Please read the previous post first: Is Your Child a Sex Maniac? to understand the context of this topic.
Helping children learn and grow is an ambitious undertaking of enormous complexity that requires infinite patience and a large dose of humility. Nonetheless, political opportunists and profiteers in the sex abuse rescue business want people to believe judging children’s sexual behavior should be as quick and simple as arithmetic.
Typically, a child does not complain about having participated in some sexual experience; an adult witnesses the behavior or overhears an innocent narration or request for information, and then the adults freak out and make a federal case out of it. The popular image of a terrified child running to a heroic adult for help is the rare exception rather than the rule. A much more common scene is a child casually reporting a curious feeling of pleasure during sex play, and the shocked parent or other adult falls to pieces. Let’s keep that latter image in mind when considering the sensitive topic of children behaving sexually.
Adults who were sexually abused when they were young may be the worst “protectors” of children in the here and now. A hypersensitive adult’s past fears or sadness intrude upon and color her current relationships with children. In the jargon of attachment theory, mental models from the traumatic past will bias present perceptions and expectations, creating inaccurate attunement with a child (1). Such adults are rigid and lack response flexibility. They ignore the current context and are incapable of a diversity of responses to the thought of childhood sexual experience. Hypersensitive adults are, themselves, frightening to the child rather than being a source of protection or security.
Obvious abuse is characterized by coercion or exploitation, but some confused adults attempt to extend moral outrage and fear of trauma even to mutually consensual sex play among children. Hysterical adults disregard the frequent absence of coercion or exploitation, and consider some arbitrary difference in age as necessarily “abusive.” Or a lone child “abusing” himself is sometimes considered a victim of a “sexualizing” environment, although it’s not clear how a lone child can coerce himself or exploit himself.
How much childhood masturbation is too much? Believe it or not, some therapists define that “problem” purely in terms of the individual parent’s personal preferences. The so-called “therapy” for children who masturbate “excessively” or behave “intrusively” toward other children usually includes extended evaluation for possibly undisclosed abuse, defined by law, even though author Friedrich says child sexual behavior should not be viewed as criminal (2).
Children with unconfirmed abuse may have been exposed to sexuality in the immediate environment (e.g. viewing pornography or adults during sex), which is not usually considered abuse. But sporadic examples of children in troubled families who have witnessed adults during genital intercourse or oral sex are not an adequate basis for reliable generalization about the possible effects of such an environment on children in an otherwise normal family. Even if a child’s problem behavior begins just after witnessing adult sexual behavior, and hence was likely triggered by it, we have no way of knowing whether other adversity or dysfunctional relationships in the child’s life were predisposing factors.
Family nudity, co-bathing, co-sleeping and massage are not problematic or inappropriate in the context of a healthy family. As far as we know there may be many cases of children in healthy families viewing pornography or adult sexual behavior without any adverse effects. The mere threat of withdrawing valued privileges like nudity, co-bathing, or massage, will be sufficient to deter misbehavior in a healthy family.
In contrast, an openly sexual environment is probably unadvisable in a disadvantaged home where a child is subject to multiple forms of deprivation or adversity, and has been sexually intrusive or aggressive, especially a repeat offender. However, it should be emphasized that in some cases where parents are overly restrictive the child’s sexual behavior may be an attempt to provoke more sensitivity from adults.
The book “Children with Sexual Behavior Problems” was edited and published posthumously, so I am reluctant to accuse the late author of inconsistencies. Reporting laws in many states require notifying social services if a victim reveals abuse by an older child, usually a sibling. Nonetheless, the author says schools need not be notified unless the abuse took place in the school, because there is a risk that the school will “complicate” the situation by reacting insensitively.
Considering the many documented cases of insensitivity by social services and juvenile courts (3,4), I would trust school teachers and administrators to be at least as sensitive if not more so than social workers and juvenile court judges. But is there really a need to notify anybody?
The perspective of worried adults often distorts and demonizes what is actually harmless child sex play. In another case described by Friedrich, two female cousins (age 8) enjoyed minor sex play over a period of a year that included kissing each other “down there.” When the mothers found out they asked separate therapists for advice. Friedrich interviewed one of the children and established that there was no coercion or history of abuse, nor any other behavior problems or risk factors, and hence judged the sex play as normative.
