I received a note recently from an individual asking for sex ed counsel. I was offered very little information about the situation that was causing much parental concern. The nominal details included ‘9 year olds’, ‘scout camp’, ‘group penis activity’ and ‘parents are freaking’.
I know that the activity in question wasn’t merely a bunch of boys shaking their naked mid-sections in front of one another. If it were, it certainly offers an opportunity to talk about bodies, curiosity, privacy and consent but it wouldn’t cause hysteria.
I appreciate that ‘group penis activity’ is a lot different than learning how to build a fire or developing good compass skills without the assistance of Pokeman Go. As parents, we need to understand (and get comfortable) that when we send our kids out into the world, they might have experiences and learn things about bodies and sex that may not be according to our design. Camp is about developing all sorts of skills outside of physical ones – opportunities to develop social, emotional and sexual knowledge and skill occurs as well. Badge or no badge, our kids will learn about sex at camp.
So if I needed to address ‘group penis activity’ among a bunch of 9 year olds at camp with a kid, the sex ed lesson would go something like this:
(1) as a person with a penis, it makes a lot of sense to be curious about other penises
(2) acting on that curiosity can be fine BUT
(3) acting on that sexual curiosity with others (be it touching or mouthing) isn’t for kids
(4) that’s because of the critical importance of consent/permission
(5) if you aren’t sure what consent is, what it looks like, how to ensure its given- acting on that curiosity is a no go
(6) I have some books that might explain some of the stuff that you are curious about and I’m happy to talk about penises and how they work and what older people do with them when they are with other older people.
NOW, I have to make clear that there is lots of sexual play among kids that occurs that is consensual. Often it isn’t ‘getting consent to engage in sexual activity’ so much as ‘getting consent to be curious together about genitals and sex’. I know that might seem a vague distinction, but at 9, 10, and 11 many kids really are curious and aren’t interested in having sexual experiences per say. Is this an absolute? No, but with my (non-clinical) training and knowledge of child sexual development, I’d say overwhelmingly that healthy curiosity is guiding young people and I’d start from that place until I have reason to think otherwise. Don’t turn something healthy into something that isn’t.
Still, to be clear, sometimes acts of this nature do stem from situations of abuse. A child acting in a particular way (outside of developmental appropriateness, without boundaries -especially where clear boundaries have been drawn) because they themselves are sexually abused or are otherwise neglected, need interventions and support. If there was an instigator, some probing questions ought to be asked and if you need help asking, find a clinician who will not shame the activity while attempting to help. Also, physical harm needs to be addressed. It can happen from penetrative acts undertaken by (young) people engaging without knowledge of potential impacts. Understanding what happened and asking about any pain or discomfort (at the time or subsequently) is important.
Based on the information I have and because I think this is most often the case, I’m going to assume that this group penis activity among 9 year olds occurred because of curiosity and silliness and with no intention to harm. AND I’m going to assume that it occurred without clear consent from everyone in the group. That is problematic because it seems very possible to me that one (or more) of the participants may have felt uncomfortable. That’s a best case scenario – it may be that some felt coerced to participate.
BUT here’s the thing – even if there was coercion, freaking out is not the right response. In fact, freaking out is a counter-productive response. We are likely to not distinguish between the concerns we have about consent / age appropriateness and the activities themselves. We are far too likely to message (and reinforce) ideas that sex is bad and shameful. We might especially do that with regards to gay sex. And really, our kids get enough of those messages and the harm we can cause if we do that, can be, truthfully, deadly to a young person.
Please, freaking parents, hear me when I say that I understand what might drive you to freak. We’ve been taught to have responses like this. But instead, choose to be more tempered. As parents we need to help our kids value their curiosity, celebrate their bodies and explore in ways that are safe for everyone.
The part of this ‘group penis activity’ that MUST be addressed with all the participants is about permission and safety. This is a lesson in consent, dear people. It’s a lesson in standing up for oneself and never engaging in activities that you don’t want to engage in. It largely doesn’t matter if this activity was looking, touching or sucking. If we don’t shame the activity, all of these things can be confirmed as potentially good and healthy when undertaken in the appropriate circumstances and with the requisite understanding and maturity. That’s a good message for kids. We can help young people understand just how resilient they can be, and how they can learn and respond so that if there is a next time, and they want it to be different, they can feel more in control and empowered to make it so. At the end of the day, any ‘group penis activity’ needs to be engaged in with consent. THAT’S the CRUX of all of this.
So don’t freak out. Our kids are learning and testing limits at 9. They are watching and absorbing what and how we respond to new situations. Our role here is to offer guidance and boundaries for respectful, just, trusting AND joyful activity (including penis activity) for now and the future. If you haven’t already, 9 is a perfect age to introduce the word consent. It’s a goodie.
You can talk about all the ways you’ve taught and expected your child to give and get consent.
- ‘it’s your body and nobody can go on or in your body without your permission’
- you are not obliged to kiss or hug someone hello or goodbye
- you have to ask to play with someone else’s toy, you can’t just grab it from them. Same goes for touching or kissing someone
- be sure that wrestling is a fun game for everyone. Use safe words
You can also offer information about how penises work, who and why people engage in oral sex or other forms of penetrative sex, and you can talk about touching ones own penis as a healthy (and oftentimes happy) way to get to know you own body.
Don’t freak. Talk.