The Family Secret, a documentary recently shown on Channel 4, raises awareness of a very important, but not well-researched problem: sibling sexual abuse. Some estimations say it is at least five times more prevalent than parent-to-child sexual abuse.
Sibling sexual abuse does not have an exact definition, but it is a serious problem, especially if it goes unnoticed. It often occurs in families where children are neglected, abused or exposed to conflict. When siblings aren’t given much attention from their parents, especially near puberty, they might do harm to each other because they are naturally curious about their bodies and sexuality.
The documentary focuses on Kath, who had been abused by her older brother — a common situation in sibling sexual harm. However, age or gender doesn’t necessarily matter.
Viewers of The Family Secret obviously judge the brother, but may not see the whole picture. The underlying cause for this kind of abuse can be a need for affection and comfort to compensate for family problems, and sadly it can carry on in adulthood. That’s why this problem needs to be recognised and treated early on. This is best done through expert consultation, assessment and intervention – with the involvement of the whole family.
If sexual abuse is not recognised in time it can lead to a failure of all relationships in the family, as happened in The Family Secret. The documentary, available online until 2 January, therefore may be a good warning.