“…the ability to experience and know pleasure is an essential ingredient of wellness.” -bell hooks
In her book “The Secret Lives of Girls,” researcher Sharon Lamb describes interviews with many girls and women who revealed their experiences of sex play during childhood. Beyond playing doctor, the subjects admitted playing striptease, deep kissing, naked parade, kissing genitalia, etc. as children. The experiences described were not unusual exceptions; they were normative in Lamb’s sample of 122 rich and poor girls and women in over 25 states (1).
Discussions of human sexuality should not be distorted by a focus on only victimization and danger. Although dangers do exist, accurate, balanced, and comprehensive sex education should include discussions of desire and pleasure. In other publications Lamb has given due attention to the problem of over-sexualization (see below). As Lamb put it: “… just because there are problem versions of sexual play and games doesn’t mean that all sexual play is harmful to children.”
One of the first cases described in the book blew my mind. When I was about seven a neighbor boy and I pretended he was a girl and I was the boy. (See Learning about Love ) We undressed and pretended to tie him up (imaginary rope), and I “forced” him to kiss my penis and put my penis in his mouth. Then we switched roles. That’s a game only boys play, right? Wrong! Lamb offers the report of two seven-year-old girls who played exactly the same game, probably with the exact same words: “Now you be the man.”
So how is it possible that many parents feel wholly justified in prohibiting their children (especially daughters) from even playing doctor – asking advice columnists how to make kids stop that – let alone naked parade, etc., as if such sex play is “abnormal”? One plausible explanation is that such parents have ulterior motives. They merely want any excuse to rob children of their sexual power, or in other words some adults want to deprive kids of the pleasure of making their own sexual choices.
The traditional idea that “good girls” are not interested in sex (only boys and bad girls are) is a burden that hurts girls by causing unnecessary shame and guilt feelings. Normal girls are encouraged to feel they are immoral or perverted if they have or express any sexual feelings. If perfectly normal girls want to explore their sexual feelings through play we force them to sneak around like criminals.
Boys suffer too, since they are usually assumed to be the aggressors whenever boys and girls are “caught” playing sexually together – even when the boy is younger than the girl. Lamb describes several reports of little girls behaving provocatively, e.g. deliberately exposing their underwear to boys, and trying to hit boys in their genital area as an excuse to then comfort the boys there by caressing the boys’ genitalia.
The author also mentions the incredible cases of a six-year-old suspended from school because he kissed a girl, and a teacher who threatened her pupils that she’d “better not hear” about any kissing games. I’ve previously referred to an unbelievable media report of a ten-year-old girl arrested for playing doctor (see Child Sex Abuse Hysteria)
Most people have some kind of power, including sexual power, and exercising that power can be pleasurable in itself beyond any satisfaction from orgasm. An analogous case is someone who ignores expert advice on a large purchase, and instead goes out and buys something on (his own) whim to fully enjoy the shopping experience.
When I played rape at age seven I experienced genital erection but not orgasm, and yet the game was exciting in that we were making our own sexual choices – free from any interference by parents or other adults who are greedy for power and eager to take those choices away from kids (e.g. imposing an adult’s choice to abstain on a child). Ironically, such adults claim they are superior to real rapists (forcing someone not to do something is superior to forcing them to do it?), and some adults even claim they are thereby making children “free” – free to do what adults tell kids to do!
In some cultures a popular saying is: power is better than sex (that saying is likely popular due to widespread sexual dysfunction). If you’re very greedy for power, you’re not content to just manage your own sexual choices – you want to manage other people’s sexual choices as well. Hence traditional attempts to manage and even micro-manage children’s sexual choices. Power-hungry adults claim they are protecting kids from abuse, guilt feelings later, pregnancy and disease, but in reality sexually dysfunctional adults are primarily protecting themselves from losing opportunities to enjoy power and control.
Children can be protected from most boogey men by simply providing accurate, balanced and comprehensive sex education from the earliest age, and at most some responsible monitoring at a reasonable distance. The same excuses were used in the past to justify men managing women’s sexual choices, slave owners managing a slave’s sexual choices, and modern social engineers dictating what they want (calling their preferences “appropriate” sexual choices) in the bedrooms of all other adults.
In polite society people aren’t supposed to talk about sex in general, and especially not sexual desire and sexual pleasure in women, and certainly not before puberty. But the practical effect of such traditional etiquette is to perpetuate the belief that girls and women have less sexual desire and less sexual pleasure than boys and men – a belief that is evidently false. Worse, the supposed lack of sexual desire and sexual pleasure in girls and women becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, since as I have pointed out previously, the absence of genital stimulation during development before puberty is likely to cause permanent and irreversible clitoral erectile dysfunction
Can we believe the stories girls tell about their sex play? Are they exaggerating, or is there a lot more going on that remains unmentioned? One case described by Lamb points to the latter possibility. A little girl told her interviewer she’s a perfect good girl who never does anything bad, always obeys her mother, and has no problems at school. But independent sources revealed that this self-proclaimed goody-two-shoes has actually been caught in the act of writing gross profanity on the walls of the school bathroom. A closer study of her own words indicates she may have committed serious vandalism outside school. There is a clear possibility that the things girls do admit about their sex play may be only the tip of the iceberg.
Sex play isn’t the only secret part of girls’ lives. Lamb also asked her subjects about aggression, and discovered that many girls have indulged in gratuitous aggression and even enjoyed it. An example is two girls who put broken glass in the cookies they baked for their father. More common is aggression toward weaker children. We don’t like to think that “innocent” little girls are capable of outright cruelty toward weaker siblings or other children, but they are. Who knows how many false accusations of sex abuse were motivated by gratuitous sadism?
Lamb wrote that her purpose is to expose that “Girls, like boys, are deeply sexual, deeply aggressive creatures.” That “these are human impulses we all share – the taste for revenge, the sexual urges of the body, the desire to dominate another.” Most importantly, that these desires exist from early childhood. Lamb states clearly: “Sexuality does not begin at thirteen.”
Recently I witnessed a girl (age 10) on the street put her hand on a teenage boy’s butt. It occurred in the middle of several people and she smiled mischievously, so it was no furtive gesture. In response the boy said something like “What? You like my butt?” The child didn’t reply. Her mother was sitting at a table 2m away, and didn’t comment. I suspect that the child’s motive was playful, and the boy’s response was what he felt was expected of his masculine role in responding to the little kid’s misbehavior.
A game described by several of Lamb’s subjects is “Chase and Kiss,” and she reports that in some schools (both lower income and middle-class) the object of the game was to touch the butt of the other person rather than kiss. Exhibitionist games were also popular in the girls’ reports. Lamb says: we can’t deny the pure pleasure in being watched.
Lest anyone suspect that Sharon Lamb is some radical sex maniac, note that she was one of the co-authors of the American Psychological Association’s 2007 Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls. That report attacked the increasing focus on sexy clothes, sexy dolls, sexy bodies, and sexy behavior presented to girls in the mass media today. Although I agree with the importance of teaching children media literacy, I criticized that report in my first blog post five years ago on so-called Premature Sexualization. Another co-author of the APA Task Force Report was Deborah Tolman, whose own study of teen girls’ sexual experience “Dilemmas of Desire” I reviewed in Sexual Equality
This short introduction only scratches the surface of the subject, so I will reread this important book and offer a more detailed analysis in a future post.
- Lamb, Sharon. The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do-Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt. The Free Press, 2001.