Advice Column, Health, Lifestyle, Tween & Teen Advice

How To Teach Children About Appropriate Sexual Behaviour

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I recently endured a rather nasty experience with a man who quite clearly did not understand sexual boundaries and the concept of consent.  Having left me feeling in turn helpless, bewildered and angry; it got me thinking: If this is how I feel as an adult woman with good communication skills and world experience, how can we empower our children so that they are less likely to be victimised? I don’t think I’m alone when I admit that I have experienced several incidents of inappropriate sexual behaviour right from when I was a child through to adulthood, at work and privately.  The trouble is that there’s a stigma attached to talking about it.  This is partly because we figure we should just be strong and ‘bite the bullet’ and maybe because we feel partially responsible?  Could we have unintentionally encouraged the behaviour by being too open, too friendly, too flirtatious, too provocatively dressed, etc.?

There have been a few school incidents I have heard about recently which indicate to me that our children desperately need to learn about sexual boundaries and appropriate sexual behaviour.  We don’t want them turning into adults who continue the culture of entitlement, sexual harassment and sexual violence so prevalent in South Africa.

Children need to learn:

  • What is regarded as natural, healthy sexual behaviour?
  • When and what is inappropriate sexual behaviour?
  • How are our laws supposed to protect children?
  • What can kids can do if they need help?

What is natural, healthy sexual behaviour pre-puberty?

The truth is that most children experiment with some kind of sexual behaviour before the age of thirteen. Most of it is normal and healthy.  Even very young children experience pleasurable sensations from touching their own genitals and feel sexually aroused, without knowing or understanding what sexual arousal actually is.  Many children indulge their curiosity about each other’s bodies by looking (you show me yours and I’ll show you mine) and/or touching in games like playing ‘doctor’ or ‘house’ where they can try out gender roles and behaviours.

The key is that healthy play of this kind is usually light-hearted and spontaneous, with children of similar age and size, and participation is voluntary.  

Also, this curiosity would normally be balanced by curiosity about other aspects of their lives.  Even though this kind of sexual exploration may result in embarrassment (especially if caught or found out) it would not normally leave the child with deep feelings of anger, shame or anxiety.  Usually if children are discovered and told to stop, the behaviour lessens, at least in front of adults.

How adults handle children involved in this sort of healthy sexual play can have a huge effect on the child later in life.  Getting angry, showing your shock or disgust or making the child feel guilty is not the way to handle it, even if the behaviour is inappropriate.  Distracting smaller children and clearly explaining our societal rules for sexual behaviour is the best way to teach your children.

Here’s what you need to cover:

  1. Certain behaviours are socially acceptable in public and others aren’t.  It depends on one’s age and where you are. e.g. In many cultures it’s okay for small children or babies to be naked in public, but it isn’t okay for bigger children to do this, and against the law for teens and adults.  It’s okay to show affection like a hug or hold hands, but it isn’t socially acceptable for teens or adults to French kiss and touch each other’s private parts in public, and in some countries it is even illegal to kiss or hold hands!  It is certainly against the law to display any sexual behaviour or have sex in public.
  2. Other behaviour is only okay for your private space.  For example, you can throw a tantrum in your room but it isn’t acceptable to shout and scream at other people or show aggression in public.  Although it is normal for children to touch their own genitals, it is something to be done in private not public.  Children do not have to be ashamed or guilty about masturbating, but it should not become an obsession either – that’s not healthy.  If your culture and religion has firm rules about masturbation explain these and why these rules are important to you and your family.
  3. We are all entitled to have our own personal space.  This is to do with privacy and etiquette/good manners.  For example, it isn’t okay to go right up to someone you don’t know and touch them. When we’re getting to know people, we gradually build up intimacy so that eventually with friends or people we care about, it becomes okay to break into each other’s personal space, as long as they’re okay with that.  We all need privacy, so discuss which areas of your home are private areas; e.g. the toilet, the bathroom, bedrooms.  Make rules you all agree to, e.g. no locking doors, knock before entering, not allowed in without permission.

When and what is inappropriate sexual behaviour in children?

