Sex, Morality, and the Law

Everybody has moral beliefs or judgments about what sexual conduct is right or wrong. Some of those beliefs become encoded into laws that everyone is expected to obey, on pain of punishment. Why do some moral beliefs about sexual conduct become laws, while other beliefs do not?

In the past, religious authorities merely dictated moral standards of sexual conduct, based on divine revelation to church leaders, or expert interpretation of ancient “scriptures.” Such sources of supposed spiritual authority have been openly cited as justification for secular legislation regulating sexual conduct (1).

Later the primitive medical profession recommended the same moral precepts, by coincidence, but then claimed such standards were necessary to prevent epilepsy, blindness, infertility, etc. Even though such primitive medical claims have now been rejected by modern evidence-based medicine, the same laws – usually over 100 years old – are still on the books regulating sexual conduct today (2).

The primary legitimate function of governments is to create or maintain public order, i.e. minimize conflicts between citizens and groups. A government makes, administers, and enforces laws, such as requiring that everyone drive on the right side of the road, to avoid excessive disorder or chaos on your way to work (3).

According to some legal scholars, legislation is primarily guided by utility – the benefits expected from prohibiting certain conduct. In theory, such benefits are for everyone or most people, not for some special interest group. Justice applies in the administration of the law – for everyone or most citizens, not merely some well-financed lobby. A cynical joke is: How much justice can you afford?

Although citizens are formally obligated to obey laws, the government is unable to eliminate all law-breaking. Some statistics suggest the majority of property crimes go unprosecuted and unpunished, and that is probably true of other types of crime as well. The government is simply unable to prevent most crimes or catch most criminals. So citizens are also educated to obey laws voluntarily to minimize the frequency of law-breaking.

Ideally, children obey their parents and cooperate voluntarily because they believe their parents are fair: the child’s needs and desires are balanced against the needs and desires of other family members and individuals in the community. Adult citizens are persuaded by the same reasoning: as long as the laws are perceived as fair, it’s desirable if everyone obeys the laws.

Very young children will attempt to get what they want regardless of fairness, so parents and other teachers must use various means of coercion to keep children under control, until kids learn that fairness and voluntary cooperation are preferable to an atmosphere of sneakiness or coercion. Children also need to learn that they can’t get away with pretending to be fair while actually cheating. Adult citizens need the same instruction.

All children are not the same, and all adult citizens are not the same either. Ideally, in a constitutional democracy the majority rules but minorities are protected from unnecessary suffering. Democracy does not mean mob rule. That isn’t merely a gesture of generosity on the majority’s part, but a practical way to obtain essential voluntary cooperation from minorities.

Just as parents should be realistic in their expectations of children’s behavior, so should governments be realistic in their expectations of citizens’ behavior. A useful technique to get voluntary obedience from children is to prohibit as few things as possible, and absolutely insist on obedience only where there is a clear risk of death, serious physical injury, or property damage. That technique works with adults too. Kids need lots of opportunities to make choices, and so do adults.

Adult citizens obey the law because they fear punishment, and also because they believe the law is fair and reasonable. But if some special interests maintain old laws that serve their own advantage or profit, rather than being fair, and then attempt to silence uncomfortable criticism, or they use terror to force citizens to obey whether they believe the law is fair or not, then eventually people will unsurprisingly disrespect and disobey the government whenever they think they can get away with it.

The government thus becomes even less  effective than what results from the mere difficulty of catching criminals. The government has thereby failed miserably in a fundamental function: failing to cultivate voluntary obedience. Citizens become cynical of the law, and even government employees act very cynical: they only care about their own job security and career advancement, regardless of fairness or the negative impact of their own conduct on society as a whole.

Another primary function of government is to attempt to give citizens some peace of mind: we are not completely defenseless against psychopaths. Citizens need to know that there is no constant danger of imminent catastrophe. The U.S. Congress failed in that function when it voted to censure the Rind study on child sex abuse. Despite mass hysteria over the supposed dangers of child sex abuse Congress attacked the best evidence that such widespread fear and anger are exaggerated (4).

Unsurprisingly, that hysteria has now spread to sex play between children, with 10-year-olds being arrested for playing doctor! When two children or teens enjoy sex play in private, who is the victim and where is the injury? A traditional claim is that “licentiousness” leads to a focus on the body rather than the spirit, and a breakdown of constructive social conduct in general – the slippery slope to anarchy. But other people (e.g. me) believe the contrary: sex play early in life is necessary for the development of healthy sexual function and responsible citizenship.

Neither belief can be definitively proved or disproved at our present state of knowledge, but there is evidence that the majority of women today are sexually dysfunctional and large numbers of women become irresponsible citizens, e.g. endangering children by smoking while pregnant, refusing to breastfeed, and driving while sleep-deprived (just as deadly as drunk-driving), or rejecting motherhood entirely, while at the same time keeping a sharp lookout for indecent exposure.

Recently a drunken teenage girl in Europe was videoed having genital intercourse with a group of boys of various ages (some 18), and the video was distributed on the web. The local police were quoted as saying they didn’t care what the kids did in private, but publicly publishing the video was a mistake that called for regulatory interference.

In the view of the local police the crime in that jurisdiction was not the sexual conduct itself, but violating the norms of public display. A similar case is breastfeeding in public. In many countries some mothers breastfeed in public parks, etc., and the local police would never dream of interfering. But in other countries some people believe that exposure of the breast in public (even in the context of feeding a baby) is “indecent” and ought to be prohibited.

The modern breastfeeding organization La Leche League was founded by mothers who were outraged by police harassment of mothers who breastfeed in public. In this case a bad law (or bad law enforcement) inspired the creation of a great educational organization that now fosters breastfeeding worldwide.

Some people make rhetorical claims that their personal beliefs about sexual conduct are the only “right” ones, and then go on to vomit irrelevant verbiage as the reasons. But the bottom line is this: There is no way to establish the supposed superiority of some moral beliefs about sexual conduct as opposed to contrary beliefs.

Some people approve of public breastfeeding, children enjoying sex play, and teens having sex (even at different ages), and some other people disapprove. As long as I don’t force you to watch, you are attempting to impose your beliefs on me by demanding that child sex play, teen sex, and public breastfeeding be prohibited, i.e. subject to punishment.

In moral disagreements about sexual conduct it’s important to consider the motives and effects of the conduct. In principle, crimes are defined and criminals are punished to prevent or deter personal injury or property damage. Is the sexual conduct demonstrably exploitative or injurious to an identifiable victim? Or are the only “victims” the individuals who would like to impose their beliefs on others, but can’t do so if the conduct is not prohibited?

There is clear evidence that some special interests profit from body shame in general and breast shame in particular. The bra industry and the infant bottle formula industry have multi-billion-dollar markets for their products. (5). When powerful multinational corporations have significant financial interests in body shame, we should be very suspicious of laws that – by mere coincidence? – promote body shame in general and breast shame in particular.

A common strategy to morally or legally condemn sex play is to claim that children are inevitably incompetent to consent (6). It is true that children (especially very young children) don’t usually understand the consequences of their choices or the alternatives available, but it’s possible that in some specific cases a particular older child may be instructed to understand choices and alternatives so the general rule may not be applicable to every child. Laws that rely on an arbitrary age of consent are merely an administrative convenience – not an expression of logic or wisdom.

In addition, in some cases children may be indifferent so informed and explicit consent is not necessary. For example, when a five-year-old girl pulls down her three-year-old brother’s underwear to show her brother-less girlfriends a boy’s pride and joy, her motivation may be quite innocent and the boy may feel indifferent about her behavior. Even though the three-year-old boy is probably incompetent to consent (understand alternatives and consequences), the girl’s behavior need not be considered abusive or even inappropriate.

I think a responsible caregiver who witnesses such behavior should take the big sister aside later privately and calmly teach that since her little brother is old enough to understand language and communicate his preferences (if any), in the future she should at least ask for the boy’s permission before doing something like that again. But that’s merely my opinion, not a proposal for legislation.

Is civil disobedience justified? Should mothers be encouraged to breastfeed in public, whenever and wherever they like, regardless of the law? Should teenagers be encouraged to enjoy safe sex, preferably in private, regardless of the law? Civil disobedience is the willful disobeying of certain laws to protest unfairness and unnecessary suffering, and is wholly justified and appropriate whenever the following conditions exist.

When certain groups of people are denied the right to vote to make or change laws, they are hopelessly dependent on those who can vote to make laws that protect them from unnecessary suffering. When those who can vote do not make laws that protect the disenfranchised, then civil disobedience of the laws is justified (7).

