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Child Sexual Play, or Child-on-Child Sexual Abuse?

by Andrea M. Darcy

Haunted by memories of a sexual incident when you were a kid? But tell yourself you are overreacting, as it was with another child? Yes, child sexual play can be normal. But it can also veer into assault or child-on-child sexual abuse.

What is normal child sexual behaviour?

child sexual play

Children are curious about their bodies from toddlers. It’s entirely normal for  young children to explore themselves with touching, rubbing, and pulling, particularly between the ages of two to six.

Until young children are taught that masturbation is to be done in private, that they should respect other people’s body privacy, and that they should not touch other people’s private parts, other normal behaviours can include:

  • showing their genitals to other children
  • trying to see adults or other children naked
  • looking at or touching a sibling or friend’s genitals.

From there, child sexual behaviours can become less child sexual play and more a cause for concern, as seen in the chart below put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics:

child-on-child sexual abuse

As the chart shows, body exploration becomes a worry if a child:

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  • is mimicking adult sexual acts
  • won’t stop their sexual behaviours
  • is upsetting others.

Further than that, and it can become child-on-child sexual abuse.

Child-on-child sexual abuse (COCSA)

Child-on-child sexual abuse (COCSA) means that a child or adolescent involves a prepubescent child in a sexual act that:

  • is deliberate
  • is non consensual
  • or is consensual, but the child doesn’t know the nature of what is happening
  • is not equal, either mentally, physically, or in age
  • involves coercion either mentally, physically, or both.

On their website, the NHS here in the UK clearly admit that “around a third of child sexual abuse is carried out by other, usually older, children or young people.”

And yet the Office for National Statistics, in their 2019 report on child sexual abuse in England and Wales, don’t even mention it. 

This shows how sadly underreported and discussed child-on-child sexual abuse is. Adults can brush off a child’s report of such abuse as ‘kids being kids’, or not  report it for fear of what would happen to the children involved.

Is or isn’t my memory an abuse memory?

It depends on what happened. 

  • Was it a close friend or sibling? Someone you often explored life and play with?
  • Were you similar in size, age, and knowledge?
  • Were you exploring  bodies and things got out of hand? Was it things like dirty jokes, looking at private parts, or humping?
  • Were you both unsure of what you were doing but were gathering information?
  • Was it a one off? Just a few times? Or stopped when you said no?
  • Did you mostly just feel worried you’d get into trouble?

It was likely normalised sexual behaviour over abuse. 

On the other hand:

  • Was it a child you didn’t know too well or often play with?
  • Or were they older and bigger than you, or at a higher developmental level?
  • Did they seem to know a lot of things you didn’t? Do things no other kids you knew did? And seemed sure of what they were doing?
  • Were things done without asking, or did the other child keep going when you said stop?
  • Did it cause you pain or discomfort?
  • Afterwards did you feel sad, guilty, ashamed, or afraid?
  • Did it happen several times, or did they keep trying to get you to do things?
  • Did they tell you they would do bad things if you told? Or otherwise blackmail you to do things again or not tell?
  • Did the other child or adolescent seem angry either before, during, or after?

It’s likely you suffered child-on-child sexual abuse. 

Symptoms of child on child sexual abuse

Child on child sexual abuse can leave you with the same symptoms as if you suffered abuse by an adult. This can include:

[For more about symptoms of sexual abuse, see our article on “How to Tell You Were Abused as a Child’.]

Abuse that follows abuse

Note that children who were abused by children can then go on to be abused again by an adult, or to experience assault or abuse when an adolescent or adult themselves. This can mean the memory of the child-on-child abuse is overlooked or brushed aside. 

A review identifying rates and effects of sexual re-victimisation among people who experienced child sexual abuse showed that if you were abused as a kid, you have up to three times a greater risk of being revictimised when older.

Why do children abuse children?

child on child sexual abuseIt is a learned behaviour. They are generally (but not all) children who have lived through neglect and abuse themselves, either abuse by an adult or another child or adolescent. This might be non-contact abuse, such as being forced to look at porn or watch adults having sex. 

In some cases, they will have ‘normalised’ the abuse they have lived through and not realise what they are doing to another child is wrong. And they don’t realise that it’s harming them as much as the other child.

It’s also true that children who abuse other children need help as much as the children they hurt.

This is not to say that as an adult who realises they experienced child on child sexual abuse, you should brush it off as ‘he or she didn’t know what they were doing’. If it was an upsetting experience for you, it is important to take it seriously.

It is also not to say that all children who are abused go on to abuse other children, or even to say that the majority do.

Dealing with memories of child on child sexual abuse

It can be very confusing to have memories of child on child sexual abuse, particularly if it was a sibling.

An exploratory study talking to over forty survivors of sibling incest found that survivors often convinced themselves it was consensual, or even changed the story to make themselves the instigator.

If you believe you were abused by another child, it doesn’t matter if your memories are confusing or uncertain. It’s advisable to take the same steps as navigating any other kind of sexual abuse (see our article ‘What to Do Now if you Think You Were Abused‘).

Can therapy help me?

If there was one thing seeking support is fairly essential for, it’s navigating child sexual abuse, regardless if the perpetrator was a child, adolescent, or adult. Abuse hits us at the core of who we are. Trying to untangle it can release deep feelings of shame, anxiety, and fear.

And talking about it to the wrong person can leave us feeling traumatised all over again, if we perceive their response to be a judgement or rejection. Or, worse, a denial of our experience.

It’s important to find support from someone who understands. This could mean first sharing with a trusted friend who always believes in you. But it’s advisable to then seek a support group, or the support of a counsellor or psychotherapist who can create a safe space for you to process your experiences and emotions.

Need help processing child sexual abuse? We connect you with top London therapists for abuse survivors at our central offices or online. Or use our online booking platform to source affordable UK-wide registered therapists and online counselling now. 

If you are having thoughts about children that are concerning you, please contact the charity Stop it Now! who are experts in this domain and have a free helpline. 

Andrea M. DarcyAndrea M. Darcy is a health and wellbeing writer as well as mentor who often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy

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Blog Topics: Abuse & Trauma

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