by Bill Paris
(Author's note: The following should be regarded as a preliminary document. In it I attempt to highlight issues in which I have had a considerable interest for a number of years, about which I have done some research and about which I have even written in a previous paper, "The Body, Sex and Christianity". I intend to continue my study and produce a more comprehensive report later, perhaps in a different form. However, the understanding of childhood sexuality in our culture is deplorable at this point. The attitude of both Christians and even secular people seems to be growing more reactionary and paranoid in spite of the notion that our society is becoming more liberal sexually. In addition, questions and issues related to childhood sexuality are often raised in our Internet discussions. These reasons seem to call for an attempt at this time to begin dealing with some of these critical issues.)
What Is Childhood?
In my opinion, much of the confusion that exists in our society about childhood sexuality traces to a failure to understand historical and cultural developments. There is, for example, a prevailing view in our society that "children" shouldn't "have sex." When this is said, what is meant by "children" and what is meant by "having sex"? Should childhood be defined by civil law that indicates the legal age at which a person may engage in sexual intercourse (is this what is meant, by the way, by "having sex"?)? What about the fact that in the United States this age, referred to as the "age of consent," varies widely among states? These ages range from a low of 12 in Delaware to 18 in many states. Or does childhood end when a person can legally buy and consume alcohol, which also varies state to state and does not necessarily coincide with the age of consent. Or does a person become an adult when he can drive, vote or marry? These ages, also, do not necessarily coincide in any state, much less among the states.
The age thresholds above are legal boundaries. What about biological and psychological ages, especially puberty? Should a person be legally "qualified" to have sex at puberty? In fact, in the few states where the age of consent is quite low, puberty and legal age do roughly coincide, but these states are in the minority.
And what does "having sex" mean? In the popular mind it probably means engaging in sexual intercourse. (By the way, civil and criminal laws do not use the popular term "having sex," but instead refer to sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual contact.) What about these "other forms" of "sexual contact"? State laws discuss such things as oral sex (still illegal even for adults in many states) and mere "touching" of the genitals or breasts in terms of punishable sexual offenses when "children" are involved. Some of these provisions differ depending on whether one person is a legal adult or not. Do these other kinds of contact, which can be very erotically pleasing or even produce orgasms, qualify as "having sex"?
One could go on about the confusion, both popular and legal, which exists in our society on the subject of childhood sexuality. Perhaps this small discussion is sufficient to point up the problems.
This desperate situation in which children and adults find themselves in our sexually ignorant and repressive society seems to me to call for an understanding of how we got to where we are.
How Did We Get Here?: Childhood in History
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the period of the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution of the same period produced profound effects in Europe and America on the attitudes of society and church toward children. These changes altered permanently the definition of childhood and adulthood and the sexual roles, rights and obligations of youth in society.
Prior to these historical developments, children had been regarded mostly as potential adults (infants and toddlers) or actual adults (older children and adolescents) in terms of the economic structures of families, tribes and larger social groupings. Children were seen as essential workers in these structures. The focus of this phenomenon was in the mostly agricultural societies of the entire world prior to the Industrial Revolution. In these societies the hard physical work of the entire family was necessary for survival.
These spiritual, intellectual and mechanical revolutions ultimately changed the way in which human beings looked at themselves and their personal and societal relationships. This period of time was probably the beginning, in Europe and North America at least, of the kind of human self-consciousness and self-analysis that ultimately produced the social sciences, especially psychology and related fields.
As for the Reformation, driven partly by a new spiritual freedom Christians became more concerned for the health and social welfare of one another. It is not that works of mercy towards the poor and sick had not existed before, but this period saw a tremendous explosion of such efforts.
One development in this period was the growing consciousness that children were perhaps not physically suited for much of the hard labor that they were typically called on to do. There was also a new concern for orphans, who often went about in bands of beggars or thieves and were generally neglected or even abused by society.
The Industrial Revolution was the engine that began to drive the populations of Europe and North America away from the farms and into the cities where manufacturing and its supporting enterprises demanded workers to produce the goods and services that offered the promise of a better life. During this period children often suffered, being coerced into factory work that was probably harder than what they had done on the farms.
Yet the churches and other caring people also took notice of their plight, eventually leading to the development of child labor laws for their protection.
The focus of life in Western Europe and America shifted even more certainly from the rural to the urban in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Life really did get "better" and easier for almost all classes, compared with the previous few centuries. Physical health and life expectancy improved. Diseases were better controlled. Wars diminished, enabling the human race in these societies to get on with living rather than dying.
As these developments occurred, the lot of children improved, but their role as productive, even essential, members of society diminished.
