Studies of families of children who have engaged in sexually aggressive behavior reveal they tended to be characterized as dysfunctional, evidencing high rates of parental separation, domestic violence, substance abuse, highly sexualized environments (e.g., exposing children to sexual activity, pornography, and both covert and overt sexual abuse), unsatisfactory role models, poor parent-child relationships, parental histories of childhood abuse and so on.1 The evidence points to family interactions as a primary source of the problem.
The family environment of these children, particularly their biological families, were characterized as disorganized and as requiring much effort to meet the basic needs of the family. More than half of the children studied had witnessed domestic violence in the families with whom they were currently residing.
In another study, children were referred for evaluation or consultation because of reported sexual acting-out behavior. Factors that distinguish these groups are as follows:
- Normal sexual exploitation is an “information gathering process” that involves children looking at and touching each other’s bodies and trying out gender roles. The sex play is voluntary and typically involves same-age children. It usually is spontaneous and lighthearted.
- Sexually reactive children have been sexually abused, have been exposed to pornography, and/or live in highly sexualized households. The behaviors of these children include exposing, touching the genitals of other children or adults, self-stimulating genitals or inserting objects, and so on. The emotions associated with these behaviors may reflect confusion and shame.
- The children in the extensive mutual sexual behavior group participate in extensive sexual behaviors on a continuous basis, including oral sex, vaginal and anal intercourse. They do not appear to experience anxiety, guilt, shame or confusion, and they evidence little desire to stop. The sexual activity is mutual; there is no offender or victim. Most of these children have previously been sexually abused. Sometimes their sexual behavior appears as a coping strategy in very chaotic, dysfunctional, and/or sexually abusive families. Some of these children have been placed in multiple foster homes and appear to cling to each other in this sexual way to assuage their feelings of fear and loneliness.
- The child perpetrator group includes children who engage in impulsive, compulsive, and aggressive sexual behavior. The sexual behaviors are not mutual and involve coercion, trickery, bribery, and force. The children in this group often associate feelings of anger and aggression (and sometimes rage) with sex. Other feelings associated with sex include fear, loneliness, or abandonment. These children typically have been exposed to high levels of sexual violence (including incest), promiscuity, pornography, and sexualized relationships.
These children who evidenced sexual behavior problems varied in diagnostic factors. These are described below.
- The sexually aggressive children tended to have the highest rates of conduct disorder diagnoses. They were more likely to penetrate their victims and less often were victims of sexual or physical abuse themselves.
- The non-symptomatic children typically did not have psychiatric diagnoses, evidenced by low levels of aggression in their sexual behaviors, and had the fewest victims. These children were some of the most likely children to have in their extended family persons who had perpetrated sexual abuse.
- Both the highly traumatized and the abusive reactive children typically were among the youngest and had the highest average number of victims. These two groups of children also had been victimized by the greatest number of sexual and physical abuse perpetrators.
- The highly traumatized children had the highest incidence of psychiatric diagnoses and posttraumatic stress disorders. Their parents were more likely than other parents to report feeling less attached to their children.
- The abusive reactive children had the shortest time between their own personal victimization experiences and the onset of their abuse against others. They experienced a high level of maltreatment and had a high number of sexual abuse perpetrators. This group had a high incidence of oppositional defiant disorders. They occasionally used aggression during their offenses.
- The rule-breaking group included a higher number of girls and had a greater lag between their own victimization experiences and the onset of their abuse against others. These children had higher levels of sexualized and aggressive behaviors and also were more likely to act out in nonsexual ways. They had the highest number of sexual abusers within their extended families.