Learning about Sexuality

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Reader’s Question

I’m a 16-year-old female, and my brother is 6 years younger. I recently remembered when I was 9 or 10 years old, when my little brother and I were just playing around one day being silly, and then we humped. We had clothes on, and we only did it once. Our relationship is fine. He is 11 now, and I don’t know if he remembers, but I feel really guilty and horrible. Will this affect him? Was this abuse or molestation?

Psychologist’s Reply

I’m really glad you asked this question because, believe it or not, it is a common one. Although our society doesn’t like to admit it, children are sexual beings too, so they often engage in sexual play. Most of the time, these interactions are very innocent and are done because they are fun and feel good. A lot of adults have had the experience when they were children of ‘playing doctor’ or engaging in the kind of minor sexual exploration that you’ve described.

Where things like this get tricky is when issues of power differentials and consent arise. Simply put, power is the ability to get what you want, especially when there is conflict. The differential is when the relationship is unequal. For example, parents have more power than children, teachers have more power than students, bosses have more power than employees, and older people usually have more power than younger individuals. Sexual abuse can occur when the power differential is large, like when an adult has sex with a child or adolescent. In your case, the six-year difference between you and your brother is somewhat large but you were both children when this event occurred, so I don’t think it’s troubling.

Consent is also important to consider when thinking about sexual abuse. People tend to get emotionally harmed when they are forced to do something they do not want to do or if they do not understand what is going on. People must be able to understand the consequences of an event before they can be considered to be able to consent. That is why young people or those with cognitive difficulties have others who are responsible for their care. Given that sex can have far-reaching consequences, consent is a prerequisite for all parties involved. Consequently, when someone does not or cannot consent to a sexual encounter, it is considered abuse.

In the situation you described with your brother, it sounds like you were both playing and having fun and neither of you were forced to do anything you didn’t want to do. Since it seems as though the interaction was innocent, I doubt this will negatively affect him. He may not even remember it! Given that there were not major power differentials or problems with consent, perhaps it is time for you to move on and not worry so much about it.

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