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Unhealthy sexual behaviour in children

Glenda Simms, The Jamaica Gleaner, June 17, 2007

In a recent report emanating from one of the local media houses, the nation was alerted to the reality that "a growing number of three to six year olds have been engaging in various sexual activities" on school compounds.

It was also reported that the official response, according to Andrea Campbell, regional Behaviour Change Coordinator of the Ministry of Health (MoH), was to deploy staff to the "affected schools" to engage these babies and their parents in sex education discussions.

This writer is of the opinion that deploying a "sex education swat team" to deal with these incidents of babies having sex with each other in basic and primary schools is as useful as putting a tiny band aid on a pus-filled boil.

The MoH swat team is useful, but it cannot be the first response to these situations. Every classroom teacher, principal and educator/expert in the Ministry of Education should have had the training to ensure that they are all equipped to make intelligent and effective interventions in such cases wherever and whenever they occur.

All those who have gained the credentials to try to develop the cognitive, social, emotional and spiritual potential of the nation's children must be persons who have an in-depth understanding of the developmental path and different stages of human sexuality.

They, of necessity, must be those who not only understand their own sexuality, but are comfortable with and positive about the essential sexual aspect of all human beings.

Such persons cannot be those uptight and 'constipated individuals' who believe that all that is sinful is rooted in human sexuality. They cannot be those who are uncomfortable with their own bodies, who always turn off the lights when they have sex, and can never walk around in the nude in the privacy of their own homes.

These persons cannot be the types who use safety pins to tighten their collars so that the skin below their Adam's apple is not exposed to anyone (male or female).

Cognitive skills

They most definitely cannot be those whose cognitive skills and knowledge of child development are informed by a few chapters in text books and in pamphlets designed to give quick fixes.

Every teacher needs to understand why sexual concerns and sexual expressions are dominant in some children while the same concerns are of low priority to others.

The literature of human sexuality is very clear on the different stages of psychosexual development. We do know that sexual play and other behaviours that can be defined within the realm of sexuality are evident in all 'normal' children from birth.

Dr. Phil Rich, a social worker and author of many self-help booklets, has reiterated the findings of the most distinguished and universally accepted developmental psychologists.

He reminds us that "sexual development and sexual play are natural and healthy processes in children throughout every stage from infancy to adolescence".

Dr. Rich reinforces what those of us who have parented children have observed. Our babies love to cuddle and touch, play with toys and rub their own genitals. Our little boys experience erections and they wonder why their penises seem to be playing tricks on them.

Recently, my 11-year-old grandson announced at the dining table, "Grandma, when I woke up this morning my penis was sticking up." Before I could find an appropriate explanation, my teenaged granddaughter rebuked him and suggested that he should be discussing more socially accepted topics while she is enjoying her 'granny made' oatbran porridge.

I intervened and explained that the human body is very complex and as we grow and develop we will notice many changes which are quite normal. The young boy shrugged his shoulders and said, "I understand". The 15-year-old girl rolled her eyes and said, "I still believe he is gross".

Sexual consciousness

These responses are directly related to the differing pre-occupations of both children who are reacting in predictable ways to age-specific sexual consciousness that are part of their normal developmental path.

As Dr. Rich pointed out in his article 'Recognising Healthy and Unhealthy Sexual Development in Children': "It is important to distinguish between age appropriate and age inappropriate- sexual behaviours."

Clearly, the reports of the sexual behaviours that are exhibited by three to six year-old children in some Jamaican schools are instances of very inappropriate behaviours.

Such behaviours are not linked to the normal developmental sexual blueprint with which our children came into the world. These behaviours must be understood in the context of the distortion of the environment which should guide the normal and healthy goalposts of human sexuality.

Inappropriate sexual exposure

Child sexual development literature lists the following as instances of inappropriate sexual exposure for our children. For children in general and particularly those below eleven:

All forms of sexual activity with adolescents and adults.
The viewing of pornography or other sexually explicit material.
Witnessing sexual behaviours between adults, adolescents or other children.
Excessive sexual play with peer or older children who have more sexual knowledge.
Any situation in which a child is exposed to explicit sexual materials outside of those presented by qualified staff in an educational setting (home or school).

It is very obvious that far too many Jamaican children are being robbed of their fundamental human right to experience normal sexual development and it is because of the distortion of this normal path that our babies in basic schools are performing oral and other sexual variation on each other.

Sexual rights

The World Health Organisation's (WHO) working definition of sexual rights include the following which are already recognised in national, international and consensus documents:

The right to the highest attainable standard of sexual health including access to sexual and reproductive health care services.
The right to be free of coercion, discrimination and violence.
The right to seek, receive and impart information related to sexuality.
The right to respect and bodily integrity.
The right to decide to be sexually active or not.
The right to decide whether or not and when to have children.
The right to pursue a satisfying, safe and pleasurable sex life.

The tragedy of our present situation is that many of our little girls and boys are being robbed of the opportunity to develop in a healthy environment that will guarantee them the sexual rights of adulthood.

Sexual violence, carnal abuse, incest, gang and acquaintance rapes, teenage pregnancies, exposure to pornography and the exposure to adults having sex with each other are being experienced by far too many of our young children.

This is a national tragedy and an issue that cannot be addressed in any meaningful way by pep talks from special squads in the public sector.

* Glenda P. Simms is a gender expert and consultant.

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