That is certainly the case with teen sex. Children and teens are denied the right to vote, and the laws of many jurisdictions specifically prohibit teens from having sex. Teens are even denied the opportunity to learn about how to have sex safely and effectively, and are thereby denied the opportunity to promote the development of sexual function and healthy habits.

In the case of public breastfeeding, mothers have the right to vote, but they are relatively powerless against the rich pharmaceutical lobby that has tremendous influence on legislators who make laws as well as other government employees who administer laws. In some jurisdictions the infant bottle formula companies even secretly disobey laws intended to promote breastfeeding. In that case, mothers are effectively disenfranchised because their votes are rendered useless, so civil disobedience is justified and appropriate.

Civil disobedience may include peaceful acts of protest and disruption of public order, as well as disobedience of specific laws. Government employees often over-react with violence, and the government’s own irresponsible conduct unwittingly promotes sympathy for the protestors.

In effect, teens already engage in widespread civil disobedience. They not only violate excessive prohibitions against sexual conduct, they refuse to cooperate in school and they practice random disruption of public order, as well as vandalism of public and private property, and reckless behavior (driving while intoxicated) that endangers the safety of others. Censorship of critics who call attention to excessive repression of teen sexuality contributes to citizens losing sight of the genuine injustices that are really bothering young people.

References

  1. Fout, John C. (Ed.) Forbidden History: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe. (University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  2. Money, John. The Destroying Angel. (Prometheus, 1985).
  3. van den Haag, Ernest. “Punishing Criminals.” (Basic Books, 1975).
  4. Rind, Bruce, et al. Science versus orthodoxy: Anatomy of the congressional condemnation of a scientific article and reflections on remedies for future ideological attacks. Applied & Preventive Psychology 9:211-225 (2000). Cambridge University Press. https://www.ipce.info/library_2/rbt/science_frame.htm
  5. Palmer, Gabrielle. The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business. (Pinter and Martin, 2009). 
  6. Pearson, M. The Age of Consent: Victorian Prostitution and its Enemies. (David and Charles, 1972).  
  7. van den Haag Ernest. Political Violence and Civil Disobedience. (Harper, 1972).
Posted in breastfeeding, child sexual abuse, sex | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Breast Pride and Breastfeeding

Where does breast shame come from? Is it instinctive or learned behavior? When babies are born they feel no shame. Before infant bottle formula was invented there was no need to cultivate breast shame. Even religious art commonly depicted Jesus being nursed by bare-breasted Mary. Mothers commonly breastfed their babies in church during mass. Why did that change? When does a little girl decide she doesn’t want anyone to see or photograph her chest uncovered? Why does a modern mother decide she doesn’t want anybody to see her exposed breast – even while breastfeeding?

beach new crop

Breasts are something to be proud of, just like any healthy part of the body, but breast pride is sabotaged early in life when little girls see their mothers hiding their breasts. That is a model of toxic breast shame, a problem so pervasive in modern Western countries that it seems “normal.” Fathers today don’t dare compliment their daughter’s budding breasts, let alone caress them. How “indecent” that would be! In many jurisdictions exposing a little girl’s chest or touching a girl’s breasts is considered no less a crime than exposing or touching her genital area. Even four-year-olds at the beach are told to wear two-piece bathing suits to learn how shameful breasts are.

As John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out in his book “The Economics of Innocent Fraud,” multinational corporations have the money and the incentive to dedicate full-time staff to cultivate markets for their products (1). What better way to cultivate the $30 billion/year infant bottle formula industry than by promoting body shame in general and breast shame in particular?

The infant bottle formula industry is not the only special interest that profits from breast shame. The bra industry has $3 billion/year in annual sales in the U.S. alone. In modern culture breasts are supposed to be covered and appear “perfect.” How ludicrous to see crowds of women all with their breasts propped up by bras to look perfect! Even some little girls insist on wearing falsies to appear that they have perfect breasts. Some women refuse to breastfeed their babies even in private for fear that suckling will injure the appearance of their nipples.

Who cares about breastfeeding? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) used to receive $1 million /year from the infant bottle formula industry (2), but the AAP now recognizes that “All major medical groups worldwide agree that breast-feeding is best for mother and baby.” (3). That is an understatement, considering the known dangers of infant bottle feeding.

Putting the baby to the breast immediately after delivery makes the mother’s uterus contract, reducing the amount of uterine bleeding and the risk of hemorrhage. Breast-feeding also stimulates production of the hormone oxytocin, which diminishes pain and contributes to a feeling of euphoria. Human breasts produce colostrum which contains antibodies to protect the newborn from infection. Infant bottle formula contains no antibodies, so bottle-fed newborns are immune-depressed in a hospital environment where there are antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Bottle-fed babies have an increased risk of potentially fatal necrotizing enterocolitis, as well as a higher risk of eventually developing obesity and diabetes. Baby bottles must be kept scrupulously clean to avoid contamination, and bottle-fed babies spit-up the formula frequently. Some bottle-fed babies become “heavy spitters.” The great expense of infant bottle formula is not only unnecessary but an unwise investment – greatly appreciated by some multinational corporations.

There are many tricks used to discourage mothers from breast-feeding, such as claiming that if anesthesia was used breast milk is contaminated by the drug. But in reality if anesthesia was used during delivery the baby already has anesthesia in his blood before birth. Another trick is to take the baby away immediately after birth for “washing and monitoring.” Such babies are then given glucose solution or formula while out of the mother’s sight so the baby is no longer hungry when it returns to the mother. Such babies also develop nipple confusion and become poor breastfeeders.

Every newborn should breastfeed immediately, even after C-section, and be washed only after the first breastfeeding. If necessary the baby can be monitored at the breast (e.g. a portable instrument is merely attached to the baby’s hand). Newborn tests required vary from state to state, as well as varying over time. They can wait. In the first hour of life babies are alert and need eye contact, soothing speech, and affectionate skin-to-skin contact to begin bonding with both parents.

Every normal woman can produce enough breast milk for two babies at a time. Lactation can even be stimulated in adoptive mothers or wet nurses who did not give birth themselves. Even after a baby begins eating solid food (at about six months) she should not be given cow’s milk, which is poorly digested and stresses the baby’s kidneys. A baby can continue to benefit from part-time breastfeeding as long as the mother and baby want to – even well past one year of age. The average age of weaning in pre-industrial cultures is four years old.

The next time you see a photograph of a little girl “carelessly” exposing her chest, think twice about demanding censorship or teaching little girls shame. Think about what effect such shame-training may have on her future behavior as a mother. Think about the damage of denying breast milk to babies, and think about who is profiting from breast shame.

References

1) Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Economics of Innocent Fraud. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

2) Palmer, Gabrielle. The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business. Pinter and Martin, 2009.

3) Shelov, Steven P. et al. (eds). Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five. American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009

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Is Your Child a Sex Maniac? Part 3

“…the challenge of all human relationships: accepting people as they are, while fostering further integration and growth.” – Daniel J. Siegel.

Please read the previous posts first: Is Your Child a Sex Maniac  and Is Your Child a Sex Maniac Part 2 to understand the context of this topic.

Accepting children as they are – sexual beings – is precisely what some adults have difficulty doing. A child is not a lump of clay that can be molded any way we want. Each child has a unique genetic endowment, unique environmental influences, and possibly unique needs and abilities beyond our control that impose limits on our idealistic hopes and dreams of cultivating a particular conception of citizenship. Yes, we should provide the best opportunities for education possible, but not threats of rejection or despair if a particular child doesn’t meet adult expectations of “proper” behavior.

The most revealing case of child sexual behavior described by Friedrich consisted of a seven-year-old boy who experienced mutual fellatio with a 19-year-old relative over a period of several months. The younger boy obviously enjoyed the relationship because it only came to the attention of adults when he tried to interest older boys at school in doing the same (1).

When some people hear a story like this they tend to feel so much rage against the older boy that they ignore the needs of the younger child. There is widespread vindictiveness against children and adolescents who enjoy sex play, in which the authorities apply adult standards of culpability to young people, especially males, while ignoring the suffering that investigation and prosecution may cause the child victims as well as other children and parents in the community (2).

The younger boy in this case was obviously frustrated by the loss of contact with the 19-year-old abuser, and that was interpreted by adults as particularly problematic, even though the little boy was unsuccessful in recruiting older playmates at school. If the child had cried for help the adults probably would have been less upset. What really made adults lose their heads was that the little boy was going around looking for new sex partners.

