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Child sex acts 'not uncommon,' experts say

December 02, 2004

How does a 5-year-old perform a sex act on a kindergarten classmate in a school restroom?

The mere mention of last week's incident at Saginaw's Morley Elementary School leaves some adults red-faced, others aghast.

Such sexual experimentation, however, probably happens more often than people want to believe, two experts say.

It's not the first time such an incident has happened in mid-Michigan, says a Child and Family Services of Saginaw County official.

"Unfortunately, it's not uncommon," says Margie M. Bach, supervisor for the sexual assault program.

Last week, a gym teacher at Morley walked in on two 5-year-olds, with one performing a sex act on the other.

It's troublesome but not new to Bach. She has worked with families of elementary students caught in the act in coatrooms, locker rooms and restrooms.

"This isn't something that you see on Nickelodeon," Bach says. "It's not just fondling or touching. There's some physical gratification going on."

In most cases, Bach and staff assume that the child performing the sex act is a prior victim of sexual abuse.

But Michigan State University psychology professor Gary Stollak has a different view. As a clinical psychologist, he assumes that curiosity played a role.

"It's is a very powerful motive. It's something that nobody wants to talk about," says Stollak, chairman of the university's Child and Family Clinical Psychology Program.

"This could have been very natural or it could have been an act of force. When you come in, you don't know the whole story."

Regardless of what happened behind the restroom door, both Bach and Stollak recommend that parents have frank talks with their children about genitalia and sexuality.

"You talk to children about looking both ways before crossing the street. You tell kids not to walk away with strangers," Bach says.

"You need to talk to kids about sexual touching."

Bach says Child and Family Services has conducted the Happy Bear Prevention Program for much of the past two decades. Last school year, close to 1,400 pupils at 63 county schools participated in the program. Morley Elementary was not among them.

Such visits can help clear up questions that children may have about what they've seen or heard, Stollak says.

"Children may see their parents in these positions. That must be a very bizarre experience," he says. "We have no idea what children hear or see at night."

Bach also advises parents not to teach their children to use euphemisms such as cha-cha, who-who, thing or ding-a-ling to describe their "privates."

"We teach children to say eyeball, finger and forehead," Bach says. "They should also say penis and vagina."

Lack of research on childhood sexuality leaves academic types with no hard data on sexual experimentation.

"It's such a complicated issue and we have such limited knowledge," Stollak says.

Refusal to discuss sex and find out more about its role in childhood will only spur interest, he adds.

"If we make something taboo, children are going to find out about it," Stollak says. "Curiosity and pleasure are natural phenomenon. All a community can (ask) is, 'Do we want to talk about this?' "

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