The development that closed the circle of the "cult of childhood" was compulsory public education. It was the product of the earlier developments that lessened the practical usefulness of children. It was also a new force that restructured childhood so that youth would from now on be socially defined as "children" and "students," not proto-adults. From now on the child's task, never entirely clear to him, but steadfastly maintained and managed by the educational institutions, was to pilot himself through many years of schooling toward the abstract goal of "graduation." After graduation there was either college (more years of economically unproductive activity) or possibly work and, finally at some point, marriage.
Even the church got involved in the 19th century with "education," creating the SUNDAY "school."
The development of institutional education for children was both the product of and a shaper of another incredibly important development of this period of time, namely the change in family structure from the extended family to what we know today as the nuclear family. Prior to this period families had lived in larger units, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and so forth. Within this structure most of the education of children took place. While in older times probably little verbal instruction was given about sex in the modern sense of "sex education," children learned by seeing and hearing what went on in these larger households and what verbal instruction was given was of a very practical sort--the how-to's of male-female bonding. And there was a variety of perspective included in this education because there was a variety of adults, not only parents, to do the instructing. As the extended family disappeared and outside institutions took over the education of children, this natural, family form of sex education began to disappear along with much of the rest of traditional instruction.
With these developments, children were now to be completely "protected," cared for, nurtured in various ways, treated as fragile and really viewed as an entirely different class of beings from adults. Thus was created a "cult of childhood." The result in our day is that, in some ways, children are almost worshipped and certainly "spoiled," yet have little to do with the practical, productive life of our civilization.
The Two Childhoods: Biological and Social Conflict and the Creation of the Nonsexual Child
Something appears to have been missed during this several-hundred-year period of the development of the cult of childhood. This was the progressive development of a clash between the biological and sexual maturity of children and the social roles now assigned to them, which included no socially sanctioned outlet for their sexuality.
Indeed, when this conflict was eventually noticed, both the secular society and the church were forced by their own bondage to the childhood culture they had created to essentially declare children to be nonsexual. When faced, however, with a pesky biological reality which wouldn't go away --the "nonsexual" child who could not help feeling and acting sexual--the adult social, educational and religious powers turned to a variety of repressive tactics to keep the little beasties down. These tactics ranged from instruction about how "good" children didn't "play with themselves" or others to physical and legal punishments for sexual behavior. (The 19th century was the heyday of chastity belts and diabolically ingenious mechanical devices to prevent masturbation.)
The church began to create, virtually out of whole cloth, a set of dogmas, mostly hitchhiking on a misunderstanding of the New Testament Greek term "porneia," whose purpose was to prop up the socially developed notion of the nonsexual child. (For discussion of the real meaning of the term "porneia," mistranslated "fornication" in most English Bibles, see other Liberated Christians' biblical studies.)
These doctrines are not biblical at all. In Old Testament times sex was seen as much more natural and normal than in our day, even though there were certain sexual restrictions that were necessary either because of the lack of birth control or because of the necessity of preserving family heritage in a patriarchal society. (See other Liberated Christian studies on adultery and the patriarchal system of the Old Testament.) Old Testament culture was also an extended family culture in which the kind of natural sex education referred to above would have taken place. It should also be remembered that the modern ideas of childhood did not exist in biblical days.
Through the use of these doctrines the church could justify what has amounted to the persecution of its own children the name of God for their audacity in attempting to express their sexuality, a sexuality actually given them by God himself.
Persecution is a harsh word, but I think that nothing less has gone on throughout church history and goes on today in the way children are treated in terms of their sexuality. I am only one of countless numbers of people who can recall the fear, the reprimands and even the physical punishments connected with sexual development as a child. Beginning with their own ignorance and following the negative teachings of traditional Christianity, millions of parents have passed on to even more millions of children the belief that their sexuality (and bodies) is something to be ashamed of, hidden and not talked about. Indeed, what is God-given is hated and constantly put down as evil. What else is this than persecution and an imprisonment of both soul and body?
One of the areas in which this treatment of children has taken place is marriage. Throughout most of human history societies have allowed marriage at or near the time of puberty. The church itself for centuries tended to follow the Jewish pattern of a minimum age of 12 for girls and 13 for boys, though by no means did all marry that early. In effect, childhood ended at that point and adulthood began. In many societies just prior to the permissible marriage age came the "rites of passage" or "puberty rites," which formally signaled the entrance of the youth into the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood. These practices remain in some cultures today and in some modern American Indian tribes young people are expected to be sexually active at least by puberty and some begin raising families at that age, even though white man's law may forbid it.
As will be discussed later in this article, in societies that expect early marriage it is typical that children are at least permitted or even encouraged in sexual play and experimentation from a young age. This is seen as the beginning of a natural process that prepares them for full roles as sexual adults. Perhaps one of the worst kept secrets in the sexual life of our culture is that our children also participate in various kinds of sex play. Yet, because that play is either ignored, actively discouraged or even punished, it becomes part of the secret life of our youth and contributes significantly to the whole pattern of living our sexual lives in the dark.