Good citizens wisely focus on increasing the attention and affection a child is (or isn’t) receiving from parents and older siblings at home. A responsible adult amplifies a child’s positive, enjoyable feelings and diminishes the child’s negative, uncomfortable feelings. But individuals who didn’t participate in the child’s sexual experience or even witness it told the boy later to re-interpret his pleasurable experience as negative, and persuaded the boy to stop wishing he could re-establish contact with the 19-year-old.

More reasonably, adults should tell a child: “Don’t worry, be happy!” Not: “You are a victim! Don’t be happy! You ‘should’ feel angry, hurt, sad!” The adults in this case poisoned the boy’s happy memory. Instead of understanding and validating a child’s healthy sexual response, some adults typically exhibit a complete lack of empathy for children who enjoy sex play.

When someone uses physical violence, threats, or deception to begin or maintain a painful sexual relationship, that is a grave moral wrong. But if a child participates enthusiastically and bemoans the loss of contact long afterwards, that is clearly a different matter. The contrast between those two scenarios is clear if we imagine an adult woman seen on video enthusiastically participating in sex and bemoaning the loss of contact with the partner long afterwards, and then later she is persuaded by a radical feminist to believe all heterosexual intercourse is rape!

According to the published description of this case the younger boy lacked adequate attention and affection at home, so the sexual attention he received from the 19-year-old was unsurprisingly welcomed by him as much better than the usual neglect. The very fact that he was looking for someone outside his family indicates he couldn’t depend on his parents to satisfy his needs. Children always have some way of expressing that they need something, but for some reason the parents in this case weren’t listening.

On a practical level, the younger boy’s attempt to find a substitute for the older boy was problematic only because it was viewed as scandalous by others, not because the younger boy himself was feeling ill or behaving pathologically in any sense.

Imagine a patient who goes to see a pediatrician, and the doctor asks: “What are your symptoms? Pain? Discomfort? Difficulty breathing? Lack of appetite?” The patient replies: “Nothing like that, doctor. I’m simply unable to find a playmate.” A reasonable pediatrician would determine that the boy’s problem is: he lacks discretion about sexuality. Although by age nine or ten most children have learned to be discrete about sexuality, most children of seven or eight have not yet learned that practical lesson. The “patient” in this case was not abnormal or suffering from any pathology; he was normally indiscrete for his age.

The younger boy in this case was clearly a happy victim during the abuse. All of the negative consequences to the seven-year-old entailed the intervention of other people long afterwards as proximate causes. Let’s not confuse the wrong against the lawmakers and the wrong against the parents (whose trust the older boy betrayed) with the insensitivity the younger boy experienced at the hands of others after the fact. The proximate cause is the last opportunity before an injury to prevent the injury, and the adults in this case ignored that opportunity.

Analogously, in a homicide should we ignore the person who pulled the trigger (the proximate cause of death) and instead blame the death on the designer or manufacturer of the weapon? The wholesaler? The truck driver who delivered the weapon to the store? The older boys at school who reported the child did the politically correct thing, and thereby showed their own immaturity. Ignoring the child’s probable suffering afterwards was accepted as a “necessary evil,” but necessary for what?

Human relationships are usually much more complicated than the mere presence or absence of sexual contact. Unlike true trauma resulting from car crashes, etc., it is questionable to view each instance of legally defined sex abuse in an ongoing relationship (sometimes over the course of years), as single events. Friedrich does not describe what else was going on between these two boys. In addition to the obviously pleasurable sensations of the genital contact, as far as we know there may have been some non-sexual emotional engagement, sensitive communication, and fundamental attunement between the younger and older boy that was very important to the younger boy.

The younger boy in this case probably lacked such emotional engagement, sensitive communication, and attunement with the other people in his life at that time, so he unsurprisingly welcomed the older boy’s physical contact along with satisfaction of unmet emotional needs. When the younger boy tried to recruit others to join him in sex play he may have hoped to revive an essential emotional connection that he experienced with the 19-year-old and then lost when the abuser was no longer available.

We should be suspicious of any evaluation of such cases that merely states: there was sexual contact between a child and 19-year-old, so that’s all we need to know; everything else is irrelevant. The irresponsible adults who later fixated on the illicit sexual contact and persuaded the child to turn a very positive memory into a very negative one, went beyond teaching the child a needed lesson about the practical importance of discretion; they completely ignored the younger boy’s needs and perspective, and that is not justifiable without appealing to political correctness.

The child’s delicate self-concept was recklessly transformed from “A big kid’s favorite pal” to a shame-filled self-concept of “Damaged goods.” Worse, the younger boy’s pleasant memory was transformed into a sad memory for ulterior motives. The child wasn’t made to feel ashamed for his own benefit; he was exploited to maintain current cultural standards of sexual propriety. The child’s major injury did not occur during the legally-defined instances of abuse; the worst injury occurred when an insensitive adult sat the boy down later and said something like: What the hell are you thinking? An individual child’s sense of well-being was sacrificed to maintain and promote the feminist-inspired hysteria over early sex.

Nineteen may be considered late adolescence or early adulthood, but it is certainly very far from seven. What would have been different if the older boy in this case were nine instead of nineteen? Would the younger boy have enjoyed the experience even more? He might not have enjoyed it as much. We don’t know that, but it is certain that adults would have been less upset by it.

Some experts on abuse argue that there can be a greater developmental difference between a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old than between a 21-year-old and a 14-year-old. When evaluating this case and similar cases, we should be primarily concerned with if and how much the child actually suffered, not what upset the adults: the difference in age and the child’s positive reaction – adults who weren’t even there or otherwise involved in any way.

Adults who are scandalized by a child’s desire for sexual intimacy or positive view of sexuality, should consider what negative effects their own reaction may have on the child now and in the future, rather than “setting the record straight” about a crime that happened in the distant past, and thereby publicly vindicating the gruesome tradition of mentally castrating children.

I’m not suggesting that anyone should ignore the illicit sex that occurred. Nobody is saying that 19-year-olds should perform fellatio on 7-year-olds. But the overwhelming attention that others focused on the sex that occured is clearly distorted if not hysterical. Far more important is the individual child’s overall well-being in the present and future, and that entails acknowledging and validating the child’s pleasure and positive evaluation of his experience, as well as his unsurprising indifference to cultural anti-sex values of such hysterical concern to some adults.

This child enjoyed his sexual experience and wanted to enjoy similar experiences in the future. That was not an “evil” or “perverted” wish, but simply the natural consequence of the circumstances. For practical reasons children need to learn modesty and discretion in public, but in the privacy of a “professional’s” office children should not be made to feel ashamed of the bodily pleasure they experienced and their desire to experience such pleasure again. Where is the therapist’s empathy for the patient?

Child sexual behavior is sometimes called “acting out,” but there is no rational explanation for using that negative label. If a child enjoyed his first experience of sex play and wants to repeat it, that is no different from enjoying and wanting to repeat any pleasurable body experience. When many people were very young they were introduced to the enjoyable experience of listening to music, and ever since then they have eagerly sought to repeat that experience – every day and even several times a day. When they listen to music now and encourage others to enjoy music are they acting out?

Describing child sex play as “acting out” seems to be an expression of the traditionally negative view of sexual pleasure outside marriage, and since children can’t marry then sexual pleasure in childhood is always “wrong.” Some adults seem to have trouble confronting the fact that children can enjoy sex play without their enjoyment being somehow evil, inappropriate, unhealthy, etc. Positive reactions to sexual pleasure (i.e. expressing a desire to repeat the experience) are perfectly normal, natural and understandable, and need not be labeled as pathology.

As David Finkelhor and Heino Meyer-Bahlburg have proposed, even negative early sexual experience (insensitive, exploitative, coercive) may not have a direct negative impact on life course, but may have only an indirect impact through subsequent life events after the abuse. Early sex abuse should not be automatically assumed to be the beginning of the cascade of negativity. The origin of a child’s problems might be before or after the abuse, such as prior insecure attachment to caregivers or subsequent family break-up.

This case illustrates that individual children vary greatly in their reactivity to early sexual experience, and we have no idea to what extent that variability is due to genetics or environment, and the relative importance of the environment previous to the experience or the environment after the experience for the long-term. So far most researchers have only exhibited an odd interest in the characteristics of the experience itself: Which parts of the child’s body were touched? How many times? How long did the touching last? Oddly, agents of the inquisition and lynch mobs share a similar focus.

Attempting to protect children by preventing or terminating sexual experience as soon as possible by any means necessary is a superficial scattergun approach that may cause more harm and lead to a more negative outcome than a sexual experience itself. As Columbia University Professor Heino Meyer-Bahlburg M.D. said: “I am often appalled at the way child sex abuse is handled in this country; how the children and families are victimized by government policies and regulatory agencies, in comparison to what happens in Western Europe. In my clinical work, I have seen marked exacerbation of the effects of child sexual abuse by what happens as a consequence of agency intervention.” (3).

