Antisexualism in Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Programs — Good Touch, Bad Touch ... Don't Touch?1

James J. Krivacska*

ABSTRACT: Viewed by many as the first line of defense against child sexual abuse, child sexual abuse prevention (CSAP) programs have proliferated in the past decade with millions of children in the United States and Canada, some as young as 2 and 3 years of age, having been exposed to them.  Often promoted as safety programs, promoters of CSAP programs usually assiduously avoid any explicit references to sexuality both in the promotion of the programs to parents as well as in the program content and materials.  The absence of explicit discussions of sexuality however, when combined with the very negative messages presented regarding sexual abuse, may very well be promulgating an anti-sexual message to children for whom CSAP programs represent their only source of adult-sanctioned discussions of sex.  With some programs now explicitly warning children that sexual activity with peers may be abusive, it appears we have returned to an era when childhood sexuality was viewed as an aberration, rather than a natural developmental process.  This paper examines the antisexual messages, explicit and implicit, found in some of the more commonly used CSAP programs and discusses the ramifications for the development of a healthy sexuality in childhood adolescence and adulthood

Until the 1970s, our society massed considerable opposition to any form of sex education in the public schools, including the mere labeling of body parts or descriptions of the bodily changes experienced by early adolescents.  Today, however, discussion of rape, sexual assault, AIDS, the dangers of teen pregnancy, and transmission of sexually transmitted diseases are commonplace.  We have, as society, condoned the exposure of our children to the most negative aspects of sex and sexuality by somehow rationalizing that such exposure would aid the development of a mature, healthful and "delayed" sexuality within the context of marriage and monogamy.

By contrast, any discussion of the natural role sexuality plays in our lives, the joys and pleasures consequently derived from it, and the developmental nature of its emergence from the earliest stages of childhood, is vigorously opposed.  Such sexuality education is seen as potentially corrupting of our youth and destined to turn them into sex-crazed, promiscuous creatures, slaves to hormonal drives and devoid of reasoned or rational sexual behavior.

Lest one conclude that the case is overstated, one needs only to consider the state of sex education in our society2 (compared to that in the northern European countries for example).  To the extent that students are exposed to sex education, it is an education which has failed to disengage itself from the assumptions of the larger society about sex.  With a predominate focus on physiology, sexual intercourse, reproduction and its prevention, sex education curricula has mirrored our society's disassociation of sex from love, sex from relationships, and sex from sexuality and sensuality.

A society preoccupied by the "act," has engendered sex education preoccupied with how to do the "act" and how to do it safely.  We continue this disassociation in the education of our children with our focus on things like sexual abuse (a perversion of the "act"), AIDS (an unfortunate consequence of the "act" requiring pursuit of safe "acts"), date rape (how to say no to the "act"), and sexual harassment (how to avoid objectifying and vulgarizing the "act").  It is enough to make any child wonder why anyone would want to bother with the "act."

As long as we continue to present to children a view of sex which is so overwhelmingly negative and so obsessed with the act of sexual intercourse, there is little reason to believe our next generation will fare any better at navigating the sexual waters of adulthood.  We have known for some time that children are sexual beings and that sexuality is a developmental process.  We have four possible courses of action:

1. actively discourage and repress childhood sexuality and its expression;
2. actively promote ignorance and neutrality regarding sexuality (by distracting or diverting children's attention from it);
3. passively permit children to explore and discover their sexuality on their own;
4. actively promote and encourage the age-appropriate development of their sexuality.

While rational individuals are obliged by reason and concern for children's welfare to chose the fourth option, there are many in the field, particularly in the area of child sexual abuse prevention, who are either not rational and not thinking, or intentionally deceitful in their intentions.

CSAP Programs

Child sexual abuse prevention (CSAP) programs have proliferated in the last decade with millions of children exposed to their messages on a daily basis.  Yet despite 10 years of research into prevention efforts, there still remains very little evidence for the effectiveness of CSAP programs.  Nevertheless, there is a strong market for such programs which may explain, in part, why most programs are disdainful of even the mildest discussion of sexuality in their curricula.  In fact, perception as sex education has been seen as a potential barrier to the introduction of CSAP programs in public schools.

Consequently, many promoters of CSAP programs will advertise their programs as "safety" curricula, and will assiduously avoid any mention of sexuality or sex in the program.  Indeed, the avoidance of correct terms for the sexual parts of the body and the vague references to sexual acts may sufficiently shroud and conceal the underlying sexual messages of CSAP programs from parents; but not from children.  Children know that these programs are talking about sex and they know why the vague terms and references are being used: because "sex is bad and you don't talk about it with anyone."

Others, including such well-known researchers in child sexual abuse as Finkelhor and Conte, have acknowledged the dangers of sexual abuse education devoid of sexuality education.  But they have done little to support the development of more appropriate curricula.

The largest segment of the child sexual abuse prevention industry, however, appears to view child sexual abuse as devoid of a sexual component and is content to discuss it in terms of power and control (that is, the act is more a statement about the adults' need to exercise power and control over the child than it is a form of sexual expression).  This model has been borrowed, without empirical substantiation, almost verbatim from the language used to conceptualize rape.  Consequently, children are presented with messages about their body rights, and are taught to be empowered in their relationships with adults.  Since the sexual abuse is viewed less as an act of sex than of power, there really is no need to discuss sexual issues with the children.

