"Normal" childhood sexual play and games: differentiating play from abuse

Child Abuse Negl. Jul-Aug 1993;17(4):515-26. doi: 10.1016/0145-2134(93)90026-2.


Recent recognition of child-to-child and adolescent-to-child sexual abuse raises the question, for the courts, educators, clinicians, and lay individuals, where do we draw the line between normal childhood sexual play, and abuse. This paper presents the results of a survey on normative childhood sexual play and games experiences that was distributed to 300 undergraduates at an all women's college. One hundred-twenty-eight returned the survey, 85% of whom described a childhood sexual game experience. Of these women, 44% described cross-gender play and there was a trend for women who had described cross-gender experiences to have seen the play as involving persuasion, manipulation, or coercion. A strong relationship was found between abuse and cross-gender play. Level of physical involvement in the game was correlated with perceptions of normality. A typology of six kinds of sexual play experiences was derived. Results are discussed in terms of their relation to differentiating childhood sexual abuse from play and gender socialization influences relating to the role rehearsal of coercive or manipulative relationships.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Abuse, Sexual / diagnosis*
  • Child Abuse, Sexual / psychology
  • Child Behavior
  • Child, Preschool
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Gender Identity
  • Humans
  • Play and Playthings*
  • Sex Factors
  • Sexual Behavior / classification*
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology
  • Sibling Relations
  • Surveys and Questionnaires