At the same conference on children’s sexual development even Friedrich himself said: “…after realizing in my first large normative study that sexual behavior in children is ubiquitous, I have begun to appreciate the normative aspects of sexuality in children. I have also come to realize that children’s sexuality is, quite surprisingly, a relatively uncharted area.” (4).

Another of Friedrich’s interesting findings is that parents who are more highly educated and more affluent report more sexual behavior in their children, compared to parents who are less educated and less affluent. But we don’t know if that’s because children of educated parents are more sexual, or if educated parents are more observant, or less reticent in reporting sexual behavior; and we will never find out as long as hysterical concern for political correctness blocks impartial research on children’s sexuality.

A preliminary study of African-American children’s sexual behavior found that their caregivers reported much less sexual behavior than white parents do (5). Although it’s not clear why that is so, hysterics who claim child sexuality is not normative are in the company of the poorest segment of society with the highest rate of unplanned pregnancy.

The superficial, adult-centered view is that childhood is merely a preparation for mature life, but the reality is that many children never survive beyond childhood (e.g. victims of accidents or fatal illness), and we have no way of predicting who those children will be. Recognizing that fact requires respecting every child’s perspective: as far as children are concerned, childhood is their life. What about those children we know with certainty have no future (the terminally ill)? They are likewise denied the freedom to enjoy sexual pleasure, not to protect the terminally ill child but to protect the cultural ideal of prudery.

Despite a cultural context that strongly disapproves of child sex play, it is clear that many kids (perhaps most) do it anyway. We must consider the possibility that sexual behavior in childhood is natural or instinctive in some sense, so cultural prohibitions of it are unrealistic. Worse, the failure of individual children to meet cultural expectations may be the cause of unnecessary grief and misery, as if families living with poverty and disease don’t have enough grief and misery already.

Sex abuse must be distinguished from normative sex play. Sexual experience that is insensitive, exploitative, or otherwise injurious is certainly abusive, but not all sex play is like that. Some dogs bite, maul, and even kill children, but that doesn’t mean all dogs must always be avoided like the plague. Anything can be abusive. Forcing a child to overeat and become obese (or failing to encourage adequate exercise) is a cruel form of abuse.

A widespread and unrecognized form of cruel child abuse is preventing girls from enjoying healthy sexual function, i.e. clitoral erection. There is good reason to believe that sexual stimulation during development is probably conducive to healthy clitoral function and the capacity for female orgasm in maturity. In contrast, neglecting the clitoris or penis during development is likely to risk future sexual dysfunction due to the well-known process of atrophy of relative brain areas that do not receive sufficient stimulation during growth. Sexual neglect is a form of child maltreatment like any other.

Although there is no direct evidence for that hypothesis yet, there is some indirect evidence. For example: “…both males and females who reported CSEP [childhood sexual experiences with peers] were more likely to have experienced orgasm during postpubertal petting (females 38% vs. 29%, X2=16.9, p<.001; males: 59% vs. 49%, X2=13.9, p<.001).” (6). Such findings should not be surprising since they are consistent with more general evidence from both human and animal studies that early tactile stimulation of the body has positive effects on the development of brain function (7,8). See: Clitoral Erectile Dysfunction .

In animals there is evidence that high levels of licking/grooming behavior in infancy lead to more effective regulation of stress later. How applicable that observation is to human children is an open question, but the point is that modern culture may be completely wrong about the possible effects of early genital stimulation. As far as know extreme forms of licking/grooming behavior may have a therapeutic effect on young mammals who suffered neglect or other adversity earlier in their lives.

The mass hysteria over child sex abuse depends, in part, on the hundred-year-old psychoanalytic theory of “neurosis,” i.e. early sexual “seduction” that is inter-generational is traumatic. But the case of this seven-year-old boy is clear evidence against that theory. In the classic model of trauma an experience that is perceived as painful, injurious or threatening causes fear and (in the future) heightened reactivity against any similar stimulus. But in this case the child’s reaction was the opposite: he enjoyed it so much he wanted to repeat it. The classic model of trauma has to be twisted beyond recognition to fit this kind of case. I’ve never heard of a car-crash victim subsequently attempting to crash his car into others repeatedly to “cope with” his initial trauma.

There is some specific evidence that men who experienced oral sex during childhood engage in more frequent oral sex as adults (9). Although that evidence is not proof that the early oral sex caused the later frequency of oral sex, it is counter-evidence against the theoretical prediction that oral sex in childhood is likely to be traumatic and lead to avoidance of oral sex later.

None of the biased retrospective research on the supposed effects of early sexual experience has ever proved any causal relationship. For ethical reasons researchers are unable to perform the kind of prospective studies needed to prove cause and effect in human sexual behavior. In one quasi-prospective study non-abused children who were already depressed and later experienced sexual abuse were interviewed again. In the second interview they were found to be depressed. If the second interview had been a retrospective study, crusaders would have automatically and mistakenly attributed the depression to the sexual abuse – unaware that the kids were already depressed before the abuse.

Longitudinal studies of child development should include specific measures of sexual behavior (from direct observation as well as reports by observers) along with general measures of school performance, etc. Although such studies can’t prove any cause and effect in child development, they can disprove popular beliefs that early sexual experience inevitably or usually has an observable negative impact.

Pointing out the lack of valid scientific support in this field doesn’t stop some hysterical individuals from claiming and insisting they know that early sexual experience is likely to have a “negative” impact on children. Crusaders who are more interested in the political outcome of debate rather than empirical science simply switch to moral rhetoric or the political correctness of demonizing early sexuality, or they try to silence open discussion by pretending that the issue is a national “emergency” requiring censorship.

Responsible discussions of children’s sexual behavior necessarily include admissions that “insufficient data are available,” and “more research is needed.” In the absence of valid laboratory tests to measure children’s mental health in each particular case, any pseudo-medical “assessment and diagnosis” and grandiose judgments about “treatment” of a particular child’s sexual behavior may be grossly inappropriate, potentially injurious, and fairly described as arrogant. It is even worse than arrogance; such an attitude is reasonably called hysteria.

References

1. Friedrich, William N. Children with Sexual Behavior Problems. Norton, 2007.

2. Zimring, Franklin E. An American Travesty: Legal Responses to Adolescent Sexual Offending. University of Chicago, 2004.

3. Discussion in a workshop published in Bancroft, John (Ed.) Sexual Development in Childhood. Indiana University, 2003.

4.Friedrich, William N. Studies of Sexuality of Nonabused Children. In Bancroft, John (Ed.) Sexual Development in Childhood. Indiana University, 2003.

5. Thigpen, Jeffry W. et al. Normative Sexual Behavior of African American Children. In Bancroft, John (Ed.) Sexual Development in Childhood. Indiana University, 2003.

6. Reynolds, Meredith A. et al. The Nature of Childhood Sexual Experiences: Two Studies 50 Years Apart. In Bancroft, John (Ed.) Sexual Development in Childhood. Indiana University, 2003.

7. Field, T.M. et al. Tactile/kinesthetic stimulation effects on preterm neonates. Pediatrics, 77(5), 654-658.

8. Wiedenmayer, Christoph. Sensitive Periods in the Behavioral Development of Mammals. In Worthman, Carol M. et al. (Eds.) Formative Experiences. Cambridge University, 2010.

9. Paul, J.P. et al. Childhood/Adolescent Sexual Coercion among Men Who Have Sex with Men: Understanding Patterns of Sexual behavior and Sexual Risk. In Bancroft, John (Ed.) Sexual Development in Childhood. Indiana University, 2003.

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Is Your Child a Sex Maniac? Part 2

Please read the previous post first: Is Your Child a Sex Maniac? to understand the context of this topic.

Helping children learn and grow is an ambitious undertaking of enormous complexity that requires infinite patience and a large dose of humility. Nonetheless, political opportunists and profiteers in the sex abuse rescue business want people to believe judging children’s sexual behavior should be as quick and simple as arithmetic.

Typically, a child does not complain about having participated in some sexual experience; an adult witnesses the behavior or overhears an innocent narration or request for information, and then the adults freak out and make a federal case out of it. The popular image of a terrified child running to a heroic adult for help is the rare exception rather than the rule. A much more common scene is a child casually reporting a curious feeling of pleasure during sex play, and the shocked parent or other adult falls to pieces. Let’s keep that latter image in mind when considering the sensitive topic of children behaving sexually.

