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1. Bonner, B.L., Walker, C.E., & Berliner, L., “Children with Sexual Behavior Problems: Assessment and Treatment,” National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, 2003.

2. Johnson, T.C. & Berry, C., “Children who molest: A treatment program,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 185-203.

3. Martinson, F.M., Infant and Child Sexuality: A Sociological Perspective, The Book Mark, 1973.

4. Martinson, F.M., The Sexual Life of Children, Bergin & Garvey, 1994.

5. Okami, P., “'Child Perpetrators of Sexual Abuse': The Emergence of a Problematic Deviant Category,” Journal of Sex Research, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 209-130, 1992.

6. Underwager, R. & Wakefield, H., “Antisexuality and Child Sexual Abuse,” Issues in Child Abuse Allegations, vol. 5, no. 2, 1993.

7. Young, A., “Sex Therapy 'Nightmare' Or Cure?”, Arizona Republic, July 26, 1992, Final edition, p. A1.

Ethical Treatment for All Youth
Email: etay@ethicaltreatment.org

About the author


Confusing social inappropriateness with violence

Certainly parents and society must teach children that the use of force or coercion in any behavior (sexual or not) is wrong. They also have the right to prohibit behavior which is socially inappropriate or indecent. However, these are two very different things. Unfortunately, when it comes to children's sexual behavior, they are commonly confused. The language of violence is routinely used to describe this behavior not because it is aggressive or forceful, but because it is morally or culturally unacceptable. Children are then given the worst possible labels in our society today: “perpetrators,” “sexually aggressive,” “children who molest,” and “offenders.”

“[There is a] consistent tendency among the writers under discussion here to conflate what they term 'abnormal,' 'unusual,' or 'inappropriate' sexual behaviors with 'abusive,' 'molestation,' 'victimizing,' or 'perpetration' behaviors. All of these terms are used virtually interchangeably within the articles under review. Thus, children are described as 'perpetrators of sexual abuse' if they demonstrate 'developmentally inappropriate' sexual behaviors that are 'outside of normal limits'...According to Johnson, only 23% of her sample of 'child perpetrators' used force...Definitions of 'child perpetrators of sexual abuse' based on such criteria may encompass a formidable number of children and activities.”5
--Researcher Paul Okami

“Johnson applies the label of 'child perpetrator' to children as young as 4 and, in some cases, when the 'perpetrator' is younger than the 'victim.' Others with this view include Cantwell (1988), who gives examples of a 6-year-old and a 7-year-old child perpetrator, and Hartman and Burgess (1988), who label a 4-year-old boy an offender and abuser...Haugaard (1990) notes that there is no justification for labeling mutually enjoyable sex play as sexually abusive and for labeling one or both of the children as an abuser. But this is happening. Young children may be sentenced to therapy programs or to various forms of detention.”6
--Psychologists Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield

One group of influential writers defines sexually aggressive children as those who engage in “significant or prolonged contact resulting in completion of a sexual act such as oral sex, vaginal or anal penetration, mutual masturbation, and similar behaviors,” even when the behavior is not actually coercive.1 Such inappropriate behavior can be prohibited without using language that misleads others into thinking that these children are dangerously violent.

Assuming that age or size differences imply coercion

Certainly sexual behavior among children of different ages, sizes, or amounts of sexual knowledge carries a potential for exploitation. However, children frequently play with younger or older friends and siblings, and to them, sexual interaction may seem no different from other kinds of interaction.

“In sex, as in most other aspects of life, the older [children] teach the younger. In the vast majority of cases such encounters are with someone close to the child...it most often involves fondling or oral relations; attempted intercourse is relatively uncommon. If intercourse is attempted, it is often of an exploratory nature and becomes part of the initiator's learning experience rather than being highly purposeful, aggressive or violent...3
Given the constant, close, intimate interaction of siblings, it is understandable that a certain amount of sex play occurs between them. Some of it grows out of their great liking for each other...But, alas, not all sibling sexual play is so innocent or remembered pleasantly, especially if there is a marked difference in ages between the siblings.”4
--Researcher Floyd Martinson

That is, while older or more powerful children sometimes do coerce younger children, age and size differences do not always mean the behavior is coercive. It is one thing to protect children from exploitation by other children. It is quite another to assume that all cases of interaction between children of different ages or sizes are exploitive. This is true for non-sexual behavior as well, but the distinction is frequently disregarded in the case of sexual behavior. For example, sexual behavior is commonly defined as abusive when coercion is absent but there is “an age differential of at least two years for children 9 years or older. The age differential in younger children may be less.”2

The problem, of course, is that children do not evaluate the age of a friend or sibling against a sliding scale of age differences before they decide to engage in sex play.

“The parents thought they were doing the right thing. They had found out that their two sons, then 13 and 11, had 'experimented with oral sex'...The father said, 'Since (the older brother) was so much bigger, [therapists] thought he must be the aggressor and (the younger brother) was the victim. That's the only way they would look at it." Therapists would not accept the younger boy's denials that he had been forced into oral sex, the father said."7
--Journalist Alison Young

Actual aggression

The above is not meant to imply that all or most childhood sexual behavior labeled as abusive is harmless sex play.  Certainly there are children who engage in unacceptable behavior that hurts (sometimes severely) other people.  There are two important points here.  First, a distinction should be made between sexual behavior that is purposely harmful and aggressive, and that which is not (but may be socially inappropriate, distasteful, or risky).  Secondly, even when sexual behavior is aggressive, it should be dealt with humanely and rationally.  When children fight or hurt each others' feelings in non-sexual ways, we are not so quick to label them as disordered criminals.

“...whereas it is true that aggressive, unwanted peer sexual contacts in childhood exist and such contacts may have negative consequences for a child, there is no evidence to suggest that such harm differs quantitatively from that resulting from the host of unhappy peer interactions to which most children seem destined to be exposed. Thus, there is no defensible rationale for treating sexual "crimes" committed by young children differently from other childhood "crimes" against property or person. For example, currently, young children are not held responsible in a criminal sense for "felonies" and "misdemeanors" such as vehicle theft (e.g., taking each others' Big Wheels), assault (e.g., striking or biting each other, placing each other in painful wrestling holds), [or] assault with a deadly weapon (e.g., poking each other with sharp sticks or scissors or throwing rocks at each other)...”5
--Researcher Paul Okami


The following common beliefs are unsupported or contradicted by research:

  • that there is a certain amount of sexual knowledge, behavior, and thoughts that normal children exhibit,

  • that children who exceed this amount have been sexually abused and/or are psychologically disturbed,

  • that normal children do not interact sexually with other children who differ in age or size,

  • that indecent or socially inappropriate behavior is necessarily aggressive, abusive, and harmful,

  • that without treatment, children who engage in indecent or socially inappropriate sexual behavior will grow up to be violent sex criminals.

The use of the language of violence to describe the behavior of children due solely to its sexual nature is a form of doublespeak that misleads one about the actual nature of these children and their acts, and encourages fear rather than understanding. The logical result is criminal prosecution.

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