Playing Doctor: Kids and Sexuality

I find it interesting that, in a society that demonstrates blatant sexuality, we often do not know much about how it works. For example, I often am asked about whether the sexual curiosity and sexual interactions between children are considered abusive. Adults frequently don’t know what to think or do about this and worry that the children involved will be negatively affected.

This is a sensitive issue because, although our society doesn’t like to admit it, children are sexual beings too. As such, they often engage in sexual play. Most of the time, these interactions are very innocent and are done because they are fun and feel good. For example, a lot of adults can remember playing doctor or engaging in the kind of minor sexual exploration when they were young.

Where things like this get tricky is when issues of power differentials and consent arise. Simply put, power is the ability to get what you want, especially when there is conflict. The differential is when the relationship is unequal. For example, parents have more power than children, teachers have more power than students, bosses have more power than employees, and older people usually have more power than younger individuals. Sexual abuse can occur when the power differential is large, like when an adult has sex with a child or adolescent. In the case of two children sexually exploring though, the age difference usually is minimal. Thus, it tends to not be as troubling as it would be otherwise.

Consent is also important to consider when thinking about sexual abuse. People tend to get emotionally harmed when they are forced to do something they do not want to do or if they do not understand what is going on. People must be able to understand the consequences of an event before they can be considered to be able to consent. That is why young people or those with cognitive difficulties have others who are responsible for their care. Given that sex can have far-reaching consequences, consent is a prerequisite for all parties involved. Consequently, when someone does not or cannot consent to a sexual encounter, it is considered abuse.

The fact that children cannot legally give consent makes things more difficult. That is why, in a situation in which two children are sexually playing, it is important to figure out if either child was forced to do anything s/he didn’t want to do. Usually such interactions are innocent and, if so, it will not negatively affect them. A lot of times they may not even remember it. Therefore, if there were no major power differentials or problems with consent, adults can breathe a sigh of relief and move on.

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