Adults who were sexually abused when they were young may be the worst “protectors” of children in the here and now. A hypersensitive adult’s past fears or sadness intrude upon and color her current relationships with children. In the jargon of attachment theory, mental models from the traumatic past will bias present perceptions and expectations, creating inaccurate attunement with a child (1).  Such adults are rigid and lack response flexibility. They ignore the current context and are incapable of a diversity of responses to the thought of childhood sexual experience. Hypersensitive adults are, themselves, frightening to the child rather than being a source of protection or security.

Obvious abuse is characterized by coercion or exploitation, but some confused adults attempt to extend moral outrage and fear of trauma even to mutually consensual sex play among children. Hysterical adults disregard the frequent absence of coercion or exploitation, and consider some arbitrary difference in age as necessarily “abusive.” Or a lone child “abusing” himself is sometimes considered a victim of a “sexualizing” environment, although it’s not clear how a lone child can coerce himself or exploit himself.

How much childhood masturbation is too much? Believe it or not, some therapists define that “problem” purely in terms of the individual parent’s personal preferences. The so-called “therapy” for children who masturbate “excessively” or behave “intrusively” toward other children usually includes extended evaluation for possibly undisclosed abuse, defined by law, even though author Friedrich says child sexual behavior should not be viewed as criminal (2).

Children with unconfirmed abuse may have been exposed to sexuality in the immediate environment (e.g. viewing pornography or adults during sex), which is not usually considered abuse. But sporadic examples of children in troubled families who have witnessed adults during genital intercourse or oral sex are not an adequate basis for reliable generalization about the possible effects of such an environment on children in an otherwise normal family. Even if a child’s problem behavior begins just after witnessing adult sexual behavior, and hence was likely triggered by it, we have no way of knowing whether other adversity or dysfunctional relationships in the child’s life were predisposing factors.

Family nudity, co-bathing, co-sleeping and massage are not problematic or inappropriate in the context of a healthy family. As far as we know there may be many cases of children in healthy families viewing pornography or adult sexual behavior without any adverse effects. The mere threat of withdrawing valued privileges like nudity, co-bathing, or massage, will be sufficient to deter misbehavior in a healthy family.

In contrast, an openly sexual environment is probably unadvisable in a disadvantaged home where a child is subject to multiple forms of deprivation or adversity, and has been sexually intrusive or aggressive, especially a repeat offender. However, it should be emphasized that in some cases where parents are overly restrictive the child’s sexual behavior may be an attempt to provoke more sensitivity from adults.

The book “Children with Sexual Behavior Problems” was edited and published posthumously, so I am reluctant to accuse the late author of inconsistencies. Reporting laws in many states require notifying social services if a victim reveals abuse by an older child, usually a sibling. Nonetheless, the author says schools need not be notified unless the abuse took place in the school, because there is a risk that the school will “complicate” the situation by reacting insensitively.

Considering the many documented cases of insensitivity by social services and juvenile courts (3,4), I would trust school teachers and administrators to be at least as sensitive if not more so than social workers and juvenile court judges. But is there really a need to notify anybody?

The perspective of worried adults often distorts and demonizes what is actually harmless child sex play. In another case described by Friedrich, two female cousins (age 8) enjoyed minor sex play over a period of a year that included kissing each other “down there.” When the mothers found out they asked separate therapists for advice. Friedrich interviewed one of the children and established that there was no coercion or history of abuse, nor any other behavior problems or risk factors, and hence judged the sex play as normative.

But the other child’s therapist told the other cousin she had been the victim of “sexual abuse,” and told the child to write a letter to her cousin to say she was upset about it. The coached child subsequently developed behavior problems and sleep problems. When the parents terminated “therapy” with the highly suggestive therapist, that child’s behavior returned to normal.

Some adults are worried by false claims that beginning to act sexually “is not part of the normal preteen’s repertoire in our culture,” as well as unwarranted recommendations that child sex play should be discouraged by distractions, surveillance, no-sex rules, etc.  There are no valid data to support such claims and worries. In the Lamb and Coakley study, 80% of female undergraduates reported sex play before 12 years old (5). Instead of telling adults to stop worrying, we tell children to stop enjoying normal, healthy sex play!

What is the “right” age to become aware of sexuality or begin enjoying sex play, in general or in the case of some particular child? How can anyone calculate the “right” age? Healthy children are curious and eager to learn from birth. Research on effective early education demonstrates that we cultivate children’s precious curiosity and priceless desire to learn by satisfying that desire, not by ignoring it, lying in response, or providing only incomplete information (which is a form of lying).

Some adults attempt to inhibit all expressions of emotion by children, not merely sexual excitement but anger, fear, disappointment, boredom, etc. Such children learn to hide their feelings and may become super-obedient on the surface, but at the cost of adults not knowing what the child is really feeling. Experiments have verified that some children who act calm and obedient are nonetheless experiencing high levels of stress hormones in their circulation. There is a risk that eventually such apparently imperturbable and obedient children will distrust what others appear or claim to be feeling, and aren’t even sure what they are feeling themselves.

In a peculiar passage Friedrich wrote: “I have had a number of unnerving experiences during interviews with preteen victims of sexual abuse where the child was openly flirtatious;” Why should an openly flirtatious child be unnerving to a healthy adult? As I described elsewhere, I have received uninvited kisses on the lips and my genitals have been surreptitiously touched by preteen pupils but I have never been unnerved by it.

If some adults are “unnerved” by a child behaving sexually, they may be revealing their own anti-sex bias and paranoia stemming from ancient beliefs that early sex play causes blindness, etc., and requires gruesome restraining devices. Adults need to explore the origins of their own fears, and distinguish their own hypersensitivity from a child’s innocent curiosity and playful behavior.

Many fathers and mothers report arousal in the presence of a child, and react by avoiding the child, which may be interpreted by the child as rejection. The problem here is not the parents’ arousal, but their inability to accept their arousal as normal, and their failure to behave responsibly by thinking and acting in the child’s best interest rather than running away and hiding, with the child left wondering “What’s wrong with me?”

One of the many important differences between children and adults is that an adult usually has much more freedom in choosing who to have friendships or other social relationships with. That is not merely due to the adult’s greater physical mobility, but also because parents, teachers and other adults often limit children’s choices and force a child to interact with some people and not others. Adults claim they do so to protect the child from “bad influences,” but in reality an adult’s policing of children’s friendships is sometimes motivated by the adult’s own selfish political or religious preferences.

One practical effect of such restrictions is that children are denied the sensitivity and attunement only available with other children of the same or similar age. Forcing a child (usually girls) to spend the day with safe grandma or a trusted auntie rather than a cherished classmate or new neighbor (boys!) is a form of cruel deprivation, too often excused by the supposed threat of innocent sex play. Young children, especially, are less verbal than adults, and certainly benefit from regularly sharing the non-verbal communication, e.g. touching, that children are naturally better at. (To be continued.)

References

1)    Siegel, Daniel J. The Developing Mind. Guilford, 2012.

2)    Friedrich, William N. Children With Sexual Behavior Problems. Norton, 2007.

3)    Wexler, Richard. Wounded Innocents. Prometheus, 1990.

4)    Ofshe, Richard. Making Monsters. University of California, 1994.

5)    Lamb, Sharon, and Coakley, Mary. Normal Childhood Sexual Play and Games: Differentiating Play from Abuse.  Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 17, pp. 515-526, 1993.

 

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Is Your Child a Sex Maniac?

“There is a stunning lack of precision and science in the field of child mental health.” – William N. Friedrich

One reason child sex abuse is so upsetting to adults is that children are traditionally considered asexual and uninterested in sex, so any sex play that occurs in childhood “must be” coerced, overwhelming and “dysregulating” for the child. However, children are sometimes observed expressing a robust desire to enjoy sex play (some published cases will be described below) and those children are mistakenly viewed as “sexualized” or “disturbed.”

A healthy child is very energetic and enthusiastic rather than passive and lethargic. Healthy children are like pro boxers in top condition who need fresh sparring partners several times a day. Childcare is a very labor-intensive occupation. But when a child expresses enthusiasm about sex play, that contradiction of adult expectations is overwhelming and dysregulating for some adults. If sex play is normative in childhood, then who is disturbed – the child who exhibits an enthusiastic desire to enjoy sex play, or the adult who gets upset about it?

Some adults have an incentive to view child sex play as a serious problem, because that way adults hide or excuse their own hypersensitivity. Early thought was that bed-wetting and nightmares are “key” symptoms of sex abuse, but in reality many child sex abuse victims sleep better than their parents. Worried adults even subject children who enjoy normative sex play to repeated questioning and dramatic emotional displays that are unnecessary and upsetting to the children. Such adults are exhibiting their own irresponsibility and mental imbalance.

