I remember visiting a first grade class sometime around 1999 to discuss with the students the basics of human reproduction. I had my fair share of invites over the years to speak to young children about various issues pertaining to sexuality, but on this particular day a totally unexpected question was posed to me during my discussion with this class. Out of the blue this little six year old boy raised his hand and asked me, "Dr. Fred, did the president really pull his pants down and have that lady kiss his privates"? Within seconds virtually all the other students in the class started nodding their heads and chatting out loud, "I heard that too Dr. Fred"; "Oh, that's gross"; "Is that true Dr. Fred"? "Wow", I said to myself, "Welcome to the super-sexualized world of young children".
If you think about it the average child in the United States today has countless opportunities for exposure to sexualized messages every day. Television, music, billboards, print media, Internet, cellphones and communication devices, cable, movies, and of course interaction with peers and adults, offer children numerous possibilities where they can encounter sexual messages of all sorts. In some homes kids are only a click away from seeing sexual intercourse in all its possible permutations, everything from your run-of-the-mill sexual intercourse to some pretty weird and disturbing sexual acts. Others still are being exposed to actual sexual behavior in their daily lives that gets played out by the adults and older siblings around them.
Irrespective of a child's particular situation, you can bet that children are being exposed to numerous sexual messages every day of their lives. In fact, by the time a child reaches puberty, she or he has likely been exposed to thousands if not tens of thousands of sexualized messages. Think about that for a moment- constant exposure to sexualized messages, day in and day out, at lightning speed from nearly every direction, for their entire childhood. Unfortunately this exposure occurs far too frequently without the guidance and intervention from parents that is necessary to help children sort through and make sense of it all. Often, these sexual messages are not only explicit but also violent and demeaning in nature, awash in male dominant and female submissive imagery- misogynistic, heterosexist, homophobic, and sensational. So make no mistake about it; your child will be exposed to an enormous amount of sex-related content no matter how hard you try to shield them from it.
We are creating a generation of super-sexualized children. A significant number of children are actually demonstrating sexual interest and/or sexual behavior at earlier ages than ever before in our society. Kids are being exposed to sexual matters that were previously only in the purview of adults and the greater the exposure the greater the consequences can be. When parents fail to counter and buffer the plethora of sexual stimuli that confront children, they are left to their own devices to manage what they experience. Unfortunately, many will be confused and have difficulty making sense of and putting into proper perspective what they are exposed to. Some will actually try to act out or mimic what they have been exposed to. Others, who may be developing a bullying persona, will begin to incorporate sexual behavior into their bullying behavior and engage in hurtful or intrusive sexual behavior towards other children. Frankly, I am alarmed over the number of five, six, seven, and eight year old children that molest other children (I have NEVER received so many phone calls from school staff about this problem as I have the past ten to fifteen years).
The biggest impact however that the super-sexualization of children can have is its overall looming effect on the day-to-day existence of kids. Sexuality becomes much more of a player than it should, irrespective of the child's age. It's as if children's normal curiosity towards sexuality gets ratcheted up a number of notches as if on steroids. Consequently, we see things like the following far too frequently:
•The five year old uses the words "that's so gay" without having a clue what they mean.
•Some young children become overly curious and actually touch each other's genitals as opposed to just looking (children have a very normal curiosity about basic sex differences/similarities; they don't typically touch other's genitals). Others may display adult-like sexual behavior.
•The eight year old asks questions about dildos and wants to know how a man can become a woman.
•The ten year old asks about rimming and is it okay to do.
Ah, but in spite of this super-sexualized world there is good news and reason to remain optimistic. The reason I say this is actually very simple: just become an approachable parent on all matters sexual. That's it. If you take it upon yourself to speak honestly, lovingly, and on a regular basis with your child about the sexualized world around her, you will help her make sense of it, help her to put it into an understandable context, and help her to counter any potential negative consequences to all this exposure. As parents we can't hide our children in the closet. The world is sexually complicated for all children but our job is not to run away from it. Rather, we need to make sure we speak, listen, and guide our children every day so they can make sense of their sexualized world. Remember two very important facts: One, your voice as a parent IS more powerful than your child's peers and the media; and two, talking about sex and sexuality with your child will NOT increase their interest in sex; only help them act more responsibly. It really is this simple.
Oh, and my response to the six year old boy who asked me about the lady who kissed the president's private parts? "Wow, you heard that too", I said? "Well, you know kids, as strange and as weird as it sounds, there are some adults who love each other who will do that". "Oh, Dr. Fred that's disgusting", could be heard among the many "oohs" and "ahhs" after I had said it. But within a few moments all quieted down and the students moved on with being six year olds. You see, kids that age really don't care a whole lot about sex, they just want their curiosity quelled and things put into context for them. As parents, we neutralize the onslaught of this highly sexualized world for our children when we answer their questions and act proactively by helping them make sense of the sexual messages they encounter. I didn't want to ignore this little boy's question as shocking as it was. I put the behavior of oral sex into an adult context where it certainly belongs, and I attached the value of love to it. Okay, so I may have stretched the truth a bit with the love thing but all in all I thought it was a pretty good response. What do you think?