What to make of second-graders having sex

There's understandable shock over the Oakland, Calif., case. But is our sexual culture really to blame?


Tracy Clark-Flory
January 26, 2011 6:31AM (UTC)

Oral sex in second grade? It feels wrong to even string those words together, and yet that is reportedly what took place between two 7-year-olds during class at a school in Northern California. Unsurprisingly, the case has led to plenty of "what is the world coming to?" commentary. A mommy blogger wrote: "This makes me want to consider homeschooling." Conservative commenters are calling it a sign of our "Climate of Depravity" and the sad "state of the American family." Some are making vague links between this incident and the sexed-up culture that birthed MTV's "Skins," which is currently courting controversy for steamy scenes starring actual minors. Even Perez Hilton and the U.K.'s Daily Mail got in on the outrage.

Beyond the general shock factor, there is a familiar fear driving the media coverage -- that this is what kids are doing these days. Well, is this really what our porny culture hath wrought? I went to John Myers, an expert on child sexuality and abuse, to find out just how legitimate that worry is.

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What's clear is that what reportedly took place at this Oakland elementary school is "so far out on the continuum that any expert would say that it's learned," he says. Typically, this behavior is learned through sexual abuse or witnessing adults or other kids engaging in it. Especially in "low-income housing or in a crowded apartment, sometimes kids will inadvertently see adults engaged in consensual sexual behavior and then copy it," he says.

However, it's also possible that these second-graders were influenced by smut. "We do see that sort of behavior in kids who have been exposed to pornography. Once they see it, it's in their sexual repertoire." Unfortunately, the best available research on normal sexual behavior among kids was published in the late '90s, when online porn was available but before it became the ever-present force that it is today; Mayo Clinic researchers found zero reports from caretakers of oral sex among children without a history of sexual abuse. Of course, some fear that porn has so pervaded our culture that this sort of extreme sexual mimicry among second-graders will cease to be such an anomaly.

I mentioned to Myers that when I was in second grade -- in Berkeley, just a few miles from the school in question -- I remember boys would hump the floor and one cornered me with a line learned from Color Me Badd, "I wanna sex you up." "That's what we'd expect from a kid of that age," he said. "That behavior has been going on since time immemorial. Little kids play doctor, they're curious from a very early age. Sexual behavior is normal, but [the Oakland case] is way, way off the chart." That said, Myers notes that sexual norms change for kids just as they do for adults, and we simply don't know how porn, and our increasingly raunchy culture as a whole, has influenced children's sexual behavior in the decade-plus since the Mayo Clinic study was conducted.


Tracy Clark-Flory

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