Chapter 1 : Home : Chapter 3
Children's Sexuality: What Do We Mean?
It is more than half a century since Freud began to shock polite society by his revelations on infant and child sexuality. Time enough, one might have thought, to absorb the shock, even for those who least wanted to face the facts. Yet there are those who still insist that children are 'innocent', in the sense of being asexual creatures. Some even hide behind Freud to do so. Mary Whitehouse, leading British campaigner for so-called 'morality', talks of 'the latency period' when she wants to convey the idea of childish innocence. What she does not do is to add that since Freud there has been copious evidence for the existence of children's sexual feelings and behaviour in the years leading up to puberty (the supposed latency period), and that complete sexual latency was regarded even by Freud as merely a theoretical extreme. As he put it:
'It is my conviction that no child none at least who is mentally sound, still less one who is mentally gifted, can avoid being occupied with sexual problems in the years before puberty.' 1
It is not surprising that Freud should have talked of sexual 'problems', writing as he did in an age in which any form of sexual expression by the child, including solitary masturbation, was regarded as a 'problem' to be eliminated. Things haven't changed a lot since then. It is now medically recognised that masturbation, for instance, is entirely harmless, but most parents and teachers still steer children away from it and from any other expression of sexuality. They still behave as though they would like children to be non-sexual, as though there is some mental block, some resistance, to them recognising the child's sexual feelings.
It is important at the outset to say what I mean by children's 'sexuality', as there are widely varying interpretations as to what does or does not constitute 'sexual' behaviour in children. Freud himself was the arch-proponent of the view that many aspects of bodily pleasure in infants and children are 'sexual', not just those which arise or lead to, specifically genital gratification. Although this view is illuminating in some ways, an awareness of the diffuse sensuality of infants is essential for an understanding of their needs and development it also serves to dilute the claim that children are 'really' sexual: for most people, the only sensual response which can properly be called sexual is one directly associated with the genitals, tending towards orgasm. When I talk about children's sexuality in this chapter, it is this specifically genital, orgasmic, aspect that I mean. 2
In what follows, attention is concentrated on evidence relating purely to sexual behaviour in childhood, with little emphasis on its emotional or social context. This is emphatically not because I feel such matters are unimportant (the rest of the book is largely devoted to them), but because the only way to establish that children are indeed sexual beings is to talk about their sexuality, and not about anything else.
A number of empirical studies have established some unassailable facts on the subject. The most famous of these sources is of course the work of the biologist Alfred Kinsey and his co-researchers, 3 which made almost as much impact in the early post-war years as Freud had in his time.
Perhaps the most striking of the Kinsey findings, as they concern pre-adolescent children, relates to their capacity for sexual orgasm. 'Orgasm has been observed in boys of every age from five months to adolescence,' Kinsey wrote. Also, 'Orgasm is in our records for a female babe of four months.' In reporting this, great care had been taken to establish exactly what was meant by the word 'orgasm', and the physiological identifying factors are described in some detail:
'The orgasm in an infant or other young male is, except for the lack of ejaculation, a striking duplicate of orgasm in an older adult . . . the behaviour involves a series of gradual physiologic changes, the development of rhythmic body movements with distinct penis throbs and pelvic thrusts, an obvious change in sensory capacities, a final tension of muscles, especially of the abdomen, hips and back, a sudden release with convulsions, including rhythmic anal contractions followed by the disappearance of all symptoms.' 4
'In five cases of young pre-adolescents, observations were continued over periods of months or years, until the individuals were old enough to make it certain that true orgasm was involved; and in all of these cases the later reactions were so similar to the earlier behaviour that there could be no doubt of the orgastic nature of the first experience.' 5
In the volume on the female, Kinsey reports the 'typical reactions of a small girl in orgasm, made by an intelligent mother who had frequently observed her three-year-old in masturbation'. The mother had reported:
'Lying face down on the bed, with her knees drawn up, she started rhythmic pelvic thrusts, about one second or less apart. The thrusts were primarily pelvic, with the legs tensed in a fixed position. The forward components of the thrusts were in a smooth and perfect rhythm which was unbroken except for momentary pauses during which the genitalia were readjusted against the doll on which they were pressed; the return from each thrust was convulsive, jerky.
