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The problem of child and adolescent sexuality
This is one of the most fraught and controversial topics in sexology. And it is the one topic most subject to misunderstanding and emotional confusion. It is also an area where deep psycho-dynamic processes can create public and private hysteria. As difficult as this subject is it is absolutely essential to understand.
First, let’s state some controversial facts, facts that some try to ignore or even suppress.
- Children are sexual beings from birth. Sexual arousal has been measured in both boys and girls in utero. Both boys and girls are capable of sexual arousal throughout childhood. Girls are able to experience orgasm at any age. The issue with boys is less clear – there is some evidence of non-ejaculatory orgasm in boys, with some anecdotal suggestion of a multi-orgasmic potential. These are simply physiological facts. The question of whether children should experience orgasm is cultural. Children are sexually curious and masturbation and sexual play is common. Children also have sexual fantasies and attractions. How children process their sexual curiosity and experiences is again cultural. In sex negative societies the reality of children’s sexuality is often denied or punished. In sex positive societies children’s sexuality is recognised.
- The ethnographic material shows that for most societies across most of human history children have participated in sexual activity in various ways. In tribal societies they witness adults having sex and engage in open sexual play. There are two broad patterns of initiation into full sexual maturity. In many cultures this is simply occurs when the child (particularly a girl) is physically big enough to have intercourse. Amazonian tribes believe that semen causes menstruation and therefore girls start having intercourse between the ages of 8 and 10. Amongst some Australian Aborigines promised brides go to live with their husband around the same age. He has full sexual access to her. India has long had a history of child brides. The other pattern is that menarche and ejacularche mark the beginning of sexual availability (for much of its history the European age of marriage followed Roman law which set it at age 12). Following this custom Mohammed consummated his marriage to his second wife Aisha when she was 9 – she had suffered an early menarche. It is also likely that Mary gave birth to Jesus when she was in her early teens (the myth of the virgin birth may also have to do with her falling pregnant before her menarche). Is God therefore a paedophile? There are enormous variations around this. Some societies allow a period of sexual experimentation before marriage and others try to control adolescent extra-marital sexual activity (with varying degrees of success).
- There is also considerable ethnographic material to show that child-adult sexual relations are also common. This can range from incest to institutionalized access to children, usually through slavery or prostitution. A considerable component of it is purely exploitive but some of it takes the form of mutual enjoyment and as a form of sexual mentoring. In some societies an aunt or uncle initiates the child into sexual techniques. In others sexual techniques are taught and demonstrated.
- The idea that children and adolescents are sexual innocents is actually rare and is confined to European, Christian societies, particularly Anglo-American societies. It is also historically rare, being largely a phenomenon of the late 19th century and finding its fullest expression in the 20th century.
The idea of the innocent child is a cultural construct with an interesting history. The Catholic church had the doctrine of original sin and children were often seen as seducers and tempters until they had been disciplined. During its long hold on power the Catholic church did not challenge the prevailing norm of the marriageable age of 12. The challenge came from two contradictory sources. The first was Protestant theology which challenged the idea of original sin and which developed the contrary idea of original innocence. This doctrine argued that individuals had the choice to individually repeat the story of the Fall when they reached maturity, until that time they were innocent of sin. And given that the Christian narrative of the Fall is inextricably connected to sexuality the act of immoral sex was a primary cause of repeating the error of the Fall. It became essential then, that children be protected from a preternatural Fall by being kept as sexual innocents for as long as possible. The idea of the innocent child was further entrenched when adults began to project their own sexual doubts and fears onto the child as a kind of empty vessel. Thus the idea of the innocent child was invested with considerable adult psychic projective power. In this way adults became very protective, not of individual children, but of a highly romanticized, idealized concept of a perfect, innocent childhood. An idea that has no basis in the reality of children as they are.
The second source was the Age of Reason and the gradual realisation that Christian theology was based on myth. As European civilization encountered scientific evidence and also encountered other cultures with divergent norms the Christian tradition actually retreated further into a romanticized image of the child. The rapid changes of the Industrial Revolution also contributed and by the end of the 19th Century reform movements, thankfully, ended child labour and child prostitution. Of course these things had gone on for centuries without too much objection, children had always worked in the fields and the poor had always sold them into prostitution.
The modern concept of an age of consent arose at this time. As a result of a public outcry over child prostitution in Britain the government increased the non-married age of consent from 10 to 13 in 1875 and then to 16 in 1885. The age of married consent remained at 12 until 1929. This pattern of reform was eventually repeated in many Western countries but with varying ages of consent. The highest age was set at 18 in some American states. The Spanish colonies however, often opted for a much lower age of consent – 13 in Spain and 12 in Peru and Colombia. Japan and Korea have also have a low age of consent.
