Sibling sex abuse is now recognised as the most common form of intra-familial sexual abuse. Benjamin Law talks to victims and perpetrators.
“It doesn’t go away” … Carmen Burnet says she was intimidated by her much older brother, who sexually abused her when she was aged between seven and 10. Photo: Noel Mclaughlin
We know who to suspect. Or, at least, we think we do. It’s why we teach kids about “stranger danger” and inappropriate touching, to be wary of the overly affectionate priest, the weirdo teacher, the touchy-feely coach. Still, we’re not that naive. Solemnly, we acknowledge sexual abuse happens in families, too – all those nightmare horror-stories of older relatives and parents sneaking into kids’ bedrooms at night. Yet there’s another form of sexual abuse, one that only seems to be discussed in inverse proportion to how often it happens. Greatly under-reported, sibling sex abuse, researchers agree, is the most common form of intra-familial sexual abuse, a scenario far more common than fathers abusing daughters.
Carmen Burnet was four when her brother Samuel,* eight years her senior, started molesting her. Samuel, as the eldest of the five siblings raised by their mother (their father left when Carmen was two), was the only one to have a bedroom to himself. “If he invited one of the younger kids to his bedroom, that was like you were the special one,” Carmen says. “Occasionally, he would let one of us go into his room and look at his toy soldiers or whatever, things we couldn’t normally touch or look at. What I remember happening was me going into his room on that sort of pretext. Then it turned into something different: him getting me to take my underpants off and looking at me, and maybe touching me a bit. Then the day just went on as normal, as if nothing had happened.”
Looking back on it now, Carmen says that it started out as “not a very bad thing”. The sort of thing, she says, that was hard to pin down as definitely being wrong or weird. When the family moved from Sydney to Canberra in 1987, what Samuel did escalated in frequency and intensity. Samuel openly loathed having to move to Canberra, and Carmen now looks back and suspects she became an outlet for his frustration, adding that he was abusing the other siblings verbally and physically, too. “He got more forceful,” she says. “The sorts of things he was doing definitely felt much more full-on.” Quietly, she explains the abuse began to involve full penetration.
Carmen was 12 when she finally told her mother that Samuel had repeatedly abused and raped her between the ages of seven and 10. Unlike many other parents who are told one of their children is sexually abusing another, Carmen’s mother believed her immediately. After all, Samuel had been six-foot tall for as long as anyone could remember, with muscles and a tremendous capacity for violence. “The times that police got called to our house for domestic violence were because he’d beaten up our mum so badly that she was unconscious,” Carmen says. “He was a pretty dangerous sort of person.”
Carmen’s mother responded to the news the only way she knew how: she went out and confronted Samuel about the sexual abuse. “She came back with him, we all went inside and she then immediately wanted everything to be all right,” Carmen says. “She didn’t want there to be ‘any dramas’ and she wanted us to be friends. Immediately, there was this pressure on me to be fine and conciliatory and not be mad at him.” The message was clear: it was up to Carmen whether this family could move forward or not. Carmen now sees her mother’s strategy as completely inappropriate, but adds that “I think she felt out of her depth”.
Afterwards, Carmen’s mother booked the two siblings into counselling at a family health centre in Canberra. “Which was not what I wanted,” Carmen says. Here she was, trapped in a room with a complete stranger and the brother who had sexually abused her so violently that on one occasion she had to see a doctor to ensure permanent damage hadn’t been done to her genitals and internal organs. “It just made me feel worse,” she says of counselling with Samuel. “I was speechless. I couldn’t manage to say anything. I was totally intimidated by him. He was really smarmy and wanting me to forgive and forget, be friends, leave all that in the past. Mum thought it was fine for him to try to hug me, try to talk to me. I wanted to avoid him as much as possible.”
