Our society has become a cesspool of sexualization and the minimization of sexualization. The aim of sexualization is typically the commercialization of product or trade. Sexualization goes beyond the borders of Hollywood and Bollywood. Sexualization ensues the very fabric of our human collective consciousness. It has become acceptable to see a young girl or boy dressed in unacceptable clothing. A societal challenge occurs when we try to define acceptable verses unacceptable. What is appropriate clothing verses inappropriate? Who do we choose to define what sexualization is and is not? Who do we appoint to mandate such a form of appropriateness? Who do we appoint the guardian of our children? Finally, is sexualization an issue or are we trying to fuel a fire that has no kindling?
Defining a healthy form of sexualization verses an unhealthy form of sexualization is a difficult challenge. “There are several components to sexualization, and these set it apart from healthy sexuality. (Negative) Sexualization occurs when
- a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
- a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.” (APA, 2012, Online)
What is a healthy form of sexualization? Is there such a form? Is all sexualization inappropriate and unbecoming of our humanity? When we speak of a healthy sexualization, we are speaking of the awareness and clarification of one’s sex and sexuality. “It can be hard to acknowledge that all of us, even children, are sexual beings, have sexual feelings and are curious about sex and sexuality. Children’s curiosity can lead to exploring their own and each other’s body parts by looking and touching.” (StopItNow, 2012, Online)
A child’s personal development is a part of their sexualization. Learning who they are, why they think, do, and behave in particular ways is core to their development. A child’s sexual development should be encouraged from a healthy perspective. A child should never be made a symbol of an unhealthy perspective. Children should never be forced to engage in inappropriate sexual conduct. They should never be made to wear clothing that is risque or revealing of their youthful innocent.
To understand appropriate verses inappropriate sexualization. We need to understand appropriate verses inappropriate sexual behaviors. “…There are sexual behaviors about which we should be concerned, (that) are worrisome, and should not be ignored or seen as child’s play. Other sexual behaviors are more serious and may be dangerous to the child and others. …When a child engages in sexual behaviors, it can be difficult to decide when the behavior is natural and healthy, and when it may reflect a problem or disturbance. The normative behaviors of childhood and adolescence are of concern when they are extensive or suggest preoccupation, or involve others in ways that are not consensual. Sexual behaviors in children present a special concern when they appear as prominent features in a child’s life, or when sexual play or behaviors are not welcomed by other children involved in the play. This is the point at which sexually harmful and aggressive behaviors most closely and clearly hinges.” (Rich, 2012, Online)
There are age appropriate sexual behaviors. For a child of 0 to 6, normal sexual behaviors may include:
- Touching or rubbing genitals his / her genitals
- The desire to view or touch peer or new sibling genitals
- Showing genitals his/her genitals to others
- Pretending to be a mommy or daddy
- Standing or sitting too close
- Pretending to be a doctor or nurse
- Kissing or holding hands
- Children who are exploring his / her body (e.g. masturbation)
- Inclination to peek or view others that are nude
- Behaviors that mimic parents level of intimacy
Other sexual behaviors for young children which are normal, but should be monitored for appropriateness, consistency, frequency, and persistence are:
- Children who insist on masturbating beyond a parent’s request for it to stop.
- Rubbing his / her body against others
- Touching the private parts of another child or adult
- Crude mimicking of movements associated with sexual acts
- Sexual behaviors that are occasionally, but persistently, disruptive to others
- Chronic and persistent peeping behaviors.
- Behaviors that mimic television programming, commercials, or movies. Children do not have to be watching a program, to pick up a single glimpse of a program. Children have a knack for picking up even the slightest of a sexual act.
- Trying to insert tongue in another’s mouth while kissing
Sexual behaviors that are abnormal for young children include:
- Any sexual behaviors that involve children who are 4 or more years apart
- Sexual behaviors displayed frequently, consistently, and repeatedly. Especially if these behaviors are being displayed on a daily basis.
- Any behavior that is inconsistent with the child’s personality or known form of play.