The justification for the age of consent is actually entirely arbitrary. It is simply the age at which a society feels adolescents (girls in particular) should be able to consent to intercourse. It is actually not based on any solid empirical data. In fact it seems to be more about protecting the institution of Christian marriage, as evidenced by the many instances of gaps between married consent and non-married consent. (In some ME countries there is no minimum age of married consent but a high age of non-married consent – 21).
What this has done over time is actually expand the age of innocence. Strictly speaking a child is pre-pubescent, but now adolescents are being called children and the terms child abuse and paedophilia are being used to refer to all sex with legal minors. Thus a mature adolescent can be called an ‘innocent child’. The term paedophile is being increasingly misused. A true paedophile is an adult who is exclusively attracted to children. An adult who is exclusively attracted to adolescents is actually called an ephebophile. Ephebophilia only became problematic when the age of consent was raised. In the past adult men could marry adolescent girls. Most child abuse is actually committed by opportunistic adults. True paedophilia is rare.
What does developmental psychology have to say about the notion of consent? It depends on what you mean by consent. The idea of the child/adolescent as an innocent means that a child cannot consent because they are innocent. It’s a circular argument. In other words, the age of consent is not really about whether or not a particular child can consent but whether or not they ought to consent.
Consent requires the power to choose and a knowledge of the possible consequences of that choice. For a considerable slice of history women and girls have often simply not had the power to choose. Marriages have often been arranged and non-married women were discriminated against. The idea that a woman or girl could freely consent is actually a product of the modernist discourse on human rights, given extra weight through the feminist movement. Arranged marriages are still a reality in many countries, as unfortunately, is rape as a means of controlling women.
The question of understanding the consequences of an action depend on two important factors. The first is the learned knowledge about the likely consequences and the second is the ability to understand that knowledge. Acquiring knowledge is simply a matter of effective education. In sex negative societies this knowledge either does not exist or is highly restricted. In many societies children are simply not given adequate knowledge about sex. The idea of the innocent child also involves keeping the child ignorant, even of his or her own natural sexual responses. In traditional Polynesian societies children knew what an orgasm was. In the West a child might misunderstand and fear an orgasmic response out of ignorance.
The ability to understand the knowledge is dependent on the level of cognitive, affective and moral development. It is here that we run into an interesting situation. Development in these areas is inconsistent. That is, it can be rapid in one person and slow in another. If we assume that consent can occur when an individual achieves an minimum level of adult competence, which in Kohlbergian terms is stage three (early conventional moral reasoning) and in cognitive terms is formal operational, then we have to admit that some exceptional individuals are able to consent at a young age and some adults are not able to consent at all (which raises the interesting question of sexual rights for the intellectually disabled). The fact is that some intelligent children enter postconventional moral reasoning and systematic thinking before the legal age of consent and despite actually being more competent than the average adult are denied the right to choose.
But consent means nothing unless you define what it is you are consenting to. The fact is that children are expected to make a range of decisions that stretch their developmental abilities all the time. We now come to another factor. In sex negative societies the decision to have sex is a big issue. In sex positive societies it is a relatively small issue. In sex negative societies the sexual act is loaded with complex meanings. In sex positive societies it is often a simple act of pleasure.
What adds considerable confusion to this issue is that it is a really big issue for some people in the West and not so big for others. If you come from a strict Catholic family being caught masturbating as a child may have all sorts of additional meanings. Whereas being seen masturbating in a liberal, secular family may be inconsequential. This diversity of meaning is important to understand, especially when we come to discuss child abuse. And I should add that this diversity of meaning is confusing to many competent adults.
What has all this got to do with Integral Sexology? Quite a lot. The denial of children’s sexuality is one of the major causes of sexual dysfunction in later life. It is a primary cause of paraphilia and phobia. The myth of the innocent child is simply a device to keep children ignorant. It means that they are given no language and no conceptual apparatus with which to understand their sexual desires and experiences. They are therefore forced to invent more acceptable narratives or to simply suppress their experiences.
It’s a serious pathology and I’m going to give it a name, erotopaedophobia, the fear of children’s sexuality. It’s an extension of a general erotophobia found in Western society.
