The word “overstimulation” is sometimes used to frighten parents against childhood sexual experience, and implies that sex education is dangerous because (if) it leads to sexual experimentation or exploration. But “overstimulation” is never explicitly defined, and there is never any specific explanation of what exactly is dangerous or unhealthy about it, and how can we know and verify that (1). This post considers what the word “overstimulation” might refer to, and what there is to be frightened of, if anything.
The concept of “overstimulation” entails the assumption that there is a normal (in the sense of healthy) level of stimulation, otherwise we could simply call the culprit “stimulation” without the “over” prefix. There may possibly even be an insufficient level: under-stimulation. In general there is little doubt that some stimulation is harmless or beneficial to the body and brain, and it’s difficult to overestimate the benefit of regular exercise to physical and mental health.
A normal amount of sexual stimulation may be considered that which an individual tolerates without ill effects or may even benefit from. Stimulation that doesn’t upset the person’s equilibrium or interfere with homeostasis may be considered normal. In some cases other internal or external conditions may upset equilibrium (provoking anger, fear, sadness or anxiety), and as far as we know some sexual stimulation may help restore equilibrium.
Some research on task performance indicates there is an optimum level of general arousal: neither too much nor too little. The same may be true of sexual arousal. A person may be considered over-stimulated when the resulting level of desire or arousal is a distraction from more important immediate needs. Note that there are many non-sexual distractions in daily life, such as music, sports, and scholastic competition, but we don’t outlaw them with threats of draconian penalties. Conversely, a person may be considered under-stimulated when the resulting desire or arousal is insufficient for a sexual response (in an appropriate time and place).
The amount of stimulation that can be considered innocuous or healthy may vary among different individuals, depending on prior experience (e.g. sensitization or desensitization), or possibly even genetic factors. As with inflammation and other well-known physiological processes, there may be a few individuals who are “hypersensitive” and overreact to what most individuals find an innocuous level of stimulation.
The most likely effect or symptom that indicates overstimulation might be stress and the subsequent fatigue after stress. During a stress response cascade due to a perceived threat (real or imagined) glucose is diverted to emergency uses and away from organs that are not essential in an emergency (e.g. sexual organs). Hence one possible sign of stress is a lack of sexual response when there should be one (in response to stimulation). Although sexual arousal is commonly considered a form of “tension” that is “released” through orgasm, we now know that sexual arousal requires calm, and in contrast tension or stress actually inhibit sexual arousal.
Stress can now be measured easily and non-invasively in the saliva (levels of cortisol or alpha amylase), so it is possible to monitor the effects of children’s spontaneous sex play. Lower levels of cortisol have been found in sexually functional women during arousal compared to women who are sexually dysfunctional (2). It is reasonable to predict that children’s stress levels may be much lower during and after sex play than in classrooms or other potentially stressful situations. (I have witnessed children literally scream upon exiting school.)
While overstimulation may cause stress, habitual normal stimulation may prevent or reduce the possible damage of chronic stress such as impaired development, immune-suppression, and (in mature individuals) infertility. Under-stimulation may possibly cause eventual dysfunction of the sexual organs due to the well-known mechanism of neural atrophy of relative brain areas after an organ has been under-stimulated during early development (see Clitoral Erectile Dysfunction). If under-stimulation leads to sexual dysfunction, it may be considered a risk factor in eventual self-destructive or socially destructive behavior.
In the final analysis the question of how much stimulation might be “too much” is an empirical question and can only be answered empirically. As far as I know the laws of most states don’t prohibit children from deep kissing or even tongue kissing, which is probably sexually arousing, so researchers could measure stress levels or other possible effects (if any) of sexual arousal without going near the genitals and running afoul of laws that treat the genitals as sacred. Nonetheless, theologically-minded members of research ethics committees might oppose such research (see below), though it might be enlightening to hear and confront the objections.
Aren’t children’s bodies extremely delicate? The skin covering the genitalia is unusually soft and smooth, lacking the pronounced friction ridges common on other areas of skin. So the genitals can tolerate a lot of contact and rubbing without the risk of discomfort, irritation or abrasion, compared to rubbing other areas of skin characterized by more pronounced friction ridges. Although immature skin is vulnerable to laceration and infection, it has an exceptional capacity for repair (see Learning about Love) compared to the skin of mature people or the aged.
The nerve endings in a baby’s genital area (even the testicles) can tolerate a lot of pressure and even impact without feeling pain or sustaining injury. That seems to be a built-in way to protect infants from the rough handling of their parents or siblings as well as possible falls. But a child’s genital area eventually becomes highly sensitive to both painful and pleasurable contact. The ability to experience pain is a way to warn the body to avoid harmful kinds of contact (e.g. temperature extremes). Why do the immature genitals have the ability to experience pleasure?
The nerves of the genitals respond to stimulation differently from other parts of the body. If you suck hard on your fingertip, the sensation will be irritating: the more you suck on your fingertip, the more irritating it feels. But if someone sucks hard on the tip of your penis, the sensation is very pleasurable: the more it is sucked, the more intense the pleasure until the ecstasy of orgasm. The body reacts similarly (favorably) to some harmful drugs, but unlike harmful chemicals, sexual stimulation is not characterized by tolerance (larger and larger doses needed to achieve satisfaction), dependency with withdrawal syndrome if you stop (vomiting, etc.), or overdose.
