Political correctness mandates that parents should express grave concern if children learn about sex “too early.” But the current epidemic of relationship problems between men and women indicates the opposite: parents should express grave concern if children learn about sex too late, because many people never learn to feel comfortable about their normal body functions. An incredible example is the woman who reported that the first time she saw two mothers breastfeeding their babies she literally ran out of the room (1).
The blanket expression “having sex” is often used to lend a negative connotation to any kind of sexual activity, especially outside marriage. It implies genital intercourse, and is sometimes used in clearly misleading ways, as when a man is accused of “having sex” with a little girl, which in reality is physically impossible. Sexual contact between different age groups, in particular, is never described in neutral terms, let alone with the positive phrase “making love.” But there are actually many different kinds of sexual contact or sexual activity, with very different characteristics. Honesty requires more specific terminology.
Sex acts are familiar: genital intercourse is the classic sex act, and some say the only legitimate one, but there are others, whether we label them illegitimate, immoral, unhealthy, or whatever: masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, anal intercourse, etc. Sex acts may be defined as stimulation of the sexual organs with the goal of genital pleasure and/or orgasm, as well as possibly other secondary goals (social intimacy, emotional communication, etc.). When sex acts are insensitive, coercive or exploitative, or otherwise likely to harm someone, we may rightly call them abusive. In contrast, when two people engage in playful peeking, tickling or teasing without the goal of genital arousal or orgasm, we may reasonably call that sex play, rather than a sex act. Playing horsy and slapstick horseplay are not sex acts. When there is no intention or probability to harm or exploit, then sex play is not abusive.
I’ve already criticized the concept of “premature sexualization” in a previous post, but there I focused on the distorted idea of “sexualization.” Here I intend to attack the other half of that absurd phrase, the misapplication of the term “premature” in the context of sex play. When a baby is born before 37 weeks of gestation, the birth is called premature, meaning that the baby’s vital organs are not well-developed (compared to a full-term newborn) and may require medical care. For example, assisted respiration, drugs to strengthen heart function, an incubator to compensate for the premature’s fragile skin, etc. until the baby’s organs have reached the same level of development as in a full-term birth. At that point the baby isn’t considered “mature,” but rather a normal and healthy (and very long) period of immaturity follows, in which the baby continues to grow before full maturity. However, when it comes to sex, there is no recognition of a normal, healthy and long (though immature) stage of sexuality before maturity.
We are supposed to believe that on midnight of a certain birthday a human being suddenly jumps from premature to mature sexuality. There is no similar attempt to apply the word “premature” to other forms of behavior. There is no premature speech, premature walking, premature reading and writing, etc. Quite the contrary, in most other forms of behavior we usually applaud its early appearance (statistically) rather than consider it pathological. This isn’t merely an academic question. When young people are encouraged to hide their natural desire for immature sex play, then it will likely occur in secret, without the benefit of parental or medical monitoring. Other tragic effects were discussed in the post previously cited, and still more negative effects will be discussed below. It would be more reasonable and constructive to provide kids with accurate, balanced and comprehensive sexuality education from the earliest years, so that in routine medical exams a pediatrician might smile and ask: “So how’s your sex life?” That would encourage parents and children to acknowledge that sex play is normal, that appropriate hygiene is important, as is respecting anatomical and physiological limits (no penetration), etc., rather than force children to experiment and learn the hard way – through unassisted trial and error.
Another oddity in common attitudes toward sex play is that some other kinds of play are naturally considered too dangerous for children, especially young children. So kids should not be allowed to engage in such forms of play without close adult supervision. And yet adult supervision of child sex play is considered far more improper or dangerous than unsupervised sex play.
Normal, healthy children can be observed engaging in playful looking, exhibiting, touching, as well as pretend-intercourse or other forms of role-playing. A child will play alone if there are no playmates available, but through mutual play children learn improvisation, cooperation and negotiation. A child may even lie to parents or sneak away from adult surveillance (and risk a whipping) for the opportunity to enjoy sex play. There is much consensus that play in general, and fantasy play in particular, are educational (intellectually and/or emotionally). There is a scene in Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s beautiful film “Innocence,” in which a young girl finds a man’s glove in a theater and takes it home. Alone in her room at night, she puts the glove on her own hand and caresses her legs and thighs under her skirt, apparently pretending it’s a man’s hand. Pleasurable, certainly. Even “sexual” or “erotic” pleasure in some sense; but completely innocent. From the child’s point of view, she may be learning a very important lesson: not to be afraid of physical affection.
