The sexual behavior of many children is downright abusive

March 17, 1997

Sexual behavior of some children goes beyond “playing doctor” and is downright abusive

ANN ARBOR—Despite a dearth of research on children who sexually abuse other children, the problem is very real and is just now receiving increased attention, says a University of Michigan researcher.

“Historically, many clinicians and researchers have denied or ignored the capability of youth and children to be sexually aggressive and abusive toward other children,” says David L. Burton, U-M assistant professor of social work. “While there has been much focus on abuse of children by adults, there has been little discussion on the problem of children sexually abusing other children.

“The children we are talking about are not ‘playing doctor’ or engaging in other healthy developmental explorations. We are speaking of severely aggressive children who may be raping other children.”

In a study appearing in the current issue of the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, Burton and colleagues Andrea Nesmith and Lorri Badten identify normal and abnormal sexual behavior among children 12 and under.

Behaviors such as touching one’s own genitals and having an interest in viewing others’ bodies are normal, while acts such as genital kissing, frequent public masturbation, and penetration with a body part or other object into an orifice of another child are abnormal, Burton says.

According to his study of treatment providers nationwide who gave data on 287 sexually aggressive children, about 72 percent of the child offenders, themselves, were victims of sexual abuse. Nearly 69 percent of the children in the study were assessed as feeling that their sexually abusive behavior was not normal or appropriate.

Although sexually aggressive children in the sample were not generally seen by clinicians until they were 11 or 12 years old, the first evidence of sexually offensive behavior, on average, was discovered when the children were in the 4-6 year age-range, Burton says.

“The children with known sexual abuse histories were younger at the first sign of sexual aggression than those children who had not been sexually abused,” he adds. “Children under 6 years of age were more likely to perceive their sexually aggressive behavior as normal than older children.”

The study also found that nearly two-thirds of the child sexual offenders lived in a two-parent (biological, step, adoptive or foster) home; 70 percent lived with at least one chemically dependent caretaker; nearly half had at least one parent who was known to have been sexually abused; and about half lived in families with annual household incomes of less than

“There is little doubt that the sexual perpetrator’s family life plays a significant role in the development of children’s understanding of appropriate sexual behavior,” Burton says. “If children are not taught proper sexual behavior and are rewarded for sexual behavior that is aggressive and inappropriate for their age, they may learn to regard this as normal and worthwhile.”

U-M News and Information Services University of Michigan

U-M News and Information ServicesUniversity of Michigan