Researcher Elizabeth Loftus and others have described how the hysteria over child sexual abuse resembles the witch hysteria in the sixteenth century. The accusation itself is considered sufficient proof of guilt, and questioning the accusation renders you a likely perpetrator yourself. The widespread panic over “stranger danger” and “bad touch” continues even though various absurdities relating to child sexual abuse have already been discredited: ritual satanic abuse, recovered memories and multiple personality disorder. The witch hysteria of the past came to an end only when the core belief behind it – Satan’s army of witches – fell out of favor. Although it isn’t certain what the core belief is behind the hysteria over child sexual abuse, a plausible candidate is the very old and mystical belief in “premature sexualization.”
Dangerous Strangers and Drama Queens
There is no doubt that child sexual abuse exists, may not be infrequent, and is sometimes seriously harmful to mental and/or physical health. But in describing the existence, frequency and effects of early sexual experience, scientific standards of evidence are swept aside in a rush to judgment that early sexual experience between different age groups is 1) always abusive, 2) widespread if not universal, and 3) seriously harmful if not worse than death. Despite the atmosphere of a Sexual Inquisition, some studies indicate that not all sexual experiences are abusive, are not usually seriously harmful (published in the Psychological Bulletin and subject of a Vote of Censure by the U.S. Congress), and even the most pessimistic guesstimates acknowledge that it’s impossible to confirm the frequency of occurrence.
Sex and Abuse
The word “abuse” implies that there is legitimate use beyond which it is no longer use but “abuse.” But for 30 years inquisitors have been arguing that there is no such thing as legitimate sex before maturity. It’s all “abuse.” In an article for the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry “What’s Wrong with Sex Between Adults and Children?” David Finklehor claimed that children are never competent to consent to sexual experience with adults, and hence any sexual experience between different age groups is always morally wrong. He offered no experimental or other empirical data for that claim, as if it is true by definition. But in reality competence to consent is clearly an empirical question, not a matter of definition. Even if it isn’t permissible to experiment with children, e.g. instructing them about what informed consent means, the need to be aware of alternatives and consequences, etc., and then testing their understanding and comparing their scores to adult controls, we should at least be humble and reserve judgment. We simply don’t know how competent average children are to understand alternatives and consequences in general, or how competent an individual child is in a specific case.
Finklehor conceded that same-age peers are competent to consent to sex play with each other, but didn’t confront the difficulty of deciding how much older the playmate has to be before the child suddenly loses his or her competence to consent. According to some state laws, a young person is considered competent to understand the alternatives and consequences of undergoing an invasive surgical procedure (abortion), but incompetent to understand the alternatives and consequences of her breasts being massaged (now recognized as a way to improve lymph flow and prevent breast cancer). Competence to consent is traditionally decided by counting birthdays, but only for administrative convenience, not because counting birthdays is an expression of profound wisdom or an obvious moral precept. Some scholars recognize that competence to consent is a matter of degree, and varies depending on the individuals and circumstances, and some judges rule that a child is competent to make important legal or medical decisions in certain circumstances. Interestingly, Finklehor also warned the faithful not to rely on the claim that early sex is “always harmful,” because exceptions will be found.
The Rhetoric of Hysteria
A peculiar aspect of rants and ravings about “premature sexualization” is the lack of any definition of what it is exactly. Other than vague comments about “growing up too fast” and “excessive stimulation,” we are left to imagine how fast is too fast, and how much stimulation is too much. In a classic book on baby massage, Amelia Auckett suggested including the child’s genital area in the massage, neither emphasizing or ignoring it. A harmless and even reasonable suggestion, I think. But according to many state laws, any contact between any part of an adult’s body and a child’s “genitals” is considered a form of sexual assault if not sexual battery. Breast massage to improve the flow of lymph fluid also violates some laws if a parent massages a minor’s breasts. More enthusiastic crusaders against sexual abuse consider sexual talk in the presence of a minor a form of assault and battery.