The politics of child abuse
During the 80’s and early 90’s there was considerable public hysteria over child abuse. It has died down but there is still an unacceptably high level of moral panic over the issue. The evidence does not support the hysteria. There has been no increase in the incidence of paedophilia or child abuse. It’s largely a myth created by the same forces who have invested in the idea of the innocent child. In many ways the hysteria bares a remarkable similarity to the hysteria over witches. At its height the hysterics claimed there were multiple satanic covens ritually abusing children. The covens were well connected and included judges, politicians, wealthy businessmen and the police. An FBI report showed that there had been no evidence of ritual abuse. But this did not deter the hysterics. The ritual abusers were so clever apparently they could fool the best forensic scientists. The scenarios painted by the hysterics were elaborate and bore a remarkable resemblance to scenarios painted by other hysterics at other times.
This wave of hysteria also resulted in several famous child care centre abuse cases. These also shared elaborate fantasy scenarios and again, most were eventually thrown out of court or successfully appealed. At the same time repressed memory syndrome was popular. It has now been discredited but it resulted in several serious and tragic miscarriages of justice.
This has now led to a counter movement that argues that there is a politically and religiously motivated child abuse industry that is itself abusing children. Some psychologists have now been deregistered for malpractice and police are getting better training at investigating child abuse. One of the great tragedies of the hysteria is the fear that permeates any activity where adults come into contact with children. In some constituencies parents who want to coach sporting teams have to undergo police checks, this deters many. Mandatory reporting has led to false accusations, such as the father questioned because his pre-school daughter had said he had touched her bottom. Indeed he had, wiping it for her as any parent would. Some parents are now so confused about what appropriate intimate contact is that they have withdrawn most intimate contact, like the father who stopped brushing his daughter’s hair in case it was seen as too intimate, despite the fact that such daughter/father intimacy is important to her development. There have been other cases where children who had experienced pleasurable incidents of adult-child sexual contact and did not feel abused or traumatized have been pressured to say they were and are in denial. One boy successfully sued the counsellor who kept in therapy for a year over an incident he enjoyed. Germaine Greer had this to say about such cases:
“From the child’s point of view and from the commonsense point of view, there is an enormous difference between intercourse with a willing little girl and the forcible penetration of the small vagina of a terrified child. One woman I know enjoyed sex with her uncle all through her childhood, and never realized that anything was unusual until she went away to school. What disturbed her then was not what her uncle had done but the attitude of her teachers and the school psychiatrist. They assumed that she must have been traumatized and disgusted and therefore in need of very special help. In order to capitulate to their expectation, she began to fake symptoms she did not feel, until at length she began to feel truly guilty for not having felt guilty. She ended up judging herself quite harshly for this innate lechery.”
(I do not endorse the uncle’s actions. This would seem to be a case of exploitation. But whatever one’s judgement about the rightness of the relationship it is wrong to further exploit the child in order to satisfy one’s moral outrage. There is a difference between pointing out the undesirability of the relationship and making the child feel sinful).
The list of stupidity is long and now even extends to children themselves being labelled sex offenders.
What happened? Here the Jungian concept of the shadow plays a vital part in understanding this hysteria. According to Jungian theory any psychological complex contains an opposite, or shadow side. The idea of the innocent child must have a shadow aspect. The idea of sexual purity must have an opposite of sexual contamination. In Christian mythology the shadow of Jesus is Satan. As soon as you build an elaborate fantasy of childhood sexual innocence you unconsciously also construct a shadow world of corruption and depravity. However Jungian theory also says that you must project the shadow onto another. Therefore the shadow other of the innocent child is the devious adult, the sinister paedophile. This ‘scapegoat’ must be punished severely and the hysterics will often call for life sentences, arguing falsely that paedophilia cannot be cured. In fact it can. Paedophiles have a relatively low rate of recidivism. A New Zealand approach has reduced the recidivism rate to 5% – an extraordinary result.
Sadly this type of shadow play completely overlooks the complex nature of many sexual abuse cases. The child is often not completely innocent nor is the adult ever completely sinister. The polarised fantasy of the good child and evil predator often acts against a healthy resolution of the abuse incident for either the victim or perpetrator.
Unfortunately the myth makers have considerable influence and they are using that influence to advance a sex negative agenda. This is particularly the case in America where the religious right has invested a lot of political energy in winding back progressive reforms in the area of sexuality. It is about imposing Judeo-Christian morality and the discipline of sexology directly challenges their central moral assertions. Sexology itself has come under a sustained attack with an attempt to discredit Kinsey.
In 1998 the American Psychological Association published a meta-survey (a survey of all available surveys) of child abuse victims. It came up with some startling and controversial results. The myth makers insist that all child-adult sexual contact is abusive and extremely traumatic. The meta survey showed that this was simply not the case. It found that there was a spectrum of response from extremely negative to positive. Around 45% of boys reported positive experiences and around 34% of girls reported positive experiences. Others reported feeling neutral or only mild trauma. There is no doubt that real abuse and trauma occurs but it is not a universal experience. This has since been born out in other similar surveys. A survey reported in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour in 2005 showed that most people who experience sexual abuse go on to lead normal and satisfying sex lives. It also showed that the abuse victims did not show a higher incidence of sexual dysfunction than adults who had not been abused.