In spite of much-hyped liberal sexual attitudes of our culture, there remains the notion that real sexual activity only begins in marriage. Even if healthy sexual functioning in marriage was not inhibited by the negative teachings we receive as children, more damage is done by the typical postponement of marriage far into the years of sexual maturity.
In the affluent nations of the world (not coincidentally the nations that so greatly stress the importance of formal education) the marriage age has steadily advanced through recent centuries, especially in the United States,where in the mid-nineties the median age for first marriage has risen to 26.
Not lost in theory on some professionals in education, medicine and psychology, but utterly ignored practically, is the inconvenient fact that the age of the onset of puberty has been steadily dropping in affluent countries at least for all of the 20th century, while the marriage age has been rising.
I have already said that God created us to be sexual adults at puberty and to be sexually active at some level much earlier. The implication of this is that the historical and modern efforts to repress youthful sexual activity are in fact in opposition to a God-created normality, rather than being supportive of his "moral" will, as claimed by conservative Christians.
In my opinion, the evidence from history, culture, biology and psychology is overwhelming: our Creator intended us to be sexually active as children and adolescents, each age at its own level, capacity and purpose, and that activity should prepare us for the more permanent relationships of adulthood. Yet our culture so inhibits this natural growth process that we enter adulthood seriously crippled sexually and often unable to enjoy satisfying lives of sexual intimacy. It should be said very clearly and without apology that the primary source of these sad results is the sexual persecution and bondage inflicted on children by the traditional negative views of Christianity and a Christianized culture.
It is said that a military commander once referred to a "retreat" as an "advance to the rear." I think it can be seen from the history I have presented that the "advances" of our civilization in the social welfare of children, the changes in family structure, the improvement of health and the creation of public education have been an "advance to the rear" in terms of childhood sexuality.
The advance of civilization is always a mixed bag: often true advances in human welfare are offset by losses in other areas. Ancient abuses of children have diminished. The slow death of the patriarchal system has probably benefited children, especially girls, as well as adult women. In spite of these positive examples, the natural, God-created sexual development of children, on its psychological side, has been sacrificed on the altar of other progress.
Childhood Sexuality in Other Cultures: The Role of Parental Nurture and Intimacy
Parents and other adults in some cultures observe what parents in our culture observe, but see entirely different implications. Biologically, children in all cultures are alike and infant girls lubricate vaginally and infant boys experience erections on a regular basis. In some cultures these events are understood as natural phenomena that will develop in time into greater and more conscious efforts at sexual self-exploration and experimentation with their peers.
In cultures that recognize these events as normal and natural, there is often the involvement of parents themselves in stimulating the genital areas of their infants, an activity that is simply accepted as a way of heightening their children's interest in a very positive aspect of their development. It would never occur to these parents that such an activity could be considered harmful to their children as is the case in our culture.
In other cultures parents even teach their children how to masturbate and some fathers or other male adults initiate daughters by having intercourse with them. There is no indication that these practices in any way harm the children, but are in fact the parents' way of teaching their children good sexual skills.
Children learn how to do everything else, from writing the alphabet to hammering a nail, from older, more experienced people. But when it comes to sex--gasp--such is taboo! Yet, this is purely a cultural prejudice, based on a long history of sexual repression and negative teachings, much of it religious. It is not based in any psycho-developmental reality of human nature.
On the island of Mangaia in the South Pacific "infants are special people, rocked and indulged by all family members. Bare genitals are playfully or casually stimulated and lingual manipulation of the tiny penis is common." "Privacy is unknown, as each hut contains five to sixteen family members of all ages. [Remember our discussion of the extended family and its role in sex education?] Adolescent daughters often receive lovers at night and parents 'bump together' so that young children may be awakened by the slapping sound of moist genitals. Although adults rarely talk to children about sex, erotic wit and innuendoes are common.
"At the age of three or four, children band together and explore the mysteries of the dense tropical bush....Sex play flourishes in the undergrowth and coital activity may begin at any time."
Children also learn about sex from one another and "young girls also learn from elderly women who teach by telling stories and by direct practical instruction. The young boy is taught at puberty by older males. [Remember the puberty rites discussed above?] [He] is coached in techniques such as the kissing and sucking of breasts. He is told about lubrication and trained in methods of bringing his partner to climax several times prior to his own ejaculation." (Alayne Yates, Sex Without Shame: Encouraging the Child's Healthy Sexual Development, pp. 71-72)
And so on and on goes the description of the sexual education processes in this culture, processes which are natural and practical and are based on an acceptance of sexuality itself as normal and natural. Children in such a "primitive" culture grow up with greater knowledge, understanding and acceptance of their own sexuality, as well as sexual competence in relationships, than almost any children in our culture. And yet, not only would most Americans criticize the general permissiveness of this culture, but the notion of the explicit peer and adult instruction would be regarded as unacceptable, if not abusive.
