“There is a stunning lack of precision and science in the field of child mental health.” – William N. Friedrich
One reason child sex abuse is so upsetting to adults is that children are traditionally considered asexual and uninterested in sex, so any sex play that occurs in childhood “must be” coerced, overwhelming and “dysregulating” for the child. However, children are sometimes observed expressing a robust desire to enjoy sex play (some published cases will be described below) and those children are mistakenly viewed as “sexualized” or “disturbed.”
A healthy child is very energetic and enthusiastic rather than passive and lethargic. Healthy children are like pro boxers in top condition who need fresh sparring partners several times a day. Childcare is a very labor-intensive occupation. But when a child expresses enthusiasm about sex play, that contradiction of adult expectations is overwhelming and dysregulating for some adults. If sex play is normative in childhood, then who is disturbed – the child who exhibits an enthusiastic desire to enjoy sex play, or the adult who gets upset about it?
Some adults have an incentive to view child sex play as a serious problem, because that way adults hide or excuse their own hypersensitivity. Early thought was that bed-wetting and nightmares are “key” symptoms of sex abuse, but in reality many child sex abuse victims sleep better than their parents. Worried adults even subject children who enjoy normative sex play to repeated questioning and dramatic emotional displays that are unnecessary and upsetting to the children. Such adults are exhibiting their own irresponsibility and mental imbalance.
Adults who have a lot of experience with children know that there is a broad continuum of child sexual behavior from normative to disturbed, stemming from many different pathways. Problematic cases (i.e. fixation on sex or repeated coercion of other children) usually appear in more chaotic families in which children have experienced several forms of instability or adversity in general, not merely normative sex play.
Some parents don’t understand the importance of satisfying a child’s fundamental needs, e.g. secure attachment to caregivers, sleeping at least 10 hours every night, and eating breakfast before being thrust into a competitive classroom. Such children are usually bound to fail in school and suffer low self-esteem as a result. In such cases eventual behavior disorders are unsurprising, and sexual behavior may be the least of the child’s problems.
Therapists who earn money in the sex abuse rescue business create different typologies of what is called problematic sexual behavior. They include purely self-focused behavior (i.e. excessive masturbation, but difficult to draw the line between excessive and not excessive), which in the past was literally called “self-abuse,” and aggressive or intrusive sexual behavior toward others.
What becomes labeled as sexually “intrusive” behavior is arbitrarily defined by adults. The label of intrusive behavior may arbitrarily range from a child with no sex abuse history, and no true psychopathology or other behavior problems who merely touched another child’s genital area once, to a child who was the victim of physical and other forms of abuse by multiple perpetrators and repeatedly attempts to coerce genital penetration with other children. Classifying child sexual behavior is far from an exact science.
An author who led the thinking in the field of treating children with sexual behavior problems noted that the majority of children who exhibit problematic sexual behavior are neither victims of sexual abuse nor future sex offenders. He stated that based on his experience with hundreds of children who have been sexually intrusive toward other children, they are rarely so compulsive as to re-offend after being caught (1).
But many people who had little or no experience (or only negative experience) with sexuality when they were young believe that even mutually consensual sex play is always a reason for grave concern and action. Even some therapists who specialize in this field (and should know better) get overly upset by children behaving sexually, and cater to hysterical parents and witch-hunters. Treating children with real or imagined sexual behavior problems is a growth industry.
According to the book “Children with Sexual Behavior Problems,” therapists need to identify families in which the parents misinterpret innocent sex play and simply require reassurance and support. Even in the case of real (severe) sexual behavior problems, the context of dysfunctional family relations is frequently the underlying problem – not the sexual behavior. Attempting to prevent future intrusive behavior should focus on improving the capacity of the parents to satisfy children’s basic needs, e.g. for secure attachment to caregivers.
As another distinguished psychologist has noted, a child is rarely “overwhelmed” by any single experience, not even the sudden and unexpected diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease. What matters is the quantity and frequency of negative challenges in a particular child’s life (cumulative stress), relative to the presence of internal and external protective factors available to that particular child (2).
The best evidence available indicates that in most cases early sex abuse is not seriously harmful (3), and traditionally research on children’s sexual behavior has not investigated why most children are resilient or immune from serious injury. Most researchers have instead focused on attempting to demonize sex play and make money by “treating” the minority of families who do need help, and by attempting to broaden (by definition) that lucrative market as much as possible.
There is some evidence that experiences commonly called “traumatic” are sometimes actually neutral or positive (in the long term) for most people who experience them. Individuals who suffer from severe post-traumatic stress are a minority, not the majority of trauma victims. The widespread hand-wringing over sex play in childhood is clearly distorted.