Nonetheless, groups aligned to the religious right lobbied the US Congress and the APA was ordered to withdraw the paper. They did not withdraw it but instead issued a retraction. A subsequent investigation found that the paper’s findings were valid.
What this means is that the myth makers are determined to suppress any information that contradicts their myth. We should hardly be surprised because many of them are the same people who are trying to push Creationism and Intelligent Design.
These people have also successfully gained control of sex education in the US and are pushing an abstinence only approach. This program is remarkable for what it fails to teach children and some programs have even been accused of spreading misinformation. This is not about protecting children, it is about protecting the myth of the innocent child. This is having dire consequences. The US has a high teen pregnancy rate, eight times higher than Holland (Sweden also has a low rate). Holland has a liberal sex education program whereas the US has always had a very conservative sex education system. The figures suggest that sexual ignorance is a major contributor to a high teen pregnancy rate. Even more serious is the suggestion that the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases have gone up amongst some US teens because they have been told condoms are ineffective.
In my view the religious right are ethically negligent. They are placing the survival of a myth above the real needs of children and adolescents.
If they are really interested in ending the problem of paedophilia and child abuse they must nip the problem in the bud. That will be achieved by ensuring paraphilias and phobias do not arise in the first place. Unfortunately that will also involve rejecting the sex negative attitudes that cause the problem, attitudes that form a central component of their moral program – sex is a sin (unless performed in a marriage approved by them). I would argue that they are in fact morally incompetent and should be denied any form of moral authority.
Integral sexual ethics and children
Children also go through a developmental process. The prime directive argues that their developmental potential should be nurtured at every possible step. This developmental potential includes sexuality. Children must be allowed to realise their full sexual potential as they mature to adulthood. Integral sexology must carefully understand how paraphilias and phobias arise and promote education about these processes.
It is clear that unwanted sexual attention and abuse can cause phobias and related paraphilias. Some abused children go on to become abusers themselves. However, turning pleasurable experiences into problems and attaching notions of sin and guilt can also create phobias and paraphilias.
I believe that an integral sexual ethics requires a dramatic rethink about how we raise and educate children. Some readers may be surprised to hear that some initial studies show that children raised as naturists have a better body image and a less problematized attitude toward sex. Other studies have shown that children who participate in comprehensive sex education score higher in moral reasoning than children who do not. Knowledge equals wisdom.
It would seem that the confused moral reasoning around the issue of sex pushed by the religious right is actually stopping many children from advancing their own moral reasoning. This makes sense – how can a conventional sexual moral code give rise to postconventional sexual moral reasoning?
Many adults and parents will find it difficult to allow children a degree of freedom in sexual expression. The idea of the innocent child is a deeply held myth. How many adults would feel comfortable around a sexually active and knowledgeable child or adolescent? Yet an integral sexual ethics demands that these fears and concerns be carefully analysed. What is there really to be feared? What are you really protecting?
The religious right have always claimed that educating children will simply lead to them experimenting. This is simply fear mongering. I mentioned above that both Holland and Sweden have comprehensive sex education, they also have a very low teen pregnancy rates and correspondingly low STI rates. Some initial research has shown that Swedish teens delay their first intercourse experience a year later than their English peers. The process is counter-intuitive. The more children understand the wiser their decisions. It is sexually ignorant children who get into early strife (particularly the girl, as the one who can fall pregnant she must get accurate information before menarche). Perhaps we can suggest that those who are told they can don’t and those who are told they can’t will.
It is also important to remember the different spectrums of behaviour. If children are taught that there is a wide variety of expression, including asexual disinterest, they will better resist peer group pressure to act in a given way. A recent survey of Australian teens said that what they wanted to learn most about in sex education was emotions and how to handle relationships. Sex education should include a range of moral issues relevant the given developmental group. I believe the basic physiological facts can be taught at a young age, at the same time basic physiology is normally taught. Then when the child enters puberty and early adolescence the focus should be on negotiating relationships, understanding desire and tolerating difference. In fact it might be wise to drop the name ‘sex’ education and refer to it as ‘life skills’, or some equivalent – negotiating sexual desire being one of many life skills. Having a separate sex education program isolates the issue and therefore de-integrates it – the opposite of what we want. Sex should not be a big deal.