The problem at hand and purpose of the book

Children’s displays of harmful sexual behaviour in education settings is a relatively new phenomenon. Its emergence has thrust educators and education departments into a position in which they must respond appropriately and effectively to support the child and other affected children, whilst also preventing the problem from recurring or escalating. So far, there has been only limited research into children’s harmful sexual behaviour, particularly in educational settings. This book draws on national and international research to examine the prevalence of harmful sexual behaviour, before looking at the evidence-based risks and impacts of harmful sexual behaviour on younger children. It then moves to highlight Australian educators’ legal and professional responsibilities towards children. Educators’ understanding in this area is essential for them to work collaboratively with children, their families, and health professionals to support all children, whilst positioning children’s wellbeing and education at the forefront of their practice. Early detection and timely intervention arc imperative in order to support children and reduce potential impacts. This book draws on psychological, sociological, legal, and educational perspectives to support professionals involved in the wellbeing and education of children to understand, manage, and reduce dysfunctional sexual development in young children.

This introductory chapter begins by discussing historical perspectives of ‘childhood innocence’ before moving to the contemporary understanding that children are sexual beings. It discusses attitudes about children’s displays of sexual behaviour, cultural change, and the social issues that play a role in the rise of harmful sexual behaviour. It provides a brief description of the problem at hand and the need for this book for educators and other professionals whose work involves supporting the w'cllbeing of children. It then provides a brief outline of each of the chapters.

Historical influences on the construction of children as sexual beings

Over the centuries, changes in ideologies, economies, and technology have affected considerable shifts in how children and childhood have been viewed. As far back as records have been retained, there have been debates and differences in beliefs about children and childhood. Views expressed by social historian Philippe Aries suggest that ‘childhood’ was a social construct that developed in the late seventeenth century. Before the 1800s, children older than 7 years were seen as miniature adults (Archard 1993; Bullough 2004). This view was reflected in dress codes and expectations for children to contribute to the family and the economy (Sice & Schute 2003).

Western perspectives on children as sexual beings have shifted throughout the centuries. These have been largely influenced by life expectancy, views surrounding puberty and entry to reproductive adulthood, and attitudes regarding the protection of children. Since the nineteenth century, childhood has been redefined into extended phases, to protect childhood as a period exempt from adult roles, including reproduction and paid work. Prc-pubesccnt children have not been conventionally viewed as sexual beings since the 1200s (Bullough 2004; Levin & Kilbourne 2008). Before the thirteenth century, children could be betrothed from age 7 as they were considered proficient in expressing themselves at that age. During the latter half of the thirteenth century, betrothal as a binding act of marriage was negated if it had not been consummated by the age of 12 years (Bullough 2004). From the fourteenth century through to the sixteenth century, children were sexually sought after for marriage and prostitution: virgin girls aged 12-13 were particularly in demand. During the seventeenth century, public outrage at the sexual exploitation of children grew, and subsequently the age of consent was gradually raised from 10 to 16 years (Bullough 2004). By the Victorian period in the nineteenth century, Western culture and science predominantly viewed sexual development as commencing with puberty, which was considered a single event or developmental milestone (Worthman, Plotsky, Schechter, & Cummings 2010). Owing to the influence of Romanticism, the nineteenth century saw a shift in public views of children towards seeing them as innately good, pure, and innocent (Cunningham 2005), as well as asexual (Archard 1993). The Victorians emphasised the preservation of childhood and attempted to protect children from adult matters, including information about sex (Bullough 2004).

These views prevailed at the time of Australian colonisation. Interest in children’s wellbeing and rights was rising, and childhood was largely seen as a state of innocence (Darian-Smith 2010). This perspective dominates contemporary views, with children being seen as needing support and protection: ‘Girls, in particular, were seen as vulnerable and in need of protection because of their sexuality’ (Darian-Smith 2010, p. 4). During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, any form of sex education or discussion about sex or sexuality was withheld from children, with the aim of upholding childhood innocence and to protect them from immorality. The introduction of sex education for children was initially directed at Christian mothers to provide them with the resources to impart accurate information about sex to their children (aged over 12 years). This practice controlled what information children would receive, whilst also imparting moral conventions. For example, children were taught that to engage in any form of sexual activity before wedlock was dirty and disorderly (Swain, Warne, & Hillel 2004).

