When the abuser is five…
When the Abuser is Five…
By Melanie Blow
A five-year-old boy pulled his pants down in the playground of his elementary school. In and of itself, this is not newsworthy. Anyone who has spent time with five-year-olds realizes they don’t have the sense of modesty that older children do, but they usually have mastered the social norms of leaving their clothes on while in public. A quick read of this story makes it look like a sadistic school is over-reacting to a child displaying their innocence along with their backside. The child now has the indelible documentation of “sexual misconduct” in his permanent record- a record he cannot even read yet. It all sounds utterly horrible.
Do I think this young boy committed an act of sexual misconduct? No. But, children his age and even younger do every day. About 40% of child sexual abuse is committed by minors. Some of those minors are 17 years and eleven months old, and they practice the same grooming behaviors that adults like Jerry Sandusky and Jimmy Savile did. But some of them are very young children. When Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) survivor support groups were a big part of my life, one of the most severely traumatized survivors I met had been sexually abused by her slightly-younger sister. The abuser was three. I have been assured by experts in the field that there is nothing record-worthy about this story.
When I teach about child-to-child sexual abuse, I often get a strong reaction from audience members. Some of it goes like “when I was a kid we ‘played doctor’ and we turned out just fine”. I think they’re worried I’ll tell them they ruined someone’s life before they were old enough to read. Children are curious about each other’s bodies, but children also normally want to please people, have fun, and see what the world has to offer. If given the opportunity, young children of similar age will sometimes look at or touch another child’s genitals. This does not worry clinicians. What does worry them is when 1) there is a major difference in age, physical size or developmental ability between the children 2) if there is force, coercion or manipulation 3) if one child seems traumatized or upset by the experience 4) if the child performing the act continues performing it once they are told not to and redirected and 5) the actual act that the child was performing. Looking at or touching another child’s genitals is not terribly worrisome- insertion of objects, simulation of sex acts or deliberate infliction of pain is much more so.
Looking at this story through the lens above, Eric’s behavior doesn’t seem alarming. He wasn’t even looking at or touching anyone- he pulled his pants down after he was asked to. And to an expert, therein lies the problem. Supposedly, he was asked by a peer to remove his pants and the other child said if he didn’t, the other child would remove them himself. That part is extremely upsetting-it counts as force, coercion or manipulation.
Why do little kids sexually abuse other kids? This question is as complex and nuanced as its counterpart about adults. But one safe generalization is that children, particularly young ones, rarely engage in this behavior unless they have experienced it, as a victim, witness or forced into the role of aggressor. In the mind of the child who told Eric to undress, it’s OK to force another child to undress- that was implied in the threat. Saying “no” doesn’t matter. It’s probably a good thing for Eric that the teacher intervened when they did- that intervention may have saved the boy from a trauma that would affect him for the rest of his life. The school did a terrible job from that moment forward, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but it was a good that they stopped the interaction. Not all adults who sexually abuse children were sexually abused themselves as children, and under no circumstances should someone conclude that a child sex abuse survivor is destined to become a sexual predator. Children who sexually abuse other children don’t necessarily become adults who sexually abuse children, and most adults who sexually abuse children didn’t start their abusive behavior until the onset of puberty. To try to make these distinctions clear, the term “sexually reactive” is used to describe abusive sexual behavior in a pre-pubescent child, and I’ll use that term for the rest of this article.
Sexually reactive children can be helped when adults recognize that their behaviors are harmful and give them appropriate help. Unfortunately, none of that seems to have happened here. As reported in this article, Eric’s behaviors were not sexually reactive, but the behavior of the child who told him to undress likely was. So before they have entered first grade, two little boys have learned a very ugly truth about society- we like to blame victims for their victimization, and we rarely hold abusers accountable. Ostensibly, a school should have a slightly different policy for dealing with inappropriate sexual behavior from a small child than it would coming from a teenager. A pre-pubescent child experiencing sexually reactive behavior needs help. The disciplinary process Eric received sounds ridiculous, but since at no point was a psychologist, a CSA advocate or CPS consulted, it was also useless. Schools need to be careful about notifying parents when they suspect a child is being sexually abused, as most CSA happens within a child’s family. However, in an appropriate investigation, the parents should have learned that 1) there is concern that their child was sexually abused, you or a member of your family is implicated, and here’s what you must do to ensure the child’s safety or 2) there was concern that your child was sexually abused. Right now we don’t think that happened, but we took the following steps and we want you to watch out for the following signs.
When an adult sexually abuses a child, we hope they get arrested, convicted and punished. This serves a few purposes- it forces the abuser to take accountability for their actions, and it eliminates their access to victims for a period of time. After their release, they likely will have the label “sex offender” attached to their name. This is another consequence, and it is another tool that theoretically limits their access to victims. Putting the label “sexual misconduct” into the permanent file of a five-year-old accomplishes none of that. And, as I mentioned earlier, nothing was done to the child with the truly troubling behavior.
We use the euphemism “adult” to mean “sexual” a lot in our society. It is normal for us to be upset when we see five-year-olds engaging in such “adult” behaviors, particularly when we realize that these behaviors inflict lifelong harm on other children. But when adults who are entrusted with children’s well-being don’t learn the facts about child sexual development and abuse, and take the easy way out rather than do the right thing, they’re simply being childish. And that’s a lot more destructive.