Sexual Misuse

There is, however, overwhelming evidence that sexual experiences between adults and minor children are motivated by sexual desire — typically a very strong, focused, and at times compulsive desire.  This is not to exclude the possibility that, in some instances, sexual abuse may be a manifestation of other drives and needs as well, particularly those in which force and violence are used.  But for the most part the act is sexual, a fact which frequently does not escape the attention of the child, who might also feel sexually aroused by the encounter.

I have chosen to reframe the concept of child sexual abuse as "sexual misuse."  For many in the prevention field the child is viewed and presented as asexual.  Such a view ignores an important human dynamic in instances of sexual contact between adults and children — that of the child's sexual response to the encounter.  Children are sexual beings.  They also typically have a limited understanding of that sexuality, and may have internalized a significant number of negative images and concepts regarding sexuality based on how they have been raised.

Nevertheless, in one form or another, a sexuality resides within the child which is impacted upon by the sexual encounter with the adult.  To ignore this is to ignore the potential effect of sexual misuse on the child's emerging sexuality.  Consequently, I view child sexual abuse as the misuse of the child's sexuality for adult sexual gratification.  Viewed in this manner the child's sexuality is made explicit and is acknowledged as a factor to be addressed in any discussion of sexual misuse prevention.  The child can not be expected to protect that which is not acknowledged to exist, that is, the child's sexuality.

Unfortunately, very few sexual abuse prevention programs are willing to acknowledge the presence of child sexuality.  So strong is the resistance to viewing the child as a sexual being, even when a child has been discovered to have been sexually misused, that treatment frequently focuses on the presumed anger of the child toward the abuser and the child's supposed feelings of loss of trust, etc.  Rarely does therapy address the impact of the sexual misuse on the child's emerging sexuality.

I was providing secondary psychological services to a 9-year-old boy in the public school several years ago.  The boy had been repeatedly sexually misused, first by his father and subsequently by his two older brothers, both anally and orally, over a period of two years.  This child had become highly eroticized and was evidencing compulsive masturbation both in his foster home and in school.  I decided to speak with the primary therapist, who had been assigned by the local child protection agency, so as to coordinate treatment.  The psychologist informed me that he hadn't really discussed any of the child's sexual behaviors (even though the foster parents had observed the compulsive masturbation at home and were also concerned with it), because he saw them as secondary to issues of anger and feelings of violation of trust which need to be resolved first.  However, he did suggest to me that I might want to try a behavior modification program, by reinforcing behaviors incompatible with masturbation.

It was, of course, absurd to think that I was going to be able to identify a reinforcer of greater strength than masturbation and orgasm, but more importantly, such an approach would totally ignore the child's perceptions of the sexual activities and how he had incorporated those experiences into his sexuality.  So I chose to talk to the child about his sexual feelings, and discovered that he was strongly conflicted about the guilt and shame he was feeling and the fact that he had derived significant sexual pleasure from some of the sexual activities.  His guilt and anxiety were intruding into his everyday functioning and he frequently found himself thinking about past sexual events, becoming aroused, and consequently masturbating.

The point in relaying this story is to illustrate how we frequently impose our own agenda on the child, our own perception of how the world is or should be, and consequently impede the course of growth and/or healing.

Antisexuality in the CSAP Programs

Why is there such a strong bias against accepting childhood sexuality in discussions of sexual abuse?  There may be several reasons.  The first, as stated above, may be a political one; it is easier to get sexual abuse prevention programs into schools if they are devoid of any content which might lead them to being labeled sex education.

In addition, a frequent justification of adults who sexually misuse children is that the child initiated the activity or, at the very least, consented to it after initiation by the adult, and may even have enjoyed it.  The fear of many in the prevention field is that acknowledging childhood sexuality may unwittingly support this rationalization.  Yet our role as scientists is to present the truth (or at least its current representation as determined by the best available empirical evidence).  Continued support of the myth of childhood innocence in the area of sexuality does not advance the cause of child sexual misuse prevention.  In fact, such misguided support may impede such efforts and has many implications for the promotion of sexually healthful functioning adults in the next generation.

Other than its avoidance of discussions of sex and sexuality; which might be construed as promoting a neutral perceptive on childhood sexuality, do CSAP programs actually repress childhood sexuality or present an anti-sexuality message bias?  Many of the programs indeed evidence such an antisexualism, both in content and in the manner of presentation of that content.

The most ubiquitous concept found in sexual abuse prevention programs around the country is the Touch Continuum, developed originally by Cordelia Anderson from the Hennepin County Prosecutor's Office.  In its original formulation, the continuum included good touch (touch that makes you feel good and which is appropriate), bad touch (touch that hurts or makes you feel bad) and confusing touch (touch which may start out feeling good, but leaves you confused — i.e. sexual touch).