When the children are the same age many people assume that sex play may be sensitive, mutually desirable and not exploitative. But when there is a significant difference in the age or level of maturity between the children is there an assumption or fear that the “power difference” makes insensitivity or exploitation likely. Some critics of sex play argue that when the “power difference” is great, as between a child and an adult, then insensitivity, coercion or exploitation are inevitable. Some early studies of selected population samples suggested that even an age difference of two years is likely to be harmful. But such studies have been criticized as suffering from selection bias. In some places abuse is defined strictly in terms of age difference, e.g. >5 years, so that even 14-year-olds who indulged in sex play with 9-year-olds are now on “sex offender” registries and will be for the rest of their lives. What is odd about the assumption of exploitation or harm is that the assumption isn’t made with non-sexual forms of play between different age groups.
As far as I know the mysterious idea of “power difference” is unsupported by any valid empirical data. It’s quite possible that careful research on unbiased population samples would find the contrary to be true: the greater the difference in age between playmates the less likely insensitivity, coercion or exploitation occurs. For example, a retired grandparent whose sex drive is reduced and who has a lifetime of sexual experience behind her, may be a safer playmate than a young person’s same-age peers.
Although a much older child or adult may always be in actual control of the play, what is probably more important – in terms of the younger child’s experience – is that the latter feels in control, i.e. able to choose or direct the play. A sensitive playmate, regardless of the age difference, may actively foster the younger child’s feeling of control, e.g. by repeatedly asking the child if the direction of the play is desirable or if another alternative or stopping would be preferable to the younger one.
It’s widely recognized that children learn empathy through play, as can be seen when children of superior abilities self-handicap to compensate for the weaker child to make play possible and enjoyable for both. Such self-handicapping is commonly seen when adults play with children as well, and when older animals play with younger ones, or even when a stronger animal plays with a member of a weaker species (e.g. a dog playing with a kitten, or a cat playing with a small parrot). Since a mature adult can be an excellent model of empathy, it seems plausible that prohibiting play between younger children and much more mature children or adults might interfere with children learning empathy. Although destructive behavior may also occur, such as bullying, that is possible in any kind of play – not just sex play. Why not prohibit all play between different age groups?
When a foreign-speaking child is immersed in an English school he typically goes through a silent period, in which he is isolated from the group he can’t communicate with. He stays in the background, listening to the others and watching for contextual clues to guess the meaning of what they are saying and doing. During this period some other children, especially the older ones, will occasionally approach the foreigner, touch him, kiss him, and speak to him in simple baby-talk, to help him understand and feel loved as a part of the group. We may reasonably ask: what is there about sex play that makes insensitivity, coercion or exploitation inevitable?
Some might argue that the prospect of sexual pleasure or orgasm is so great that an older child or adult can’t control himself. Surveys of some populations (patients in psychotherapy) who experienced adult-child sexual activity indicate this. But a meta-analysis of 59 studies that avoided selection bias by using samples of normal college students found that most people didn’t feel they were seriously harmed by the experience. Some people even considered their early sexual experience to be neutral or positive, despite the strong cultural condemnation of such experiences (2).
It seems clear that the sexual nature of the contact in itself is not the deciding factor. What matters is the individual involved, the form of contact (e.g. insensitive), and whether or not it is coercive. This should not be surprising, since many things may be abused (sweets, video games, bicycles, motorcycles, firearms, etc.) but aren’t always and necessarily abusive. Some individuals are more vulnerable than others to negative outcomes, such as a child whose parents are in conflict, or a child who has been previously terrorized about sex, or has been taught excessive body shame. Some children are prepped by their parents to interpret any kind of sex contact negatively, and there is some evidence those children suffer the most (3).
