But You Were Just a Kid!
As a Sex therapist, I encounter shame in my office probably more than any other human experience. It is not uncommon for people to hold deep shame about certain childhood experiences, specifically The kinds of experiences in which the individual crossed what adults would consider a sexual boundary one or more times in the name of exploration. This could include touching, kissing, "playing doctor," or doing a genital showandtell, among other things. This boundary is often crossed with someone that individual would never think of being sexual with as an adult, such as a neighbor, cousin, or even a sibling. What many do not realize is that the majority of these experiences are normal! And instead of accepting them as such, people develop deep shame and guilt.
Children play and explore in order to build an understanding of the world around them. These experiences are generally not sexually motivated, rather they are borne from a place of curiosity about their bodies and relationships. Young children do not have an understanding of sexuality in the same way as adults and are exploring to understand how it all fits into their world. So childhood "sexual" experiences are ways for children to continue to build their understanding of the world: why do adults touch each other like that? How does her/his genitals differ from my own? Why do people kiss each other like that? The gender of the individuals is also not a reflection of sexual orientation as these experiences are not about sexual attraction.
As stated, many people experience a great deal of shame and guilt about these experiences in their own past and are shaken if they discover their children experimenting in this way. They often feel these experiences are "dirty" or wrong, but the important thing to remember is that most people have had these experiences, and for most people they are developmentally appropriate at the time. They can be a great opportunity to open the lines of communication with our children about healthy sexuality and safe sexual boundaries if we discover them engaging in such behaviors. We can assess how they are thinking about their actions and help them set some clear healthy limits and boundaries appropriate for their age. It also gives us the opportunity to not shame them.
Some childhood sexual experiences, however, are not always normative, and child abuse is a serious and all too common occurrence. There are some things to think about that might shed light on whether or not these experiences were healthy or crossed the boundary into sexual abuse or problematic sexual behavior:
- The ages of the participants. Is there more than a 2 year age difference? Is one individual significantly more developmentally advanced regarding sex and sexuality and their understanding of them?
- The willingness of the participantsWas one child forced or manipulated into participating? Were they offered something in exchange for their participation? Or conversely were they threatened with a negative consequence if they did not participate?
- The types of play engaged in. Were the activities limited to things seen on television or witnessed that were PG (what might be shown in abbreviated form on television such as kissing or caressing, brief snippets of love scenes, or sharing and comparing body parts. Or were the activities more Xrated, begging the question of to what the children are being exposed such that they have knowledge of these sexual activities.
- How persistent is the behavior? Is it happening every time these children get together? Is a child engaging in this behavior with multiple children in different situations? Or was it an isolated incident?
The answers to these questions do not necessarily determine whether or not abuse has occurred, but they are meant to stimulate thought about the quality of those interactions. If any concerns arise about your own sexual history or your child's sexual behaviors, it may be helpful to seek therapy or counseling to help work through the issues or change some behaviors. For everyone else, try to let go of the shame attached to childhood sexual experiences because you are NORMAL!