Most later versions of this concept use only the good and bad touch concepts making this less of a continuum and more of a dichotomy.  Within the dichotomy, sexual abuse is placed within the category of bad touch and is paired with hurtful touches (such as spankings, getting kicked, or scraping a knee) as well as unwanted touches (such as a hug from an overly affectionate uncle, a slobbering kiss from a grandmother, or any form of touch which, at the moment, a child may not want).  Any contact with the genitals of either the child or adult is uncategorically placed within the bad touch domain.

Consequences of Omitting Sexuality from CSAP Programs

There are several implications for this conceptualization.  First is the repeated exposure of children to the pairing of the concept "bad touch" and contact with the genitals.  No allowance is made for masturbation or childhood sexual exploration with peers (in some circles such traditional childhood exploratory games as playing doctor are being reconstructed as sexually abusive experiences).

The consequences of this include an example of a 7-year-old boy who proceeded to urinate while sitting on the toilet after participating in a CSAP program because he had been told that it was bad touch to touch the genitals.  He had interpreted this message as including himself, and would not hold his penis to urinate.  In another case, two first grade boys shamefully reported to their teacher, after a CSAP program, that they had been abusing each other (they had been engaging in mutual masturbation in the garage of one of the boys) and were reporting the abuse as required by the CSAP program.

Without providing a context for children to understand their own sexual feelings and developmentally appropriate sexual experiences, many children may begin to view such experiences and feelings as abnormal, and potentially abusive.

Of just as great a concern is the pairing of unwanted hugs and other forms of affection within the same category as forced vaginal or anal penetration.  By dichotomizing all sexual and affectionate forms of touch into two categories, simple unwanted forms of affection are viewed as negatively as severe sexual or physical assaults.  In fact, in the absence of a balanced view of such forms of affection, including helping children to identify good touch forms of such contact, we may be teaching children to view behavior they previously thought enjoyable, or at least innocuous, to be potentially abusive.  Sheryl Kraiser reports in the literature a 7-year-old boy who, after exposure to a CSAP program, told his father that he couldn't pat the boy's buttocks on the way up to bed anymore, since that was bad touch.

Proceptive behaviors (as precursors to and signals of readiness for sexual activity in adult mating behavior) are, in large part, formed during childhood.  What effect such negative presentations of both proceptive behaviors (such as hugging, kissing, and affectionate touching) and actual sexual behaviors may have on the formation of adult sexual expression is not yet known but can be reasonably predicted to be negative, at least for some individuals, based on our current state of knowledge and experience of developmental principles in general and child sexual development in particular.

Benefits of Including Sexuality in CSAP Programs

In addition to presenting what is, for many children, their first adult-sanctioned discussion of sex in a negative light, CSAP programs are also missing an opportunity to mitigate and minimize the potential harmful effects of sexual misuse.  One of the main driving forces behind the maintenance of secrecy surrounding sexual misuse is the fact that the adult controlling the situation provides the child with the context for the sexual experience — a context which states that the child enjoyed the experience, wanted the experience, and would be shamed if the experience became public.  Within this context, it is not surprising that many children fail to reveal sexual misuse.

Additionally, the context for sexual behavior presented by the abuser has significant ramifications for that child's later sexual development.  This includes the generalization of guilt and shame to any sexual experiences the child subsequently has, the incorporation of particular aspects of the abusive situation into what John Money calls the child's evolving lovemap, and a distortion of the role and function sex and sexuality plays in our lives and in relationships.

CSAP programs have an opportunity to provide children with a healthy context within which to view first their sexuality, and then any sexually misusive events to which they may be subsequently exposed.  Consider a child who has learned to accept his or her sexual feelings and sexual explorations, who feels good about the sexual parts of the body, and who understands that there may be times when an adult may wish to misuse his or her sexuality for adult gains.  Such children will be in a much better position to refuse participation in a sexually misusive event, are less likely to be damaged from such an experience if avoidance is not possible (since they will already have a context within which to understand the experience, and will not have to rely on the context presented by the abuser), and are more likely to report the experience because the justifications for maintaining the secret as presented by the abuser will have lost their validity and power.

Finally; children who have their sexual development supported and guided in an appropriate manner are less likely to mature into adults who rely on sex in a manipulative, self-gratifying way, regardless of whether their victims are adult males, females or minor children.  Therefore, in their antisexualism, CSAP programs may be failing not only to prevent sexual misuse and reduce the likelihood that sexually misusive experiences will severely damage children's maturation, but may very well be preventing the normal development of childhood sexuality, the consequences of which we will only begin to appreciate as this generation of children reaches maturity.  If we are so afraid to teach our children about their own normal sexual development, then we should be terrified to teach them about child sexual abuse.

* James J. Krivacska is director of Educational Program Consultants, 51 Cleveland Avenue, Milltown, New Jersey, 08850.  [Back]

1 This paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, San Diego, California, November 15, 1992.  [Back]

2 There are, of course, some notable exceptions, communities in which sexuality is accepted as a developmental process to be nurtured and guided by understanding and supportive adults, but these are relatively rare and often in the position of constantly having to justify themselves against broader societal trends.  [Back]


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