Sex and Children

by

Does the title of this piece make you squeamish? Before you report me to some government agency, let me explain myself.

In the romantic comedy The Back-Up Plan , a stunned man watches children on a playground, trying to digest the fact that his girlfriend is pregnant through artificial insemination. A vigilant father demands to know why the man is standing with his hands in his pockets, watching children who are not his. The father’s suspicion is clear, and the man with the pregnant girlfriend knows he has to explain himself convincingly. Presumably, this man will be patrolling the playground in the future, protecting his stepchildren from strange bystanders.

I am so glad I don’t have a job teaching or tending children below the age of puberty. One suspicious parent could ruin a caretaker’s reputation for life, even in the absence of incriminating evidence.

In the heat of summer, when people of all ages are seen in public wearing less clothing than at any other time of year, I am reminded of sexual values and assumptions that have changed over time. In the Victorian Age, when adults were usually expected to be clothed from the neck to the ankles, naked children could be seen, photographed and sketched without causing alarm. Adult interest in young bodies was regarded as sentimental, not erotic. Children were assumed to represent Innocence personified, and that quality was assumed to be shared by adults who found them fascinating. To see how these conceptions were represented visually, check out the art of the period.

All children were at great risk in a time when parenting handbooks recommended physical punishment as part of a good upbringing, and when the sexual abuse of children was ignored and denied. Sigmund Freud’s groundbreaking discovery of this experience as a source of adult distress in the 1890s, and his amended theory that children generally fantasize about sex with adults and therefore make false claims, have been re-examined in our own time. Freud’s dismissal of sexual abuse in childhood as an implausible fantasy has now been debunked as an implausible theory designed to protect the perpetrators, many of whom were socially-prominent men.

Have we arrived at the Truth on this subject yet? I doubt it. Current paranoia about the sexual abuse of children (including the self abuse of anyone under the current age of consent) reminds me of earlier forms of mass hysteria: the suspicion that every bad thing was caused by evil spells or by Communism. How did we change, in a few generations, from believing that all children are magically protected from sex to thinking that child sexual abuse can always be assumed when it can’t be disproved?

I have been asked how I can be sure my grown daughter was never abused by her alcoholic father, and how I can be sure I was never abused as a child by my own father; my inability to remember any such thing can be taken to mean that I’m still not willing to face reality. Both the accused men are now deceased and unable to defend themselves. Both had attitudes toward women that I consider unfortunate, and these attitudes had clear roots in the cultures in which they grew up: the American West post-1921, and the Niger Delta post-1944.

My father’s insistence that sexual abuse was a myth, and my husband’s claim that Nigerian women were especially prone to scream rape for no sane reason, still disturb me. Both these men saw the world much differently than I did. However, I still can’t see their beliefs as evidence of a tendency to abuse children. And the most notorious child-abusers of recent scandal have operated in the womanless Catholic hierarchy, a hothouse environment that is not familiar to garden-variety sexist men.

On the subject of possible abuse of any kind, I remain agnostic. What is unknown must stay unknown until or unless evidence comes to light. Until then, no conviction is possible.

There must be a sensible middle ground between faith in the goodness and wisdom of all authority figures (including adults who take care of children), and faith in universal corruption. In the context of relationships between children and adults, finding that middle ground is uniquely hard to do.

Loving parents enjoy cuddling their children, and children need to be held. Child-raising methods that never include full-body hugs seem abusive in themselves. (Orphanages staffed by underpaid, overworked child-wranglers come to mind.) The first experiences of love and pleasure in most people’s lives come long before genital sex, and they come from adults. Before we could understand language or take care of ourselves, we were shown through touch that someone loved us enough to take care of us. And this statement applies to those of us who were not abused through neglect.

If children are going to survive, they simply can’t have the kind of physical integrity that adults can afford. (And until the number of women doctors rose dramatically, women who wanted to stay healthy couldn’t afford to prevent male professional caretakers from touching them intimately.) Well-intended self-help guidebooks on abuse prevention often imply a level of individual independence that doesn’t exist for anyone who is not a completely self-sufficient adult, living in a homemade cabin on a subsistence farm.

In the current atmosphere of suspicion, some babysitters refuse to change diapers or children’s underwear for fear of being accused of something horrible. And there is no statute of limitations on memories, accusations or even legal charges (though these must be based on legally-admissible evidence). Theoretically, anyone who has ever touched a child below the waist could become a target of blame and shame at any time.

The best parents I know are in a state of fear and denial. Historically, it hasn’t been a secret that breast-feeding can bring immense pleasure to mothers, or that it can lead to orgasm. In our time, breast-feeders (past and present) rarely confess to feeling physical pleasure at the time, as distinct from feeling the flow of mother-love.

In the interests of truth, I will admit that I had to suppress an impulse to come while breast-feeding my baby in public on several occasions in 1978. Yet when I went to a meeting of the La Leche League (an international organization that promotes breast-feeding), a group spokeswoman told me how important it was to inform the public at large that breast-feeding is not sexual (i.e. not shameful or abusive) – not at all, never ever. Everyone else in the group seemed to endorse this official pronouncement.

I have no reason to believe that general attitudes have changed since then. Baby-feeding and sexual arousal can’t be openly described together as parts of a process of cause and effect. There is too much at stake.

And I haven’t even brought up the difficulty of having a private sex life with at least one consenting adult while living with children. This topic deserves an essay unto itself, so for now, I’ll leave the bedroom door closed and the offspring asleep in their own beds.

I have no doubt that being sexually abused or exploited in childhood is a damaging experience that leads to a range of problems for years afterward. Straight-faced explanations that genital sex is inappropriate for children seem self-evident to me. I am willing to believe friends (and strangers, if they want to tell me their life-stories) who tell me they are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. My gut-level reaction to those who trust me enough to show me their pain is that it comes from real experience.

Yet “sex” and “abuse” are both ambiguous words, and clear communication is hard to achieve in a climate of fear. Added to changing values and standards of child-raising is the general human discomfort with ambiguity. We want clear definitions of what is and is not sexual, of what is “normal” and healthy, and what is awful and sick. Some people would prefer to join a cult that worships God in the form of a giant purple jelly-bean than to admit that “God” as an objective entity may be unknowable for mere mortals.

So now you know enough about my stand on this issue to pelt me with tinker toys. I suspect I would have been executed as a heretic in a past era, and maybe one of my past lives ended that way. In the absence of clear memories, I just don’t know. Until something changes, I can only stand in the sand of honest uncertainty.

Jean Roberta
July 2010


“Sex Is All Metaphors” © 2010 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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