It should be obvious that the contrast between the typical American treatment of children's sexual development and that of Mangaia is a contrast between bondage and freedom, between emotionally unhealthy and healthy attitudes and really, if I may put it so strongly, between unloving and loving ways of relating to children.
Even in our culture studies have shown that infants who experience greater non-sexual physical intimacy with their parents are more likely to masturbate than children who receive less such attention. One study reported that when there was tender, loving care of the infant by the mother, genital play was present in all the infants in the study. According to this researcher, such autoerotic activity on the part of an infant in the first 18 months of life may be a reliable indicator of the quality of parenting. (Human Sexuality--An Encyclopedia, p. 112)
Not to be overlooked here are the non-sexual physical and emotional benefits of physical touch between parents and children. Children who receive positive physical affection generally develop better emotional adjustments both as children and adults than children who do not receive such positive touch or who receive mostly negative touch (physical punishment). Their long-term relationship with their parents also is more positive on an emotional basis. This is beneficial not only to the children but to the parents as a very satisfying result of parenting. For myself, I never received a great deal of physical affection in childhood (at least so far as I can remember). By others, however, I was taught the value of this for my own children and have seen both them and myself reap the benefits as they near adulthood. They have even seen their parents divorce, yet remain physically affectionate with me. (I would point out that there have never been any sexual implications in our demonstrations of physical affection.) As pointed out in earlier material by Dave Hutchison, physical touch also stimulates healthy endorphins in the body that promote physical and emotional health.
The fact that physical touch combined with emotional intimacy promotes both physical and emotional health for children makes the failure of so many parents in these areas all the more serious. It could probably be argued that much of the emotional and even physical sickness of our society traces to the lack of such intimacy in childhood.
As the infant develops, its exploration of its body becomes progressively more complex and sophisticated. While not capable in its first year of the complex movements that characterize deliberate masturbation, the simple handling of the genitals can be noted as giving pleasure. Between the second and third year the infant develops rhythmic manipulation of the genitals with the hands, which foreshadows the deliberate masturbation techniques of later years (Human Sexuality--An Encyclopedia, p. 113)
American Culture: Parental and Religious Repression of Childhood Sexuality
While in some cultures the parental awareness of these developments brings the satisfaction that the infant is developing normally in an area of great importance, in our culture it is typical that such behavior produces consternation in parents whose own sexual experience is troubled with repression of the past and who are often neurotic regarding masturbation.
Since mothers are generally responsible for the sexual socialization of their infants, the way the mother reacts to her infant's sexual play is critical to its future development. In the encyclopedia referred to above the authors say that in our culture the mother's task has "generally...been to discourage sexual self-stimulation, inhibit sexual impulses toward family members, supervise and thus frustrate attempts at sexual play with peers, and teach children to be wary of strangers." Parents also attempt to control what their children learn of the "facts of life" and from whom. There develops a "conspiracy of silence [in which] parents maintain a secrecy and privacy concerning their own sexual activity...," closing bedroom and bathroom doors, separate bathing for children, especially segregating by sex in later years, the inculcation of "modesty" regarding nudity and dressing and undressing habits, etc. These methods have "an implicit goal of keeping dormant the young child's pervasive curiosity and imitativeness, postponing the onset of sexual self-gratification, and limiting sexual activity." (Encyclopedia, p. 114)
Of course, Christian parents have become quite skilled at such repressive methods, all the more so because the "doctrine" I have mentioned provides what they believe is a God-given mandate to discourage sexual activity among children of any age.
Yet it is impossible for Christian and cultural taboos to eradicate the need and desire young people have for sexual intimacy. When young people seek sexual intimacy, with or without the approval of church or society, they are simply following God's natural way, even though at later ages they may do so in careless ways because of the inadequate teaching they have received.
These are not "wicked" children. The wickedness lies in the sexual repression of church and society. Instead of being badgered about the evil nature of their sexuality and intimidated into an unnatural and unworkable celibacy (or, worse, forced into irresponsible sex), children should be taught how to love, respect and care for others and to enjoy their own sexual urges safely, without any harm coming to them.
A recent TV movie portrayed the uneasiness of a father and teenage son grappling with the potential sexual involvement of the son. The dialog went something like this:
Father: "So you're going out tonight? Are there girls involved?" Son: "Yeah, there'll be girls." F: "I think its time we talked." S: "Oh, is this the 'facts of life' thing?" F: "Yes." S: "OK, Dad, what do you want to know?" F: "Very funny. I suppose you know all about being safe?" S: "Sure, Dad." F: "Well, just be sure you don't do it tonight with someone you won't care for in the morning."
This scene can hardly represent an adequate piece of sex education, but I was struck by the father's small spoonful of wisdom about caring for the person with whom his son might become sexually involved. I am afraid that most Christian parents whom I know would not even try to determine whether their children knew about sexual safety in the fear that such knowledge would encourage "promiscuity." This neglect of teaching, combined with repression, could lead their children to careless or thoughtless sexual involvement with partners about whom they would not "care for in the morning."