Children who are sexually intrusive tend to be aggressive in other ways as well. Their intrusive sexual behavior is merely part of their intrusive behavior in general, and is often learned from adults (parents, teachers and other models) who are generally insensitive, abrupt, and intrusive toward children. In contrast, competent parents model respect for other people’s boundaries. They talk to a child first to find out what is going on in the child’s mind at the moment, and then if appropriate propose contact and wait for the child’s consent, rather than merely reaching out and grabbing a child. Why aren’t adults so concerned about non-sexual aggression in childhood?
According to some definitions of “sex abuse” and “sexually intrusive behavior,” children who were sexually abused engage in sexually intrusive behavior more frequently. But cause and effect are far from clear, since these children have higher rates of other forms of instability and adversity in their lives. It is irresponsible to automatically attribute sexually intrusive behavior to early sexual experience when many more children who are sexually intrusive have no known history of sex abuse.
One survey examined the following items: 1) persists in touching other kids after being told not to, 2) plans how to touch other children, 3) forces other children to engage in “sex acts,” 4) puts finger or other object in other child’s “rectum” or vagina (more likely introitus than vagina). Interestingly, sexually abused kids had lower rates of three out of four of the above behaviors considered “aggressive” compared to children who had no known history of sex abuse. Children who are victims of sex abuse are a minority of the general population, and as far as we know most children with sexually intrusive behavior are not sex abuse victims.
A healthy child has varied interests. Children’s relations with other people should not be dominated by a sexual focus, but sexual arousal is normative in childhood and may be managed in a healthy manner by occasional sex play with other children. If children spend a lot of time at home with insufficient opportunities for educational games or other learning activities, sex play with siblings or other relatives of very different ages may become a habit.
Frequent “play dates” with other children outside the home may avoid the tendency to fixate on sex play in an impoverished family, as well as enriching the child’s repertoire of pro-social behavior. Conversely, parents or other adults who are overly restrictive about sex play may actually provoke children to become sexually intrusive. Adults can and should provide structure and safe limits, but without excessive sexual restrictions.
What about extremely intrusive behavior? Friedrich described the case of a nine-year-old boy who reported being repeatedly coerced into “anal penetration” over a period of years by his adoptive brother (two years older). At first the older boy denied any coercion, but eventually admitted to one possible occasion. When informed, the parents said they could stop the behavior and opposed any further action. But the therapist recommended removing the older boy from the home, which a court did. Although we don’t know all of the circumstances in this case, none of the factors described seem to justify such harsh treatment of the older boy.
One disadvantage of the mass hysteria over child nudity is that many adults have grossly inaccurate and even magical ideas about children’s anatomy. Few boys have an adult-sized penis at age 11, and if the boy in this case did, he could not penetrate a nine-year-old’s tiny anus. On the other hand, an immature penis is too tiny to reach into another little boy’s recessed aperture. Realistically, the so-called “penetration” in this case was most certainly minimal if at all.
There is a possibility that the claims of coercion were also exaggerated, and possibly motivated by the younger boy’s culturally induced shame and sibling rivalry. Significantly, there was no report of any physical injury or subsequent physical pathology. Finally, the parents’ confidence that they could protect the younger boy in the future should outweigh the opinion of the therapist who merely spoke to the boys a few times.
We must consider the possibility that removing the older boy from the home may be far more injurious than the risk of further coercion of the younger boy. If the accusations were indeed exaggerated, the younger boy himself may suffer severe guilt feelings or paranoia over possible revenge later. From a dependent child’s point of view, the injury of non-consensual sex play is brief and temporary compared to the long-term or permanent catastrophe of perceived parental rejection and abandonment. Instead of risking further sexual impropriety, the therapist and court risk creating a future ax murderer.
The judgment in this case also promotes the mass hysteria over sex abuse, since the supposed risk of (possibly) coerced sex play was considered more important than any other considerations. There is obvious arrogance and hysteria in the attitude of authorities when it comes to sexuality. For example, when families are resistant to continue “treatment” (that has never been proven safe or effective by medical standards), therapists are advised to be ready to “coordinate” (i.e. coerce) future sessions with the aid of the local social services department or juvenile court.
Analogously, some arrogant public school teachers are known to quickly threaten calling a social worker if parents show any lack of enthusiasm about the outdated curriculum offered by overworked staff in an overcrowded school. In general, working with the government should not be allowed to go to a person’s head. In addition to the lack of precision and science in the field of child mental health, individuals who work with local, state, or federal governments are certainly imperfect and fallible just like the rest of us. (To be continued.)
1. Friedrich, William N. Children with Sexual Behavior Problems. W.W. Norton, 2007.
2. Garbarino, James. Lost Boys. Anchor Books, 1999.
3. Rind, Bruce et al. “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples” (Psychological Bulletin 1998, Vol. 124, No. 1, 22-53); and Rind et al. “The Validity and Appropriateness of Methods, Analyses, and Conclusions in Rind et al. (1998): A Rebuttal of Victimological Critique From Ondersma et al. (2001) and Dallam et al. (2001)” (Psychological Bulletin 2001. Vol. 127. No. 6. 734-758).