When does sibling-on-sibling sexual exploration constitute abuse?
Much heated debate has spurred in response to recent media drama over revelations in Lena Dunham's new book. A passage describes her engaging in sexual activity with her much younger sister when they were both children. The big question on everyone's mind is whether or not Dunham's actions constitutes "abuse." There seems to be a great deal of confusion about where to draw the line between innocent sexual curiosity and actual abusive relationships; even skilled therapists have a hard time making a clear distinction.
As a psychologist—who at one time trained teachers, parents, and children about abuse while working for the Los Angeles Unified School District—the rule that defines the difference between curiosity and abuse often focuses on how big the age discrepancy is between the children involved. In the instance of Dunham and her sister, Dunham is six years older, which is a significant age difference.
Is a situation like this normal curiosity or abuse?
Typically, when a big sister or brother looks at their infant sibling's genitals, or even touches them, that is considered normal curiosity. But, when a parent does not then use that interaction to set appropriate boundaries, and that kind of touching or viewing continues, the behavior can become abuse. When such activity continues on in secret, then there is a troubling question of adequate parental supervision, especially if the parent already knows questionable or inappropriate activity has been occurring.
Here is the thing we all need to remember—you cannot talk about childhood sexuality in the same way that you talk about adult sexuality. It is healthy and normal for children to be curious about each other's bodies, as well as their own. Normal children sometimes touch one another because it feels good, like it does being touched anywhere on the body.
When children are of a similar age, looking and touching are expected and considered to be fine from a developmental standpoint. But, when there is a big difference in age or even in physical size between the children, this often indicates a problem. The reason why is because a younger or smaller sibling cannot participate in consensual exploration. They cannot understand what it is they are consenting to. They do not have the language to describe what they are experiencing, nor the context of understanding the implications of certain kinds of touch. Thus, it is inappropriate for the older child to explore the younger child's intimate body parts.
How should a parent respond?
A one-time event is a great opportunity for a parent to explain, in language a child can understand, that a younger sibling should not be touched this way because the younger child does not understand what is happening to their body, even if the older child intends to be playful or even affectionate. This is an opportunity to answer the older child's questions about bodies and sex, respect and consent, and healthy development, since the child is clearly showing signs of curiosity.
To help parents explain boundaries, an easy analogy can be made to a family pet. A child may think it is funny to wrap string around an animal's jaw and watch the animal wriggle, but it must be explained that the animal does not find that treatment funny, even though the animal has no way of saying this. The pet depends on others to be nice to it, since it cannot communicate. In the same way, younger siblings depend on older siblings to be nice to them, the same way all children depend on adults to be nice to them when the child has less power.
Sibling abuse is more common than most people think.
In my sex therapy practice, many people confide in me that a sibling sexually abused them. Sometimes they even want to know if what happened was "really" sexual abuse. If the sibling coerced them or forced them in some way, such as holding them down while performing a sexual act, or if the sibling made threats—"I'll tell mom and dad that you did this to me!"—then yes, it is abuse.
Sexual abuse between siblings is sometimes, though not always, indicative that there may be other types of inappropriate sexual behavior going on in the older child's life. Children don't know about certain kinds of sex acts out of the blue. It is important to at least investigate the possibility that something troubling might be occurring when an older sibling is found performing sexual acts on a younger sibling.
Putting a spotlight on sibling-on-sibling sexual abuse can create a great deal of discomfort for people, but it's an important conversation. If you are an adult who was sexually abused by a sibling and still feel affected by it, please seek supportive help. There are psychotherapists specially trained to help you understand and cope with the effects of abuse, including how to manage healthy boundaries in your current family relationships. You don't have to go on alone with your painful feelings.