In my own Christian community I believe that the moralistic blinders worn by many parents would cause many of them to actually prefer that their children become pregnant or contract STDs than to teach them safe, responsible sexual behavior. Such parents go on humming the tune that sex education promotes promiscuity and that telling their children to "just say NO" is still the best advice, even while their children pursue their natural sexual inclinations behind their backs.
At the risk of appearing harsh and unkind, I must ask if people demonstrating the attitudes just mentioned are really looking out for the best interests of their children? I think not. Sadly, most of these would be horrified to think that they were actually harming their children by their constant harping about abstinence and other sexually repressive advice. In fairness, it should be said that few have any idea of the shabby history of the traditional negative views about sexuality; few Christian professionals (pastors, biblical scholars, even church historians) even realize that these views arose out of the non-Jewish, non-Christian philosophies of the ancient world and were imported into Christian teaching by Christian teachers in the early days of the faith, teachers whose formal education had been based on these philosophies. These terroristic, abusive tactics have become part and parcel of the meaning of Christianity for most people and are simply not recognized for what they are.
It is this situation, of which I am so painfully aware, that has given me the burden to write this paper, with the hope and prayer that some parents and other adults may implement real change in the way children are treated. The Christian message is a message of FREEDOM; it is time that we applied that message to our own sexuality and that of our children.
A number of researchers and child development psychologists have recommended for years the kind of sexual openness with children that has been traditional for centuries in some cultures. They suggest that not only is sexual self-play normal and healthy, but sex play among peers is also. They suggest that it is actually harmful to stifle such play, not to mention being rather futile. A recent Internet message suggested that with all of the overwrought emphasis on child sexual abuse in our society, much of it degenerating into witch-hunting, the real abuse of children lies in not recognizing and encouraging their natural sexual development, including its play and experimentation aspects.
Normality in Body and Sex
Another critical issue concerning "God-created normality" in the lives of our children is that of the attitude towards the body. Dave Hutchison and I have written extensively elsewhere on the issue of nudity and body acceptance. Suffice it to say here that what most children are taught is some form of body shame or body hatred. I mentioned above that parents commonly teach their children "modesty" about nudity and dressing. This is no more nor less than teaching children that their bodies are shameful and must be covered up to avoid sexual activity or "temptation." The teaching of body shame and sexual shame necessarily go hand in hand--you can't have the one without the other. This is often overlooked even by professionals. While the social nudist movement is flawed in its overdone attempt to dismiss a link between nudism and sexuality, many nudists are aware (and research studies have proved) that nudist children generally have healthier sexual attitudes than non-nudist children.
Adult-Child Sexual Contact: Healthy or Sick?
Patterns of the Past and Other Cultures
From the above discussion we understand the importance of healthy sexual development for children and the importance of parental understanding and nurture in this area. We also realize that parents in other cultures do not hide their own sexual activities from their children and may even have some physical involvement with them in developing and encouraging their sexual growth. The question, then, may be asked : How far should adults go in helping educate their children sexually?
The taboo of all taboos, as far as our society is concerned, is that of adults engaging in specific sexual activity with children. We recognize that even people who consider themselves open-minded about sexuality might come down on us pretty hard for raising this issue. Are we discussing these things in order to find justification for adult-child sexual activity? The reader will have to make up his or her own mind as to our motives. We are not raising this issue to offend anyone or to propose such activity, but it is critical to remember that we discussed earlier the difficulty of drawing a clear line between childhood and adulthood from a cultural/historical point of view. We then pointed out that in reality children are sexual adults at puberty.
It must also be said that in older cultures, before children began to be regarded as excessively fragile and in need of a kind of care that has reached pampering stages in our culture, sex between "adults" and "children" was not at all uncommon. Marriages between very young girls and much older men have been common throughout history in many cultures. I say this without passing any particular value judgment on the wisdom of such unions.
It should also be noted that both religious and social rules and laws on this issue are culturally conditioned and not God-given. Among all the sex laws of the Old Testament, for example, so far as I know there is not even one on the subject of what we would call adult-child sex.
Is the whole religious, social and legal pattern, which so severely stigmatizes adult/child sex, really an improvement on the patterns of the past? We might wonder in the light of the practices of other cultures and the silence of the Scriptures.
Sexual Abuse: Problems and Paranoia
Let's look at some of the results of this negative modern attitude. The last fifteen to twenty years has seen the creation of almost a cottage industry devoted to convincing us that there are probably sexually-abusing parents on our block or among our relatives and child molesters among our children's teachers, neighbors and loving uncles. This began in the late 70's and climaxed in several notorious pre-school molestation cases and the "don't-talk-to-strangers" push in the 80's. The 90's has seen accusations of adults coming out of the repressed memory craze.
