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Sexual Behaviors in Children

An uncomfortable reality.

Photo by Jenn Evelyn-Ann on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jenn Evelyn-Ann on Unsplash

A new category of sexual behaviors has emerged, where children and youth may be too young to be criminalized, yet their behaviors are serious enough that action needs to be taken.

Sexual behaviors in children and youth can entail physical contact initiated by individuals under the age of 18 that involves sexual body parts or non-physical behaviors impacting others, such as voyeurism, sharing of pornography, and/or exhibitionism. In both types of behaviors, the main criterion is that they deviate from normative sexual behavior and are developmentally inappropriate and/or potentially harmful.

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation estimates that about one-third of all perpetrators are children under the age of 18, which means that child-on-child sexual abuse is a difficult reality that must be addressed.

This issue is garnering more public and clinical attention due to increased reports of younger children (age 10 or younger) initiating sexual behavior, many of whom would not be appropriately served if the judicial system labeled them as child sex offenders.

So what is normal and what is concerning when it comes to sexual development in children? The answer depends on the behaviors, the age-appropriateness of the sexual acts, whether it was consensual, how it impacts others (i.e., causes distress), and if there's a disparity between the victim and the child initiating the behaviors in terms of age, developmental ability, or size.

What parents need to remember is that, first, it is normal for children to have sexual behaviors and related questions, as sexual development begins in infancy. As toddlers, they begin to articulate their curiosity with questions and behaviors related to their bodies, gender differences, and sexual functioning. It’s normal for toddlers to be curious about sexuality and ask questions about gender, reproduction, and sexual functioning.

The American Association of Pediatrics lists these types of behaviors as normative for children below 5 years old:

  • Showing their genitals to others
  • Standing too close
  • Trying to look at nude people
  • Masturbating

However, you can see how, according to the American Association of Pediatrics, the following behaviors are considered highly abnormal (i.e., fewer than 1.5 percent exhibit the following sexual behaviors) at 6 years old or above:

  • Putting mouth on genitals
  • Asking self/others to engage in specific sex acts
  • Imitating intercourse
  • Inserting objects into the vagina or anus
  • Touching animal genitals

Experts in this area prefer to categorize childhood sexual behaviors on a continuum based on the following four levels.

1. Normative

2. Cautionary/concerning

3. Problematic

4. Severe/harmful

Anything beyond normative should be explored and viewed more thoroughly.

Every nine minutes, Child Protective Services (CPS) substantiates or finds evidence for a claim of child sexual abuse. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) gives these findings:

  • 82 percent of all victims under 18 are female.
  • 66 percent of childhood victims are 12-17 years old.
  • 34 percent of the victims are under 12 years old.

So why the increase? This is due to the increase and earlier exposure of pornography among children, and increased awareness among health care professionals and other mandated reporters. Therefore, past child-on-child sexual behaviors, which may have been minimized by society, are now taken seriously. Also, mainstream media delivers many more sexualized messages and materials than in the past.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "American media is thought to be the most sexually suggestive in the Western Hemisphere. The average American adolescent will view nearly 14,000 sexual references per year."

When it comes to concerning sexual behaviors in children, experts have found early adolescents between ages 12-14 are the peak of child offenders. This age range experiences a lot of changes as puberty begins, and if they have a skewed view of sex, they may perpetrate against a younger or smaller child.

Past perceptions of children saw this population as dangerous, deviant perpetrators who must be sent away to protect the community, or else they will become future sexual predators. The reality is that most respond well to increased supervision and safety with family participation in evidence-based treatment. A small minority, due to more extensive trauma or psychiatric issues, requires more intensive support.

Past reasoning for why a child would initiate inappropriate sexual behaviors focused on the child being a victim of sexual abuse. While that is one risk factor, it is incomplete: Many non-abused children engage in disconcerting sexual behaviors.

Other individual risk factors include a child's level of impulsiveness and ability to deal with anger and respect boundaries. Others can include attention-deficit disorders, learning disabilities, and reactivity to other traumatic events.

Family risk factors include parental depression, substance abuse, domestic violence, and harsh parenting practices. The wider community can also provide either protective factors. (Source: National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth)

Factors at Play:

  • Home violence (domestic abuse)
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Behavioral issues (Impulsivity, ADD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder)
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Excessive exposure to adult sexual activity or pornography (home, media, internet)
  • Parental depression, substance abuse, or frequent absences due to work

(Source: National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth)

Due to the various components that make a child susceptible, the treatment is often also multi-layered to encompass:

  • Counseling
  • Special needs assessments
  • CPS
  • Co-occurring behavioral disorders
  • Police or law enforcement (depending on age)

These statistics are not meant to scare or alarm you, but to reflect the everyday realities we live in. We as parents must engage our children throughout their developmental cycle (toddlers, teenagers, college-age students), so they're not only well-informed about healthy sexual behaviors but also much more aware of when and how to speak up when the behaviors encroach on their boundaries.