reporting system (NIBRS) data, 2000-2007. Journal of child sexual abuse, 20, 353-372. https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2011.588190

MacLay, D. T. (1960). Boys who commit sexual misdemeanours. British Medical Journal, 5167, 186-190.

Smith, H., & Israel, E. (1987). Sibling incest: A study of the dynamics of 25 cases. Child abuse and neglect, 11, 101-108. https://doi.org/10.1016/0145-2134(87)90038-x

Stroebel, S. S., O’Keefe, S. L., Beard, K. W., Kuo, S.-Y., Swindell, S., & Stroupe, W. (2013). Brother–sister incest: Data from anonymous computer-assisted self interviews. Journal of child sexual abuse, 22(3), 255-276. https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2013.743952

Weatherred, J. L. (2015). Child Sexual Abuse and the Media: A Literature Review. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 24(1), 16-34. https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2015.976302

Yates, P. (2017). Sibling sexual abuse: Why don’t we talk about it? Journal of Clinical Nursing, 26(15-16), 2482-2494.

Yates, P., & Allardyce, S. (2021). Sibling Sexual Abuse: A Knowledge and Practice Overview.

Redoubling the call to end violence against women and girls.

By Kieran McCartan, PhD, & David Prescott, LICSW

International Women’s Day on Tuesday the 8th of March 2022 focused on “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”. The field of sexual abuse is often, and rightly, seen as a women’s issue as it tends to impact women more than men. However, this is a bit of a red herring as it’s really a community issue, usually committed by men against women and often underplayed, ignored, or even validated by some communities and groups. This is not to dismiss it as a women’s issue, but rather to expand the discussion and recognize it’s a social issue that we all need to respond to and work towards preventing, regardless of our gender. We all need to part of the conversation, because preventing violence against women and girls needs the engagement of men and boys.

The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) is a coalition of more than 120 specialist women’s support services, researchers, activists, victims and survivors, and NGOs working to end violence against women and girls in all its forms. As part of International Women’s Day, EVAW produced a snapshot report documenting the extent of violence against women and girls in England and Wales. The report is a useful tool in highlighting the extent and nature of abuse currently, existing best practices, and the changes needed to respond  to it. While the report covers a range of violence against women and girls  (femicide, sexual abuse, domestic violence, online sexual abuse, abuse in public spaces, and others), our focus here is on sexual abuse and rape.  The report indicates that in England and Wales:

  • In the 12-month period ending in September 2021 sexual offences recorded by the police were the highest on record, at 170,973 offences, a 12% increase from the same period in 2020.  Rape accounted for 37% of these offences (63,136 offences).
  • 2.9% of reported sexual offences and 1.3% of recorded rapes resulted in a charge or summons, which has fallen from the previous 12 months.
  • 41% of rape victims and survivors withdrew their support for action through the criminal justice process and declined to pursue criminal charges.
  • The London Victims’ Commissioner’s 2021 London Rape Review also found that among those who allege rape or sexual assault to police, 65% withdrew support for the case, an increase of 7% in the last two years, with nearly two-thirds of London rape victims and survivors who drop their complaint doing so within a month of going to police, and the proportion of withdrawals tripling in two years.
  • Latest Office for National Statistics data show the disproportionality of sexual assault against minoritized and marginalised women with Black and mixed-race adults more likely to experience sexual assault than white or Asian adults.
  • Cases with white victims and survivors are 1.2 times more likely than Black victims and survivors to result in a charge, and 1.8 times more likely than when victims are Asian (6.7% vs. 3.7%).
  • 10 police forces did not bring a single charge over the rape of a Black victim during the five-year period, despite recording 148 reports between them.
  • Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) investigation into police officers who abuse their position for a sexual purpose has shown a sharp rise in reported cases in the past three years, with this form of abuse now comprising the single largest form of police corruption they encounter.
  • After the launch of the Everyone’s Invited, 16,000+ testimonials of sexual abuse in schools were shared from girls as young as 11 years old. The testimonials named 10% of all the schools in England. Following these revelations, Ofsted launched a review that found 9 out of 10 girls had experienced sexist name calling and 92% of girls had been sent unsolicited explicit pictures or videos.
  • Girlguiding’s 2021 Girls’ Attitudes Survey found that 19% of girls aged 11-16 and 33% aged 17-21 said they had been sent unwanted sexual images online in the last year, and 9% of girls aged 13-16 said they felt pressure to share images of themselves that they’re not comfortable with.

The report highlights that there is still a lot of work needed to respond and prevent violence against women and girls. At first reading, the report is disheartening and frustrating, but it paints a realistic picture of nature of abuse in England and Wales. The report demonstrates that we must do more, and offers a number of recommendations, some of which are familiar (i.e., a multi-year, well-resourced public attitudes campaign to end violence against women and girls; a strategic investment to end abuse; far-ranging reform to the criminal justice system’s approach to this abuse; a victims’ bill that responds to the diversity of victims and survivors’ experiences with greater rights and entitlements), some of which are ongoing (i.e., ratification of the Istanbul Convention; An online safety bill that comprehensively tackles online abuse), and some of which are innovative (i.e., effective protection and support for migrant women; support for schools to implement a whole school approach). Because it enshrines a community based approach, we would like to highlight a human rights approach to violence against women and girls, as a key, essential argument in the prevention (and the cornerstone of the Istanbul Convention), as the right to live without fear of sexual abuse and violence is a vital human right for all women and girls in England Wales, as well as globally.

The prevention of violence against women and girls is everyone’s responsibility.  While the London Victims’ Commissioner’s report focused on England and Wales, the reality is that these are issues everywhere. While different countries may have different abuse rates, as well as different attitudes, behaviours, and reporting mechanism, it is safe to say that we all need to improve our responses and prevention activities. Sexual abuse exists everywhere globally, and it’s time for the global community to step up with appropriate responses to this women’s health and human rights issue.