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Sexually Reactive Child Versus Sexual Offender

It is extremely important that people--professionals and parents alike--understand the difference between a sexually reactive child and one who could be considered a sexual offender.

First and foremost, childhood sexuality begins very early in life, with some notable professionals stating as young as 12 months. Sex and sexuality are, to a large degree, learned behavior. Therefore, we must keep in mind that children will experiment with their sexuality and with sexual behavior towards other children. Children begin to learn about sex and sexuality from a diverse set of informational sources: television, parents, peers, music, self-exploration, babysitters, and so forth.

It is very important to understand the concept of presexualization. Presexualization refers to a child who has been sexualized prematurely in life. Nearly all of my adult and adolescent sex offender clients have been presexualized. Presexualization can take various forms: being overtly or covertly sexually abused, being exposed to pornography, and witnessing adult sexual behavior in the home are the most common forms of presexualization. Being presexualized, however, does not necessarily imply that the child is or will become a sexual offender! Rather, it may indicate that the child may act out what he/she has been exposed to. This is what we would call a sexually reactive child.

A sexually reactive child, for example, may be best illustrated in the following scenario. Tommy is a 9-year-old male, who was exposed to video pornography at the age of 3 onwards. Because his mother had a substance abuse problem, he would be cared for by his mother's sister. His aunt would have her boyfriends come over the house regularly, and would engage in sexual intercourse with the man on these occasions. Though the door to the bedroom was closed, Tommy, hearing strange noises, found a crack in the door and witnessed the sexual activity. At first Tommy felt very strange--he thought his aunt was being hurt at first--and he felt scared. After he witnessed the sexual activity a number of times, he began to feel what we may call "horny" or sexually excited. He began to masturbate at the age of 6 by rubbing his penis on pillows and against the bed. One day, when Tommy was 9, he was left alone for the day with his 8 year old female cousin. They began to play various games together. Tommy noticed a sexual scene on a television soap opera, and became sexually aroused. He then asked his cousin if she wanted to try something he had seen his aunt do in the past. The female cousin agreed, and Tommy got on top of her and began to "hump" her. While they were doing this, Tommy's aunt came in and witnessed what Tommy was doing. She was so upset and confused, that she phoned the police. The police entered a report, and Tommy and his aunt were referred to a sexual abuse/offender clinic in a nearby town.

Is Tommy sexually reactive, or a sexual offender? Many untrained people may erroneously state that Tommy is a sexual offender. He asked his cousin to partake in the activity. He initiated the activity. It appeared to be an advanced act of carnal knowledge.

Lets re-examine his story. Tommy was prematurely exposed to various sexual activity by witnessing his aunt having sex with numerous men, and by viewing pornography. At first he became scared, but then he become erotisized. He began to masturbate at a young age, most likely thinking about what he witnessed. The day of the incident, Tommy's sexual arousal was triggered by witnessing a love scene from a television program, and wanted to try what he had seen with his female cousin. No penetration occurred, and the act was unsophisticated.

Again, Tommy would be considered a sexually reactive child. If Tommy is treated like a "sex offender" by his family and by professionals, he will develop an increasingly higher level of shame over his behaviors and himself. This shame will not facilitate change for him, as he cannot understand that what he did was "wrong". This shame can affect Tommy's life in a number of disastrous long term ways.

Some of the differentiating signs between a sexually reactive child and a sexual offender are the following: did there appear to be a conscious knowledge of sex and sexual behavior, or was the behavior triggered by external stimuli?

How sophisticated was the incident? Did penetration occur? Was it a planned out offense? Did the child/adolescent have a goal in mind (i.e. ejaculation)?

How many times has the child/adolescent engaged in such behavior? Is this likely the first, second, or third incident, or has the child/adolescent exhibited this behavior for an extended period of time?

Does the child/adolescent make up a deliberate lie to cover their tracks, so to speak? Or does the child/adolescent appear greatly confused and ashamed over the incident?

Does the child/adolescent typically hang around with or associate themselves with children significantly younger than themselves (i.e. if Tommy was 9, are all his playmates 5 and 6?).

These are just a few of the differentiating data that may separate a sexually reactive child from a sexual offender.

It is extremely important to note that much of the shame and psychological damage that occurs--not only with child victims of sexual abuse, but also with sexually reactive children--stems from the reactionary behaviors of adults. For example, in Tommy's case, his aunt phoning the police may have created a significant trauma in his life, that may have created more problems and difficulties for him. Parents and adults should attempt to remain calm in the presence of the children, and phone a specialist or mental health professional immediately. Parents should talk to the child, without expressing anger, and inquire about where the child learned the behavior. During this time the parents should also discuss how many times this may have occurred. It would not be appropriate to punish, hit, or whoop the child, as the child may not have know what he/she was doing was wrong. This would only result in an intense level of shame which will carry over for years.