There were 44 thrusts in unbroken rhythm, a slight momentary pause, 87 thrusts followed by a slight momentary pause, then 10 thrusts, and then a cessation of all movement. There was marked concentration and intense breathing with abrupt jerks as orgasm approached. She was completely oblivious to everything during these later stages of the activity. Her eyes were glassy and fixed in a vacant stare.
There was noticeable relief and relaxation after orgasm. A second series of reactions began two minutes later with series of 48, 18 and 57 thrusts, with slight momentary pauses between each series. With the mounting tensions, there were audible gasps, but immediately following the cessation of pelvic thrusts there was complete relaxation and only desultory movements thereafter.' 6
In both girls and boys, Kinsey found, masturbation to orgasm occurs at all ages. His records also show that even from an early age a child's outlet is not solely masturbation. He found that no less than 10 per cent of boys aged five engaged in some form of sex play, and as with other pre-adolescent age groups, this was largely with other children, of either or both sexes.
This figure rose steadily to 39 per cent at age twelve, including 23 per cent engaged in heterosexual play, 29 per cent in homosexual play, and no less than 13 per cent in coitus. Even at age ten, 11 per cent of boys had coitus. Taken cumulatively, 57 per cent of the adults on whom Kinsey relied for his data recalled taking part in some pre-adolescent sex play, and information was also taken from boys, of whom 70 per cent admitted involvement in such play. Most of the activity occurred between the ages of eight and thirteen, though there was some activity at every age.
Giving a glimpse of what could be the case in a future, sexually liberated society, he argues:
'. . . and it is probable that half or more of the boys in an uninhibited society could reach climax by the time they were three or four years of age, and that nearly all of them could experience such a climax three to five years before the onset of adolescence.' 7
Adult women reporting pre-adolescent sex play amount to 48 per cent of Kinsey's sample, a figure which it was felt was probably well below what actually took place, thanks to lack of recall (just as, as we have seen, in the case of men recalling such sex play, the figure was much lower than the more recent recollections of boys). Unlike the pattern for boys, the sex play of girls tends to tail off rapidly in the years immediately before adolescence, and Kinsey felt this could be clearly attributed to cultural factors:
'As the child approaches adolescence, parents may increasingly restrict the female's contacts with the opposite sex. They may warn her against kissing, general body contacts, genital exposures, and more specific sexual relationships. In many cultures the girls are more restricted at this age than the boy. In Europe, in Latin America and in this country [the United States], the opportunities for the girl to be alone with other children are fewer than those available to the developing boy. The cessation of pre-adolescent sex play in the later pre-adolescent years was taken by Freud and many of his followers to represent a period of sexual latency. On the contrary, it seems to be a period of inactivity which is imposed by the culture upon the socio-sexual activities of a maturing child, especially if the child is female.
'Pre-adolescent masturbation is, on the other hand, usually carried over from the pre-adolescent to the adolescent and adult years, probably because it does not fall under the restraints which are imposed on a socio-sexual activity. This provides further evidence that no biologic latency is involved in the discontinuance of the socio-sexual activities.' 8
Those who continue to believe that sexuality is essentially an attribute of adulthood, would also do well to reflect on the fact that in at least one respect the child's sexual capacity is much greater than that of adults:
'The most remarkable aspect of the pre-adolescent population is its capacity to achieve repeated orgasm in limited periods of time. This capacity definitely exceeds the capacity of teenage boys who, in turn, are much more capable than any older males.' 9
The cultural factors referred to by Kinsey are vastly more important than most people ever imagine. His work was undertaken among a sample of the white population in the United States, and although it is remarkable that so much pre-adolescent sexual activity was found to occur in such a society, which like our own has been traditionally divided between attempts on the one hand to deny that it exists and on the other to stamp it out, it is probable that much more sexual expression would be found in a similar survey undertaken in a sexually freer culture.