Undoubtedly the huge increase in the "discovery" and prosecution of abuse and molestation cases in this country during this period is due in part to a greater awareness of the possible problems, whereas such activities in previous times were simply overlooked or more successfully hushed up.
On the other hand, the trail of both discovery and prosecution of such cases in this period is littered with witch-hunt tactics and coached testimony by even accredited child "experts," social workers and prosecutors, as the notorious and failed McMartin Preschool case attests. Numerous other high-profile cases have been thrown out or reversed on appeal, but not before people accused of being society's greatest monsters have been ruined emotionally, professionally and financially.
There are several classic cases in the 70's in which the children of nudist parents were taken away on the basis of sexual abuse accusations by vindictive relatives or nosy and self-righteous neighbors. The children were eventually returned, but in at least one case were separated from their parents for five years while the case snailed its way through court after court. Perhaps it is understandable to some extent why social nudists labor overtime to convince the public that nudism and sex have nothing to do with each other.
Newly-hatched crusades typically engage in excesses and this one, which plays on both instinctive desires to protect children and the culturally-created notion that children couldn't possibly choose any kind of sexual activity with adults, is no exception.
Parent and Child in Healthy Intimacy
Returning to Human Sexuality--An Encyclopedia, we learn a lot about parents' intimacy with their children or the lack thereof: Long before there is any possibility of much mutual adult-style enjoyment of sexual activity between children and adults, the children of our culture have learned without verbal instruction that adults, even their parents, are seldom physically intimate with them on any level, especially beyond a certain age. Child-parent intimate interaction becomes restrained and the child's experience of intimacy enters a stage of deprivation that lasts at least until adolescence and the beginning of the dating stage.
"'Too much' touching, especially for boys, causes discomfort for many parents." "Sons, imitating their fathers, express noticeably less physical affection than do daughters for friends and relatives as well." Homophobic attitudes among males develop early and researchers think that these attitudes play a significant role in the intimacy fears of boys and men. (pp. 114-115)
The abuse and molestation obsession of current culture adds dramatically to the fears of adults in touching children, even their own, and the fears of children in being touched. We have reached a point where parents and adults have been brainwashed to think of themselves as perverted if they are very physically intimate with preadolescent and adolescent children, especially of the opposite sex, even when such physical contact can't reasonably be construed as sexual.
Internet correspondents with Dave Hutchison have pointed out that it is acceptable to display shocking degrees of violence to children, including Rambo movies, violent war games and violent sports such as boxing or hockey, but it its not acceptable to allow them to see sexually explicitly motion pictures, to display physical affection towards them in public or talk explicitly to them about sex.
Different studies have drawn different conclusions about the connection between children seeing violence on TV and in movies and committing violent acts. Yet some youth violence has clearly been copied from what youth have seen in the media, according to their own confessions.
But the same Internet correspondence mentioned above points out that there is no clinical evidence that observing the sexual activity of others is in any way harmful to children, especially when it is explained to very young ones as not being an act of violence or pain. Healthy curiosity, even fascination and then acceptance is the usual reaction. Some evidence also indicates that some sex offenders have received little or no sex information as children and have been exposed to little or no sexually explicit materials. This is exactly the opposite situation to that claimed by some conservatives who crusade against sex education, pornography and sex in the media.
A 13-Year-Old Who Enjoyed His "Abuse"
Recently a male adult posted this message on the Internet: "I have experienced a situation of sexual approach myself as a 13 year old. What most people forget is how a child is affected is largely due to the reaction of and conditioning by society at large. I wouldn't have had half the trauma if it hadn't been for the implantation [of the idea] that sex is bad for anyone, [but that the adult] who approached and touched me was an evil scumsuccer and I had been 'violated'--even though I did enjoy the experience while it happened and had a good orgasm. It felt good! What followed was an aftermath of confusion and distress because what I had experienced was 'improper.' So I went through a few years of difficulties, not because of the actual incident itself, but due to my antisexual conditioning."
He continues with an account I cannot independently verify: "A few years ago (on a talk show) a 16 year old boy said when he was 13 he had an affair with a female school custodian that lasted two years. He later stated that while it lasted it was great--he loved every second.... Well--his parents threw a fit. Boy was sent to a shrink and is told he was abused. A year of conditioning later he sits on this talk show and says what a horrible thing this woman did to him--and still stated that he thought it was great while it lasted--he didn't know he was being abused at the time. Now who the hell I ask you caused the damage here?"
The Confusion of Culture and a Word of Caution
This person's report perhaps demonstrates more eloquently than I or a line-up of professionals could how the confusion in our culture about sexuality and childhood, the impossibility of drawing a line between childhood and adulthood and the general ignorance and misunderstanding of sexuality calls into question the popular and legal dictums about adult-child sex.
