As much as we may not want to admit it, the content on television has profound impact on society. We welcome people on TV into our homes weekly and sometimes, in fact, we feel like the people on the shows are part of our family. So, when people recently started to “forgive” and make excuses for a reality TV star who admitted to molesting his sisters as a 14-year-old boy, I was not surprised, but I certainly had a lot of other feelings as a Bethesda MD family therapist: sadness for the victims whose “wounds” are not even addressed as well as fear and concern for the many people who have experienced molestation and whose experiences were invalidated by the quick attempt to sweep this incident under the rug.
This is not to say that we should not forgive people for past wrongs – and I hope that they have all received appropriate counseling – but we also have a responsibility to not send the message that this was okay. The question looms for me of whether people really understand what is normal and what is not normal sex play. This is not a topic people feel comfortable talking openly about which often leads to ignorance and, in fact, I saw some excusing the behavior as that of a 14-year-old boy being a 14-year-old boy. I want all people who are feeling shame and not sure if what they experienced was okay or their fault to have their experience validated. And I want parents to understand normal v. abnormal sex play and how to appropriately respond so all parties involved are given the attention and protection that they need. According to Dr. Sears:
Normal Sex Play:
- Children are young (under age seven), close in age, and know each other.
- There is mutual agreement; one child is not forcing the other.
- There is usually a game-like atmosphere: playing “doctor” or “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
- Secrecy is part of the game. As if sensing their parents would disapprove, children retreat into a bedroom, garage, or a private place. (This is true for deviant acts as well.)
- One child entices or forces the other into sex play.
- There is an age difference of more than three years between children.
- The sex play is not appropriate: for example, oral-genital contact between a six-year-old and a three-year-old.
- The event occurs more than once despite your careful intervention and supervision. These are grounds to protect your child from another by terminating the friendship. If the sex play is between siblings, seek professional help.
- One child has been threatened to keep it a secret.
Upon discovering normal sex play, parents are advised to remain calm, suggest a new activity, and have an honest talk about the appropriateness of sex play with your child(ren). Convey to them that it is normal to be curious about the human body, but certain parts of the body are private and should remain so. Your goal is to help your child develop a healthy understanding and confidence about their bodies, but also to develop the appropriate level of modesty and confident boundaries concerning their private parts.
When abnormal or inappropriate sex play or contact is discovered between children, parents’ course of action must necessarily be different. Professional help should be sought for the victimizer as well as for the victim. Both children need to understand that the behavior is not appropriate, and why–and the way in which this is done has huge implications for the message that each will take away from the incident. Understanding what is going on for the victimizer at home, school, and in other relevant environments is vitally important, because you will need to understand whether the victimizer is repeating behaviors that s/he has observed (possibly as the victim) in other relationships.
Questions? The National Sexual Abuse Hotline is available 24 hours a day online (www.safehelpline.org) or via telephone (877-995-5247).
Dr. Sears website: http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/child-rearing-and-development/sexuality/genital-play-whats-normal-whats-not
Lindsey Hoskins & Associates provides family, couple, and individual therapy in downtown Bethesda, MD. Please contact us via telephone or email to discuss how we might be helpful to you!