What Your Child Needs To Know About Sex (And When)

A straight-talking guide for parents

Beware the Young Sexualized Bully

Even a 6 year old can be a sexual bully

While we have reliable data about the sexual behaviors of high school teenagers, we have less for middle school teens, and very little concerning the sexual behaviors of elementary school children. It is easy to appreciate why; there are legal, ethical, and moral barriers to studying the private sexual behaviors of minors and the younger the minor the harder it is. One of the best ways however, to get a window of insight into children's sexual behaviors is by asking elementary school teachers and staff what sort of sexual behaviors they witness during the course of a school year http://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/74965/sexual-behaviors-young-children-occur-in-schools.pdf. Not surprisingly, the younger the child the more clumsy the child is in hiding her or his sexual behavior. That is, there is less development of sexual modesty and an overall less sophisticated awareness of "hiding one's behavior" in young children that allow adults to glean some insight into the personal sexual behaviors of children.

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I mentioned in a previous post http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-your-child-needs-know-about-sex-and-when/201109/the-super-sexualization-children-time-take that when I was the Director of Health for the New York City Department of Education, I had never before received more calls from principals and staff concerning the problematic and intrusive sexual behaviors of young children as I had the last ten to fifteen years in that assignment. Starting in about 1995, I began receiving calls about children's sexual behaviors that I virtually never received before (unless it concerned a case of a child that was being sexually abused). Calls were starting to come in to me that described children, some as young as five, six, and seven years of age that were displaying sexual behaviors that were either "adult-like" in nature and/or were viewed as intrusive. That is, they involved sexual behaviors that included:

• A child's direct touching of another child's genitalia, either outside or under the clothing.
• "Humping" behavior, rubbing one's genitalia against another child's body.
• Mimicking intercourse.
• Sexual bullying; a child that uses fear, coercion, or force to engage another child in a sexual behavior (touching, body exposure).

Not only was I receiving more and more calls like this about many young students, I was also receiving calls about specific students that were engaging in a high level of repeat sexual behaviors. Either way, one can imagine the concern these patterns of behavior were generating. And the phone calls never stopped; year after year I received more and more of them.

We know all too painfully just how pervasive sexual harassment and misconduct are among teenagers. Most teens report they have been the recipient of some form of sexual harassment and more than 10% of high school girls report being physically forced into sexual intercourse. And many gay and lesbian teens struggle regularly with having to confront all sorts of bullying and hurtful behavior. But now we have to deal with what I think is the scariest trend in child sexual behavior to develop over the past decade or so: young children who sexually bully. As society sexualizes all children through the vast array of prevalent sources of sexual information and influences that are everywhere, those young children that are developing or have already developed bullying personas are learning that they can use sexual behavior to bully other children and that it is as effective and as rewarding if not more so than using traditional methods of bullying. The super-sexualization of young children today is cultivating this off-shoot of sexualized bullies and all parents must beware. Very simply stated, most young children today are being exposed to a plethora of highly explicit and very confusing sexual messages. And when young children are repeatedly exposed to very sexualized messages that are frequently incomprehensible in nature, and you combine this with research that tells us that a majority of parents in this country do not communicate effectively with their children about sex and sexuality guess what happens? Children are then left to their own devices to try and make sense of it all and many cannot rise to the task. You end up with many young children who at least will be very confused and at worst will act out what they've been exposed to. When the bullying child becomes sexualized he or she easily learns to incorporate the sexual behavior into his overall bullying pattern.

Over the years I have dealt with many school-related cases of children who touch the genitals of other children without consent, or force them to touch their genitals in return; children who force other children to pull their pants down or disrobe; children who intimidate other children by rubbing their genitals against them or by lying on top of them; children who will forcefully kiss another child's genitals or force them to kiss their own. Sadly we are seeing more and more children who force, intimidate, and/or strike fear in other children by using sexual behaviors. Sometimes the young sexual bully recruits other young children to participate in various sexual behaviors in a kind of group-bullying format, other times the young sexual bully acts alone, engaging in one-child-at-a-time sexual bullying. The group oriented sexual bully, probably because he needs to keep multiple children involved, tends to use a front of friendly seduction in his recruitment, almost creating a game-like atmosphere in order to keep multiple participants interested. On the other hand, the one-on-one sexual bully typically uses a more coercive, fear-inducing tactic. If it doesn't work, he or she can easily go on to another child. But make no mistake both types of young sexual bullies require appropriate therapeutic intervention.

It's hard to say exactly how prevalent the young sexualized bully is, but if you want to get a sense of the scope of the problem you should see the response I get from elementary school teachers and counselors when I discuss the topic. Every time I make a presentation there are multiple cases that are brought to my attention. I would love to see the statistics kept by a school district or state education office on the numbers of student to student sexual harassment and assault cases. I will guarantee you that the numbers at the elementary school level alone will shock every one of us. This is what happens when children have multiple exposures to sexualized messages that are confusing and incomprehensible. The sexual bully has been created as a result and will remain as long as we live in a super-sexualized society.

As parents, we should always be ready and able to evaluate children's sexual behaviors; particularly those that involve another child. When children display a genuine sense of sexual curiosity with another child, they do it with a great deal of natural wonder, which is often accompanied by embarrassment. That is, if you catch your seven year old on a play-date where he and his playmate have their pants down, giggling, and embarrassed it is probably a normal expression of sexual curiosity. When the behavior is problematic, you can usually tell by paying attention to the context in which it occurs. If the sexual behavior appears to cause fear, concern, anxiety, or stress, then it is probably unwanted and you need to be on guard.

In general, you will want to take note of the following possible signs that a child's sexual behavior may warrant further investigation:

• Any display in sexual matters beyond what you would expect for the child's age.
• Any engagement in sexual behaviors on an excessive/compulsive basis.
• Taking younger children to "secret" places to play "special" undressing or touching games.
• Turning to younger or less powerful children rather than peers to explore sexual curiosity.
• Responding sexually to ordinary gestures of friendliness/affection.
• Insisting on physical contact with a child even when the child resists.

Fred Kaeser, Ed.D., is the former director of health for the NYC Department of Education. He is the author of What Your Child Needs To Know About Sex (And When).

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