Variations exist among professional researchers regarding the harmfulness or benefits of sexual experiences shared by children and adults and some professionals are suggesting that there may be no harm at all in non-coercive experiences. Such opinion seems to fit with the testimony of people such as the one just quoted. This shift in opinion among those who study childhood sexuality at least suggests that adults are not committing the "unpardonable sin" merely by rethinking these issues.
In spite of not wanting to need to say this, we must say that we do not advise or condone adults having sex with youth under "legal age" for at least two reasons. The first is JAIL (no small reason, unfortunately) and the second is because the psychological implications of such activity in our culture could be vastly different from the implications in cultures where such activity has long been the norm.
We cannot suddenly convert ourselves to the permissive and radically open norms of other cultures, no matter how attractive they may be. That is not the point of this discussion. I would, however, like to summarize what we have learned in this discussion of childhood sexuality. Then I will make some suggestions that, if followed, might help parents and others towards a healthier and more practical approach to dealing with childhood sexuality. Before this, however, I would like to cite some recent media-reported examples of the weirdness that goes on in our culture today regarding children and sexuality.
Sexual Weirdness in Our Culture: Two Contemporary Cases
First, the recent flap over the Calvin Klein ads using teenagers, ads that were pulled from magazines and TV after public allegations that they were "obscene" and exploitative of minors:
So far as advertising is concerned, these ads are clearly intended to use sex to sell clothes--no new phenomenon in our culture. The reactions to the ads by irate parents and the "moral" high-brows and even the FBI are examples of the ridiculous and futile efforts to deny that "children" (teens, no less, in this case) are sexual.
Second, the same religious and cultural narrow-mindedness is illustrated by the conservative outcry against the new fall TV shows in prime-time whose content the media coyly refer to as involving "adult themes." This, of course, is in contrast to the formerly sacred "family viewing" hours of early evening programming. When we clear away all the smoke-screen language, what this controversy is all about is the new inclusion of sex in prime-time. The traditional bottom line is that sex is not a "family value."
What Have We Learned and Where Do We Go from Here?
These are just more (tiresome) examples of our denial that children and sex should have anything to do with one another. It is precisely this kind of nonsense that should light a fire of reform among those who claim to be more open-minded about sexuality. It will do little good for future generations if those of us who make such a claim do not begin acting to change attitudes in our families, churches and communities, including our schools.
What is needed is sane, sensible, practical, open-minded teaching and management of childhood sexuality in order to raise children who appreciate their sexuality, accept it as normal, recognize its spiritual dimensions, respect the sexuality of others and enjoy sexual activity in appropriate ways. What is needed is to abandon the ancient religious and cultural shortsightedness of seeing sex as only or primarily for procreation (and therefore only permissible in marriage), help our youth to enjoy it responsibly for the sake of building relationships now, as preparation for the relationships of later life and for the sake of its legitimate role of pleasure giving and receiving.
What Have We Learned from This Discussion of Childhood Sexuality?
- The change in attitudes towards children in the past several centuries has produced the belief that children are nonsexual. This results in the reluctance to educate children sexually in the belief that they shouldn't engage in sexual activity and that they cannot reasonably consent to such activity with their peers or with adults.
- The distinction between childhood and adulthood is not hard and fast either biologically or psychologically, varies from culture to culture and has changed through history.
- Ancient cultures and some modern ones regarded sexuality as normal and sexual activity among youth as natural and to be encouraged rather than repressed.
- There is an appalling ignorance and many negative attitudes towards sexuality in our culture, which are the result of both Christian and other cultural prejudices.
- The Christian church has created doctrines to support its negative attitudes to sexuality and civil governments have created corresponding laws to enforce the moral values enshrined in these doctrines. These doctrines and laws are not founded on true biblical teachings and in fact contribute to a physical and spiritual bondage by inhibiting the full potential of our humanity in its sexual aspect.
- Children of all ages are sexual beings, capable of certain types and levels of sexual activity and enjoyment.
- The sexuality of children is God-created, normal and beneficial, rather than sinful and harmful.
- Children develop their sexual attitudes towards themselves and others based on the attitudes and teaching of their parents; in our culture the repressive tactics of parents result in negative sexual attitudes in children.
- The negative sexual attitudes developed in childhood inevitably produce negative sexual attitudes and functioning in adulthood.
- The most serious sexual problem in our society is not premarital sex, unwanted teen pregnancies or even AIDS; it is the failure to accept our children's sexuality and teach them to accept it and enjoy it responsibly.
- The examples of other cultures and the bizarre and harmful results of the overemphasis in our culture on child sexual abuse suggest that our culture is far from mature in its views of adult-child sexual activity.
