Curiosity about body parts, self-exploration, looking or touching other children’s bodies, and interest in toileting activities are all typical sexual behaviours of young children. However, when asked about this, some educators only identified the first two as such. More worryingly, 17 per cent of those surveyed misidentified typical sexual behaviours as problematic. These are some of the findings of a newly released study by three education academics from the University of South Australia, published in Sex Education.
By sampling 107 educators from government, independent and Catholic primary schools, preschools and care organisations across Australia, the authors – Lesley-anne Ey, Elspeth McInnes and Lester Irabinna Rigney – also learned that over a third of people were not trained in responding to children’s problematic sexual behaviours. For those who were trained, a majority reported having undertaken a course in mandatory reporting of suspected abuse. Yet 90 per cent indicated they wanted training in problematic sexual behaviours.
“This suggests that mandated reporting courses do not offer in-depth training specific to problematic sexual behaviour,” the authors noted.
While they admitted there are no universal guidelines for classifying problematic child sexual behaviour, they outlined some that would fall under this category. For children aged 0–8, they include when typical behaviours become obsessive or children demand, coerce, trick, force or bribe others into engaging in any form of penetrative sex.
The same list applies to those aged 6–12, “but also includes re-enacting or teaching others about specific adult sexual behaviour and sending others sexually explicit images, proposals or threats”, the authors added.
For teens, inappropriate behaviour of this kind revolves around sexual aggression.
Pam Kent, president of the South Australian Primary Principals Association, was somewhat surprised by the findings. In her experience, “most teachers, certainly in the primary sector, know their students very well, and if they notice inappropriate behaviour, then they would follow up on it with their students, and if it continued, most teachers worth their salt would follow up with the parents and discuss it with them as well”.
The study was conducted in the context of certain findings of the child sexual abuse commission. Specifically, that sexual harassment of children is no longer tolerated, education around problematic sexual behaviours is inadequate, and that these behaviours can signify abuse or the witnessing thereof.
Kent agreed that these behaviours could signify sexual abuse, though she stressed it could also be a result of children being “children for such a short period of time now”. She noted their exposure to sexualised imagery on social media and in films, including music videos, could contribute to problematic sexualisation.
She added that though more guidance for teachers is always a good thing, knowing how to respond can be difficult as the cause of the behaviour is often multi-factorial.
“A lot of them are to do with the sort of family environment that they’re in, and that can be very, very difficult to combat,” she said.
An Australian Crime Commission report suggested the prevalence of problematic sexual behaviour among children is unknown, as only those who display such behaviour and are thought to be at risk of harm must be reported.Want to share your thoughts on this topic? Do you have an idea for a story?
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