Was That Sexual Abuse? Or Was That Normal?
It is difficult to determine the line between normal sexual exploration and harmful abuse. I see clients at an agency that specializes in treating children who have survived sexual abuse or have perpetrated against others. 40% of sexual assaults against children happen by other children (1). How does an individual rightly categorize the two when they encounter a nebulous situation?
Here’s a common question we receive at intake:
“They (two children) were playing in the bedroom/pool/backyard— I walked in and I saw them doing _______. Is that normal?”
I have also had conversations with youth pastors and para-church workers who, after witnessing an awkward/disturbing event, were not sure whether to call CPS, the child’s parents, a therapist, or if they should try and handle the situation themselves. There is a tremendous need for an educated understanding of what constitutes normal sexual behavior between children: studies have shown that 40-85% of children will engage in some form of sexual behavior before the age of 13 (2) (3). Children need caring adults who know how to respond.
So let’s start with an important question: what is normal? Is there such a thing as normal sexual exploration and play? Then let’s look at a criteria by which we can evaluate if sexual behavior is harmful or constitutes abuse.
Imagine you’re a kid and your parents tell you to cover up your toes at all times. “It’s inappropriate to show other people your toes…your toes belong to you and no one else… never touch anyone’s toes until you’re married.”
You would think that is pretty strange, right? You might even be curious as to why everyone is so worried about covering up their toes. Come to think of it… you have never really even seen anyone else’s toes.
What would you do?
Perhaps it’s in your personality to be cautious of this kind of thing. The idea of trying to sneak a peek at other’s toes seems pretty out there. Or maybe you’re more curious and you and your friends agree to trade peeks and see what the fuss is all about. Their toes look sorta like yours. Interesting.
Then you hear that the opposite gender’s toes look entirely different than yours— this is world changing news! You must see for yourself.
What kinds of behaviors would be typical of a kid who is curious about forbidden toes? What kinds of behaviors would be odd or indicate that the motive goes beyond innocent curiosity?
Prepubescent children do not experience eroticism in the same way adults do. Children, however, do have all the sexual hardware built in from birth and experience a broad range of pleasure sensations from the nerves on their genitalia. It is not uncommon for children to experience sexual arousal and even orgasm (while this has been observed in children even as early as the womb, sensations such as orgasm take place more typically when approaching puberty (7)). This pleasure, however, is not integrated into the same categories as adults have— children do not have a drive to seek sexual gratification (2). In the child’s mind, genitals are similar to toes. It’s a body part that sometimes feels good, sometimes tickles and sometimes hurts. Through this lens, it seems reasonable and even normal that children might peek, poke, and dramatize what they’ve heard about grown-up behavior. This exploratory play will normally be engaged in mutually and voluntarily, with kids of similar age, size, and developmental status, and be limited in type and frequency (2).
Part of how children learn is through acting out behavior in pretend play. So in addition to curiosity (peeking, and poking), behaviors might include dramatizations of topics such as how babies are made, going to the doctor, or playing house (to name a few). The play will reflect the level of detail they understand about a particular domain (2). Playing house might include a mommy and daddy lying in a bed under the covers— that might even include being partially or fully nude (depending on what they have heard about how babies are made). Kids often go to the doctor and are occasionally asked to undress for inspection of genitalia— this might be acted out in play. Normal sexual play will be driven by curiosity (as apposed to pleasure seeking) and reflect the low detail understanding that would be expected of a child who has not engaged in adult sexual activity (2).
Now when does that play become harmful or abuse? Abuse happens when one child imposes a significantly more detailed sexual experience upon another child from a position of power.
Power can occur on multiple levels— let’s break it down into three categories:
Knowledge power: Children who have been previously exposed to pornography or adult sexual behavior have an adult-level education regarding sexual behaviors. It’s not uncommon for a child who has been sexually traumatized by another to then at- tempt to regain their lost power by acting out sexually with other children in order to feel in control over their past experiences (2).
Physical power: Is one child older than the other? Does one of the children have a developmental delay or disability? Is one child larger in size (even if younger) and therefore have more physical dominance? Was there threat of harm made such as wrestling, pinning down, blocking an exit, or did one child have a weapon (2)?
Social power: Does one child have an authoritative status over the other child such as being the baby-sitter or being an older sibling? Children look up to people they admire, even if that person is not in authority over them. Is one child more socially outcast or isolated than the other? If so, the threat of, “I won’t play with you unless you ____,” is a lot more weighty (2). Were there manipulative social exchanges such as coercion, a bribe, or persuasion to keep a secret (2)?