Although large population surveys like Kinsey's have not been undertaken in such cultures, there is now nonetheless a great deal of anthropological data to back up this claim data which, despite the publication of such classic works as Clellan S. Ford's and Frank A. Beach's Patterns of sexual Behaviour, have failed as yet to make the impact they deserve on the popular imagination.
Just as the homo-sexual activities of the Ancient Greeks were carefully censored from the attention of generations of schoolboys by Christian pedagogues, so there has been a similar conspiracy of silence on sexual behaviour in other cultures. Have you ever seen a TV documentary on child sex? Cameras and crews have been to all the right places, deep up the Amazon and into the Australian outback, but they never report on what the scholars know about juvenile sex.
Interestingly enough, a disc jockey on a popular radio programme recently wowed his listeners with an 'isn't it amazing' exotic fact about the Trobriand Islanders, telling them that the natives bite off each other's eyelashes during lovemaking. The much more important, and equally exotic facts about Trobriand child sexuality are, of course, never mentioned on such 'family' shows.
In righting the balance, I can do no better than to quote Ford and Beach at some length. As well as involving free child sexuality, it is no coincidence that the attitudes described include giving rein to a good deal of child-adult sexual expression:
'Adults in a large number of societies take a completely tolerant and permissive attitude towards sex expression in childhood. Under such conditions, youngsters engage in a certain amount of sexual play in public. . . . . Handling the genitals of others of the same or opposite sex occurs frequently under conditions of free sex play. Additional forms of sexual activity on the part of young children sometimes include oral-genital contacts and attempted copulation with a sex partner.
'In a few permissive societies adults participate actively in the sexual stimulation of infants and young children. Hopi and Siriono parents masturbate their youngsters frequently. And in these societies self-masturbation passes practically unnoticed during early childhood, adults taking a tolerant and permissive attitude toward all sexual behaviour at least until the age of puberty. Among the Kazak, adults who are playing with small children, especially boys, excite the young one's genitals by rubbing and playing with them.
In this society autogenital stimulation on the part of young children is accepted as a normal practice. Mothers in Alorese society occasionally fondle the genitals of their infant while nursing it. During early childhood Alorese boys masturbate freely and occasionally they imitate intercourse with a little girl. As the children grow older, however, sexual activity is frowned upon and during late childhood such behaviour is forbidden to both boy and girl. Actually, however, they continue their sexual activity, but in secret.
'Among the Pukapukans of Polynesia where parents simply ignore the sexual activities of young children, boys and girls masturbate freely and openly in public. Among the Nama Hotentot no secret is made of autogenital stimulation in early childhood. Young Trobriand children engage in a variety of sexual activities. In the absence of adult control, typical forms of amusement for Trobriand girls and boys include manual and oral stimulation of the genitals and simulated coitus.' 10
Simulated coitus? At this point Ford and Beach slip into the same error as Malinowski, on whose famous study of the Trobriands 11 they were relying. When Malinowski heard about real intercourse between quite small children, he simply couldn't believe his ears, as might be expected in anyone with a Western background:
'I often heard some such benevolent gossip as this: "So-and-so (a little girl) has already had intercourse with So-and-so (a little boy)". . . But this obviously can refer only to incomplete practices and not to the real act. Some of my informants insisted that such small female children actually have intercourse with penetration. Remembering, however, the Trobriander's very strong tendency to exaggerate in the direction of the grotesque, a tendency not altogether devoid of a certain malicious Rabelaisian humour, I am inclined to discount those statements of my authorities. If we place the beginning of real sexual life at the age of six to eight in the case of girls, and ten to twelve in the case of boys, we shall probably not be erring very greatly in either direction. . . . ' 12
Rabelaisian humour or not, it is doubtful whether Malinowski's understandable scepticism is justified. Very young children are capable of full intercourse, as we shall see. Ford and Beach continue:
'In the societies where they are permitted to do so, children gradually increase their sexual activities both as they approach puberty and during adolescence. There are, indeed, some societies in which enforcement of the prevailing incest regulations is the only major restriction on sexual activity among adolescents. . .
