Are problem sexual behaviors in children increasing? Or are they just being reported in greater numbers? In either case, we have a serious problem that can only get better if we recognize and address it. (And in fact, catching these problems early shows promising results! Keep reading…)
In this post, I will outline some of the major differences between normal and problem sexual behaviors in children. Then I will discuss the alarming trend of pornography-induced child-on-child sexual behaviors. Finally, I will explain who you should contact if your child has been a victim of sexual abuse.
What is normal sexual behavior in children?
Not all sexual behavior in children is a problem. Some types of sexual play are normal. Even very young kids are often curious about their own or another child’s body parts.
Here are some of the behaviors that are normal for kids:
- Playing exploratory “doctor” games in which they look at or touch one another’s private parts
- Touching their genitals
- Trying to view peer or adult nudity
Normal childhood exploratory behaviors are spontaneous and between kids of a similar age. A child expressing normal sexual behavior generally responds to adult intervention. For example, most young children respond to the reminder that clothes should stay on at preschool.
What is problem sexual behavior in kids?
Concerning sexual behaviors in children generally include at least one of the following traits:
- Takes place between children several years apart in age
- Behavior continues despite parenting strategies (such as discipline)
- Causes harm or potential harm (physical or emotional)
- Simulates adult sexual acts
Here are some examples of problem sexual behavior in children:
- Imitating sexual intercourse with toys, pets, or other children
- Putting objects in sexual body parts
- Repeatedly displaying sexual body parts or masturbating in public
- Oral genital contact
- Sexual behavior with kids who are 4 or more years apart in age
- Forced sexual behavior of any kind
- Persistent, secretive sex play that continues after adult intervention
If your child has been exhibiting problem sexual behaviors, contact your pediatrician for guidance. When problems are recognized and treated early, most children respond well and do not continue acting out sexually with other kids.
Problem sexual behaviors in children: rising reports
Last year, Missouri was shocked by its own data concerning children with problem sexual behavior. ABC 17 News reported:
Child-against-child sexual abuse is more common in Missouri than experts had previously believed, according to state officials… Five months ago, Senate Bill 341 went into effect requiring all complaints of children with problem sexual behaviors to be assessed by the state. Before the new law, there was no statewide procedure for handling the problem… While experts had believed the number of cases this would affect each year was about 600, the first five months under the new law brought almost 2,000.
Earlier this year, WVTM News in Alabama reported that a local child advocacy center also had record high numbers of child-on-child sex abuse cases. A spokesperson stated,
We had (cases) that the child has said, ‘I learned that from the internet,’ and we’ve had children that are basically describing an addiction to child pornography and then they try it out…We had a case recently where the victim is only 3 years old and the [sexually aggressive child] is only 10 or 11 years old…
Last month I spoke to a forensic interviewer who works for another children’s advocacy center. She confirmed the same trend: a significant rise in the number of children being referred for problem sexual behaviors. Most of these kids have been exposed to pornography, and have also been compulsively watching it— seeking it out when told not to, taking big steps to hide it, and even strategically planning ways to get access to parents’ phones. One child interviewed who exhibited these behaviors was only 6 years old.
The forensic interviewer I spoke to told me that her office is seeing a “tidal wave” of kids who are acting out sexually after viewing pornography. Employees of the advocacy center are “stressed out” and downright terrified of the ramifications of this new trend.
Many child victims of repeated pornography exposure don’t get the help they need. These children –even the ones who imitate what they have seen in pornography while “playing” with another child — are victims, too.
In cases where pornography is the catalyst to abnormal sexual behavior in kids, courts don’t get involved and there is no follow-up to make sure a child receives counseling. Kids are sent home with their parents (who are often afraid to tell anyone about the situation.)
And although reports of problem sexual behaviors in kids are rising, experts believe it’s just the tip of the iceberg. For every case reported, there are many more that aren’t. A former adviser to the Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families [says],
This is a major unreported crime, and I think that we have reached the level where it warrants public outcry.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, juveniles are offenders in 40 percent of child sexual abuse cases involving victims under the age of 6. Because so many cases go unreported, that number is likely much higher.
What to do if your child has been sexually victimized:
According to child advocate and national speaker Tomi Grover, where you go for help will depend on the severity of the abuse and how long ago it happened:
- If physical injury is severe, go to a hospital emergency room, preferably a children’s hospital with specially trained trauma docs and sexual assault nurse examiners.
- If physical injuries are mild, but there is still a need for a medical exam, contact a pediatrician.
- If the assault happened a year or more in the past, contact your local Child Advocacy Center. This allows for a forensic interview with the child that will be conducted by trained specialists in an age-appropriate manner. They will recommend the physical exam depending on what they find as well.
If you suspect any child had been abused, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.