Childhood Sexuality

When Does Childhood Sexual Curiosity Cross the Line?

Our fascination with Lena Dunham’s did-she-or-didn’t-she story is just a part of a bigger parenting dilemma.

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From the minute they first ask us “where do babies come from?” parents spend a lot of time worrying about how to talk to our kids about sex. Mostly, we freak out at the idea of describing for our children what happens between adults (on those rare occasions we can actually get the bed to ourselves and have enough energy). But what about the sex lives of children? Can you even talk about children as sexual beings?

The internet has been blowing up this week with articles, Facebook posts, and tweets about Lena Dunham. Not about her well-documented penchant for semi-nudity, or her show’s dubious track record when it comes to portraying a realistically diverse New York. This time she’s in the news because of passages in her best-selling new memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, which chronicle her relationship with her younger sister, Grace, specifically whether what Lena describes in these pages constitutes sexual abuse. (For those who haven’t yet read about the controversy: Dunham describes trying to get her baby sister to kiss her, cajoling her, doing “anything a sexual predator might do,” as well as an incident at age 7, when Grace was just a toddler, when Lena closely examined her sister’s vagina.)

Sides have been taken, battle lines drawn. The debate has created strange bedfellows—friends I know are not neo-cons retweeting the original article published in the very neo-con Truth Revolt, for instance. People who already disliked Dunham for her narcissism and air of oblivious entitlement found those opinions confirmed. Some compare her to Woody Allen, whose alleged abuse of his daughter Dylan sparked a wave of revulsion and repudiation of his work last winter. Others wrote in defense—not necessarily of Dunham herself, but of the idea that childhood sexual exploration can be non-abusive, non-criminal, non-deviant. For her part, Dunham has cancelled some dates of her book tour, and reportedly threatened to sue. 

To be fair, for folks who don’t spend a ton of time online, this has all been kind of ignorable.

But it brings up an issue that transcends celebrity gossip and social media, one I think a lot of us have a hard time thinking about clearly when we become parents: How do children grow up to be sexually healthy adults? Where is the line between typical exploration and exploitation or abuse? What is “normal” and what is a red flag? And how is a parent to navigate it all without losing her damn mind?

Seeking some sanity, I turned to Debra Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister and sexuality educator. Haffner is the founder and director of The Religious Institute, which “advocates for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society.”

“What we know is that childhood sex play is very common; about half of adults remember engaging in it,” Haffner says. “There’s no data or research that says that the half of people who did are somehow harmed by it.” Furthermore, she adds, “sex play between siblings is not unusual.”

Haffner, whose books include From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children, says it’s important for parents who catch their child getting naked with another kid “not to freak out or yell. You don’t want to instill shame.” The reason kids play doctor, Haffner goes on, is mostly just intense curiosity about other people’s bodies (“That’s why they play doctor, not porn star,” she quips).

As I talk to Haffner, I find myself reminiscing about my own childhood fascination with sex and bodies. When I was in second grade, I had a club with my little brother and our friends that we called “The Afterschool Sex Club.” All we ever did was jump naked on the bed and then pee in a jar.

That same year, my best friend was a boy. Adam and I walked to school together, looked under rocks for snakes, and, one memorable time, stripped off our clothes to look at each other’s bodies. I remember thinking I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up, partly because I was so intensely curious about how everyone looked underneath their clothes. Adam’s mother caught us, of course, and literally ran me out of their house, screaming at me. I don’t remember feeling guilty at all.

As Haffner said, this is all pretty typical. “The reason we don’t see a lot of sex play with 6- to 9-year-olds is that they learn pretty early that it freaks adults out,” she said. “They don’t stop doing it, they just go underground.”

Dunham’s story feels a little different to me, and even though Haffner hadn’t heard about it, I found myself nodding as she ticked off the red flags: “If the children are more than three years apart. If one of the children is manipulating or being coercive to the other one.” And, she adds, “any kind of penetration is really unusual.”

I have no idea how much of Lena Dunham’s narrative is true, how much she tweaked it for purposes of shock or art or awe. She’s a writer, after all, and even though her book is shelved in nonfiction I know that doesn’t mean it’s unmediated (if only by the way our fallible human memories distort memory). But if it all went down the way she said, I do find it pretty disturbing. Not because children aren’t allowed or expected to explore themselves and one another sexually, but because of the age difference, the bullying, the lack of boundaries.

It reminded me of another story from my childhood.

When I was 12, a different best friend and I happened upon K., a girl we knew. She was babysitting a toddler boy who lived on the block. “Want to see something cool?” she asked us. Of course we did. She walked the little boy over to the side of the house, and we followed. Then K. pulled down his pants and diaper, put her hands on his penis, and rubbed it until he had an erection. My friend and I were aghast. I don’t remember what we said but the incident stuck with me for days. Later I told a table of girls at school about it (trying to curry favor with the popular kids by sharing something outrageous); K.’s family found out and blamed me for spreading rumors. I got into trouble. I have no idea what if anything they did or said to her, or to the boy’s parents. It didn’t occur to me until I was an adult to wonder if K. herself was the victim of abuse.

But here’s the thing: Babies are born into bodies that deserve to be respected and loved. As Haffner says, “Children as early as 2 or 3 should be learning that their body is theirs. That it feels good to touch parts of your own body. That nobody bigger, stronger, or older should be touching your penis, vulva, buttocks. And that if someone wants to touch you, you should say, ‘This is my body, and no one touches me without my permission,’ and you should tell somebody.”

It can take a lifetime to learn to claim your body, but one thing we can give our kids is a head start.


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