The rhetoric of abuse hysteria relies on the misuse of simple language for dramatic effect. There is no distinction between violent coercion and slapstick play. Adolescents are called “children.” Inappropriate fondling is called “rape,” even though rape is usually defined as genital penetration, and it’s physically impossible for an adult male to penetrate a pre-pubescent girl. In popular culture the phrase “baby raper” is often heard, but isn’t that a contradiction of terms?
Another claim about the immorality of sexual experience in childhood is the ever-present reference to insensitivity and exploitation, as if they are inevitable aspects of sexual experience between different age groups. Discussions of sexual abuse typically begin with the claim that early sex is necessarily harmful, but then go on to describe the ill effects of insensitivity and exploitation, as if they haven’t changed the subject. There is no experimental or other empirical data to support the assumption that sex play between playmates of different ages is always and necessarily insensitive or exploitative, let alone injurious.
Perhaps most non-sexual interactions between adults and children are so often insensitive or exploitative that some people have difficulty imagining sensitivity might be possible in the context of sex play. But if sex play between same-age peers can be free of insensitivity and exploitation, then how do we determine how much of an age difference between playmates renders insensitivity and exploitation inevitable? Ironically, insensitivity and exploitation are often hallmarks of religious training which indoctrinates children to accept the parent’s beliefs in rejecting “the pleasures of the flesh.”
Despite Finklehor’s warning, the most persistent and appealing aspect of campaigns against premature sexualization is the idea that we are protecting children from serious injury, but here the label of hysteria is most clearly justified. According to government statistics: out of 1,760 child fatalities caused by abuse and/or neglect in 2007, only 0.2% or 4 fatalities were due to sexual abuse. While that’s four fatalities too many, they pale in comparison to the following numbers:
– Over nine million children a year are treated in hospital emergency rooms
– Motor vehicles are the leading cause of death in childhood. Nearly half of children under five who died or were injured in motor vehicle crashes (9,000 deaths and 160,000 non-fatal injuries) were riding unrestrained.
– Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death in children aged 1-14, e.g. by falling in backyard pools with no fence.
– Falls are the leading cause of unintentional non-fatal injury in children, and account for nearly three million emergency room visits every year.
– Other common injuries are caused by: fire and burns, suffocation, firearms, choking and poisoning.
Although covered up as “accidents,” many deaths and crippling injuries are attributable to parental neglect. Most car crashes are considered accidents, but allowing a child to ride unrestrained is no accident; it’s negligence. Nonetheless, the inquisitors complain that some adults love children too much and premature sexualization is widespread and causes suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, severe emotional distress, failed marriages, etc., just about everything except the common cold. The lack of any reliable evidence for such beliefs doesn’t deter the hysterics, such as studies that fail to find any connection between childhood sexual experience and bulimia. The effects of premature sexualization can be worse than death, we are told in a dramatic tone, as if any responsible parent would rather her daughter’s skull be crushed in a car crash than her immature private parts massaged by the village idiot. The good news is that “survivors” of premature sexualization can get better by giving their money to a local therapist who is all too eager to sell you services.
When negative effects occur they are casually attributed to the sexual aspect of the experience, but a meta-analysis of many studies by doctors at Columbia University Children’s Hospital published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry found that the worst effects weren’t related to such factors as the extent or duration of the sexual experience itself. The worst outcomes were related to prior terrorization against sex by the parents (i.e. the child is prepped to interpret sexual experience negatively), and being interrogated or compelled to participate in a criminal prosecution afterwards. While claiming to protect children from injury, parents, social workers and law enforcement personnel themselves set the stage for long term damage. Other studies have confirmed that finding, and the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect acknowledges it: “There is often as much harm done to the child by the system’s handling of the case, as the trauma associated with the abuse.” In reality most known victims of sexual abuse aren’t children but adolescents and young adults, and the meta-analysis found that the older the victim when the abuse begins the worse the outcome. But the phrase “child sexual abuse” sounds more compelling for political purposes, so forget that children are neither the most frequent nor the most seriously injured victims.
