Friday, January 25, 2008

The Myth of Childhood Sexuality

I think this will be the last post on this at present.

I had a graduate-school textbook on personality development in 1979. It was a supplemental text, written by a psychoanalyst in the 1960’s, implying an author who was at school in the 40’s. On the very first page, this theorist made much of the fact that infant children liked to be naked, and his assertion of that fact showed up on subsequent pages as well. I was a new father, and this was a surprise to me. My infant son disliked being naked, so I asked two female coworkers, one of whom had seven children and one of whom had five – do infants like being naked?

Most of them hate it, they told me. They actually prefer to be wrapped tight. When they get a little older and can run around some of them like it, but it’s usually all the excitement and stimulation of bath time and the general central nervous system dyscontrol of late evening that causes them to laugh and giggle uncontrollably. So, I wondered, what was up with this analyst’s claim? One smiled rather wryly. “How many men have actually spent much time with babies?” Well I had started to, but I was rather in the vanguard of the sensitive male/involved father fashion. Men interacting with babies at all was considered humorous by women. One does have to wonder how much time with actual infants this male psychologist had spent.

It put my antennae up for the remainder of the book (or the one-third that I probably read, at least). This theorist of personality development, and by extension the professor who assigned the book, thought the sexual aspect of all behavior to be the most important thing to notice. I no longer remember who the author was, but the mere fact of his publication by an academic press strongly suggests that he had sufficient reputation that someone thought they could sell some books on his name. But he was dead wrong on simple facts from page one.

Fast-forward seven years. I took my son tobogganing with a girl from the neighborhood. Out on the slope, he stole her hat and ran away. She protested and whined, laughing all the time. I immediately interpreted it as some early, mythic boy-girl behavior. This was like junior-high flirting and dominance, and even, I worried, the adolescent seduction by the male, protestation by the female, and all ambiguous signals. I wasn’t ready to get into all that with a seven-year-old, yet here it was, and as the responsible Dad I have to figure out how to explain this…ouch, ouch.

Then she stole his hat and he acted the same way. Okay, so maybe children just like attention and some power. Let’s not get carried away here. It used to frustrate the Montessori directress that the boys would get together to chase the girls. But if it had been boys and monkeys at the school – which my son would have liked better, I think – then it would have been the boys banding together to chase the monkeys. If it had been girls and dogs, the girls would have banded together to chase the dogs. There is a different male and female style on this, but is more about identifying and cooperating with one’s group than anything else. No need to over-interpret this.

There isn’t much need to sexualize what we see in children. The genitals have lots of nerve endings, and that could account for a lot of learned attention by the child. The other areas that have lots of nerve endings, the mouth and the hands, also attract their focus. For little boys – and I have only sons (the foster daughters were older girls) – the penis is one of the few things visible on you that there’s only one of. Another is the navel, which also attracts attention, though I haven’t heard people make much developmental fuss about that. The penis also produces fascinating liquid, urine (fascinating to a child, that is. Adults grow rather tired of it), the evacuation of which causes relief. As children are fascinated by many things that their body produces – flatulence, scabs, blood – none of which figure prominently in psychoanalytic theory, I begin to suspect that our sexual interpretation of children’s behavior is adult projection. A seed is not a flower, as I noted in an earlier post, but those of us with flowers make retrospective connections which may not be valid.

Compare this with emotional development, as a thought experiment. When we look back over romances or friendships when we were in school, we see similarities between our relationships at 19 with those at 17, those at 17 with those at 15, those at 15 with those at 13. In retrospect, we assume a much higher level of maturity for those relationships than we actually possessed. We see the flower in the bud, the bud in the stem, the stem in the stalk. This is brought home to us with brutal honesty by real encounters. If we read something we wrote when we were 15, we are immediately aware of how (embarrassingly) far from our adult selves it is. We thought our romances almost like those of ourselves at 20, and are shocked to find that they are more like the romances of age 10. We see this also when our own children get to the ages when they notice the opposite sex. My Aunt Fanny, was I ever such a mooning, shallow twit? In my case, I was far worse, because I was arrogant about my putative maturity.

So too with what adults, and social scientists in particular, claim as sexualized behavior in the young. Actual sexual behavior is a warning light that older persons have exposed the child to sex.

Ironic, in that the overconsciousness of sex is what the sex researchers thought they were reacting against – the prudish overreaction and squelching by their parents’ generation of anything that hinted at sex. To counteract this, they also saw sex everywhere in children’s behavior, but decided we should call it healthy rather than dangerous.

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