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Gaps And Silences: The Culture And Adolescent Sex Offenders

Heather Coleman

Human sexuality has seldom been considered a strong or healthy force in the psychological development of children in Western culture. Perhaps it has been easier to consider children as asexual and that those children who express an interest in sexual matters are pathological. Yet the opposite understanding is more accurate; that is, children are sexual beings and childhood sexuality is not a pathological condition (Ryan & Lane, 1991). Compared to childhood, puberty and adolescence are seen as sexually dynamic periods of development, but our culture tries to delay or repress sexual interactions before the attainment of "adult" status. An opposing, but equally distorted, view is that sex is instinctive and that normal sexual behaviour will occur when the time is right. Both viewpoints lead to the same conclusion.

If sexuality is intuitive, natural, and normal, then the logic evolves that there is no need to educate. Similarly, if children are asexual, again there is no need to educate. Finally, if teenagers are bursting with sexual energy, discussing sexuality with them would fan their fires and grant permission for them to act on their urges. Because of these rationalizations, it is difficult for children (and even adults) to obtain accurate and straightforward information about sex (Zilbergeld, 1978).

The failure to openly discuss sexuality works against the juvenile offender who is often sexually naive. Confusion about sexuality in general and positive sexuality in particular is a common trait of adolescent sex offenders and their families. Treatment programs report that teen offenders require accurate and even explicit sex education during treatment (Betha-Jackson & Brissett-Chapman, 1989).

Over the past ten years, controversy has surrounded the provision of sex education, particularly where it should be taught and what should be included in the curriculum. Although most people agree that sex information should be provided at home, this seldom happens. Repeatedly, studies reveal that teens obtain information from their peers (Gebhard, 1977; Kallen, Stephenson, & Doughty, 1983; Kirby, Alter, & Scales, 1979). A 1981 study suggested that most teenagers received their information about sex primarily from peers, with th,e media and literature running second (Thornburg, 1981). Only about 10% of all children obtain sex information from their parents (Masters, Johnson, & Kolodny, 1992). Furthermore, fathers playa passive role in the sex education of children. When sex education is offered in schools, it is often a biology lesson covering the physical aspects of sex. Seldom does sex education examine sexual behaviour or intimate interpersonal relationships.

Therapy with juvenile offenders consequently must pick up the pieces left by the failure to provide responsible and complete sex education. Learning about sexual relationships often occurs in secrecy tainted with guilt. Again, the result is that children are denied validation or correction. Silence is transformed into a tacit acceptance or approval of behaviours.

It is puzzling that at the same time as there is opposition to sex education in the schools, the media bombard children (and adults) with distorted sex role images and inaccurate information about human sexuality. Children are exposed to vast amounts of sexual information through films, video games, television, movies, and magazines. Embedded in the media messages is the impression that violence and sexual exploitation are normal parts of interpersonal relationships and are therefore acceptable. Exposure to themes of male aggression and sex becomes greater as teens acquire independence from their families. It is generally accepted that earlier interventions yield the strongest returns. Sex education delayed until adolescence is threatened because of the weakened influence of the family. Surprisingly, pornography and even child pornography were still legal in Canada until 1990 (Rogers, 1990) leaving adolescents vulnerable to the influence of sexually exploitive material. Movies also glorify sexual interaction between teenage boys and older women (e.g., The Graduate, Summer of '42) or glamourize violent sex (Basic Instinct).

Adolescent males are commended for sexual encounters with older women, leaving one to wonder whether child sexual abuse by an adult female is rare or just not considered abuse. For example, respondents in one study were less likely to consider an adult female's sexual interaction with a male victim as child sexual abuse (Broussard, Wagner, & Kazelskis, 1991). One wonders if the media reflect society's views and values, or create them.

Betha-Jackson, G., & Brissett-Chapman, S. (1989). The juvenile sexual offender: Challenges to assessment for outpatient intervention. Child and Adolescent Social Work, 6(2), 127-137.

Broussard, S., Wagner, W., & Kazelskis, R. (1991). Undergraduate students' perceptions of child sexual abuse: The impact of victim sex, perpetrator sex, respondent sex, and victim response. Journal of Family Violence, 6(3), 267-278.

Gebhard, P. (1977). The acquistion of basic sex information. Journal of Sex Research, 13, 148-169.
Kallen, D., Stephenson, J., & Doughty, A. (1983). The need to know: Recalled adolescent sources of sexual and contraceptive information and sexual behaviour. Journal of Sex Research, 19, 137-159.

Kirby, D., Alter, J., & Scales, P. (1979). An analysis of U.S. sex education programs and evaluation methods. Report CDC-2021-79-DK-FR. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Public health Services, Center for Disease Control, Bureau of Health Education.

Masters, W., Johnson, V., & Kolodny, R. (1992). Human sexuality. New York: Harper Collins.

Rogers, R. (1990). Reaching for solutions. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services.

Ryan, G., & Lane, S. (Eds). (1991). Juvenile offending: Causes, consequences and correction. Toronto: Lexington.

Thornburg, H. (1981). Adolescent sources of information on sex. Journal of School Health, 51, 274-281.

Zilbergeld, B. (1978). Male sexuality. New York: Bantam Books.

Coleman, H. (1996) Gaps And Silences: The Culture And Adolescent Sex Offenders. Journal Of Child And Youth Care Vol. 11 No.1, pp 3-4

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