Was my cousin's behavior inappropriate?


Dear Stop It Now!,

When my family moved closer to my cousin's family, my cousin (we were both 3) started taking me into closets and enticed me to play "doctor." This happened every time I saw him, which was fairly often and continued for several years. He would show me sexual material and teach me different sexual words and actions. He was always the one in control, touching me and asking me to touch him in specific ways. I've never talked about it because I feel like both of us were at fault and we were so young, but my sexuality is really messed up and so my therapist and I have been digging into what factors could have created this. I told one person (it's so shameful, I don't tell anyone) and that person blew it off "you were just kids playing." But the more I think about it and research it, I don't think it was so normal. I wasn't sexually curious (I didn't even understand anything sexual) when I wasn't with him and I never even thought about about doing this with another person. I am wondering if I am very guarded and uncomfortable when it came to my sexuality because my first sexual experiences had to be hidden (according to my cousin) and so I learned these acts were innately shameful and "bad." How can this happen when we were so young and the same age? That's what makes me write it off as purile and harmless. Besides, he was my cousin and I trusted him, so he never had to use force. Does that make it consensual?

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Dear Questioning Adult,

I’m sorry to hear that you experienced this, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for you to have revealed this to someone else previously and have them just brush it off. That was very brave of you to talk about your experience, and I’m glad that you have the support of a counselor right now. You should know that you can heal and get answers; I’m glad you’ve reached out to us.

Understanding Children's Sexual Behaviors
Understanding children’s behaviors is often difficult, and it may help to know that many other people reach out to us with similar questions. Typically, Age-Appropriate Sexual Behaviors occur between two children who are close in age and regular playmates and is mutual and very child-like. There is no knowledge of more mature sexual behavior, no use of force, threats, or coercion, and may even be done out in the open. 

What you’re describing was both inappropriate and concerning. Although playing doctor can be developmentally expected at 3 years-old, what raises some red flags is your cousin’s use of coercion, showing you mature material, and that you say “he was always the one in control.” Although you both were the same age, this play doesn’t sound mutual and child-like. Also, this continued to happen for many years – and typically healthy sexual play is intermittent and spontaneous and doesn’t have that “obsessive” and ongoing element you describe.

Sometimes it can be helpful to debunk some myths associated with children’s sexual behaviors – including inappropriate, harmful, and even abusive ones – to help answer some of your other questions. First, it’s important to understand that children’s sexual behaviors are very different than those of adults. Similarly, the reasons why a child or teen may engage in inappropriate behavior can also be very different: sometimes a youth may act out harmful behaviors because they’ve been exposed to mature and adult-like sexual behaviors through pornography or because of their own sexual abuse, but there are yet many other factors in their life that can play a role (impulse control disorder, confusion about boundaries, misinformation, other trauma or stressor, disability, etc.). It sounds like your cousin may have been showing you mature material, so although I don’t want to point to a specific cause, this certainly could have influenced his behaviors. I’ve left some additional resources below on this very topic that you may be interested in.

I want to stress that this absolutely was not your fault, and you were not to blame. Children can never consent to any sexual activity, and though your cousin didn’t use force there were other elements that show that there was a difference in power, which made this play unable to be mutual. 

You’re right that it’s likely since your cousin was very young himself he might not have understood his actions in the same way that you do now – from your adult perspective, and he might not have even intended to hurt you either. However, that doesn’t make the harm he caused any less real. Even if the intention wasn’t there and he didn’t understand what he was doing, that doesn’t make what happened okay, and it certainly doesn’t mean you are to blame. Children can and do engage in inappropriate and harmful behaviors with other kids, and you’re not alone in wondering all the complex ways this may have affected you.

Steps Towards Healing
Again, I’m really glad to hear that you’re working with a counselor. This shame you describe, and the way that you feel like this has impacted your sexuality – these are both things that you can work on with your therapist. This may take time, but unraveling all of the intricate ways this has affected you can really help you start to reclaim your life and parts of yourself that you feel have been impacted by what happened in your childhood. I encourage you to continue to talk about this with your counselor, as you’re ready, as they can help you get any tools you need to recover.

Although you’re working with a therapist already, I’ve included some additional resources below just for survivors of abuse if you’re interested. I don’t want to label your experience – as it’s yours to define – but there are some online communities there that may be one more way for you to start to connect to other people who may have been through similar things. Again, please do what feels right for you.

Take care,
Stop It Now!


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Last edited on: November 13th, 2018