'Among the Chewa of Africa parents believe that unless children begin to exercise themselves sexually early in life they will never beget offspring. Older children build little huts some distance from the village, and there, with the complete approval of their parents, boys and girls play at being husband and wife. Such trial matings may extend well into adolescence, with periodic exchanges of partners until marriage occurs. The Ifugao head hunters of the Philippines maintain a similar attitude towards the sex play of older children and adolescents.
In this society unmarried individuals live in separate dormitories from early childhood. It is customary for each boy to sleep with a girl every night. The only check on promiscuity is that imposed by the girls themselves. Usually a girl is unwilling to form too prolonged an attachment to one boy until she is ready to be married. Boys are urged by their fathers to begin sexual activities early, and a man may shame his son if the latter is backward in this respect. Even after puberty there seem to be relatively few instances of conception resulting from this free sexual activity. Pregnancies do occasionally occur, however, and in that event one of the girl's lovers must marry her.
'The Lepcha of India believe that girls will not mature without benefit of sexual intercourse. Early sex play among boys and girls characteristically involves many forms of mutual masturbation and usually ends in attempted copulation. By the time they are eleven or twelve years old, most girls regularly engage in full intercourse. Older men occasionally copulate with girls as young as eight years of age. Instead of being regarded as a criminal offence, such behaviour is considered amusing by the Lepcha.' 13
Ford and Beach report a number of institutionalized child-adult sexual contacts: 14
'Among the Siwans (Siwa Valley, North Africa), 'All men and boys engage in anal intercourse.' Males are singled out as peculiar if they do not do so. Prominent Siwan men lend their sons to each other for this purpose.
'Among the Aranda aborigines (Central Australia), 'Pederasty' is a recognised custom. . . Commonly a man, who is fully initiated but not yet married, takes a boy ten or twelve years old, who lives with him as his wife for several years, until the older man marries.
'The Kiwai (Kiwai Island, S.E. Coast, New Guinea) practise sodomyto make young men strong.
'Bachelors of the Keraki (S.W. Papua, New Guinea) 'universally practise sodomy, and in the course of his puberty rites each boy is initiated into anal intercourse by the older males. After his first year of playing the passive role he spends the rest of his bachelourhood sodomizing the newly initiated. This practice is believed by the natives to be necessary for the growing boy. They are convinced that boys can become pregnant as a result of sodomy, and a lime-eating ceremony is performed periodically to prevent such conception.'
Of course, boys do not become pregnant. The Keraki got it monumentally wrong, and factors such as this make it all too easy for 'advanced', 'superior' westerners to assume that the customs of 'primitive' peoples can teach us nothing. There are aspects of what has been described which I feel it would be wrong to emulate. I do not feel we should 'single out as peculiar', men who fail to engage in anal intercourse, nor do I think fathers should push their children into unwanted sexuality, any more than they should prevent their sexual expression. Nevertheless, these accounts indisputably show us that given the opportunity children do develop a sexual life of their own, in which there is no 'latency period'.
There are probably those who will always remain sceptical towards the 'Rabelaisian humour' of natives in strange, distant places, whose evidence it is near impossible to check. So let's return a little closer to home. Before doing so, however, it is worth stating the main overall thesis developed by Ford and Beach in relation to sexual development: that in humans, and in other higher primates to a lesser extent, learning, as opposed to instinct, plays an enormously important role.