Dr Gary Foster from Living Well – a Queensland-based organisation that supports male survivors of sexual abuse – points out that young people who experience sibling sexual abuse often don’t know how they want their parents or guardians to respond. When considering disclosure, ghastly possibilities and questions race through their minds. “For instance, ‘Are they going to kick him out?’ ‘What’s going to change?’ Or, ‘They might never kick him out, so then I have to live in the same family.’ ” Often, Foster says, abuse victims opt to keep the peace instead. “They think, ‘It would be too distressing and upsetting for my parents. And I’m kind of managing it. Maybe I can just push through, block it out.’ ”
It’s the attitude and approach adopted by Zach, another victim of sibling child abuse. For Zach, however, it meant he found himself being forced to invite his older brother Billy – who groomed Zach to repeatedly masturbate and perform oral sex and analingus on him – to be groomsman at his wedding. To this day, Zach, now 25, still hasn’t told a single member of his family what Billy did to him. By the time Zach’s wedding came around, no one except Zach and his fiancée knew his brother had molested him. His fiancée was horrified by the prospect of Billy even attending the wedding and implored Zach to confront his brother.
“But I was uncomfortable doing that,” Zach says. “I guess I came to a place where I thought, ‘My life has really turned out all right.’ I was almost halfway through my uni degree, I was moving towards a pretty great career, and I was getting married to someone I loved deeply. In that respect, I thought, ‘Well, this hasn’t screwed me up too much; I’ve overcome it. We can move forward, he can be a groomsman and we don’t have to worry about what happened in the past – we can have a great future.”
When he reflects on the wedding itself now, Zach struggles to find the words. “It was the best day of my life, but it was also …” He trails off. This is the thing about sibling sexual abuse: as much as you want it all to remain in the past, it’s impossible to shake off. And as much as you might want these people out of your orbit, family is still family.
Jack lives just outside Sydney. He’s 51, but good skin and a lean body means he looks a decade younger. Wearing a black muscle shirt and metal scorpion pendant, Jack also looks tough, like someone who could beat the living snot out of you if it came to that. But it’s clear that Jack is gentle: a husband who married his childhood sweetheart; a dad who still kisses his adult kids goodbye. In his spare time, he writes poetry. The only time Jack seems to get angry or upset is when he talks about his childhood – in particular, his older brother Dennis. “Forgiveness didn’t work for me,” he says.
Of the sprawling bunch of kids who grew together in Sydney’s west, Jack was the youngest. Dennis was six years older. Jack was intelligent and bookish, while Dennis was the family’s golden-haired child and clearly their dad’s favourite. Dennis was also – in Jack’s words – a bastard. “He’d tie grasshoppers to skyrockets; crucify lizards on the back fence. He used to take me for a ride on a billy cart or pushbike and we’d get a certain distance from home, then he’d give me a belting and leave me to walk home crying.”
Every night around 5pm, their dad would call Jack for his bath. One evening, Dennis came in the bathroom while Jack was getting dressed and produced a $1 note. To a kid in 1968, that represented a lot of money. If Jack wanted the money, all he had to do was what Dennis asked. “What he did,” Jack says, staring dead ahead, “was he sat down on the chair that was in the bathroom and got me to sit on his lap. He proceeded to stick his penis up my backside, which hurt and felt very wrong. I cried. He was hissing at me: ‘Shut the f… up’, ‘Open up your arse’ – that type of thing.” Jack was seven; Dennis was 13.
This happened four or five times – Jack can’t be sure – except that on subsequent occasions Dennis no longer bribed Jack with money. If Jack didn’t co-operate, Dennis belted him hard instead: bit him, punched him, slapped him around. Jack only escaped his brother’s rapes once, when he reached between his legs, twisted Dennis’s balls with a clamp-like fist and refused to let go until Dennis released him. Jack shakes his head thinking about it now. “With me crying and trying to basically fight Dennis off, I look back now and I wonder why nobody heard, why nobody intervened. The only thing I can think of is they were just used to him being a prick to me.”
When Jack started waking up with Dennis in bed beside him – either raping him or attempting to – he demanded to know how Dennis even got there. Dennis said their father put him in the same bed so the brothers could share warmth on cold nights; Jack confronted their father and told him to stop it. When their father asked why, Jack came out with it: that Dennis was “doing things to my bottom”. Jack says he will never forget the expression on his father’s face when he told him. “He looked at me with utter disgust. It could be argued that he was disgusted with my brother, but I felt then, and I still feel now, that his disgust and contempt was for me. His reaction was, ‘What do you want me to do? Beat him up?’ I was lost for words. Of course I wanted him beaten up; of course I wanted him punished. But it never happened.”
