'It Was Definitely About Power': The Horrendous, Hidden Impact of Sibling Abuse
Violence between siblings, including rape, can and does destroy lives. Which makes its frequency, and the fact it goes largely undiscussed in mainstream society, all the more frightening.
All photos by Alison Winterroth via Stocksy
As a little girl, I worshipped my older brother. Not that I had much choice: He was more than six years my senior, 6'6" in height, and outranked me in both strength and wit for the entirety of my youth.
He picked out my music, my clothes and my ideas. My self-image rested on the knife's edge of his approval. Our parents had problems far bigger than our own, and left us to our own devices, which I now realize created an environment whereby we competed with each other for their attention.
Almost 64 percent of survivors of sibling abuse never marry.
This was the beginning of a chronic power pull between us. He exerted his authority over me and I struggled to subvert his appointed order, which, if disobeyed, resulted in devastating punishment of both a physical and emotional nature. Some days it was just names, other days it was just bruises. But it always involved humiliation.
We haven't spoken for more than ten years, but even now there are words he used that serve as the soundtrack to my self-loathing on days when I can't find the strength to think more of myself.
Outside of Cain and Abel, the OGs of sibling rivalry (with their conflict and siblicide), abuse between siblings is rarely depicted in mainstream contemporary culture. When it is, the dynamic is often portrayed as rivalry between brothers, and normalized as a requisite phase of male adolescence.
This classic "boys will be boys" dismissal is concerning, says clinical therapist Dr. John V. Caffaro, a researcher at the California School of Professional Psychology and author of Sibling Abuse Trauma.
Caffaro says it leads to a larger social denial of violent acts between brothers and sisters, and overlooks the long-term physical and emotional damage inflicted on victims. "Boy-girl violence constitutes 30 percent of the sibling abuse found in our study," Caffaro explains, referring to his 2005 research, Treating Sibling-Abuse Families.
"Males are far more likely to assume offender roles with younger, less mature brothers or sisters," he says.
This is largely attributable to modern-day gender power struggles, where men are more frequently socialised to be in control, he explains. "The abuse of a younger, more vulnerable sibling gives an older brother a sense of power."
That was the case for Catherine*, a Melbourne-based financial adviser who hasn't spoken to her older brother in more than 20 years. "I've just stopped talking about him," she says. "When I was younger, I made up another brother who was cool and funny and nice, but now I'm happy for people to think I'm an only child."
Catherine learned to out-manoeuvre her brother's headlocks at the age of seven. While most kids fight over toys, clothes or the remote control, she was routinely slapped, kicked and punched in the face when her parents weren't looking, if she disobeyed her brother. "It was definitely about power," she says. "He was bigger, stronger, and five years older than me—it was impossible to fight back.
"If I did, I only made it worse for myself."
Now 40, Catherine has gained some perspective. She's able to draw correlations between her father's temper and that of her brother's. Every time he was punished or beaten for underperforming in sport or academics, she knew she was next; a strategy Caffaro says is often employed by older siblings, to address power imbalances in parent-child relationships.
"The worst part was when he would come into the room where I studied and punch or slap me," Catherine recalls. "He told me that if I made a sound, he would come back later and it would be worse. He meant it." Under threat of additional violence, she learned how to keep quiet in order to minimise vicious repercussions, a habit that followed her into adulthood.
Catherine now finds it extremely difficult to communicate with men during emotional confrontations. "I just sort of shut down now, when things get too intense," she says. "I'm always kind of paranoid when a guy gives me a compliment. I just think to myself 'Okay, what's the punchline?' and wait for him to do or say something terrible. It's just too hard."
This is a common challenge for survivors of sibling abuse, says Caffaro. Along with increased rates of depression and anxiety, violent early childhood experiences may galvanize a "powerful negative model for interpersonal relationships," leading to an inability or an unwillingness to sustain adult bonds.
"Sibling violence has the power to shape a child's relational life and an adult's self-esteem and worldview," he says. "In our research, almost 64 percent of adult survivors never marry."
The widespread prevalence and long-reaching effects of sibling abuse make the nature of reporting it even more critical. Especially considering that for many victims, unchecked physical and emotional violence segues to sexual abuse.
According to a 2011 study that used eight years of aggregate data to analyze the long-term psychological and sexual effects of sibling sexual abuse, males accounted for 92 percent of offenders, with 71 percent of the victims female. But statistics on abuse and assault, already widely underreported crimes, are even more difficult to gather when children are involved.
He would torture me, and destroy my toys, but then he discovered that he could get more.
"Children who are being abused by a sibling may experience the same barriers to disclosing sexual abuse as other victims of sexual violence," says Mary Stathopoulos, a senior researcher at the Australian Institute of Family Studies and author of the study Sibling Sexual Abuse.
She says children aren't always aware that they are being abused, but when they are, fear of retribution prevents them from speaking up.
For Zoë*, a Sydney-based graphic designer, this explanation rings true. She says that after extensive physical abuse, her older brother, then sixteen, escalated to sexual abuse when she was ten years old. The strategy he used to distort Zoë's concept of consent and trust further exacerbated already heightened levels of emotional angst and vulnerability.
"He would torture me, and destroy my toys, but then he discovered that he could get more."
Zoë says that she would be asleep when her older brother would sneak into her bedroom and force her to perform sexual acts. "If I wanted him to leave me alone, I'd have to do whatever he wanted. When I didn't, all hell would break loose." This went on for several years, leading to increased sleepless nights, and interpersonal conflicts at school.
"I was too embarrassed to say anything, so I just kept it under wraps," she says.
This, according to Stathopoulos, is common behavior among victims of sibling sexual abuse. "Shame and guilt are significant barriers to disclosing... children may be concerned that if they disclose to their parents they may cause hurt and embarrassment – either to their parents, or to the offending sibling, or both."
It wasn't until her grades began to suffer and she became increasingly volatile at school that Zoë says her parents started to pay attention to her changing behaviour. One day, after a male classmate made a flippant comment about her attire, Zoë tackled him to the ground, and proceeded to hit him until her teacher managed to separate them.
Afraid of being reprimanded, she broke down in the car on the way home, where she confessed to the abuse through tears, to her mother.
"My parents were shocked," she says. But they were also skeptical, forcing her to retell the story several times, a trauma she says only made things worse, because it made her feel like she wasn't credible. Her brother initially denied any wrongdoing, before confessing fully, but by then the damage had already been done.
"I just remember thinking, 'Why didn't you believe me?'"
Meeting disclosure with incredulity intensifies the suffering of the victim, says Stathopoulos. "A negative response to a disclosure, such as being disbelieved, may exacerbate feelings of trauma, particularly if the victim is still living in close proximity with the abusive sibling."
For Zoë, the denial and minimisation of her older brother's aggressions, only made her question her value and self-worth, noting that if she had described the same sort of abuse but from a parent or partner, the reaction from others would be notably different. Even now, if she chooses to speak about the subject with friends, the overall reaction tends to fall along the lines of, "But siblings are supposed to fight."
"Not like that," she's quick to add.
Now, estranged from her brother and attempting to nurture a tenuous relationship with her parents at the age of 25, Zoë says that she often feels like the unicorn in large social gatherings, where friends openly discuss family dynamics with love and affection. As for participating in her own family related affairs, such as weddings, reunions or commencement ceremonies, Zoë draws a hard line.
"Anything where I might have to speak to him," she says. "I just can't do it."
I, for one, can't blame her.
*Victims' names have been changed to protect privacy.
If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic (including sibling) abuse, talk to your general practitioner, dial emergency services in the case of an emergency, or refer to The Australian Institute of Family Studies for advice.