A case can be made that the most common mental disorder is hypochondria. Many people would be surprised to learn that one of a pediatrician’s most important and most frequent tasks isn’t to cure any childhood disease, but rather to simply reassure parents that their child’s condition isn’t life-threatening and in most cases not even unusual. If pediatricians abandon that function and instead tell parents that a widespread phenomenon like sex play is potentially life-threatening, it is not only false – it creates a nation of hysterics.
So what is “premature sexualization” exactly, and when does it occur? In seeming support of the hysteria a 2007 report by an APA committee on the “Sexualization of Girls” complained that fashion designers, toy (doll) makers and advertising in the mass media promote the overvaluation of sexual attractiveness, which has negative effects on self-esteem, contributes to appearance anxiety and body discomfort, and may promote sexual violence and exploitation (“objectification”). The report claims that children have difficulty understanding that advertising is intended to persuade people to buy things. But some adults have the same problem.
The report complains that “women and girls are portrayed in a sexualizing manner” and that media images “teach girls that women are sexual objects.” The report cites several media studies, surveys and a few experiments, and concludes that children should be taught “media literacy,” to view media critically rather than be passive consumers of advertising. But the report also advocates comprehensive sex education, and says we should promote competence in body function rather than consciousness of appearance. The report accepted the SIECUS.org position that “Healthy sexuality is an important component of both physical and mental health, fosters intimacy, bonding, and shared pleasure, and involves mutual respect between consenting partners.” The report cites evidence that comprehensive sex education is the best way to reduce risk behavior (early initiation of genital penetration). Evidence is cited that healthy sexuality is related to happiness, intimacy, less stress, higher self-esteem, etc. Undergraduates who are more media-obsessed have more negative attitudes toward breastfeeding and dissatisfaction with sexual experience. Body dissatisfaction is related to later onset of masturbation, and body discomfort is related to higher levels of risk-taking. Unfortunately, the hopeless complexity of intimate relationships necessitates vague phrases like “may be” and “can cause” and “potential connections” rather than clear expressions of statistical probability. Psychologists typically ignore such difficulties and instead go on to describe “mechanisms” of mental disorder and – fortunately for psychotherapists trying to make a living – even expensive “therapy” without the pesky clinical trials that limit claims for medical effectiveness.
The report acknowledges that the negative “effects” of sexual abuse are related to the severity (unspecified) of the abuse and if force was used, as well as the reactions of others and the girl’s own perceptions and attributions. The report also admits there are several indications that negative outcomes are neither inevitable nor universal. The report recommends positive depictions of sexuality, but avoids describing what that implies (buddy massage? self-masturbation? sex play between same-age peers without penetration?). By necessity, the report avoids defining where and when healthy sexuality ends and abuse begins, since the hysteria doesn’t allow funding more specific research or even open discussion of children’s sexual thoughts, feelings and experience.
Another study that addresses the topic of “premature sexualization” is cited enthusiastically by a web site promoting the Grace of God, even though the original study was merely a survey of 54 members of GirlGuiding UK, a kind of Girl Scouts, aged 10-14, and says little about what premature sexualization is supposed to be. The girls took part in “Focus Groups” which consisted in taking the participants through a series of “creative and projective exercises” to discuss what the girls felt were the questions that concerned them most. Visitors to the organization’s web site also had the opportunity to take an online survey of their attitudes toward emotional well-being.
Before the Focus Groups met the girls were asked to keep an emotions diary, in which they recorded the emotions they felt each day and the context. Then during the first session the participants were asked to distinguish which emotions were easy to manage, and they identified such things as love and friendship. In contrast, the girls said being unloved and excluded were among the difficult emotions to manage. The girls also complained about bullying and gratuitous aggression. During the second session the girls were asked about their understanding of mental health, and they identified ADD and autism as examples of inherited mental health problems. The group “facilitators” suggested environmentally caused behaviors that are considered mental health problems such as eating disorders, and the girls agreed that uncontrolled behavior is a mental health problem, but many girls said infrequent self-harm might be “normal” for their age group rather than a mental health problem.