For a while though, the abuse stopped. Eight years later, Jack was 15 and had just met the girl whom he’d eventually marry. Out of nowhere, Dennis – still living at home – started raping Jack again. “I had no chance fighting against him,” Jack says. “A 15-year-old against a 22-year-old? It’s not going to happen. To my eternal shame I got to the point where I thought, ‘Let him get on with it.’ I didn’t see any point in going to Dad.”
To Jack, it seemed no one would ever believe him, anyway. It would be years later – decades, in fact – when he figured maybe the police would.
How frequently sex abuse occurs between siblings in Australia is impossible to gauge. Dr Daryl Higgins, a child-abuse expert from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, says the statistics just aren’t available. One 2011 US study, however, estimated half of all adolescent-perpetrated sexual offences involved a sibling, while a 2012 UK study concluded sibling incest was the most common form of family sex abuse – at least five times more common than parent-child incest. In Australia, the New Street Adolescent Service – a NSW program addressing under-18s who have sexually abused people – consistently finds that roughly 50 per cent of their clients’ victims are siblings. Still, Higgins says it’s difficult to get exact numbers or estimates in this country. “Small-scale studies tell us what issues [victims] face,” he says, “but it doesn’t tell us about how prevalent it is.”
Complicating matters is the question of how to define sibling sexual abuse. At what point does normal childhood sexual experimentation become molestation and rape? Do kids and teenagers even know what they’re doing is wrong? In the 1980s, researchers defined sexual behaviour between siblings as abuse when there was an age gap of five years or more. While most cases of sibling sexual abuse do fall into that range (a 2010 study of 17 female victim-survivors showed a median age gap of 4.18 years), many researchers nowadays point out that using age as a criteria ignores cases involving slightly older siblings, twins, and younger siblings who might be physically stronger or use coercion.
Helen Kambouridis, a senior psychologist at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital who has worked with young victims of sexual abuse for 15 years, says because there are so many grey zones, it is also unhelpful to label minors who abuse their siblings as “perpetrators” or “offenders”. “We don’t use that language,” she says. “Effectively, they’re kids. And they’re kids who – for the most part – have been victims of some sort of trauma of their own, possibly sexual abuse. Part of the difficulty we face is [asking], ‘What’s underneath this? What’s motivating a kid to engage in behaviour like this?’ What we do find is kids who have been exposed to a sort of trauma that has basically screwed with their template for relating with people.”
This isn’t always the case, however. Talia looks back on her childhood and says she can’t explain what she did to her two younger sisters. The eldest of three girls, Talia – now 25 – is five years older than her middle sister and six years older than the youngest. When Talia was nine, she would play games with them, usually one at a time, re-enacting scenes from the film Grease. “It started as just childish games,” she says, “like playing doctors and nurses. Then it … stopped being games.” Soon, their play involved genital touching and coerced oral sex. “There was trickery involved. I never threatened them but it was, ‘Make sure Mum doesn’t find out. Make sure we don’t tell her.’ ”
Talia visibly shakes talking about it now, looking ashen with regret. “If it had ended at doctors and nurses – being naked around each other, looking and touching at bits and pieces – I think I could justify that and be okay. And while I’ve got all the symptoms of someone who has been sexually abused – highly sexualised behaviours; abusing others – I’m pretty sure that never happened. I kind of wish it had, because then I could explain my behaviour. Not to get excused, but there would be a reason as to why I did it.”
Strangely, neither of Talia’s sisters seems to recall any of this happening. Talia has never broached it directly with them, but says that whenever sexual jokes or stories come up, she watches them closely for anything in their response to confirm they know what Talia knows. They’ve never reacted. It is possible they were too young, or simply don’t regard the incidents in the same way Talia does. Either way, Talia has decided never to broach the subject with them. In fact, she’s never told anyone what she did between the ages of nine and 11, except for her psychologist and Good Weekend. Not even her husband knows. “The thing that hurts me the most is they’re the two people I love most in the world, and they’re the ones I’ve hurt most.”
In early 2012, Talia had a nervous breakdown, set off by work pressures but fuelled by the roaring tide of guilt over what she did to her younger sisters years ago. Drinking heavily, Talia violently cut herself repeatedly and had to be admitted to emergency. Later, her psychologist suggested to Talia that what happened with her sisters wasn’t abuse, but “sexual play that went too far”. Talia disagrees. “I’ve decided to see it as abuse and deal with it that way.” After all, Talia works in psychology herself and has read the literature. She can’t let herself off the hook. “My main reason for thinking it’s abuse is because there’s a five-year age gap,” she says. “I should have known better.”