In a sexually restrictive society, in which it is not the done thing to talk about sexual techniques, and there is no way of finding out about them, it is no good expecting the adult to 'do what comes naturally' when he is married. It won't come naturally: she or he is likely to be sexually ignorant and incompetent. Whereas if the learning process is set in motion in childhood by a gradual introduction to sex, either by older children or by adults, there is far less likelihood of the embarrassed crashing of gears involved in trying to get it all together in one go. 15
Also, children in a sexually restrictive culture may appear to be non-sexual, or less sexual than they would otherwise be, simply because they fail to discover how to give themselves an orgasm. Lots of children do find out on their own, unaided. But lots don't. Indeed some people, especially women, make the discovery only well into adulthood, by reading about what to do, and they can be forgiven for feeling resentful that neither their parents nor anyone else had told them before! (It has been speculated that girls are less likely than boys to discover their capacity for orgasm, because the clitoris is less prominent than the penis, and less likely to be the subject of experimentation.)
Strong support for the learnt nature of sexual development, and for the inherent sexual abilities and inclinations of children, is to be found in a recent paper by C.M. Johnston and R.W. Deisher 16 on communal child rearing in the United States a paper in which sexuality was only an incidental factor to the authors, but a striking one nonetheless.
'In two of the four groups with a number of older children, sexuality had come to be expressed very early. With parents who spoke openly about sex and with no taboos against physical contact, exploration of each other's bodies and actual intercourse took place between most children in these two groups by the age of five or six. These children related to sex as something interesting and enjoyable, but not of central importance. They would alternate between periods of enjoying sexual experimentation and periods when sexual activities seemed of little interest. They seemed casually open about their sexual activities to both adults and other children, but there seemed little stigma against children who did not wish to engage in sex.
'In response to the observer's questions about the possible harmful effects of early genital sexuality, several adults expressed concern that early sexual experimentation might lead to early development, thus cheating children of valuable childhood experiences. Most commented that they had seen no evidence in the behaviour of the children to indicate that genital sexuality and traditional childhood activities were in any way contradictory. The potential difficulty of sexual interests interfering with the children's educational progress was recognised, but this effect had not been observed.
The difficulty of relating to the sexual mores of the traditional culture after early genital exposure was seen by the other adults as a problem, but one not separate from the general problem of adjustment to the multitude of differences in behavioural conventions between the communal environment and traditional society. For the most part, parents expressed surprise at the rapidity with which the children developed a usually quite non-judgemental awareness of the behaviours acceptable and not acceptable when off-commune. Parents stressed two positive aspects of early sexual expression.
First, in being freed of the moral structure that has left many in our society incapable of complete fulfilment in their sexual lives, these children may have a great asset in terms of personal happiness.
Second, these children will be spared much of the adolescent conflict between physical readiness and social prohibition. It will be important to see, as these children develop, precisely what the effects of their early sexual experimentation will be.' 17
This valuable little passage both asks, and begins to answer, a number of relevant questions. In terms of the general development of commune children, it may be useful to refer to Johnston and Deisher's conclusions, before going on to the specifics of sexuality:
'The majority of the children demonstrated a high degree of maturity, self-confidence, and self-reliance. With the exception of four children, three of whom had had contradictory and non-supportive parental situations, physical clinging, crying and whining, and attention-getting behaviour were rare. Early psychological maturation seemed the rule. The two older children observed were accepting nearly adult roles in their groups by the ages of thirteen or fourteen.
With a few notable exceptions, children expressed both by their words and by their actions that they felt they had a meaningful place in the commune. Lack of fear of unfamiliar people and confidence in interpersonal relations were pronounced. . . .
Ability to co-operate with other children and to resolve conflicts without adult attention developed early. . . .
A general openness to express ideas and feelings freely, even when contradictory to adult opinion, was evident in almost all post-toddler children.' 18
One can only guess at how much, if any, of this evidently satisfactory situation can be attributed to the free sexuality of the communes, but at the very least it would appear not to be a damaging or unsettling factor.
