Understanding child sexual development: A response to the Lena Dunham accusations

lena and grace

Since the release of her memoir, “Not That Kind of Girl,” Lena Dunham has received criticism about some of her self-described “weird” behaviors toward her sister that include sexual exploration as a young child. Using the hashtag #BoycottLenaDunham, many critics are accusing Lena of being a sexual predator.

The accusations began after an article published on TruthRevolt featured an excerpt from Dunham’s book where she describes instances of her looking at Grace’s vagina and masturbating next to her in bed. The article labels these behaviors as abusive and claims that Dunham is a sexual predator.

Lena excerpt

In response, Lena defended herself on Twitter, saying that she viewed her actions as “weird”—not predatory. Furthermore, her sister Grace also defended Lena, stating that she felt the interactions were not abusive. Ever since, fans and critics have been debating over Lena’s actions. But more importantly, the incident has set the stage for a dialogue about child sexual development.

What is Sexual Development?

Like all forms of human development, sexual development begins at birth. Children are curious about the world around them, and sexuality is no exception. Sexuality is more than just sex; it encompasses many emotional, social, cultural, and physical aspects. Sexual development is one part of sexuality.

Sexual development includes not only the physical changes that occur as children grow, but also the sexual knowledge and beliefs they come to learn and the behaviors they show. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, any given child’s sexual knowledge and behavior is strongly influenced by:

  1. The child’s age[i],[ii],[iii]
  2. What the child observes (including the sexual behaviors of family and friends)[iv]
  3. What the child is taught (including cultural and religious beliefs concerning sexuality and physical boundaries)

Common Sexual Behaviors in Children

Sexual play can be an expression of children’s natural curiosity. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “typical” childhood sexual play and exploration:

  • Occurs between children who play together regularly and know each other well
  • Occurs between children of the same general age and physical size
  • Is spontaneous and unplanned
  • Is infrequent
  • Is voluntary (the children agreed to the behavior, none of the involved children seem uncomfortable or upset)
  • Is easily diverted when parents tell children to stop and explain privacy rules

Child sexual development unfolds across different stages—each stage with its own age range and behaviors. There are many common sexual behaviors in children; this helpful chart was developed by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network:

Child Development Chart

Sexual Behavior Problems

While some behaviors are considered “normal,” other behaviors can indicate more than harmless curiosity, and are considered sexual behavior problems. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, sexual behavior problems include any act that:

  • Is clearly beyond the child’s developmental stage (for example, a three-year-old attempting to kiss an adult’s genitals)
  • Involves threats, force, or aggression
  • Involves children of widely different ages or abilities (such as a 12-year-old “playing doctor” with a four-year-old)
  • Provokes strong emotional reactions in the child—such as anger or anxiety

Where Do We Go From Here?

By detailing and “humorously” comparing her youthful manipulative behavior to that of a sexual abuser, Dunham has shed light on a very complex and complicated issue. Out of fear and discomfort, many adults shy away from discussing sexuality and intimate relationships with their children. Often parents and caregivers neglect to inform children of their growing bodies and chastise children for having sexual curiosity. With her work, Dunham has inspired criticism but also an opportunity for dialogue about childhood sexual development, healthy sexual boundaries, self-serving manipulation in relationships and power dynamics between adolescents and younger children.  And ultimately, this is a lesson for adults: to commit to informing ourselves and taking consistent action to teach, model and enforce healthy boundaries and behaviors for children in our care – without shaming children for normal, healthy expressions of sexual curiosity and development.

Helpful Resources

An overview of healthy childhood sexual development from National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)

Healthy Sexual Development of Children from Darkness to Light

Sexual Development and Behavior in Children from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

References

[i]  Friedrich, W. N., Fisher, J., Broughton, D., Houston, M., & Shafran, C. R. (1998). Normative sexual behavior in children: a contemporary sample. Pediatrics, 101 (4), E9
[ii]  Hornor, G. (2004). Sexual behavior in children: normal or not? Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 18 (2), 57-64
[iii]  Hagan, J. F., Shaw, J. S., & Duncan, P. (Eds.). (2008). Theme 8: Promoting healthy sexual development and sexuality. In Bright futures: Guidelines for health supervision of infants, children, and adolescents (3rd ed.) (pp. 169-176). Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
[iv]  Friedrich, W. N., Grambsch, P., Broughton, D., Kuiper, J., & Beilke, R. L. (1991). Normative sexual behavior in children. Pediatrics, 88 (3), 456-464.
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