“I should have known better.” it’s a thought that ricochets in parents’ minds, too, after they discover one child has been abusing another. “I don’t think people, one, think it’s possible, and two, would even want to think it was possible,” Kambouridis says. “I can’t think of a worse position for a parent to be in. You’ve raised two kids in the same way, and one of them did this to the other? How did that happen?”
Often, parents respond with blanket denial or they downplay its severity. When Sofia emails Good Weekend, she says her story seems minor compared to other stories she’s heard. “In the scheme of things, I’m not terribly damaged by it,” she writes. When she later tells her story to me in person though, it’s clear what happened to her in childhood still deeply affects her. “My cousin and my brother …” she begins, then catches herself, gulping. “Sorry,” she says, blinking tears. She tries to start again. Much of the pain Sofia now feels, she explains, is that her mother didn’t believe that what her cousin and brother did was sexual abuse.
Sofia was seven when her mother, older brother and extended family all stayed together in a beach house one summer. A male cousin – five years her senior – and Sofia’s brother told her they wanted to show her “what grown-ups did”. They took her into a private room, started kissing her on the mouth, then undressed her and touched her with their genitals. Sofia had no vocabulary to express what was going on. “I was seven,” she says. “I had no idea of sexuality.” The incident repeated itself several times over the summer. School reports from before that summer described Sofia as outgoing, happy and confident. Afterwards, she was described as quiet, shy and not interacting so much with the class.
Some years later, while still in primary school, Sofia’s friend Raelene confided to her that her father had sexually molested her. Horrified, Sofia told her mother, who responded by saying, “That can’t be right. She must be lying. Kids lie.” After counselling in her 20s, Sofia understood that what her brother and cousin did to her was sexual abuse, too. She rang her mother. All she wanted, looking back, was recognition and acknowledgement that it happened. “They were just experimenting,” her mother said. “They didn’t mean any harm.” Just like that, the conversation was over. “I was extremely disappointed,” Sofia says. (Later, when Sofia told an online friend that her brother had molested her, she went outside, bent over and nearly threw up.)
“How would anyone react?” Kambouridis says of parents being told of sibling sexual abuse. “There’s clearly no kind of guidebook – not least because there’s not a lot of awareness of this sort of stuff. I don’t know that there could be anything more difficult than to open yourself up to that.”
Jack was 21 when he realised he could kill his brother. Both Jack and Dennis had children by now. They were at their mother’s place, horsing around with their kids under the garden hose, when Jack lifted Dennis right off the ground. For the first time, Jack realised he was now the stronger brother. It would take nothing, he thought, to smash open his brother’s skull and spill his brains all over the cement. A quiet, tense moment of shared understanding passed between them as Jack put Dennis down. “It was a huge moment,” Jack says now. “It made me think I wouldn’t have any problems with this ever again, that I was finally strong enough to defend myself.”
Still, Jack couldn’t shake his bedtime ritual of thinking about all the times Dennis had raped him. “There was a voice in my head, saying to me, ‘When are you going to do something about this?’ ”Another voice would talk back, “I don’t want to hurt my mother. I’ll do it in 10 years’ time, or 20 years’ time.” Decades passed. By the time Jack was 45, he was close to losing it. He’d developed intense anger-management problems and had volcanic road rage. His entire family noticed it. What they didn’t know was that Jack was also regularly contemplating suicide. “It was like a monster,” he says of his rage towards his brother. “It just got bigger and bigger and it was dominating my whole life.” One day, he finally told his wife by saying, “You know I’ve never really liked my brother. Here’s why.” That first revelation was like a crack in the dam. From there, Jack told his adult sons and his GP, who referred him to a counsellor. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Against the advice of his counsellor, Jack decided to confront Dennis in person. When Dennis – now deeply Christian – admitted to the abuse and asked Jack to forgive him, Jack left feeling stronger and happier. “But it only lasted a few weeks,” he says. “Then I started to think, ‘Hang on, I let him get away with too much.’ ”In 2010 Jack spoke to police, who eventually arranged for him to wear a wire tap while talking to Dennis. That evidence propelled Dennis to plead guilty to three acts of buggery that had occurred in 1976. Sentenced to a year for each crime, to be served concurrently, Dennis is still in prison. Jack says he sleeps much better nowadays.
