What Lena did, as recorded in her memoir, is sexually experiment on and with her younger sister, for several years. Since her admission, Lena has been accused of sexually abusing her sister, while many have spoken up to say that it is completely normal and, as such, harmless.
Neither is entirely accurate.
Child sexual exploration is natural, because sex is fascinating, touching ourselves and being touched feels good, and children discover these facts at various ages. It is normal for children to be curious, and react to good physical sensations.
It is common, because children will explore their bodies, and sometimes the bodies of others. They will learn that something feels good, and they will want to repeat it.
But what Lena did is not ok. It’s not ok because children cannot consent. It does not necessarily make her a child molester, because she was a child herself. But she was several years older than her sister, and Dunham would not be the first minor accused of sexual abuse. Where is the line drawn? When is a child old enough to know not to touch another child sexually? What age gap is acceptable? What if it is an 8-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl? There are too many grey areas; too fine of a line between childhood exploration and sexual abuse.
It is natural for children to explore their own bodies; it is natural in the scheme of human sexuality for kids to be curious about their friends’ bodies, but it is not ok for children to explore any body but their own.
Children cannot consent, legally, and before a certain age, developmentally. Sexual contact without consent is sexual assault. An important part of consent is having the ability to say no, and the ability to recognize when someone is saying no.
Children do not have this ability. We all know plenty of toddlers who adore the word “NO!” But true consent means being developmentally able to understand sexual contact, to understand where your relationship with your sexual partner stands, to check in and make sure everything (especially new things) is going well and feeling comfortable. It is wise for partners, even those who have been together for years, to check in: “How does this feel?” “Is this ok?” “How was that for you?”
Affirmative consent is not just the absence of no– it is an enthusiastic YES! While children may have the natural desire for sexual contact (not because they understand sex and all of its complicated layers, but because it feels good), they do not have the developmental capability to form healthy boundaries and give an empowered “NO!” whenever necessary.
Because of this lack of consent, child sexual exploration wades dangerously close to assault, whether it seems completely innocent or not. While it may seem harmless and in some cases be harmless, there is no realistic way for children to form healthy boundaries. There is no guarantee that both children will have innocent intentions. There’s really no way to obtain consent in such situations, and because of that, it is not ok. Common, yes. Natural, yes. Safe? Not necessarily. Rendering it Not. O.K.
With that in mind, how do we prevent this, since it does stem from natural, normal curiosity?
Teach children about the incredible importance of consent. Start early.
DO NOT FORCE YOUR CHILDREN TO HUG OR KISS ANYONE, EVER, EVEN YOU.
Don’t spank your children. This teaches kids that people who love them can hit them, and teaches them they have absolutely no ownership over their own bodies. Spanking is a recipe for powerlessness.
Stop tickling your child if they tell you to stop. Have a “safe word” for rough play.
Teach your kids to obtain consent before touching others. Teach them empathy; ask them how they would feel if someone did this or that to them.
Teach your kids the right names for their genitals. Doing so helps prevent sexual abuse.
Remind your kids that their genitals are private, or sacred, or whatever word works for you and conveys that no one else is allowed to touch them there. I do this with my six-year-old, and have for several years. A casual reminder when he’s washing his genitals in the bath suffices: “Remember, no one is allowed to touch you there [add “until you’re older” when appropriate].”
Empower your kids to say no. Give them choices, and allow them to make their own decisions whenever realistically possible. Something as simple as, “Do you want broccoli or peas for your veggie?” helps empower.
Give kids a sense of bodily autonomy by treating them like human beings who are separate from you. They are having their own experience. Get on their level and empathize.
As your children get older, continue to have age-appropriate conversations about consent, sex, relationships, honesty, and anything else that may help your kids become conscientious people. Have them read things like this and this and this and this and this.
This may seem like a lot of information to lay on a young child, but when this approach is normalized from birth, it becomes second nature. My six-year-old has been known to run by me at the playground, chasing a squealing playmate, exclaiming, “They consent!!!”
Children are capable of understanding a lot more than they are given credit for, and they deserve to know this information to avoid being victimized, and to avoid victimizing someone else. Not all childhood sexual exploration is victimizing, but it can be, and because of that, it is our duty as parents to take preventative measures.
Talk to your kids about sex. Talk to them about consent, boundaries, and autonomy. Teach them that their bodies are theirs, and they are worthy of respect. Help keep your kids, and everyone else’s, safe!