Adults who have a lot of experience with children know that there is a broad continuum of child sexual behavior from normative to disturbed, stemming from many different pathways. Problematic cases (i.e. fixation on sex or repeated coercion of other children) usually appear in more chaotic families in which children have experienced several forms of instability or adversity in general, not merely normative sex play.

Some parents don’t understand the importance of satisfying a child’s fundamental needs, e.g. secure attachment to caregivers, sleeping at least 10 hours every night, and eating breakfast before being thrust into a competitive classroom. Such children are usually bound to fail in school and suffer low self-esteem as a result. In such cases eventual behavior disorders are unsurprising, and sexual behavior may be the least of the child’s problems.

Therapists who earn money in the sex abuse rescue business create different typologies of what is called problematic sexual behavior. They include purely self-focused behavior (i.e. excessive masturbation, but difficult to draw the line between excessive and not excessive), which in the past was literally called “self-abuse,” and aggressive or intrusive sexual behavior toward others.

What becomes labeled as sexually “intrusive” behavior is arbitrarily defined by adults. The label of intrusive behavior may arbitrarily range from a child with no sex abuse history, and no true psychopathology or other behavior problems who merely touched another child’s genital area once, to a child who was the victim of physical and other forms of abuse by multiple perpetrators and repeatedly attempts to coerce genital penetration with other children. Classifying child sexual behavior is far from an exact science.

An author who led the thinking in the field of treating children with sexual behavior problems noted that the majority of children who exhibit problematic sexual behavior are neither victims of sexual abuse nor future sex offenders. He stated that based on his experience with hundreds of children who have been sexually intrusive toward other children, they are rarely so compulsive as to re-offend after being caught (1).

But many people who had little or no experience (or only negative experience) with sexuality when they were young believe that even mutually consensual sex play is always a reason for grave concern and action. Even some therapists who specialize in this field (and should know better) get overly upset by children behaving sexually, and cater to hysterical parents and witch-hunters. Treating children with real or imagined sexual behavior problems is a growth industry.

According to the book “Children with Sexual Behavior Problems,” therapists need to identify families in which the parents misinterpret innocent sex play and simply require reassurance and support. Even in the case of real (severe) sexual behavior problems, the context of dysfunctional family relations is frequently the underlying problem – not the sexual behavior. Attempting to prevent future intrusive behavior should focus on improving the capacity of the parents to satisfy children’s basic needs, e.g. for secure attachment to caregivers.

As another distinguished psychologist has noted, a child is rarely “overwhelmed” by any single experience, not even the sudden and unexpected diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease. What matters is the quantity and frequency of negative challenges in a particular child’s life (cumulative stress), relative to the presence of internal and external protective factors available to that particular child (2).

The best evidence available indicates that in most cases early sex abuse is not seriously harmful (3), and traditionally research on children’s sexual behavior has not investigated why most children are resilient or immune from serious injury. Most researchers have instead focused on attempting to demonize sex play and make money by “treating” the minority of families who do need help, and by attempting to broaden (by definition) that lucrative market as much as possible.

There is some evidence that experiences commonly called “traumatic” are sometimes actually neutral or positive (in the long term) for most people who experience them. Individuals who suffer from severe post-traumatic stress are a minority, not the majority of trauma victims. The widespread hand-wringing over sex play in childhood is clearly distorted.

Children who are sexually intrusive tend to be aggressive in other ways as well. Their intrusive sexual behavior is merely part of their intrusive behavior in general, and is often learned from adults (parents, teachers and other models) who are generally insensitive, abrupt, and intrusive toward children. In contrast, competent parents model respect for other people’s boundaries. They talk to a child first to find out what is going on in the child’s mind at the moment, and then if appropriate propose contact and wait for the child’s consent, rather than merely reaching out and grabbing a child. Why aren’t adults so concerned about non-sexual aggression in childhood?

According to some definitions of “sex abuse” and “sexually intrusive behavior,” children who were sexually abused engage in sexually intrusive behavior more frequently. But cause and effect are far from clear, since these children have higher rates of other forms of instability and adversity in their lives. It is irresponsible to automatically attribute sexually intrusive behavior to early sexual experience when many more children who are sexually intrusive have no known history of sex abuse.

One survey examined the following items: 1) persists in touching other kids after being told not to, 2) plans how to touch other children, 3) forces other children to engage in “sex acts,” 4) puts finger or other object in other child’s “rectum” or vagina (more likely introitus than vagina). Interestingly, sexually abused kids had lower rates of three out of four of the above behaviors considered “aggressive” compared to children who had no known history of sex abuse. Children who are victims of sex abuse are a minority of the general population, and as far as we know most children with sexually intrusive behavior are not sex abuse victims.

A healthy child has varied interests. Children’s relations with other people should not be dominated by a sexual focus, but sexual arousal is normative in childhood and may be managed in a healthy manner by occasional sex play with other children. If children spend a lot of time at home with insufficient opportunities for educational games or other learning activities, sex play with siblings or other relatives of very different ages may become a habit.

Frequent “play dates” with other children outside the home may avoid the tendency to fixate on sex play in an impoverished family, as well as enriching the child’s repertoire of pro-social behavior. Conversely, parents or other adults who are overly restrictive about sex play may actually provoke children to become sexually intrusive. Adults can and should provide structure and safe limits, but without excessive sexual restrictions.

What about extremely intrusive behavior? Friedrich described the case of a nine-year-old boy who reported being repeatedly coerced into “anal penetration” over a period of years by his adoptive brother (two years older). At first the older boy denied any coercion, but eventually admitted to one possible occasion. When informed, the parents said they could stop the behavior and opposed any further action. But the therapist recommended removing the older boy from the home, which a court did. Although we don’t know all of the circumstances in this case, none of the factors described seem to justify such harsh treatment of the older boy.

One disadvantage of the mass hysteria over child nudity is that many adults have grossly inaccurate and even magical ideas about children’s anatomy. Few boys have an adult-sized penis at age 11, and if the boy in this case did, he could not penetrate a nine-year-old’s tiny anus. On the other hand, an immature penis is too tiny to reach into another little boy’s recessed aperture. Realistically, the so-called “penetration” in this case was most certainly minimal if at all.

There is a possibility that the claims of coercion were also exaggerated, and possibly motivated by the younger boy’s culturally induced shame and sibling rivalry. Significantly, there was no report of any physical injury or subsequent physical pathology. Finally, the parents’ confidence that they could protect the younger boy in the future should outweigh the opinion of the therapist who merely spoke to the boys a few times.

We must consider the possibility that removing the older boy from the home may be far more injurious than the risk of further coercion of the younger boy. If the accusations were indeed exaggerated, the younger boy himself may suffer severe guilt feelings or paranoia over possible revenge later. From a dependent child’s point of view, the injury of non-consensual sex play is brief and temporary compared to the long-term or permanent catastrophe of perceived parental rejection and abandonment. Instead of risking further sexual impropriety, the therapist and court risk creating a future ax murderer.

The judgment in this case also promotes the mass hysteria over sex abuse, since the supposed risk of (possibly) coerced sex play was considered more important than any other considerations. There is obvious arrogance and hysteria in the attitude of authorities when it comes to sexuality. For example, when families are resistant to continue “treatment” (that has never been proven safe or effective by medical standards), therapists are advised to be ready to “coordinate” (i.e. coerce) future sessions with the aid of the local social services department or juvenile court.

Analogously, some arrogant public school teachers are known to quickly threaten calling a social worker if parents show any lack of enthusiasm about the outdated curriculum offered by overworked staff in an overcrowded school. In general, working with the government should not be allowed to go to a person’s head. In addition to the lack of precision and science in the field of child mental health, individuals who work with local, state, or federal governments are certainly imperfect and fallible just like the rest of us. (To be continued.)

References

1. Friedrich, William N. Children with Sexual Behavior Problems. W.W. Norton, 2007.

2. Garbarino, James. Lost Boys. Anchor Books, 1999.

3. Rind, Bruce et al.  “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples” (Psychological Bulletin 1998, Vol. 124, No. 1, 22-53); and Rind et al. “The Validity and Appropriateness of Methods, Analyses, and Conclusions in Rind et al. (1998): A Rebuttal of Victimological Critique From Ondersma et al. (2001) and Dallam et al. (2001)” (Psychological Bulletin 2001. Vol. 127. No. 6. 734-758).

