As a clinical psychologist and a mom of three, I feel it is so important to understand what constitutes sexual abuse and what is normal childhood behavior.
t Lena Dunham is all over the news for allegedly molesting her younger sister. Dunham was 7 and her sister was 1 during the episodes, which she recounts in her memior Not That Kind of Girl:
t “As [Grace] grew, I took to bribing her for her time and affection: one dollar in quarters if I could do her makeup like a ‘motorcycle chick.’ Three pieces of candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds. Whatever she wanted to watch on TV if she would just ‘relax on me.’ Basically, anything a sexual predator might to do woo a small suburban girl I was trying.”
t “‘One day, as I sat in our driveway in Long Island playing with blocks and buckets, my curiosity got the best of me. Grace was sitting up, babbling and smiling, and I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn’t resist and when I saw what was inside I shrieked.
t My mother came running. ‘Mama, Mama! Grace has something in there!’
t My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina. This was within the spectrum of things I did. She just got on her knees and looked for herself. It quickly became apparent that Grace had stuffed six or seven pebbles in there. My mother removed them patiently while Grace cackled, thrilled that her prank had been a success.”
t From these excerpts, it seems likely that the 7-year-old Dunham’s behavior was within the range of normal childhood sexual exploration. Parents of siblings frequently witness older children trying to get affection from their baby siblings, including kisses on the lips and hugs. My own girls, 3 and 4, fight over who gets to feed their baby brother, 1. They also like to give him hugs and kisses.
t Children who undress or bathe together frequently are curious about each other’s genitals. Dunham’s child molester analogy was unfortunate, in light of the interpretations made about her behavior, but it does not indicate that her behavior was abusive. Her curiosity about her sister’s genitals and uterus was developmentally appropriate. Many children “play doctor” and “practice kissing.” Dunham also shared her discovery about Grace’s vagina with her mother, which is not consistent with an abuse interpretation, as abusers tend to want their behaviors to be secret.
t However, there is a message to be gained from sharing this story, and I feel it has to do with the role of parents in sexual education. An older sister showing her mother that her baby sister has pebbles in her vagina may have been a good opportunity for the mother to discuss that it is inappropriate for children to touch or look at each other’s private parts. Children’s curiosity is completely normal, but it is up to parents to guide children to develop appropriate boundaries and knowledge of what is public and private.The important thing to learn from this is that parents cannot just think that children “know” what is appropriate or not in terms of sexual exploration with siblings or even friends. An atmosphere of open, direct discussion about sex and boundaries is essential for children to develop healthy sexuality.
t If children engage in other, more adult types of sexual behavior, such as mimicking sex, making sexual noises, or forcing other children into sex acts, this may be a red flag for parents that children may have been exposed to inappropriate sexual behaviors, either by peers or adults. A child should be gently asked where they learned these behaviors, and closely supervised and monitored for any other changes in behavior. A rule of thumb is: if a child’s behaviors resemble adult sexual behaviors, there may be an issue. And as always, parental involvement and education about what are appropriate and healthy sexual boundaries is key to helping your child understand their developing sexual identity.
tPhoto credit: Stuart C. Wilson/Stringer/Getty Images