What will have caught the eye of sceptics, however, is the finding that although very young children engage in full intercourse, sex at age five or six was 'not of central importance'. To many adults, particularly those who are getting it, it is not of 'central importance either': the ready availability of a sexual outlet, usually a husband or a wife, may well mean that not every sexual opportunity is seized upon. Only for those who are sexually frustrated is it likely to become obsessional, just as food becomes an obsession in a land of famine.
Nevertheless, it may be thought that the need for continual sexual expression is only felt compulsively from adolescence onwards (and even then perhaps more in males than females), possibly due to the biologic, hormonal changes that occur around and immediately prior to puberty. Studies have revealed many cases in which the absence of hormones, following castration in men, and the menopause in women, makes no difference, or very little difference, to the continuance of pre-existing levels of sexual activity.' 19 Sexual feelings and behaviour patterns appear to depend on a much wider variety of factors than hormones alone.
My own earliest recollection of orgasm dates from age ten. No sooner had I made the discovery of how nice masturbation was than I was completely hooked on doing it at least once a day and it would probably have been a good deal more than that if I hadn't felt wretchedly guilty about it, to the extent of burning my fingers with matches to create a diversionary sensation from that of my demanding penis. The important thing is not whether this level or that level of sexual activity is 'obsessional' or 'unhealthy', but that a compulsive inclination towards orgasm made itself felt in me fully three years before any signs of puberty before either the capacity to ejaculate fluid, or the appearance of pubic hairs. In at least a proportion of children this gap may be much wider, so that an intense urge towards regular sexual expression may make itself felt many years ahead of puberty.
Kinsey himself was at great pains to point out that humans vary immensely from one individual to another in matters of sex. Compare adults by height or weight, and they are all pretty much the same: at extremes, one person may be twice as heavy as another, or twice as tall. Sexually, they may differ by a factor of hundreds, or even thousands, without necessarily appearing to be any different at all. Amongst males, for instance, Kinsey points out that the average frequency of sexual outlet between adolescence and the age of thirty is three times per week. However,
'There are a few males who have gone for long periods of years without ejaculating: there is one male who, although apparently sound physically, has ejaculated only once in thirty years. There are others who have maintained average frequencies of ten, twenty, or more per week for long periods of time: one male (a scholarly and skilled lawyer) has averaged over thirty per week for thirty years. This is a difference of several thousand times.' 20
With variability of this order being the case, those who do not have memories of a particularly sexual childhood of their own should be wary about generalising this experience (even supposing they have no repressed memories). The fact that a proportion of even quite young children are highly sexed is incontestable and it is now accepted in the medical profession that among them are those whose sexuality is directed towards adults.
This was recognised as early as 1912 by Moll, 21 and in numerous studies since then the phenomenon of the 'seductive child' has been acknowledged, more often dubbed 'the participating victim' of paedophilic so-called 'offences'.
Perhaps the most famous study, even now, is that of 1937 by Bender and Blau, 22 in which the authors stated:
'This study seems to indicate that these children do not deserve completely the cloak of innocence with which they have been endowed by moralists, social reformers and legislators. The history of the relationship in our cases usually suggested at least some co-operation of the child in the activity, and in some cases the child assumed an active role in initiating the relationship.'
Interestingly, Bender and Blau's attitude was highly traditional. They considered it their task to stop children from having an interest in sex. Their hospital 'therapy' was designed deliberately to crush sexual expression and to divert attention to more 'normal' childish interests.
Take the case of Virginia, aged seven:
'On one occasion she was discovered in sex play with a young boy, and she then told that she had had similar experiences in the orphan home. About five months previously, it was discovered that she was making frequent visits to the janitor of the apartment house for sex relations. The relationship included cunnilingualism [sic], mutual masturbation and fellation. During this period her aunt also said that she observed her in sex play with a dog. 23
In hospital she was 'treated' for this strange disease known in common parlance as 'sexiness' or 'randiness'. The authors report:
'At first she discussed her sex experiences freely and shamelessly but' after being taught shame, one gathers 'she later became more reticent and evasive'.