What follows a sexual experience may also influence the long-term consequences of it, as when parents react hysterically. One woman reported that when she was a little girl her mother caught her masturbating to orgasm and beat her with an electrical cord while calling the child a “whore;” she has never had another orgasm since. Parents sometimes force the child to participate in a criminal investigation and prosecution to satisfy the parent’s desire for vengeance, rather than respecting the child’s privacy, or reassuring the child that the long-term outcome of minor sex play may be neutral or positive. One of the most famous cases of parental insensitivity was a little boy in California who came home from daycare with redness on his anus, and instead of taking the child to a doctor the mother brought him straight to the police station.
When children report having a sexual experience they are sometimes merely looking for more information or reassurance rather than crying for help. One valid argument against adult-child sex play is that some parents with limited self-control may not be able to inhibit their own fear or anger, with negative consequences for the child. In such cases, children need to be protected from their parents rather than from sex play. Ironically, statistics clearly show that the vast majority of physical, sexual and emotional abuse is committed by parents rather than strangers, and aside from a few relatively rare (but highly publicized) cases, almost all child homicides and serious injuries are committed by parents.
Parents sometimes claim they must “inhibit” children’s sexuality to protect kids. Parents in some Third World countries also claim they are protecting their children by physically castrating them. Fortunately, there are now some international organizations that are trying to raise money to pay for reconstructive surgery for the millions of children who were “protected” by their parents (4). Parents typically employ facial expressions of disgust and contempt to instill shame in children, as well as disparaging comments, insults, threats of violence, and in some cases physical beating. If a rare adult behaves that way to force a child to engage in sex play he is considered a monster. But if millions of adults behave that way every day to “inhibit” children, they are considered good parents? It seems clear that what matters to many people is not the morality of the means, but whether or not the result is politically correct (anti-sex) or politically incorrect (pro-sex).
A related confusion surrounds the phrase “sexual pleasure.” Freud claimed children experience “erotic” pleasure from contact with parents, using the term “erotic” interchangeably with “sensual.” But most pleasure is “sensual” (involving one or more of the five senses) except for some forms of mental pleasure that are difficult to define or even describe. We might define “erotic” pleasure as tending to result in genital erection, but genital erection may sometimes be spontaneous (e.g. while riding in a car), and at other times direct stimulation of the genitals may not result in erection. Neither case qualifies or disqualifies an experience as being sexual. Using the phrase “erotic pleasure” seems to be nothing more than a rhetorical attempt to express disapproval of exposure of the body or physical contact with the skin. Another rhetorical trick is to call the genital area “private parts,” which is not a descriptive label but a prescriptive one. A more neutral, and more descriptive, name would be “soft parts.” Using the expression “private parts” should be considered an indication that the speaker or writer is attempting to hide his true political motives and deceive the listener or reader.
Western culture is characterized by a remarkable tolerance for images of bloody violence and even sadistic murder, but there is little or no tolerance of images of sex acts, sex play or even nudity in the bath. It’s difficult to explain this state of affairs. The classic psychological theory is that people must “sublimate” their sexual energy for more productive work. However, there are many examples of great art, music and literature produced by uninhibited individuals. Another possible argument for inhibiting sexuality is that many people believe it’s useful to cultivate a killer instinct; according to that view, a lack of sexual inhibition would make citizens too vulnerable to aggression. However, as opponents of sex play are quick to point out themselves, there is ample evidence that some individuals who are sexually uninhibited are nonetheless capable of gruesome violence. So a lack of sexual inhibition in itself does not necessarily make people “soft.”
The label “sexual love” is sometimes applied to condemn relationships between adults and children, but that expression is never clearly defined. Is “sexual love” always accompanied by sexual arousal or sexual fantasies? Is hugging or kissing an expression of sexual love? If parents and children hug or kiss each other, that isn’t necessarily considered an expression of sexual love. But if teachers and students hug or kiss each other (in Anglo-American countries), especially a male teacher and a male or female student, it is considered an expression of “sexual” love. Teachers and students often love each other, in some sense, but in the current atmosphere of sex hysteria here they are not likely to admit it out of fear of being accused of “sexual love.” Some teachers certainly don’t love their students; the job is only a way to get income. Are they the best teachers? Children tend to be very perceptive. You can’t hide your positive feelings from a child, just as a child knows very well if you dislike her. We should choose specific labels that serve some descriptive purpose rather than trying to create vague excuses to condemn what we disapprove of, but may actually be harmless or even constructive feelings.