With these dynamics in mind, let’s look at a few test cases and determine if the situation would constitute normal or abnormal sexual behavior and explore what next steps could be. After, we’ll look at a model to help us respond to circumstances like these that protects both the children’s safety and mental health.
Two seven year olds appear to be playing doctor and have disrobed down to their underwear. They yell at Mom when she enters their bedroom and tell her they are doing “private things”.
Take a moment and assess what we know thus far: is this normal or advanced sexual behavior? Is there knowledge power at play? “Private things,” could mean a lot of different things. When we as adults think of “private things,” we can fill our imagination with all sorts of sexual possibilities. But think of what the child experiences when they go to the doctor: the door is shut, they’re asked to disrobe, and the doctor might even explain his actions as, “protecting privacy.” This is not necessarily problematic behavior, but let’s continue to assess.
Is there physical power? Let’s say the children were the same age, size, and neither had developmental delays/disabilities. What we don’t know yet is if there was threat or coercion.
Is there social power? There is no status difference or coercion that we’re aware of.
What are possible next steps?
While the behavior does not necessarily look harmful, there is more information we need to gather to insure each child’s safety. We also do not want to needlessly alarm the children and cast shame by falsely accusing them. Without judgment or a tone of voice that would sound like anger, perhaps we start with a clarification that there are no “private things” that we keep from mommy. What happens next could be a list of questions or simply an announcement that mom is going to begin folding laundry in the room with them and they should continue playing their game. If they continue to play, mom can then offer coaching and feedback on what kinds of activities are appropriate and inappropriate. Playing doctor and listening for a heartbeat is fine but clothing should stay on. If the children begin to look ashamed, nervous, and want to leave the room, then more questions could take place to ensure that both children were safe and nothing dangerous was taking place.
When adults happen upon children engaging in nude or sexual play, the response from the adult has massive implications for how the child thinks about the event. I speak to adults all the time that were traumatized as children not by the sexual exploratory play, per-say, but by a teacher’s or parent’s stigmatizing accusation or fearful/hostile reaction (“pervert, what’s wrong with you! Stop being nasty!”). For children, reactions such as this produce shame, guilt, and the feeling that something is wrong with them. Rather than feeling the freedom to ask questions and seek understanding about these behaviors, they’re often avoided and transformed into feelings of self-hate.
A nine year old boy plays with seven year old developmentally delayed boy. Father walks in the room to find both boys under the covers nude. When asked what was happening, both boys say, “nothing,” but the seven year old is in tears. The seven year old goes home and tells his mother that the nine year old asked him to put his mouth on the nine year old’s penis. The seven year old agreed to do this.
Is there knowledge power at play? Certainly. Oral stimulation is not a behavior that will naturally arise out of the child’s imagination. It is always a learned behavior and constitutes harmful sexual play for two children. Even if neither child ultimately told an adult what they were doing under the blanket, the seven year old crying upon being caught is a good indicator that the play was problematic.
Was there physical power? The nine year old in both age, size and developmental status has power over the seven year old.
Was there social power? We saw secrecy in hiding under the blanket and immediately lying upon being caught. We don’t know whether there was coercion or a bribe. Neither child was a baby-sitter or older sibling but the nine year old might have been given the responsibility watch out for the seven year old given his age and developmental status. The seven year old may have more limited play mates and be more socially vulnerable. There certainly seems to be social power at play.
What would be some good next steps?
Again, it’s not uncommon to be surprised and respond negatively to seeing a child doing something resembling adult sexual behavior. You may feel an impulse to shout, shut down, panic, cry, or leave quickly (2)— let’s look at some responses that we should avoid. From our observations, it is clear this constitutes harmful sexual behavior. However, disciplining or lecturing either child would not be a good step after learning this information. The nine year old seems to be in possession of information he doesn’t know what to do with (the advanced sexual education of oral-stimulation). It is likely that he learned this behavior either from media or an experience he had with another person. He might even be the victim of abuse that hasn’t been brought to light and is confused about this behavior. While his actions were harmful, it might not have been intended to be devious or malicious behavior.
Simply separating the children and ignoring the behavior would be destructive as well: it is likely the children were disturbed by the event that just took place and are feeling shame, fear, or guilt. Without healthy integration of this information and the under- standing of when it is harmful to exhibit this behavior, there is a chance of repeat perpetration.