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Sexual Maturity: Fact or Fiction?

“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 19:10-12.

It is well-known that during puberty there is an increase in the secretion of so-called “sex” hormones (testosterone and estrogens) relative to the period of pre-puberty, and it is commonly believed that the increased secretion results not only in the maturation of the reproductive organs and reproductive function, but also the maturation of the capacity for sexual desire or arousal, genital erection, and orgasm.

The belief is a very old one, and is weakly supported by research on lower mammals (e.g. rodents), which are much more mechanical in their hormone-influenced behavior than human beings. However, the possible effect of “sex” hormones on human behavior is always described using metaphors rather than specific cause-effect relations, and the evidence cited is often anecdotal. Are hormones really so important for human sexual function?

In lower mammals copulation only occurs during ovulation, but careful study of some primates (monkeys) have found that although the number of copulations peaks around ovulation, both males and females initiate copulation throughout the menstrual/hormonal cycle, even during pregnancy, as do humans. I have a clear memory of orgasm-like sensations in my penis at about age six, and first distinct orgasm at about age ten, even though I passed through puberty rather late (14-15). Although ten may be considered the hormonal beginning of adolescence, my first distinct orgasm coincided with learning how to masturbate. It’s possible that if I had learned to masturbate earlier, I would have experienced orgasm earlier. (See: Learning about Love.)

Even some experts voice assent to the supposed contribution of sex hormones to sexual function, but typically without specific reference to any concrete evidence nor any response to some inconvenient counter-evidence, namely some clinical conditions well-known to physiologists: panhypopituitarism (also known as Multiple Pituitary Deficiency), in which untreated individuals never reach puberty but nonetheless may enjoy healthy sexual function; eunuchism: individuals who have no testes or ovaries and nonetheless may enjoy healthy sexual function; and hypogonadism/hypergonadism: undersecretion or oversecretion (respectively) of testosterone and estrogens which is not characterized by an absence of sexual function nor hypersexuality.

In the male normal testosterone levels (relative to body weight) are highest in infancy (age 1-3 months), and even higher than in puberty (age 13-14 years), both absolutely and relative to body weight (1). If testosterone were strictly related to sexual desire and sexual arousal, then infants would be hypersexual – which they obviously aren’t.

Two abnormal testosterone conditions of interest are congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), and androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS). In untreated CAH hypersexuality is not commonly reported, and in untreated AIS hyposexuality is not a common observation. If testosterone levels were so important in sexual desire or sexual arousal, then hypersexuality or hyposexuality respectively would be observed in these conditions.

We should note that no gland in the human body has a mind of its own, not even the master gland – the pituitary. The increased secretion of testosterone and estrogens during puberty is a consequence of pulsate release of a neurotransmitter, so-called gonadotropic releasing “hormone” (GnRH) by the brain. Saying that sexual function depends on sex hormones merely begs the question, because the secretion of sex hormones is ultimately controlled by the brain. (An exception to this rule is the case of a glandular tumor, in which hypersecretion of the gland’s hormone may occur regardless of brain signals.) It is not even known why secretion of GnRH begins to occur when it does in any individual’s life, nor why such secretions seem to be occurring earlier today than in previous centuries.

Panhypopituitarism (PHP) is a form of dwarfism in which untreated individuals never reach adult stature, as in other forms of dwarfism, but in addition never pass through puberty and never reach what is more appropriately called reproductive maturity (2). In rare cases PHP is the result of physical trauma or a pituitary tumor that is very difficult to treat so the patients often die. More commonly PHP is congenital and if diagnosed early may be treated with replacement hormones. But in those congenital cases where the condition is not diagnosed early or otherwise remains untreated, the affected individuals can and do eventually marry and enjoy healthy sexual function as defined above, although they are infertile.

Eunuchs are men who were physically castrated (usually only the testicles are removed) and have been common throughout history. Although largely deprived of sex hormones and infertile, they can have genital erections and orgasms. In ancient Rome a famous author criticized at least one woman for having sex with a eunuch. One of the last castrated singers in Italy, Giovanni Battista “Giambattista” Velluti, (28 Jan 1780 – 22 Jan 1861), was castrated at age eight and as an adult was well-known for his illicit sexual affairs with married women.

There is also a condition called hypogonadism, in which testosterone and estrogens are undersecreted, with effects primarily on reproductive function (e.g. anovulatory cycles in the female), but not loss of sexual function. Conversely, hypergonadism or oversecretion of testosterone and estrogens has some bad effects, but is not characterized by excessive sexual arousal or any other form of hypersexuality.

Research on non-human primates and lower mammals, which respond to hormonal influence more mechanically, distinguishes between the central effects of estrogens (e.g. female receptivity and proceptivity), and peripheral effects (e.g. attractiveness to males). Estrogen replacement therapy in women who underwent ovarectomy has shown improvement of vaginal dryness and hence comfort to both partners during coitus, but failed to show any increase in female sexual interest.

The administration of anti-androgen drugs to treat prostate cancer entails a risk of reduced “libido,” but such possible side-effects are not universal, which again confirms that sexual function is possible without normal (“mature”) levels of sex hormones. The same is true for chemical castration. There is anecdotal evidence for claims of greatly reduced “libido,” but the effectiveness is not universal: recidivism occasionally occurs among chemically castrated sex offenders. There is a clear possibility that anti-androgen treatment may be confounded by a strong placebo effect. In any case, drugs administered to adults are not necessarily equivalent to natural (unprovoked) low levels of androgens in children.

Hence, there is considerable evidence that increased secretion of so-called sex hormones during puberty or at any other time is not strictly related to healthy sexual function, here defined as the capacity for arousal, genital erection and orgasm. There is good reason to believe that the capacity for healthy sexual function in the absence of so-called “sex” hormones, is not only present in untreated individuals affected by PHP, eunuchism or hypogonadism, but is also present in normal children long before reaching the stage of increased secretion of testosterone or estrogens at puberty. In humans although the capacity for sexual desire or arousal may improve or “peak” after puberty, sexual function is present and robust both before and after adolescence/early adulthood.

Mature sexual behavior is a deliberate attempt and effort to feel sexual pleasure, and even inexperienced children certainly do have a strong desire to feel sexual pleasure, even if the elements of curiosity and play are a larger part of their motivation than in a very experienced adult. Another way of looking at sexual “immaturity” is that many children become mentally castrated through neglect or active shame-training, i.e. they lose their natural capacity for sexual pleasure.

We may say that children are sexually “immature” in the sense that their sexual behavior is different from adults by virtue of the child’s mental castration, but then the distinction has lost much of its significance. The popular belief that children are naturally or inevitably asexual before puberty (i.e. reproductive maturity) is clearly mistaken and contradicts what is known about human physiology.

That mistaken belief must be explained by other factors, such as historical ignorance of human physiology, or the convenience of such a belief to support certain financial interests, political expediency, or ancient religious ideologies. The belief that sexual function suddenly appears at puberty, so sex play in childhood is unnecessary and useless, supports the traditional mental castration of girls.

Traditionally, mental maturity has been conceived as a certain “plateau” that is reached at some age, characterized by the ability to reason effectively and autonomously. However, in reality some individuals reach a low plateau of reasoning very early in life, never learning the principles of elementary logic and unable to reason autonomously without depending on some simple authority (substitute caregiver) as a crutch, while other individuals continue changing and developing their mental effectiveness and autonomy throughout their lives.

Choosing to call any level of mental development “maturity” is necessarily arbitrary. In Western countries some research has focused on understanding such concepts as freedom of speech as a measure of mental maturity, even though many “mature” individuals never develop an awareness that the abstract right to freedom of speech has little practical value in daily life if what you want to say is widely considered politically incorrect.

On a more practical note, many adults arbitrarily considered mentally “mature” (by virtue of having counted their birthdays) are unable to stop smoking even when informed that smoking during pregnancy entails serious health risks for their child. The same is true for breastfeeding. Many mothers considered mentally “mature” decline to breastfeed their babies despite the well-known benefits of breastfeeding, and despite the well-known dangers of infant bottle formula.

More specific research on sexual decision making is needed to determine if there is any inherent biological defect in mental capacity before puberty (as opposed to culturally imposed mental castration) that renders pre-pubertal individuals incompetent to understand alternatives and consequences of sexual choices, i.e. choosing to enjoy sex play or not. (See Age of Consent).