Babies usually receive a lot of stimulating contact from adults and siblings, but as some babies reach toddlerhood they go through a period in which they tend to resist handling. Some time after toddlerhood most children become receptive to skin contact again, but parents and other adults become inhibited about physical affection with children. A common response to a little girl wanting to sit on her father’s lap is “But you’re a big girl now.” A doctor has written that when she was a child she became furious when her father told her that 12 is “too old” to sit on his lap anymore. Young children derive satisfaction from sitting on a teacher’s lap, but some school policies now prohibit that (3). Eventually many older kids conform to cultural expectations and resist or reject physical affection themselves, or at least they pretend to reject it in public.
One of the most common expressions of irrational fear of stimulation is that parents and other adults have no qualms about a child hugging, caressing and kissing furry toys or pets. But if a child attempts the same contact with another child or adult the parents react with upset and even anger. Although pets may be dirty carriers of parasites, and children risk scratches or bites, such physical affection with non-human animals is widely considered perfectly acceptable. We are reminded of the cruel experiments with a baby monkey isolated and thereby having no alternative but to clutch a wire-model covered with soft cloth.
A young child sometimes engages in self-stimulation by rubbing his genital area against the edges of furniture, open doors, etc., and some parents are tolerant of that. But if the child attempts self-stimulation by rubbing his genital area against another child or adult, the parents usually react with some degree of hostility, ranging from mild disapproval all the way to outright horror. Interestingly, some parents caress their children’s buttocks, but strongly disapprove of other children or non-parents doing the same. That is apparently an expression of parental jealousy rather than a fear of overstimulation.
By maturity an aversion to touch is usually entrenched, and attempts to excuse and justify touch aversion often boil down to: “I have no qualms about stimulating contact; it’s just that I only want to be touched by my mother or Prince Charming.” Hence the endless search for “romantic love” as the only legitimate justification for enjoying stimulation. Some suggest that sexual activity is often an expression of the need for stimulating skin contact rather than a need for sexual satisfaction (4).
A possible benefit of overstimulation is desensitization. Once I was on a long-distance bus and had the pleasure of observing a girl (about 11) interacting with her brother (about 9). She continuously touched, hugged, squeezed and kissed the boy, with no objections from him. Quite the contrary, he seemed to be actively provoking her to do so. About once every minute or so the boy kissed their mother, and the girl responded by kissing him (on the cheek, ear, head, neck, back, arm), so it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t know he was pressing his sister’s button. Was she expressing love, or just playing? Older sibs often act as teachers for the younger ones, and it seemed to me that she was instinctively trying to build up his resistance to overstimulation through practice.
I won’t consider theological theories about demons and the devil being involved in the child’s desire and capacity for genital pleasure, but such theories may very well be the origin of traditional cultural taboos and 100-year-old laws against early genital stimulation and the supposed “trauma” of overstimulation (5). We should note that aversion to touching a child’s genitals (even possible indirect stimulation through clothing) is actively taught and passively modeled, as well as being prohibited with threats of draconian penalties.
It’s difficult to explain such a ferocious attitude without a theological origin. We may concede that the pleasures of the flesh certainly threaten to distract humanity from spiritual concerns. But when some individuals have a fanatical attitude against touch, advocating laws against as many forms of touch as possible, with government enforcement and severe punishment for “inappropriate” or “shameful” stimulation (as if the future of civilization depends on everybody keeping their distance), that should be considered touch phobia or touch hysteria.
Although there are obviously many different kinds and degrees of stimulation, most state laws make no such distinctions. Characteristically of phobia or hysteria, any and all contact with immature genitals, even the most brief and superficial, is feared as a kind of trespass on sacred ground.
Some authors have convincingly described the importance of skin contact, citing the benefits of touch to health and happiness from birth through old age (4,6). Nonetheless, there is a strong current in Western culture to be suspicious and fearful of innocent forms of stimulating contact, such as full-body nude massage, and the possibility of supposedly dangerous sexual arousal or unspecified “overstimulation” resulting from them.
Several authors have attempted to cultivate more acceptance of skin contact by specifically promoting baby and child massage (7,8,9). We know that massage reduces cortisol. Regular full-body massage of young children is also useful for early diagnosis of solid tumors like neuroblastoma, which has a dismally low survival rate if diagnosed late – as it usually is. Unfortunately, we are being viciously attacked by opportunists in the rescue business who profit by persuading people to believe any skin contact children may experience during childhood is probably a form of harmful “sexual abuse,” neglecting to mention the counter-evidence (10).
Like magic, the age difference of playmates is claimed to be highly relevant: same age playmates, bad; 1-3 years difference, very bad; more than 3 years difference, “messed up for life.” (See Sex Play, Sex Acts, and Sex Abuse.) Hence a steady supply of potential customers for paid “counseling” and other forms of rescue services that have never been demonstrated to be effective or safe according to the standards required of medical treatment.
1. See my review of “The Courage to Heal…” https://sexhysteria.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/the-courage-to-heal-a-critical-review/
2. Hamilton, L.D. et al. Cortisol, sexual arousal, and affect in response to sexual stimuli. J Sex Med 2008;5:2111–2118.
3. Tobin, Joseph (ed.) Making a Place for Pleasure in Early Childhood Education. Yale, 1997.
4. Montague, Ashley. Touching: the Human Significance of the Skin. 1986.
5. Fout, John C. (ed.) “Forbidden History: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe.” Univ. Chicago Press, 1992.
6. Atkinson, Mary. Healing Touch for Children: Massage, Acupressure and Reflexology Routine for Children Aged 4-12. (Gaia, 2009)
7. Auckett, Amelia. Baby Massage: Parent-Child Bonding Through Touch. William Morrow, 2001.
8. Jelveus, Lena. Swedish Child Massage: A Family Guide to Nurturing Touch. Swedish Health Institute, 2004.
9. Adamo, Frank. Real Child Safety. www.books4parents.org
10. 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).