There’s an uncomfortable question lurking in many parents’ minds, yet few are asking it. That question, covered in layers of uncertainty and shame, is one that needs to be addressed. Is it truly normal for siblings and childhood friends to engage in experimental sexual play with one another? At what point does it cross over from curious kids to sexual abuse?
Sex play, defined as any interaction between children that mimicks sexual behavior, including kissing, touching, or other more explicit acts, is often mentioned in hushed tones between adult family members as “natural and “normal,” yet rarely is it discussed outside of the confines of home. This leads to a strange taboo that has parents too embarrassed to ask professionals if this behavior is indeed “normal.”
In 2014, shortly after the release of Lena Dunham’s memoir Not That Kind of Girl, in which she wrote about sexually charged experiences with her younger sister, Dunham was slammed by critics for openly admitting to what they claimed was sexual abuse. Dunham and her sister denied the accusations, but the fury opened the door for people to finally begin discussing this sensitive issue. Is the behavior, from a psychological standpoint, actually normal at all, or something more troubling?
To understand this more clearly, SheKnows spoke with child and adolescent family therapist Darby Fox, who has more than 20 years of experience providing individual and group therapy for families, children and young adults.
SheKnows: How common is sex play between children?
Darby Fox: Sexual play is not common. Touching and acting out a kiss is very normal. Most children go through a time where they play as Mom and Dad or curiously explore, but sex play is not normal.
SK: Is sex play between children and siblings normal, or something parents should be concerned about?
DF: Curiosity about anatomy is normal, but it is very important to establish boundaries regarding privacy at the earliest age possible. Parents need to be very clear about touching someone else’s private parts or having their own bodies touched. Siblings do not need to touch each other in any way that could be deemed sexual, ever.
SK: What should a parent do if they discover their child is engaging or has engaged in sex play?
DF: If a parent discovers their children engaging in any kind of sexual play, they first need to stop them and find out where they learned the behavior they are imitating. It needs to be stopped, and you must explain why what they’re doing is not allowed. Your children should quickly move on to something else. If it is repeated, you need to explore further what their fascination is. It is important to enlist the help of a professional if the behavior persists. You do not want to take the chance of a child exerting pressure on a younger child or sibling. This is a dangerous slope. Parents should be very clear about the boundaries.
SK: Is there a difference between sex play and sexual abuse?
DF: Again, let’s be clear: Sex play should not exist. No child should be engaging in this type of behavior. Sexual acts are not “play.” Curiosity about anatomy, playing doctor or hugging like boyfriend and girlfriend is normal, but your children should not know what sex is at the age they are engaging in imitative play. This is not normal or OK. Sex play is a form of sexual abuse because it is not appropriate to explore in this way before puberty sets in and we become sexual beings. If it is taking place, it is likely that pressure is being put on someone to participate, and that is not acceptable. Sexual abuse is any form of sexual behavior that one is coerced into by another and can be mild or extreme.
SK: Does this experience traumatize children or cause lasting harm?
DF: Yes, it can be quite harmful, and because a child doesn’t understand sex or the responses they may be having, it likely becomes suppressed and surfaces later when they are in real, age-appropriate, intimate relationships. It is very serious and can have very far-reaching effects.
When a child is exposed to sexual behavior before they are mentally or physically ready, they will likely not understand the full implications of the acts they are so keen to imitate. It’s OK to talk about this behavior, and more important, it’s crucial that parents address it with their children and possibly a qualified mental health professional so they can work on helping the child process their experiences and move forward.