Growing Up Too Fast: Early Exposure to Sex
Children are naturally exploratory beings. As we develop, we engage with the world around us using all our senses. Imagine yourself at 2 or 3, crawling around in a grassy field on a summer day. You feel the warmth of the sun on your skin, the gentle breeze blowing through your hair, you breathe in the aroma of the fresh green grass, perhaps even pluck a piece and sample it. A puddle from a recent rain storm beckons you and you splash about in it, drenching yourself. An ice cream cone is offered to you and you savor the sweetness and stickiness as it drips down your chin and onto your clothes.
Our skin is our single largest organ and when touched, can generate pleasure. You may have noticed what would be considered erogenous zones and begin to delve into discovery with great enthusiasm. All these are naturally occurring sensual childhood experiences. Innocent, playful, delightful and set the stage for cultivating relationships. When left to blossom, they can lead to healthy, psycho-sexual growth. When thwarted by adults who admonished you with the idea that certain body parts are considered “dirty,” or at least unacceptable to touch, you might have emerged covered with shame in the same way you may have gotten muddy in the puddle. The difference is, that can be washed off, and sexual shame penetrates the psyche’ and has long lasting impact. With guidance, parents can become healthy role models for their children as they learn about their bodies. Multi-generational shame can hinder growth and contribute to harmful sexual beliefs and activities.
Sexual abuse, molestation or consistent exposure to adult interactions, (not referring to accidentally walking in on adults engaged in sex), even if the child is not being touched, can contribute to psychological damage. What is not often taken into consideration is early exposure to pornography and the traumatic impact it may have.
In the generation in which I was raised, pornography was limited primarily to magazines stealthily hidden under mattresses of teen boys, or movies that portrayed images of what I think of us ‘get it on, get it up, get in it, get it off, get it out’ sex. Both offer idealized, unrealistic and stereotypical ideas of adult sexuality and women particularly. They also contribute to sex trafficking, victimization and violence.
A survey of New England university students found that 93 percent of males and 62 percent females were exposed to online pornography during adolescence. Researchers found that exposure to pornography before age 13 was uncommon. Males were more likely to be exposed at an earlier age, whereas females were more likely to report being involuntarily exposed. The reactions to exposure were diverse, ranging from mostly positive feelings about the experience to embarrassment, guilt and disgust.1
In the current era, sex is delivered 24/7 via the internet. Without parental controls on computers, phones or televisions, children can avail themselves of a vast menu of “junk food,” or toxic sexual imagery. Such was the case of a middle school aged girl whose friend (also around the same age), showed her an extremely graphic website in which adults were engaged in activities that were explicit and disturbing. She had not told her parents about it and this friend also introduced her to an artistic website in which fictional characters were involved in carnal acts. Since this girl was artistically inclined, the second site was even more fascinating to her. She began tapping into these sites with increasing frequency and started replicating the art herself. Her parents were notified when she showed her art work to friends at school. Their concern was that she had been abused, which both she and her parents adamantly denied.
She entered in treatment with the therapist exploring her experiences, and the impact they have had on her daily functioning. She presents as more physically and emotionally mature than her current age would indicate. Some of what she says is meant for shock value and to pretend to be more sophisticated, with the words, “Kids know more than you think.” The therapist re-directed her conversation with the idea that even if she knew the concepts, she was not sufficiently mature to have the direct experiences.
According to Victor Cline, Ph.D., when children are exposed to pornography, arousal is imprinted via epinephrine and can be challenging to obliterate.2 In the case of this now tween-aged girl, she finds it compelling and wants to learn more. Her parents and therapy team are working together to foster age appropriate curiosity and warning of the dangers. These include:
- Social anxiety
- Pre-mature sexual interactions with peers
- Grooming by adults for sexual interaction
- Confusion about healthy expression of sexuality
- Putting oneself in precarious situations
- Sexual assault
- Ruining of reputation by posting revealing photos of oneself on social media or sexting
- Isolation from peers whose parents may feel the child is an unsavory influence
- Doing harm to others
- Suicidal ideation and/or attempts
- Desire for increased stimulation
- Other high-risk behaviors
If it comes to the attention of a parent that your child has been exposed to pornography, it is important to remain calm and not blame yourself or the child. Utilize parental controls on devices. Educate yourself on the risks. If your child needs treatment, seek therapy for him or her. Get clear on your values around sexuality, safety, interpersonal interactions, body image, shame, and pornography. Take the time to have a frank and (as much as possible) fearless conversation on the topic. It may not be easy, but it is a necessary part of parenting in the 21st century.
- Sabina, C., Wolak, W., Finkelhor, D. (2008). The Nature and Dynamics of Internet Pornography Exposure for Youth. Cyberpsychology & Behavior. Volume 11, Number 6, 2008. http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV169.pdf
- Hughes, D. R., & Campbell, P. T. (1998). Kids online: protecting your children in cyberspace. Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell.
Weinstein, E. (2018). Growing Up Too Fast: Early Exposure to Sex. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 28, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/growing-up-too-fast-early-exposure-to-sex/