The participants were then shown pictures and “story cards” to encourage the girls to think about what kind of situations could lead to mental health problems. Many girls (percentage not stated) said that feeling compelled to act older than their age can lead to unhappiness and “therefore” mental health problems. Many (percentage not stated) reported being under “sexual pressure” from boys at school, especially the girls who had reached sexual maturity before their peers. In contrast, some girls (percentage not stated) complained that lack of freedom left them feeling isolated, and boredom led to aggression and self-harm. Many also complained about family breakdown and competition between parents for the child’s loyalty. Scholastic worries were cited as among the greatest causes of anxiety and sleeplessness. In the online survey only little more than a third of the respondents said they liked spending some time without any boys around.
To what extent did the facilitators and their story cards suggest the idea that girls are “under pressure” to look and act older? The study was supported by the Mental Health Foundation, a charitable organization which nonetheless seems to be interested in publicizing the need for (and supposed value of) mental health services. Not surprisingly, the study concluded that girls should stay in GirlGuiding. Psychotherapist, heal thyself. So many people want to become psychologists but there isn’t enough work for all these people. Solution? Drum up more business by creating mass hysteria over the mysterious concept of premature sexualization.
The Conspiracy Theory
Feminist theory is that men sexually abuse little girls to “prepare” females for their future subordinate role. While that theory awaits empirical confirmation I think we may rightly condemn traditional male dominance and the primitive idea that females are “owned” by males, but we should distinguish most cases of sexual insensitivity from the probably rare cases of innocent massage and playful affection. Is it impossible to educate adults to respect a child’s choices and physical limits? Although most cases of insensitive or violent sex that come to public awareness are male-against-female, the proof that not all early sexual experience with adults is necessarily “political” is that women sometimes sexually abuse little boys or girls, and emotionally abuse their daughters in particular – which can be more destructive than sexual abuse, just as physical abuse and neglect is more often deadly. It is claimed that women who abuse were victims themselves and merely repeat the cycle, but how do we know that men aren’t in the same position? If early experience is so powerful as a model, then a sensitive adult who is tenderly affectionate and playfully sexual will create a future parent who is likewise sensitive, tender and playful.
So where is the evidence that premature sexualization exists, is frequent, and seriously harmful? As far as we know it’s merely a hypothetical danger awaiting confirmation from serious research that isn’t supported by special interests. Do hypothetical dangers justify anti-sex education, keeping children prisoners in their own homes, and reacting emotionally whenever a child reports any kind of sexual experience? Once we attempt to measure the slippery concept of “premature sexualization” with a yardstick or weigh it on a scale, we may be able to free ourselves from its power.
Some people believe in the opposite hypothesis: sexual inhibition is a form of mental castration and a leading cause of sexual dysfunction. That sounds like heresy, but it should be no surprise. It’s known that in general brain synapses atrophy if the relative body organs aren’t stimulated during development. The paradigm case is vision: if an eye is covered during a crucial stage of brain development you become permanently blind in that eye; there is nothing wrong with the eye itself – but the relevant parts of the brain have atrophied due to lack of stimulation. Little girls experience clitoral erections while awake and while asleep, but most adult women only experience clitoral erections while they sleep. The analogous condition in men is called sexual dysfunction; why should it be called anything else in women? Self-harm is also a possible result of excessive inhibition. I certainly don’t know any uninhibited young people who would lacerate their own beautiful skin with a razor blade. Excessive inhibition may also be a cause of interpersonal aggression, as well as a possible factor in the current epidemic of relationship problems between men and women.
If I may permit myself the same liberty that psychological mystics do, maybe the outcry over “premature sexualization” is actually a cry for help from individuals who have been mentally castrated and are unable to enjoy thinking or talking about sex (let alone doing it) except in the context of outrage and demands for justice. There is definitely some confusion in the attitudes and behavior of inhibited people. A book by a victim of female genital mutilation revealed that despite the horror of the experience (someone cutting off her clitoris at age eight without anesthetics), the woman had most of her own daughters mutilated as well. How many women in the West who were mentally castrated when they were little are now mentally castrating their own daughters? I’ll bet the hysterics aren’t eager to study that question.