CW: This post talks about sex and kink.
Dr. Stefani Goerlich is a sex therapist and author of The Leather Couch and the upcoming book Kink-Affirming Practice: Culturally Competent Therapy from the Leather Chair. She asked me to share the thread below that she posted on Twitter last week regarding competent practice with children. With her permission, I have made small edits for better flow in this blog.
Over the weekend, a small group tried to make an issue out of me posting that many kink-identified adults recognized that their initial interest in what they would later come to understand as kink before the age of 10. This fact made them SUPER uncomfortable, and they responded to this discomfort by trying to say I was advocating for teaching young children about BDSM and kink. Which…no. Of course not.
At the same time, the viscerally negative reactions to information such as this highlights exactly what makes it so incredibly hard for parents and therapists to offer actual support to kids who might potentially grow up to identify as kinky. The argument seemed to be that children are sexual blank slates who are naturally immune to any awareness of pleasant sensory experiences or close emotional ties before reaching the age of 18, at which point they emerge into adulthood – fully formed and ready for the monogamous, heterosexual relationship of their parent or therapist’s dreams. Because the alternative? Feels too icky to the adults around them.
The notion that children might have physical or social experiences that they later as adults contextualize as kinky is unthinkable to many parents and providers. And yet, kinky adults tell us this happens.
So, what do we do? How do we balance not exposing children to inappropriate content while also validating their experiences and curiosities? As a former Pediatric Sexual Assault Response Advocate and current Certified Sex Therapist, I have some thoughts.
First and foremost: children should not have or receive developmentally inappropriate information about sex and sexual behaviors. No child should know or use the terms BDSM, kink, et cetera. If they do? That’s a serious red flag for abuse.
If you have or are working with a child who acts out sexually, uses sexual language or terminology, or engages in sexualized play? Please connect them with a qualified children’s therapist with training in assessing potential abuse immediately. RAINN can help you find local resources. Their 24-hour hotline is 1-800-656-4673.
If, on the other hand, you have or are working with a child who expresses curiosity about or enjoyment of the way their body responds to developmentally appropriate activities, play, or interactions? (Ex: “that makes my tummy feel funny. I like it.”) Then we respond to those statements in a neutral, non-shaming way that lets the child know that they are normal, healthy, and safe. We don’t scold or punish. We don’t tease or minimize. And we don’t label or introduce terms. In other words: if your son tells you he liked how it felt to be tied up with jump ropes while playing cops and robbers with their friends in the neighborhood? You don’t call that bondage or introduce the term to him. You can ask him open-ended questions about why.
It Is 100% possible to balance protection from abuse with encouragement of healthy sexual development. Likewise, it is 100% possible to provide sex-positive, GSRD-affirming, support for young people without introducing inappropriate subject matter. How?
In my book, Kink-Affirming Practice: Culturally Competent Therapy from the Leather Chair, I offer some suggested messages for parents and providers working with young people who may identify as GSRD as adults. These include:
- Everyone has a body with different kinds of parts. Some people have bodies that look different than yours. It’s okay to be curious about those differences. You can ask your Important Adults any questions you have.
- All kinds of touch feel good. When you’re alone, you can touch your body in ways that feel good to you. And when you grow up? You can touch other grownups bodies in ways that feel good for them too. That is for grownups ONLY.
- Our bodies like all different kinds of touch. Different touches will make us feel different things. Sometimes you might like a kind of touch and then later decide you don’t. You can always say STOP. Whatever you feel is okay!
- You can ASK for what feels good to you. And you can say NO when something doesn’t feel good. Your body is beautiful and healthy and good. Most importantly? Your body is yours.
“But Stefani,” I can hear you saying, “I thought you said this was your explanation of kink-affirming care for children? none of this seems all that unique. It’s just basic sexual health stuff.”
Because it is!
The key to affirming young people (even children) who might come to identify as kinky in adulthood is not to teach them how to be kinky. We just have to teach them the key concepts we want every sexually healthy adult (kinky or vanilla) to have:
Goodness (perhaps even sacredness, depending upon your belief system).
That is what kink-affirming care looks like, for people of all ages.