Carmen Burnet, however, has mixed feelings about taking Samuel to court. When she took him to trial in 1993, when she was 17, it was one of the ACT’s first incest trials. “The catalyst for deciding to go to the police was that he was trying to get custody of his daughter, who by then was 2 1/2,” she says. “I just thought, ‘No, I’ve got to do something to protect her. I am not going to just stand by and let him potentially do the same thing to her.’ I don’t know that he would have, but the fact that he’d been so lacking in remorse or guilt or anything in relation to me made me feel pretty frightened.”
Carmen describes the court experience as “nasty”, adding that she wasn’t allowed to give evidence via video link but instead was forced to give evidence in person, with dozens of journalists and complete strangers staring at her and listening to her testimony. Of the six charges – including carnal knowledge, sexual intercourse without consent, and acts of indecency – Samuel pleaded guilty to only one minor charge of “committing an act of indecency”, and a jury found him not guilty of all the others. Samuel was given a good-behaviour bond and ordered to pay Carmen $500 in compensation.
“I felt [like] I hadn’t been believed,” Carmen says. “Of course, I knew rationally that there was always the risk of an acquittal, but I wanted to believe that if I did the hard thing – of going through the courts – that would be worth it. That people would see and understand and that he would get convicted. When that didn’t happen, I was left with this huge void of disbelief. I hadn’t prepared myself for that possibility at all. It was total shock. The only way I’d been able to go through with it was with the belief he’d be convicted.”
Carmen says the one thing that made it worthwhile was that Samuel was prevented from gaining custody of his daughter. In the scheme of things, though, it was a small victory.
Carmen spoke to Good Weekend immediately after an appointment with her psychologist. Right now, Carmen has intensive psychotherapy three times a week to address the complex PTSD she developed as a result of her sexual abuse and the resulting court case. “That’s been an ongoing thing that, periodically, totally disables me,” she says, adding she has received the disability pension since 1998. “Most of the time I can function to some degree, but I haven’t had the sort of stability that you’d need to be reliable for a job.”
Two-and-a-half years ago, Carmen’s PTSD got so bad that she started a new regimen of medication and underwent intensive psychotherapy three times a week. When asked how she is now, Carmen smiles a little. “I’ve only been in hospital twice in the last two-and-a-half years,” she says, “so that’s not too bad.” Now, Carmen has non-existent or patchy relationships with her remaining siblings, though is close to some of her nieces and nephews. She has no contact with either parent. In all of this, though, she’s also been able to find love: she’s been married for the past four years.
But, she says, “It’s always going to be an aspect about myself and about my past that I somehow have to navigate or deal with. It doesn’t go away. It still really hurts to have had trust betrayed so badly … by someone who was a brother. And to have not been safe and protected in a situation where that’s what we should have had: safety and protection.”
Living Well’s Gary Foster says all those feelings sexual-abuse survivors experience – shame, confusion, self-blame – are only amplified when the abuser is a sibling. “Say there’s an uncle who’s 25 years older,” he says. “There’s the sense that, ‘This was an abusive relationship and there’s not much I can do.’ Or if you’re attacked out of the blue, it’s like, ‘What more could I have done?’ ”
Sibling-abuse victims, on the other hand, are often initially invited into the behaviour from someone with whom they already have an intimate bond. “It can mess with your mind so much more,” says Foster. “Abuse might happen at night, yet they’ll go down to breakfast and everybody’s behaving normally. They go on holidays with the family [together]. In front of everybody, it’s all fun. You become trained very quickly in pretending and covering this up, even though you’ve got this incredible emotional turmoil happening. It’s hard enough for adults to get their heads around the issue. Imagine what it’s like for a 10-year old.”
For Sofia, her confusion over what her cousin and brother did to her was that it didn’t fit the classic narrative of sexual abuse. But one thing that has changed since undergoing counselling as an adult is she no longer carries any shame over what her brother did. “I’m not ashamed for myself,” she says. “But I’m ashamed I’m related to him.”
* Except for Carmen Burnet, all names of victims, perpetrators and family members have been changed. Lifeline 13 11 14; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.