Many factors influence children’s sexual development  – the environment in which they grow, develop and interact has a big influence on their knowledge, attitudes and behaviours.  In establishing whether the sexual behaviour of young people is normal, concerning or harmful, it’s important to consider the current social, cultural and familial context.  

We need to understand what their behaviour is telling us. Children show their wants and needs through their behaviour, and don’t always have the language, experience or ability to get help, so adults must look carefully at the behaviour to interpret it.  It’s essential to think about why the child or teen is exhibiting the behaviour and also the nature of the behaviour, the location and the frequency must be taken into account.

A broad guideline with examples from the Traffic Lights Guide to Sexual Behaviour in Children and Young People is below. The full brochure with red, orange and green light behaviour by age is obtainable from Family Planning Queensland (FPQ)

RED – Sexual behaviours which indicate or cause harm because they are:

  • Excessive, compulsive, coercive, forceful, degrading or threatening
  • Secretive, manipulative or involve bribery or trickery
  • Not appropriate for the age and stage of development between children with a significant difference in age, developmental ability or power

RESPONSE: These behaviours signal the need to provide immediate protection and follow-up support.

ORANGE – Sexual behaviour which causes concern because of:

  • Persistence, intensity, frequency or duration the type of activity or knowledge for the age or stage of development
  • Inequality in age, size, power or developmental ability risk to the health and safety of the child or others
  • Unusual changes in a child’s behaviour

RESPONSE: These behaviours signal the need to monitor and provide extra support. 

GREEN: Sexual behaviour which are part of normal and healthy development and are:

  • Spontaneous, curious, light-hearted, easily diverted, enjoyable, mutual and consensual
  • Appropriate to the child’s age and development
  • Activities or play among equals in terms of age, size and ability levels about understanding and gathering information, balanced with curiosity about other parts of life

RESPONSE: These behaviours provide opportunities to talk, explain and support.

The impact of pornography

With porn being so easily accessible to children with access to the internet via their cell phones and other devices, unfortunately they are sometimes exposed to pornography when they are very young and impressionable. In a report by Iyavar Chetty and Antoinette Basson about how exposure to pornography affects children, they state: ‘Research studies suggest that exposure of children under 14 years to pornography is related to greater involvement in deviant sexual practice, particularly rape. Slightly more than a third of the child molesters in the study by W L Marshall, claimed to have been incited to commit an offence by exposure to pornography and 53% of them deliberately used the stimuli of pornography as they prepared to commit their crimes.’

We have to explain to children that pornography is harmful to young people for the following reasons:

  • It promotes the idea of women or girls being objects for men’s sexual satisfaction.  Objectification is the first step in being able to disconnect from one’s actions and see the victim as an object, not a human being with thoughts, intelligence and emotions.
  • Porn views sex as a game – so you need to score, conquer or win as many conquests as you can.  This promotes a narcissistic and hedonistic view to sex.  Each conquest is just another notch in their belt, another trophy for their collection.  There’s no concern about hurting the other person or forming a relationship with depth and quality.  It’s about quantity.
  • Porn promotes the idea that “ordinary”, safe sex is boring.  There are no morals in porn movies – you can have sex with whoever you want whenever you want.  It’s quite okay to have sex with total strangers and adultery is commonplace.  It’s much more fun if sex is out of the ordinary, weird, illegal or dangerous.  No such thing as using protection either! It’s all about your satisfaction – there are no physical or psychological repercussions.
  • Physical perfection is all important.  Porn doesn’t care about your mind or your personality – only your body.  Anything less than perfection is ridiculed.  Women have perfect, usually enhanced breasts, gorgeous bodies and neat and tidy genitalia.  Men are well endowed and can keep going for ages like Energiser bunnies!
  • Anything is acceptable in porn movies.  It’s okay to degrade, abuse and even rape men, women, children and even animals.  People are often humiliated or treated with contempt and they just keep begging for more.  The women in porn movies never refuse men anything, at least not for long.  No doesn’t mean no.  Porn tells men that it’s okay to enjoy hurting and abusing women for entertainment.  They like it!
  • Tastes in porn are veering younger and younger.  Women often dress up as little girls with pigtails, looking all innocent or acting as virgins.  The fantasy of the virginal young woman losing her virginity and loving it, is encouraged.  The sad truth is that many of the girls are underage or runaways, and women and girls are often sexually abused or trafficked, hooked on drugs and trapped in a life of slavery.

We have to explain to children from a young age the difference between safe and unsafe touching.  Safe touching would be showing affection for a person we care about, like hugging a friend, mom kissing her children goodnight, a teacher patting kids on the back when they’ve done well at sport.  Safe touching makes us feel good – warm, safe, secure and loved.  Unsafe touching makes us feel uncomfortable, anxious and confused. Some examples may be, crossing sexual boundaries, e.g. touching a girl’s breasts, genital area or bottom without their consent, touching a boy’s genital area or bottom without his consent, kissing someone without their consent or forcing someone to touch you when they don’t want to.

Consent is agreeing to do something. Children are particularly vulnerable as they often don’t understand this concept and older children, adolescents or adults may take advantage of their ignorance and coerce them into participating in behaviours that are not appropriate or even illegal.  We have to discuss what consent means in a way our children will understand. e.g. your child lets the neighbour play with their soccer ball one afternoon.  The next day, the neighbour comes to the house and takes the ball without asking.  A girl allows a boy to kiss her, but then he sticks his tongue in her mouth without permission or tries to touch her breasts.  Boys and girls must learn that no matter what happened earlier, it is okay for someone to change their mind at ANY point and decide to stop. NO means NO! We all have to learn to respect each other’s choices and decisions, even if we may not agree with them.

Children have to trust their gut feelings or instincts.  If something happens that makes them feel bad, confused or uncomfortable, like they’re doing something wrong, then it is not right and they must tell someone they trust.  As awful as it is, we adults also need to trust our instincts and believe children who tell us they are being sexually abused and by law, we are required to report such abuse.

There are some important facts about child sexual abuse we need to know:

  • There are two types of physical child sexual abuse: rape (intercourse) and molestation (everything else).
  • There are three types of sexual offences against children: rape, molestation and possession or production of child pornography.
  • There are two types of child sex offenders who rape and molest children: a) preferential – Paedophile, child sexual abuse is a life-long obsession and b) situational – Non-Paedophile, opportunistic child abuser.
  • There are two types of Paedophile: a) individuals who want to have sex with prepubescent children – fantasy only (non-offending) and b) individuals who want to have sex with prepubescent children and carry out their fantasies through the rape or molestation of children or through possession or production of child pornography.
  • According to One Child International, a worldwide child protection agency, 25% (1 in 4) of girls and 15% (1 in 6) of boys are sexually abused as children. Most sexual abuse offenders (90%) are acquainted with their victims – 40% are relatives of the child, 50% are friends of the family, only 10% are strangers. The median age for reported abuse is 9 years old. An average serial child molester may have 400 or more victims in their lifetime. Sexual abuse occurs in all socioeconomic groups.

See; or for more info about how to recognise and handle child sexual abuse.

Where to get help

  • Childline is an effective non-profit organisation working collectively to protect children from all forms of violence and creating a culture of children’s rights in SA. They offer advice on child rights, therapy, training of volunteers and other professionals, court preparation, etc. They can be reached on their toll free number 0800 55 555 or email
  • The Teddy Bear Clinic provides holistic child protection services including offering a specialised medical facility for children who have been abused or neglected, forensic & psychological assessments, therapeutic counselling, court preparation and various support programmes. They can be reached on 011 484-4554.
  • Johannesburg Child Welfare plays a pivotal role in child care and protection strategies. They can be reached on 011 298-8500 or email Child Welfare South Africa’s phone number is 0861 424 453 or 011 452-4110 or email
  • SAPS Crime Stop phone number is 08600 10111. SMS Crime Line: 32211.
  • Department of Social Development 24 hour toll free Command Centre is 0800 428 428. Callers can get assistance and counselling from a social worker.  You can also dial *120*7867# (free call) from any cell phone for a social worker to contact you. Contact for further info.

Nelson Mandela said: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ We have a huge problem in South Africa with our children being sexually abused and violated. We have to empower them by talking to them about sexual boundaries, making responsible sexual decisions, their rights as children, the laws that protect them and the importance of reporting violations and getting help if required.

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