- Sexual behavior that results in emotional distress or physical pain
- Persistent sexual behaviors that are physically aggressive in nature
- Sexual behaviors that involve coercion, pressure, intimidation, or manipulation
- Behaviors are persistent and child becomes angry if distracted
- Children who act out anal or vaginal penetration with objects through some form of play.
- Sexual behaviors that are forceful or acts of domination over another.
- Children who are sexually provocative in their play; simulating sex with another child or adult.
- Any behaviors that are deviant that depart from usual or acceptable standards associated with sex, sexuality, or sexual intimacy.
(AAP, 2012; CASA, 2012; DECD, 2012; Rich, 2012; AAMFT, 2012; University of Southern Maine, 2006)
Many times children who display inappropriate sexual behaviors live in homes defined by family dysfunction and high stress. Poor health, crime, and/or violence may be present in the home and disruptive to a child’s normal, healthy sexual development. The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that adult violence in the home is “strongly linked to abuse, neglect, and sexual behavior problems in children.” (Kellogg, 2012, Online)
While the types of sexually appropriate behaviors and knowledge change as the child matures; the primary foundations of appropriateness remain the same throughout the life of a child. Any child who has a persistent preoccupation with sex, sexual behaviors, sexual acts, or sexual language may be nonverbally communicating a major concern. It is prudent that all abnormal behaviors be addressed. Be certain not to be accusatory; do not assume or suggest that someone may have harmed your child. On the flip side, do not assume that your child’s deviance is acceptable. Always be certain to address any abnormal or unusual behaviors with a healthcare professional (e.g. counselor, psychotherapist, psychologist).
Consult a practitioner of counseling, psychotherapy, or psychology if you are concerned about your child’s sexual behaviors, attitudes, or perceptions. Sexual behaviors, play, and intrigue in the young are not inappropriate. Avoid treating your child’s sexual discovery as an unhealthy act, but monitor your child’s sexual behaviors ensuring that they are not indicators of something more than sexual discovery of their personal sexuality.
Authors: Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., N.C.C.M. and Ashly Cochran, MHR
American Academy of Pediatrics, AAP (2012) Preventing sexual violence, An educational toolkit for health care professionals. Retrieved December 12, 2012 from http://www2.aap.org/pubserv/PSVpreview/pages/behaviorchart.html
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, AAMFT (2012) When your adolescent acts out sexually. Retrieved December 12, 2012 from http://www.aamft.org/imis15/content/consumer_updates/When_Your_Adolescent_Acts_Out_Sexually.aspx
American Psychological Association Task Force, APA (2012) Report of the APA Task Force on the sexualization of girls. Retrieved November 25, 2012 from http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report.aspx
Center Against Sexual Assault, CASA (2012) Age appropriate sexual behavior guide. Retrieved December 12, 2012 from http://www.secasa.com.au/pages/age-appropriate-sexual-behaviour-guide/
Department of Education and Children’s Services, DECD (2012) Responding to problem sexual behavior in children and young people; Guidelines for staff in education and care settings. Retrieved December 12, 2012 from http://www.decd.sa.gov.au/docs/documents/1/RespondingtoProblemSexual.pdf
Kellogg, N. D. (2012) The evaluation of sexual behaviors in children. American Academy of Pediatrics Journal Retrieved December 7, 2012 from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/124/3/992.full
Rich, P. (2012) Recognizing healthy and unhealthy sexual development in children. Minnesota Department of Human Services, MN ADAPT Retrieved December 5, 2012 from http://www.mnadopt.org/Factsheets/Recognizing%20Healthy%20&%20Unhealthy%20Sexual%20Development%20in%20Children.pdf
Stop It Now (2012) Age-appropriate sexual behavior. Retrieved December 5, 2012 from http://www.stopitnow.org/age_appropriate_sexual_behavior
University of Southern Maine (2006) Working with children exhibiting sexual behavior problems Washington edition participant guide. Retrieved December 12, 2012 from http://www.dshs.wa.gov/pdf/ca/SAYguide.pdf
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA