Sexually Active Tots … Trend or Hype?

mama-to-mama111This morning I heard a report estimating that more than half of our children will engage in sexual behavior before their 13th birthday. WHAT? I’m not easily shocked, but this one floored me, so I decided to go to the source and read the report they cited that was published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Not all was as it seems. The study, conducted by Nancy Kellogg, a Texas pediatrician, set out to distinguish between normal, healthy sexual curiosity in children and more worrisome displays of sexual behavior. The article outlined the differences between common activities in young children that are to be expected, like looking at or touching a peer’s genitals, and others that are rarely normal and largely inappropriate, like intrusive and blatant sexual acting out.

The stated purpose was to help parents and caregivers know what’s normal and what’s not, so they can avoid overreacting to developmentally expected play, and take note of what SHOULD raise a red flag.

The article makes a correlation between sexual abuse and sexual behavior in children. The report cites research that found that 68 percent of children with sexual behavior problems witnessed intimate partner violence between caregivers, and an analysis of sexually abused children found that 28 percent exhibited inappropriate sexual behavior.

As for normal sexual curiosity, it happens more frequently in preschool-age children, is transient, and is easily redirected by parents. Girls are as likely as boys to engage in sexual exploration, and the behavior typically tapers off after age 5.

“Younger children are less aware of breaches in personal space and how their behavior may be construed as sexual or inappropriate,” the report said. Finally, the study did NOT show an increase in overtly sexual behavior historically over time.

So why the sensational, alarming headline that was so surprising to me in the first place? Several reasons come to mind.

Shocking headlines draw eyeballs, just as this one did mine. Was there an intent to mislead? I can’t say, but this type of thing has become so commonplace in our media … does anyone really notice or object anymore?

Then there’s our culture’s obsession — that’s not too strong a word — with childhood sexuality. Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Miley Cyrus quickly come to mind, and have you peeked in on an elementary school playground recently? We love our precocious daughters, and the sooner they start to dress up as if to say “come and get me”, the more we seem to like it.

Should we be surprised, then, when the media responds to an important and legitimate child health report with a serious misrepresentation? No, not surprised, but saddened and appalled.

So read on if you’d like the real deal about what Dr. Kellogg and her colleagues discovered:

Normal versus worrisome sexual behavior:

  • Normal, common sexual behavior in children ages 2 to 6: Touching or masturbating, viewing or touching a peer’s or sibling’s genitals, showing genitals to a peer and trying to view peer or adult nudity — all behaviors that are transient, few and distractable.
  • Less common but still normal behaviors: Rubbing against others, touching a peer or adult’s genitals and crude mimicking of movements associated with sexual acts. Behaviors may be disruptive to others, are transient and “moderately responsive to distraction.”
  • Uncommon behaviors observed in normal children: Explicit imitations of intercourse, asking a peer or adult to engage in specific acts and inserting objects into genitals. Such behaviors merit further assessment to rule out sexual abuse.
  • Rarely normal behaviors in children ages 2 to 6: Behaviors that involve children who are four years or more apart in age, are displayed on a daily basis, result in emotional distress or physical pain, include coercion or physical aggression, are persistent, and when the child becomes angry if distracted. These behaviors require immediate and effective intervention, the report said.

Source: The Evaluation of Sexual Behaviors in Children, Pediatrics

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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One response to “Sexually Active Tots … Trend or Hype?”

  1. elefeminate

    I’d like to add: have you watched the Disney Channel lately? It seems like most of their shows contain some kind of “coupling” of boys and girls. My 6 year old is starting to think that boyfriends are necessary.

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