Where Do We Go from Here?: Suggestions For Growing Sexually Healthy Children
- Christian laypersons and ministry professionals should commit themselves to restudy the Scriptures in the light of historical and linguistic evidence to determine whether the traditional negative teachings of Christianity regarding sex are what the Scriptures really teach. They should also be aware that the Bible is not a textbook on sexuality and that, therefore, many issues cannot be resolved directly from its teachings. This suggests that we are given freedom to choose our own preferences in relationship to many sexual issues and that God is not concerned about them the way many Christians are. (One case in point: the Bible makes no reference to pornography [better called "erotica"]; thus it is a false use of the biblical text to reason that passages dealing with "lust" can be applied to pornography.)
- Since most conservative Christians cannot accept radical new interpretations of Scripture that challenge their tightly-held traditional views, people in conservative churches who have greater light on these issues should try to get the attention of more open-minded pastors and youth leaders and show them from Scripture that the traditional views do not stand up under serious study. It is likely that only respected leaders will be able to help the rank and file of Christians to change their views about sexuality.
- Adults must tackle the problem of accepting, healing and exploring their own sexuality as a God-given aspect of their humanity and spirituality. They should seek out people, published resources and even professional therapy that can help in this process. There is hope for children only if the significant adults in their lives begin dealing with their own attitudes towards sexuality.
- Adults, especially parents and church leaders, should search for quality sex education materials prepared to help them help their children, as well as materials specially prepared for children of various ages. Conservative Christian parents will have to go outside their traditional boundaries and into the materials of more "liberal" churches or secular sources to locate such materials and then adapt them to their own Christian perspective.
- Parents and other concerned adults should seek out one another to discuss and pray regarding their own sexual issues and those of their children. They should find strength in one another to plan and execute, perhaps with professional help, new ways of teaching their children.
- Parents should not go on a guilt trip if they realize they have failed to promote healthy development and freedom for their children in terms of sexuality, but have tended to follow the negative ways of tradition. Rather, they should realize that these way can be changed, not easily, perhaps, but with determination and help from other sources.
- With careful help and support from one another, parents should rethink their tendency to back off even from general physical affection-showing towards their children. This may be scary and it may be very difficult to recreate this affection with older children who have not experienced it in recent years--and there is no guarantee of success. Parents of younger children should examine their physical affection patterns and realize that it is better to err on the side of too much than too little. These challenges may confront adults with their own problems with physical intimacy (not sexual activity), which may demand that they seek their own healing in these areas.
- Children need to be taught that it is OK to explore their own sexuality and, with proper direction and support, to experiment with their peers. The difficulty with the latter is that parents of other children may not be open-minded about such things. Interestingly, children carry out some of this without their parents' knowledge, so it may be best to simply let your children know that such exploration is OK with you and be willing to deal with other parents if necessary.
- Adolescent and teenage children need to be taught the details of sexual life and the techniques of sexual relationships. Most of all they need to be taught how to LOVE others and to understand that sexual loving is acceptable to God at any age. They need to be taught about true intimacy in relationships and not just how to "have sex." Then they need to be taught how to be responsible in their loving, which includes safe-sex procedures.
- Children need to see that their parents are not ashamed of their own sexuality. Parents of small children should seriously consider not hiding their own sexual encounters from their children so they grow up realizing that there is nothing shameful about these activities.
- Parents should become aware of what their children are being taught in school about sexuality. Among the reasons given by the religious right for opposing sex-ed in the public schools is that such things should be taught at home. They are technically right, but not only are their motives suspect (they don't want open-minded thought on sex reaching their children), but they don't really teach their children much at all about sex at home. If all parents did so, then perhaps public school sex-ed would not be necessary. If parents feel inadequate to teach their children, then they should at least support healthy school programs that really teach children responsible sexual behavior and not just abstinence, which really doesn't work.
- Parents should stand up for their own sexual rights and not let them be dictated by the religious right and their legislative or over-reacting enforcement authorities, whether this is in the area of censorship of sexually explicit materials, anti-nudity legislation or the rights of adults to enjoy any area of sexual activity that does not infringe on the rights of others.
- I have no great advice to give in the area of adult-child sexual activity. Changes in this area will come slowly, as in all areas where ancient prejudices are at work. Parents should search their own motives and their consciences and seek to create healthy, responsible and always non-coercive ways to relate physically and emotionally to their children. In spite of the controversial nature of these issues, perhaps parents should at least break the silence taboo and talk with others about their feelings, ideas and what they may be learning from materials such as this paper. Perhaps future generations will more fully recognize the merging nature of childhood and adulthood, rather than insist on the present view of a radical break between these phases of life. Perhaps these generations will look back on some of the overwrought concerns of our day with amusement that we were so immature.
- Finally, I invite readers to give Liberated Christians their feedback to the ideas in this paper. Dialog is never bad and should promote understanding, especially in difficult areas of thought and practice. We are not experts, but are open to sharing what we believe we understand, creating means for group discussion to take place and learning from others.