So what should we do? In the moment, a very calm, nonjudgemental and matter-of-fact tone is best to start asking simple questions and gathering information of what just took place. After hearing what they are willing to disclose, respond with appreciation and positive affirmation for telling the truth.
In the case where they say, “nothing,” stating what you objectively saw would be helpful. “I saw that you both were under the blanket naked. Tell me more about what you were doing.”
If there were any signs of blood, vomiting or if you witnessed penetration, a trip to the emergency room would be your next step. Assuming the situation was as described, after the children’s disclosure, a simple statement about your house rules for this be- havior would be appropriate (without going into a lecture). Perhaps ending with a short statement like, “our house rules are there so that everyone is safe.” It would be best, then, to take your child’s friend home and explain to their parents what you saw. No need to interpret what happened, just a simple calm explanation of what you saw/ heard is adequate.
The first conversation with your child might be intimidating. Starting with love and gentle comfort would be an excellent first reaction. No need to discipline— a simple, “I’m sorry that was scary/confusing for you, I love you and am not mad at you,” is a great start. Follow this by stating what you saw objectively and see if they have any questions. Simple instruction around what that behavior is and when it is appropriate/inappropriate is optimal. If they don’t respond, tell them that you’re open to talking about this experience when they’re ready. No need to interrogate them. You might be thinking, “Okay, no discipline— but how do I make sure this doesn’t happen again? How do I make sure he knows this was wrong?”
Calling a therapist who specializes in “maladaptive sexual behavior” or “problematic sexual behavior” should be the next step. The therapist can adequately evaluate the situation, determine if the authorities need to be contacted and give advice in parenting through these kinds of experiences. The job of a parent is to be supportive and offer stability and love as the child integrates that experience into how they think about themselves, sexuality, and others for years to come (2).
Each potential situation presents unique intricacies that are beyond the scope of this blog to comprehensibly cover. For further information on this topic, see the recommended reading below. Regardless of the circumstance, using the following steps can be a useful tool in keeping children safe and responding to sexualized behaviors:
- Was there knowledge power?
- Was there physical power?
- Was there social power?
- In a calm, matter-of-fact, non-judgmental tone, ask what’s happening or state what you objectively see.
- Make steps to keep children safe (separate and/or seek first-aid if needed).
- Comfort, gather information, and create opportunity for questions.
- Contact therapist/authorities
For more reading:Understanding Children’s Sexual Behaviors: What’s Natural and Healthy by Toni Cavanagh Johnson
1. Finkelhor, D. (2012). Characteristics of crimes against juveniles. Durham, NH: Crimes against Children Research Center.
2. Gil, E., & Johnson, T. C. (1993). Sexualized children: Assessment and treatment of sexualized children and children who molest. Rockville, MD: Launch Press.
3. Albert B., Brown, S., & Flanagan, C. E. (2003). 14 and younger: The sexual behavior of young teenagers (summary). Washington D.C.: national Campaign to Present Teen Pregnancy.
4. Pereda, N., Guilera, G., Forns, M., & Gómez-Benito, J. (2009). The prevalence of child sexual abuse in community and student samples: A meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review, 29(4), 328-338.
5. Fehrenbach, P.A., Smith, W., Monastersky, C., & Deisher, RW. (1986). Adolescent sex offenders: Offender and offense characteristics. American Journal of Orthopsy- chiatry, 56(2), 225-233.
6. Hunter, J.A., Figueredo, A.J., Malamuth, N.M., & Becker, J. (2003). Juvenile sex of- fenders: Toward the development of a typology. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Re- search & Treatment, 15(1), 27-48. doi: 10.1177/107906320301500103.
7. Johnson, T. C. , & Mitra, R. (2007). A retrospective study of children’s (twelve and younger) sexual behaviors. Unpublished manuscript.
8. The following scenarios are adapted with minor changes from Gil & Johnson, 1993.
Matthias Barker is completing his masters in clinical mental health counseling at Northwest University and is currently practicing at Lutheran Community Services fulfilling his internship. Matthias is working towards specialization in treating children who have undergone severe abuse as well as men recovering from childhood abuse. Before pursuing a counseling career Matthias held pastoral positions at various churches serving as a youth pastor and college internship coordinator. In his free time, he enjoys making ceramic, collecting house plants, and cooking BBQ. Matthias and his wife Paige live in Spokane, WA.