When siblings inspect each other's bodies

Curiosity is part of childhood ...
Curiosity is part of childhood ... Photo: Getty/models pictured

It was around ten years ago, and my son and daughter were in the bath together. My son was around five, my daughter around three, and they were used to seeing each other naked. They knew that boys had a penis, and girls had a vagina, and that bums were the funniest things in the world.

I left the room for a moment to check on dinner, and when I returned to the bathroom, my son had some wonderful news.

"Mummy! We found her penis! It is there in her vagina! It is only very tiny, but it is there!"

Yes, my kids had been doing some examination, and discovered a part of my daughter's anatomy, nestled away in her nether regions. They were both delighted with the discovery, and terribly excited to tell me the news.

"I'm a boy, Mummy!" my daughter announced cheerfully. "I have a little penis!"

At the time, I thought it was hysterically funny, as did the friends and family with whom I shared the story. Many of my friends had their own, similar tales, of siblings checking each other out in the bath, and making earth-shattering discoveries about each others' private parts.

I hadn't thought about this particular incident for many years, until I read the storm about Lena Durnham's book. Ms Durnham has written about investigating her younger sister's vagina at the age of seven, and has been accused of sexual abuse for having done so.

Having raised three children, I am familiar with normal child development. Kids are fascinated with genitalia, and really, why shouldn't they be? They are also fascinated with noses, ears, and pretty much every orifice of the body, but genitalia most of all because they are routinely hidden away. Any parent knows that to pique a child's interest in anything, you just need to make it off limits. So of course kids are going to be interested in penises and vaginas – they are the most taboo areas of the human body, and indeed, the human experience.

When I was around seven years of age, my younger sister and I used to 'touch tongues'. It was a game for us, and one we played with tremendous glee. We would stick out our tongues as far as they could reach, until they met in the middle, and then we'd scream and pull them back into our mouths. It was fun and exciting and a little bit subversive – we knew that touching tongues was cheeky, we just didn't know why. I hadn't even heard of tongue kissing back when I was seven years old. It was about as sexual as a game of chasey. It was harmless, normal experimentation.

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Lena Durnham did not molest her sister, any more than I molested mine, or my son molested my daughter. What she described was within the boundaries of normal psychosocial behaviour, the suppression of which is the only real danger to healthy sexual development.  

Exploration and experimentation is not sexual abuse. There is no doubt that sexual abuse between siblings exists, but a seven year old examining a baby's genitals is no more abusive than a seven year old sticking her finger in a baby's ear, or putting a pea in her nose (all of which has happened in my family).

Of course, we all need to teach our children about boundaries, and my children's bath time adventures gave me an opportunity to do that with mine. But to shriek and wail and wring our hands about 'abuse' says far more about our own attitudes to sexuality and children than it does about Lena Durnham's.

On her Twitter account, Ms Durnham wrote that she 'told a story about being a weird 7 year old'. My only disagreement with her is that she really wasn't that weird at all.

And if she was weird, then we all are, and I am comfortable with that.

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