Some people believe that a normal, healthy adult only loves his own children, not anybody else’s children. In other words, there is nothing loveable about children in themselves, only the fact that they are your property. I suspect that point of view reveals a much worse problem: Some people don’t really love their own child, they merely love what they consider an extension of themselves. Somebody else’s child is not an extension of yourself, so what’s to love about him??? Pedophiles are relatively rare by most estimates- half of sex offenders against children are believed to actually be psychopaths, not pedophiles (5) – so popular concern about pedophilia seems grossly out of proportion. What is really epidemic in the modern West is pedophobia: lack of interest or dislike of children.
Another misleading expression is “sexual maturity,” which implies that it is unnatural to engage in any kind of sexual contact before complete physical and mental maturity. But among our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, adolescent females have been observed enjoying an average of 3,000 copulations before they are mature enough to become pregnant. Hence, it would be more accurate to use the expression “reproductive maturity,” since you are never too young for play. Note that chimps don’t rape; the female presents herself to the male in the mating position. A male chimp prefers mature (fertile) females, but if none are available at the moment he will copulate with a reproductively immature (infertile) adolescent. Humans are not chimps, of course. We civilized apes mentally castrate young girls to discourage them from presenting themselves in the mating position.
Administrative convenience has led to official declarations that everyone suddenly reaches full maturity at midnight of a certain birthday. But it’s clear that maturity is actually a matter of degree, and may vary between individuals regardless of numerical age. Any serious assessment of a child’s ability requires performance or demonstration of that ability. We would have to teach children about appropriate hygiene and the anatomical and physiological limitations of the immature body, respect for the other person’s consent, etc., and then carefully observe the child in sex play to judge if he understood and is capable of applying what he learned. Even then, our judgment of the child’s level of competence may be inaccurate if we don’t take into account the possible inadequacy of instruction, the child’s mood or level of enthusiasm at the moment, etc. Such a complex assessment process is the only reasonable way to determine what a certain child’s specific capacities and limitations are at a particular point in time, not Biblical pronouncements like “No children below this age…” or “All children above this age…” The problem of accurately assessing maturity is, of course, moot, since the laws of most states don’t allow adults to provide children with accurate, balanced and comprehensive sex education. Some people don’t want convenient, arrogant and ancient beliefs disproved and exposed for what they really are.
Sensitive and non-exploitative sex play is an opportunity for social, emotional, motor, and cognitive learning. There is widespread agreement that children need to develop self-confidence by confronting increasingly difficult challenges. Otherwise, children grow up condemned to ineffective and destructive responses to stress: verbal assault leading to interpersonal conflict, or self-blame and consequent withdrawal and paralyzing depression. There are normal and inevitable stresses in life, but events that should only cause acute stress, such as serious disease or death in the family, become sources of chronic stress because the individual never developed sufficient self-confidence to handle stress effectively and constructively. Even normal and healthy body functions like breastfeeding cause some individuals unbearable stress, due to early neglect or the shame actively instilled during childhood.
I’m not saying that adults should initiate sex play with children. That’s against the law in most places, and if an adult initiates sex play with a child his motive may very well be to insensitively exploit and abuse the child. But honesty requires that we acknowledge there is no law of logic or valid empirical evidence for any “law of nature” that says sex play between different age groups is always and necessarily insensitive, exploitative or abusive. Only the most arrogant critic would assert (as many hundred-year-old state laws do) that being before or past midnight on a certain birthday always and necessarily disqualifies someone from sharing in sensitive, non-exploitive and non-abusive sex play. That may sound like a very radical statement to make in public, but I suspect many (perhaps most) people believe it even though they are afraid to admit it in the current climate of sex hysteria.
1. “Breasts: Women Speak About Their Breasts and Their Lives” Daphna Ayalah (Editor), Isaac J. Weinstock (Editor) (Hutchinson 1980). For more incredible stories see “Breasts: a Documentary” by Meema Spadola (First Run Features, 1996).
2. Rind 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).
3. “Complications, Consent, and Cognitions in Sex Between Children and Adults” Gene G. Abel et al., International Journal of Law and Psychiatry (vol. 7, pp.89-103, 1984).
4. e.g. www.clitoraid.org
5. “Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children: Theory, Assessment, and Intervention” by Michael C. Seto (APA 2007).