References

1. Forest, M.G. (Ed.). Androgens in Childhood. (Karger, 1989).

2. Guyton, Arthur C. and Hall, John E. Textbook of Medical Physiology, 11th ed. Saunders, 2005.

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Body Literacy

Before moving on to discuss some very sensitive aspects of sex hysteria, namely published descriptions of children who have been observed behaving sexually and are sometimes labeled “sexualized” or even “disturbed,” it is important to discuss some more general topics about the human body and the concepts of health and disease as an introduction.

The human body needs many things, the most important of which are usually taken for granted. People often don’t realize that the body’s most urgent needs are usually satisfied and instead suffer from a distorted perception of what they lack. This post describes the most important things the human body needs and typically gets.

The healthy body needs to maintain middle values between too much and too little (blood gas concentration, electrolyte balance, etc.), because extremes cause damage to the cells or organs themselves, or entire body systems, or death. The body’s most urgent need is for a very limited range of temperature and pressure, the sudden absence of which would cause the immediate cessation of all cell processes and immediate death. The body also urgently needs a profuse quantity of air with a certain concentration of oxygen, as well as water without too many dissolved electrolytes.

Foods containing carbohydrates, protein and fats that are neither too acidic nor too alkaline are also necessary for the body to survive and maintain healthy organ function. Breast milk sugars contain E-fructose (lacking in cow’s milk), which favors the growth of friendly bacteria in the child’s intestine. Cow’s milk protein is poorly digested by children and may cause iron deficiency anemia. (Iron-fortified infant formula has been outlawed in many countries due to evidence of risk of neurological damage.)

It is commonly believed that overeating causes obesity, but there is evidence that lean children actually have a higher energy intake than obese children. That evidence suggests other factors are more important in causing obesity, especially lack of physical activity. Regular urination and defecation are equally essential to survival. What comes out is just as important as what goes in. Bed-wetting and dysfunctional toilet habits are usually caused by miseducation of the child by poorly informed parents.

Exercise is widely agreed to be essential for good health if not survival, and illustrates that the body is also flexible in some ways. In potentially lethal high fever the body’s metabolism increases by 100%, but during very grueling  exercise, such as a marathon race, the body’s metabolic rate may increase by up to 2,000%.

Before age 10, cardiac output (relative to body surface area) reaches its peak and thereafter declines. The human heart is pumping more blood in liters/min/m2 at age 9 than at age 20 or any later age. A child may safely hike the number of miles equal to her age, e.g. a five-year-old can safely hike five miles (8 km). We are talking about a leisurely hike with frequent rest stops that may take all day.

Lack of exercise is known to have damaging effects on body organs. Vascularization automatically changes to meet the metabolic needs of local tissues, decreasing when tissues are unused, or increasing when metabolic needs increase or a pathology (e.g. tumor) demands more blood flow. During prolonged inactivity, blood flow to unused muscle may almost cease.

Changes in vascularization are very slow during old age but very rapid during childhood. It is widely believed that a lack of sexual activity in old age contributes to an eventual decline or loss of sexual function. I think we should expect an even more pronounced and rapid injury to sexual function (inactivity causing devascularization) during childhood.

Experiments on monkeys have found that castration during infancy has more catastrophic effects on sexual function later than castration just before puberty or in adulthood, which may be indirect evidence of atrophy of the relative brain areas in early life due to lack of stimulation during development. I’ve previously described my hypothesis that lack of stimulation of the clitoris during early development may result in neural atrophy in the relative brain areas that control clitoral function, thereby causing irreversible clitoral erectile dysfunction.

The classic case of neural atrophy is when the eye doesn’t receive early stimulation (e.g. due to untreated cataracts), resulting in permanent blindness. The apparently critical period for needed visual stimulation is age 3-4 years. The brain’s primary sensory area mediating touch develops earlier than that, but the association area related to reproductive behavior develops later than age 3-4.

As I explained in a previous post linked to above, there is good reason to believe the erectile reflex and capacity for orgasm may be permanently damaged or destroyed by inhibitory shame-training in childhood (prohibiting the desire to self-stimulate the genitals), and as far as we know, destruction of healthy clitoral function may be, by no coincidence, the primary traditional goal of shame-training.

Some laboratory research indicates that adequate rest and sleep are also essential to good health, especially REM sleep. Researchers have found that men often have genital erections during REM sleep (nocturnal penile tumescence), and my own informal observations are that even before puberty girls have clitoral erections (clitoral tumescence) during REM sleep.

In erectile organs such as the penis and clitoris there is smooth muscle that is contracted during the flaccid phase, and relaxes during erection to allow more blood to fill the spongy erectile tissue. In addition to relaxation of smooth muscles, vasodilation is evidently fostered by epinephrine acting on the beta receptors of the blood vessels.

There may be local effects of long-term lack of stimulation of the clitoris during development, namely devascularization in the clitoris itself, leading to the risk of ischemia in the clitoral tissues and local nerve damage, or death of nerves serving the clitoris. There is also the possibility that the well-known process of denervation atrophy may be at work in stunting the normal growth of the clitoris.

Some parents view early sexual “inhibition” as necessary learning similar to bladder control and toilet training. However, there is no evidence that sexual inhibition serves any healthy function.  Bladder control cannot be learned before the nervous system has developed sufficiently at about age two. In contrast, the defecation reflex should never be inhibited for more than a few minutes, since keeping stools in the bowels reabsorbs water and makes the stools dry and compact and harder to pass.

The most common danger in excessive exercise is increase in body temperature which is destructive to cells, leading to heatstroke with symptoms of exhaustion, dizziness, collapse and unconsciousness, and if untreated: death. The treatment of heatstroke is to lower body temperature by removing clothing, spray or sponge the skin with water, and apply air current. There is no reason to fear that children masturbating themselves qualifies as excessive exercise, and the treatment for overheating is fairly simple as just explained.

Healthy human skin contains sensory receptors that detect temperature, humidity and physical contact. Hairy parts of the skin contain different kinds of nerves compared to non-hairy parts. Some parts of the skin are extremely smooth (guess which parts) and can bear a lot of rubbing, while other parts of the skin have pronounced friction ridges (e.g. finger tips) and are vulnerable to irritation. When a child fondles herself she is more likely to feel irritation of her finger tips than irritation of her genitalia.

Children have a higher ratio of body fat to skin fat, so a child’s skin is leaner and more acutely sensitive or receptive to touch compared to an adult. Information that is perceived by the skin is interpreted by the brain to generate an appropriate response: approach, avoidance, or no response needed.

The interpretation of sensory data is often determined by genetic design and is automatic or reflexive rather than voluntary, but in some cases interpretation of sensory data is influenced by learning and experience. Negative attitudes toward interpersonal skin contact are cultivated early through shame training, while positive attitudes are cultivated early through baby massage, child massage and buddy massage.

There is some evidence that restrictive clothing (i.e. bras) increases the risk of breast cancer more than smoking increases the risk of lung cancer. Toxins produced by normal cell metabolism are normally carried away by the lymph system, so restrictive clothing (i.e. bras) may inhibit the effective flow of lymph, while regular breast massage may facilitate the removal of toxins from cells through the lymph system. The adolescent breast is higher in density than in adulthood, and so is particularly sensitive to restrictive bras – the most common cause of breast pain (mastalgia) in adolescents, in addition to the risk of future tumors.

The child’s body is amazing, but the child’s brain is even more amazing. By two years old the brain has reached 75% of its adult weight, and by age six the brain has reached 90% of its adult weight. This is amazing, considering that the six-year-old’s body is only about 40% of its adult weight. One of the reasons a child’s body looks out of proportion is because the child’s head is almost the size of an adult’s head, even though the rest of the child’s body is much smaller than an adult’s body. The development of the brain long precedes the development of the body.

There is some evidence that by age 11 nearly the same capacity for reasoning as a university student is achieved, and the brain’s capacity for processing information peaks at age 14. Some people in Western countries view teenagers as having a child’s brain in an adult body, but the reality is quite the opposite. We should view children as having a nearly adult brain in a child’s body.

It’s true that traditionally children have less information and experience than adults, but one reason is precisely because adults do their best to limit children’s access to information and experience. Keeping young people dependent on adults for “guidance” prolongs adult power and control.

It is known that during puberty increased production of the so-called “sex hormones” stimulate growth and development of the reproductive organs, but it is also commonly believed that the surge in those hormones at puberty creates sexual arousal and enables sexual function (erection and orgasm). There is good reason to believe that the latter belief is mistaken.

The development of secondary sexual characteristics during puberty (e.g. pubic hair) is a sign of reproductive maturity but is commonly confused as being more important than the pre-existing presence of primary sexual characteristics (presence of a functional penis or functional clitoris). The complex concept of sexual “maturity” will be considered in more detail in my next post.

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