Towards a Better Understanding of Children's Sexual Behavior
Whether you're a parent or a teacher, you have probably noticed that children today seem to be expressing more complex and challenging sexual behaviors than children have in the past. With increasing regularity, child professionals are accumulating evidence that suggests that children (pre-pubertal) are not only displaying more sexual behavior, but are doing so at younger and younger ages. Some of these behaviors are precocious in nature; sexual behaviors that are typically associated only with adolescence. Others either occur with an unusually high frequency or are unnecessarily intrusive to others.
This increase in the sexual behavior of children should come as no surprise. We are after all, raising a generation of "super-sexualized" young people. Children around the country are being exposed to an onslaught of sexual messages that come at them with the speed of lightening, from all directions, and on an on-going and daily basis. These sexual messages are frequently very explicit, far too violent, awash in male dominant-female submissive images, heterosexist, and sensational. They can come from the print media, television and cable, movies and videos, music, the Internet, the child's neighborhood and home life, and even the White House (a la our past president).
Therefore it is not unreasonable to suggest that before a child reaches puberty, she or he has likely been exposed to thousands if not tens of thousands of sexual messages, many of which are incomprehensible and frightfully confusing. Unfortunately, substantial empirical evidence demonstrates that a majority of parents in the United States still do not communicate regularly or with enough effectiveness the sexual matters that pertain to their children. Likewise, schools in the U.S. have a general reluctance to tackle education pertaining to sex, with many sex education programs starting too late and lacking in sufficient detail.
The effects of increasing sexualization on children
We know that exposure to sexualized messages, particularly those that are incomprehensible, can have several effects on children.
- They can raise many questions and cause considerable confusion. Parents today are in the unenviable position of having to deal with certain sexual issues at earlier ages with their children than parents just ten years ago. For example, a parent came to me two years ago and said that her seven year old daughter asked her, "Did the President really have that lady kiss his private parts?"
- Excessive exposure to sexual messages can cause some children's typical curiosity about sex to become increasingly distorted, particularly when parents and adults fail to adequately intervene. All children are curious about things that are sexual. With continual exposure however, we know that there are some children who run the risk of becoming too preoccupied with sexual matters.
- Some children will act out the sexual messages they are exposed to. We have known for some time that children who have been sexually abused have a greater tendency to display sexualized behavior. We now believe the same can happen when children have been exposed or confronted with adult-like sexual behavior.
- Some children will utilize their sexualized behavior to hurt other children. Of the different effects that exposure to incomprehensible sexual messages can have on children, this one is the most troubling. If children are becoming increasingly sexualized, so are the bullies of the world. The sexualized bully easily learns to use his sexual behavior to intimidate others. He, and sometimes she, quickly comes to realize that the sexual transgression of another is both powerful and rewarding. This explains the apparent increase in coercive or hurtful sexual behavior between children.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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