Sex education or discussion about sexuality was very much a private affair and was only addressed in the family home. Before World War I, sex education advocates pressured Australian governments to provide sex education to children in secondary schools, but such education was denied on grounds of protecting childhood innocence and fears that providing such education may introduce children to sex prematurely, and thus potentially corrupt them. After World War I, an increase in venereal disease resulted in more births of deformed babies and inspired further debate. There was a general acknowledgement that children entering puberty needed formal sex education; however, there was disagreement about what should be taught and by whom. Medical, educational, and Christian leaders proposed several approaches, including education about personal hygiene of the sexual organs, reproduction, moral training, and abstinence; however, there was no general consensus. In the 1930s, primary responsibility for children’s sex education shifted from mothers to public education programs, including secondary schools (Swain ct al. 2004).

The rise of child development as a sub-discipline of psychology began with Charles Darwin. This generated an increase in research about child development (Parke & Gauvain 2009), including children’s sexual development, beyond strictly physiological perspectives (Freud 2014). Contemporary research has drawn on adults’ memories of their own sexual behaviour as children, parents’ and teachers’ observations of children’s sexual behaviour, and observations of children who present with concerning or harmful sexual behaviour (Staiger 2005). From such research, it has been widely recognised by child development professionals that sexual development and expression begin at infancy (Levin & Kilbourne 2008). In fact, according to DeLamatcr and Friedrich (2002), sexual reactions arc present from birth. Despite such understanding, there is no universal consensus about what typical or harmful sexual behaviour is. Nevertheless, there arc some key concepts thought to indicate healthy and natural sexual expression. For example, very young children’s sexual behaviour is commonly explorative and driven by curiosity. Sexual play in childhood appears to be an information-gathering process in which there is mutual exploration and agreement. Children engaging in sexual play arc typically of a similar age and developmental level and do not demonstrate sexual obsession during this play. Because public sexual play is usually socially unacceptable, children may feel embarrassed or guilty if they are caught, and are likely to stop engaging in sexual play once they have been reprimanded (Briggs 2012; Staiger 2005). Harmful sexual behaviour tends to be age inappropriate, persistent, and aggressive, and involving a power imbalance between participants (Briggs 2012).

Children´s displays of sexual behaviour: attitudes and influences

The notions of childhood purity, vulnerability, and innocence as dominant Western views have meant that children who step out of these bounds may be viewed as evil, corrupted, or, at minimum, a threat to social order (Barter & Berridge 2011; Staiger 2005). Barter and Berridge (2011) and Staiger (2005) argue that responses and attitudes vary towards children whose behaviour challenges social norms. Barter and Berridge (2011) suggest that socially undesirable behaviour often results in moral panic, intervention, policy change, punishment, or criminal charges. Children may thus be labelled, isolated, or marginalised. Staiger (2005) adds that some adults deny or minimise the behaviour, whilst others arc outraged and condemn the child. Many of these responses arc unhelpful to the child who exhibits such behaviour. The continuation of the ‘victim’ mindset and the notion of protecting them often leaves the child who initiated the behaviour vulnerable to being labelled as a ‘perpetrator’, ‘offender’, or ‘abuser’ (Bonner, Walker, & Berliner 1999). When we think in terms of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’, we arc unconsciously categorising children as good and innocent, or bad and evil. This is likely to affect how we respond to children.

There is a range of stimuli or influences that can make children vulnerable to engaging in harmful sexual behaviour and characteristics that have been evidenced to increase children’s risk. These include child characteristics, familial influences, and their social context. We cover this in detail in Chapter 5. For this introduction, we concentrate on cultural change and the rise of social issues that arc evidenced to be associated with children’s sexual display.