But the other child’s therapist told the other cousin she had been the victim of “sexual abuse,” and told the child to write a letter to her cousin to say she was upset about it. The coached child subsequently developed behavior problems and sleep problems. When the parents terminated “therapy” with the highly suggestive therapist, that child’s behavior returned to normal.
Some adults are worried by false claims that beginning to act sexually “is not part of the normal preteen’s repertoire in our culture,” as well as unwarranted recommendations that child sex play should be discouraged by distractions, surveillance, no-sex rules, etc. There are no valid data to support such claims and worries. In the Lamb and Coakley study, 80% of female undergraduates reported sex play before 12 years old (5). Instead of telling adults to stop worrying, we tell children to stop enjoying normal, healthy sex play!
What is the “right” age to become aware of sexuality or begin enjoying sex play, in general or in the case of some particular child? How can anyone calculate the “right” age? Healthy children are curious and eager to learn from birth. Research on effective early education demonstrates that we cultivate children’s precious curiosity and priceless desire to learn by satisfying that desire, not by ignoring it, lying in response, or providing only incomplete information (which is a form of lying).
Some adults attempt to inhibit all expressions of emotion by children, not merely sexual excitement but anger, fear, disappointment, boredom, etc. Such children learn to hide their feelings and may become super-obedient on the surface, but at the cost of adults not knowing what the child is really feeling. Experiments have verified that some children who act calm and obedient are nonetheless experiencing high levels of stress hormones in their circulation. There is a risk that eventually such apparently imperturbable and obedient children will distrust what others appear or claim to be feeling, and aren’t even sure what they are feeling themselves.
In a peculiar passage Friedrich wrote: “I have had a number of unnerving experiences during interviews with preteen victims of sexual abuse where the child was openly flirtatious;” Why should an openly flirtatious child be unnerving to a healthy adult? As I described elsewhere, I have received uninvited kisses on the lips and my genitals have been surreptitiously touched by preteen pupils but I have never been unnerved by it.
If some adults are “unnerved” by a child behaving sexually, they may be revealing their own anti-sex bias and paranoia stemming from ancient beliefs that early sex play causes blindness, etc., and requires gruesome restraining devices. Adults need to explore the origins of their own fears, and distinguish their own hypersensitivity from a child’s innocent curiosity and playful behavior.
Many fathers and mothers report arousal in the presence of a child, and react by avoiding the child, which may be interpreted by the child as rejection. The problem here is not the parents’ arousal, but their inability to accept their arousal as normal, and their failure to behave responsibly by thinking and acting in the child’s best interest rather than running away and hiding, with the child left wondering “What’s wrong with me?”
One of the many important differences between children and adults is that an adult usually has much more freedom in choosing who to have friendships or other social relationships with. That is not merely due to the adult’s greater physical mobility, but also because parents, teachers and other adults often limit children’s choices and force a child to interact with some people and not others. Adults claim they do so to protect the child from “bad influences,” but in reality an adult’s policing of children’s friendships is sometimes motivated by the adult’s own selfish political or religious preferences.
One practical effect of such restrictions is that children are denied the sensitivity and attunement only available with other children of the same or similar age. Forcing a child (usually girls) to spend the day with safe grandma or a trusted auntie rather than a cherished classmate or new neighbor (boys!) is a form of cruel deprivation, too often excused by the supposed threat of innocent sex play. Young children, especially, are less verbal than adults, and certainly benefit from regularly sharing the non-verbal communication, e.g. touching, that children are naturally better at. (To be continued.)
1) Siegel, Daniel J. The Developing Mind. Guilford, 2012.
2) Friedrich, William N. Children With Sexual Behavior Problems. Norton, 2007.
3) Wexler, Richard. Wounded Innocents. Prometheus, 1990.
4) Ofshe, Richard. Making Monsters. University of California, 1994.
5) Lamb, Sharon, and Coakley, Mary. Normal Childhood Sexual Play and Games: Differentiating Play from Abuse. Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 17, pp. 515-526, 1993.