Bender and Blau studied sixteen children, all of them pre-pubescent, eleven of them girls. One of the boys was eleven-year-old Edward:
'At about four years of age he practised mutual masturbation with a girl cousin of the same age.. . . From about six to eight years he lived with a younger male cousin, they bathed and slept together in one room; every night they would play with each other's genitals. At ten years he visited a beach and would undress in the same closet with a female cousin two years younger; on his invitation they repeatedly carried on sex play. . . .
A boy of thirteen taught him paederasty, 24 and later he practised paederasty and fellatio with another boy. He was envious about sex in adults. He watched men undressing at the beach to see their genitals. . .
The most recent experience was with a forty-year-old married salesman who was in the habit of watching the boys at play. One day the man was accidentally struck on the thigh and lowered his trousers to examine the injury; the boy expressed an interest in his genitals and the man invited him to sex play. . . mutual masturbation, fellation and intercourse intrafemoris were practised.' 25
They met again and repeated the experience.
Bender and Blau comment:
'This eleven-year-old boy of average intelligence had a frankly hedonistic attitude towards sex. His sexual activities were both homosexual and heterosexual and date back to early childhood. It is not possible to say what early influences may have directed his interests. There is no doubt that the boy was the seducer of the adult in this case.'
A number of factors dispose Bender and Blau and others to think of the sexuality of children as pathological. Chief among them is the cultural factor that children in our society are not expected to have sexual relationships, certainly not with adults, and that any expression of such 'symptoms' is a sufficient indicator that they need 'treatment'.
The social work and medical professions are sustained in this view by the fact that many of the 'participating victim' children they find out about are indeed disturbed psychologically (often before any sex with an adult) and come from home backgrounds which exhibit many clearly unsatisfactory aspects. It will not have escaped attention for instance, that Virginia, described above, was from an orphan home, and she had in fact been for some time with foster parents who were said to be 'unstable' the mother was rigidly puritanical about sex, and the father given to chronic alcoholism.
Weiss et al., 26 in a 1955 study of girl 'participating victims', found a common factor in their family background in that there often appeared to be a conflict between the parents on their attitude to sex. One parent characteristically always enjoined modesty, and made sure of being fully clothed in the presence of the child, while the other encouraged the child to take a more relaxed view of the body. Weiss believed that this inconsistency stimulated the child to 'act out' sexually with an adult:
'The parents stimulated their children sexually in various ways. In some cases the mother warned her daughter from an early age to avoid men because of the sexual consequences, and in so doing made the child aware of the possibility of sexual relationships with adult men; the mother's warnings were at the same time prohibiting and stimulating to the child.
Several mothers directly encouraged their daughters to be "sexy", as for example the mother who repeatedly had her six-year-old do a strip-tease act for company. In some cases, the child's father was very seductive with her and stimulated her physically by kissing, fondling and wrestling. A number of participant victims were stimulated sexually by having the opportunity to watch their parents having sexual intercourse.'
In many of the sexually freer cultures described earlier children were allowed to watch their parents' intercourse, or were masturbated by their parents, without any discernible adverse effects in terms of creating anxiety or emotional disturbance. However, it is totally understandable in a culture like ours, in which the prevailing mores against child-adult sex are so strong, that the breakdown of those mores should often take place in the context of a general breakdown of accepted family standards in the context of conflicts between the parents going far beyond those over sex, and a context in which the entire competence of the parents in creating a secure, loving home for the child is in doubt.
But it is inexcusable to leap, as some researchers have done, from an analysis of the conflicts in a child's background to the presumption that the child's sexual expression is in itself undesirable. It may well be, as some researchers have found, that a child will find with an adult sexual partner exactly that love, affection and security which had been lacking at home. One should also add that children who come to the attention of psychiatrists account for only a proportion of those who have sex with adults a very tiny proportion at that. Others, with more satisfactory home backgrounds, are far more likely to have undetected relationships.