Firstly, there has been a rise in sexual signifiers and pornography access in Western societies, which has contributed to an increase in sexualised display in general media. Many scholars argue that sexual signifiers are omnipresent and that there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of sexualised media over the past decade, in parallel with the growth of the pornography industry. Such media dominate public spaces with sexualised images and messages that are impossible to avoid (Andsager & Roe 2003; Buckingham, Willett, Bragg, & Russell 2010; Burke, Gridley, & Pham 2008; Casciani 2010; Flood 2009; Levin & Kilbourne 2008; Papadopoulos 2010; Rush & La Nauzc 2006a, 2006b; Silmalis 2010; Villani 2001; Zurbriggen et al. 2007). Analyses of Western cultural semiotics have identified a movement of sex-industry iconography into mainstream society. Examples include celebrities in revealing poses in magazines; barely clad sport celebrities and firemen in specialised calendars; the rise of pole dancing as an exercise regime; the normalisation of Brazilian waxing as standard for personal grooming; and a greater presence of pornographic signifiers in media (Attwood 2009; Ey & Mclnncs 2015; Holland & Attwood 2009; Walter 2010). In conjunction with these trends, dynamic developments in ‘information and communication technologies have allowed new forms of pornography production and exchange’ (Flood 2009, p. 385), including unlimited access regardless of one’s age (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2007; Gutnick, Robb, Takeuchi, & Kotler 2011; Flennessy 2010; Linn 2012). According to the American Psychology Association Taskforce, ‘12% of all Web sites arc pornography sites’ (Zurbriggen ct al. 2007, p. 10). This has resulted in a significant number of children accessing or being exposed to pornography on the internet, either accidently or deliberately (Flood 2009). According to Flood (2009), multiple studies have shown that exposure to pornography shapes adolescents’ and young people’s sexual experiences. They attempt to re-enact aggressive sexual acts they have viewed in pornography, and in turn act in sexually aggressive ways (Wright, Tokunaga, & Kraus 2016). This is not surprising, since observational learning is a key process in children’s acquisition of cultural knowledge (Richert, Robb, & Smith 2011). The behaviours to which children arc exposed become part of their cognitive and behavioural repertoire (Flail, West, & Hill 2011; Sanson et al. 2000; Timmerman et al. 2008). Therefore, if children are exposed to pornography, cither accidently or deliberately, it is likely some will imitate the behaviours they see. This can involve harmful sexual behaviour.

Another key social concern is the steady rise in child sexual abuse. In Australia, on average, child sexual abuse has risen 6% for children aged 0-14 years, between 2011 and 2014 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017-18). According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies (2017a), there were 5,559 substantiated cases of sexual abuse towards

Table 1.1 Number of substantiated cases of sexual abuse towards children during 2015-16

















children during 2015-16. This accounted for 12.2% of abuse cases. These are broken out by state and territory (Table 1.1).

A range of Australian studies (n = 5) conducted between 2007 and 2015 sought adults’ reports of childhood occurrences of sexual abuse. The studies found that 1.4% to 7.5% of males reported penetrative sexual abuse and 5.2% to 12% reported non-pcnctrative abuse, whilst 4% to 12% of females reported experiences of penetrative abuse and 14% to 26.8% reported non-pcnctrative abuse (Australian Institute of Family Studies 2017b). Briggs (2012) observes that it is difficult to measure the number of child abuse victims as many children do not disclose. A great deal of research correlates sexual abuse of young children with harmful sexual behaviour (Baker et al. 2008; Baker, Schneiderman, & Parker 2001; Johnson 1988, 1989; Shaw, Lewis, Loeb, Rosado, & Rodríguez 2000; Silovsky & Niec 2002; Sperry & Gilbert 2005). If child sexual abuse continues to increase, so will children’s harmful sexual behaviour.

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