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