What little doctors need to learn

Young boys interested in sex need to be taught more than just names for parts of the body
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Ten-year-old boys are supposed to be interested in football, computer games and Rollerblading - the joys of youth. Not girls. Not sex. Not rape. So many people will be shocked to hear that four of them (and a nine-year old) have been bailed after the alleged rape of a nine-year-old girl at a London primary school. The girl was, it is claimed, assaulted in a lavatory at lunchtime.

It is too soon to comment on the particular case. Few facts have been confirmed. All we can be sure of is that this little girl has had a very traumatic experience, from which it will be difficult to recover. But the story does provide an opportunity for some long overdue honesty about what really happens in the playground.

First of all, like it or not, children have a sexual interest in each other very early on. Among five- or six-year olds, you will hear the comment: "Miss, he's sexing her." It might be that a boy and a girl are just lying in the cosy corner of the classroom having a cuddle, play-acting, but it is the beginnings of interest. At seven, they might have a special friend from whom they steal a kiss. At nine and ten, children have girlfriends and boyfriends and the furtive kissing may be more experimental. For the boys, it is often a case of bravado, of proving themselves to their peers, whereas the girls, who are more mature, may actually have a crush on a boy.

But it isn't all just playing doctors and nurses. Sexual exploration can get rough, even in primary school. After all, about one in four girls are menstruating by their final year and a small minority of boys will also have entered puberty (the average age is 12, although the poverty of research about boys means we don't really know). A few are taller than some of their teachers, and their voices have dropped. "It is a safe assumption that one or two in a year group will be capable of ejaculation," according to Dr John Coleman of the Trust for the Study of Adolescence.

Primary school teachers will tell you of occasions when groups of primary- age boys have got girls in a corner and tried to touch them up. There are also cases where a girl, perhaps because she has been sexually abused, will tend to re-enact what happened to her and will encourage boys to touch her.

Sexual expression gets entangled with violence. Once boys reach nine or ten, they find themselves having constantly to prove themselves, demonstrate their masculinity, to impress their all-important peer group. "Boys may need to show that they don't need girls, particularly if they are not very successful with them," says David Warden, a child psychologist at Strathclyde University. "These unsuccessful boys are the most likely to get aggressive in an effort to gain at least the support of their male peers." Both boys and girls explore how, by using cruelty, they can gain power over people. Among girls, says Dr Warden, it's more likely to be verbal cruelty, undermining a boy's self-esteem, calling him a wimp. The boys are more likely to hit out.

Amid all this, there is great confusion. A child will report that a boy and a girl are having sex, when all that happened was that they were chatting. Children will use words without understanding what they are saying. Adults will get the full meaning and be shocked, which is, perhaps, exactly what the child wants.

Some of this is new. Children hear much more about sex than they did in the past. It's on every television channel. It is enough to be literate and to open a newspaper - at once you gain access to an adult world. All this makes playground language much more robust. But those who work with children say that, for all the information they gain through the media about sex, young people have the same old difficulties of making sense of it all.

Boys face particular difficulties. Not only do they often grow up in a highly competitive, bullying context at school, a culture in which it is de rigueur to hold girls in disdain from the ages of seven or eight, so as to prove yourself a "real man". Boys also grow up in isolation from proper support in their sexual development. At primary school, children learn the parts of the body through the science curriculum. But this focus on reproductive techniques tends to engage girls more than boys, according to the Sex Education Forum, which has organised government-funded seminars on the deficiencies of provision for boys. The stuff about relationships, social skills and morality can easily be squeezed out by the demands of the national curriculum, says Gill Lenderyou, the forum's co-ordinator. Meanwhile, at home, mothers tend to talk more to their daughters than to their sons about sexuality, and fathers are reluctant to raise the issue at all.

Part of the problem is that boys are not seen as having an obvious stage of development equivalent to girls menstruating. But another factor is that sex education is partly a response to fears. Parents are still less worried about what a son gets up to than about the possibility of a daughter becoming pregnant. Boys are less likely to learn about sex from informed sources such a health professionals because they are unlikely to attend a young person's clinic in the first place.

What all this adds up to in these supposedly enlightened times is a generation of boys who are largely cast adrift by the adult world as they try to make sense of their sexual identity. These are boys who will face considerable peer pressure to lose their virginity and who, unless offered other guidance, will learn much of what they know about sex from pornography.

Interesting solutions are being pioneered. Some primary schools now provide puberty sessions for boys. Others have invited fathers into school for sessions with their sons to discuss the boys' feelings about sexuality. This is a start. But there is a long way to go. If we fail to support boys properly, we should not be surprised that many take their sexual confusions into adulthood and that the early lives of a few are marked by sexual horror stories.