My purpose in this chapter is simply to establish that children do behave in a sexual way, sometimes with adults, when circumstances favour it. These circumstances may in general terms be good, bad or indifferent, but they do not alter the underlying fact that once the social barriers are down, for whatever reason, at least a proportion of children enjoy sex with adults and seek it out. Some of the 'participating victim' research obscures this fact by seeking to explain the child's sexual behaviour totally in terms of their psychological reaction to stresses in the family. Thus Weiss writes about one child's motives entirely in terms of domestic power politics:
'She must have known that her father's permissiveness was not meant to lead her to actual sexual activity, so that her behaviour [i.e. sexual behaviour with an adult) was a kind of spiteful obedience to him. Also, she may have been aware that her behaviour would prove her mother right in the parental disagreement [she being non-permissive] and thus, in a sense, please her mother. She realised that her father would blame himself rather than her for this sexual activity, and that her mother, too, would blame him. Thus, in her sexual behaviour, the child expressed defiance toward each parent and ingratiated herself with each.' 27
Speculative insights into the child's mind, such as this, may or may not have some truth in them. But it is highly significant that not a word is said in all this as to the possibility that the child, having discovered sexual pleasure, may, in addition to any 'political' factors involved, have wanted sex simply for its own sake, because she enjoyed it! Not a word is said about the quality of her relationship with the adult, either in a sexual or a general sense. Nor, amazingly, is it thought to be a subject on which her views should be elicited. Instead, all the thinking, all the questioning, is concentrated with a sort of Freudian myopia solely on the child's relationship with its parents. One wonders what 'political' motives Weiss would have come up with to explain Virginia's sex play with a dog, without twigging the simple possibility that it turned her on!
Children, as Freud observed, are 'polymorphously perverse', 28 particularly when they are too young to have assimilated the restrictive sexual mores imposed upon them by their parents (the castrating super-ego) and by society at large or if; as is the case with many children in the 'participant victim' studies, their introduction to such mores has been flawed. That is why no one should be surprised by the Kinsey finding that children's sexual contacts with animals are higher than those in adolescence or at any subsequent age. Nor should they be surprised at children being attracted to mature animals of their own species, or homosexual contacts with their peers.
What is in greater doubt, and may make many people still hesitate about accepting that most children are 'really' sexual, is the proportion of children who are so highly sexed that they appear to need a continuous sexual outlet, either in masturbation or socio-sexually. It may be speculated, for instance, that a certain amount of the sexual behaviour described by Johnston and Deisher, or by Malinowski, is merely imitative of parental behaviour, or else exploratory in nature. I described earlier the compulsive nature of my own pre-adolescent sexuality, but was I simply one of a tiny percentage of freakishly sexual children? Could the same be said of the Bender and Blau, or the Weiss children?
Lindy Burton 29 and others have even considered the possibility that children with a strong sexual disposition might be suffering from brain damage:
'Certain children may indeed have stronger urges and a greater inability to control them. . . . Several studies have noted the restlessness, hyperactivity, and nervous mannerisms of sexually assaulted children, suggestive of a degree of neural impairment. The findings of this study would not contradict this. As a group these children displayed several minor nervous characteristics, and their inordinate craving for affection might well reflect an excessive need for stimulation caused by some form of minimal brain damage.'
Alternatively, the restlessness and hyperactivity in highly sexed children may well be attributable to the sheer sexual frustration they encounter when psychiatrists and others try to deprive them of sexual outlets.
It has become fashionable recently to reject altogether the idea of a 'drive' theory of sex. Unlike Freud, who conceived of sexuality as a restless energy within us, a great beast constantly struggling to be let out, which has to be tamed and disciplined so that we can behave as 'civilised' people (and unlike Reich, who believed that the attempt to repress the irrepressible makes neurotics and sexual cripples of us all), there are now sociologists who claim that sex only assumes importance to us as individuals because of the importance accorded to it, for whatever reason, by society.
There may be something in this, up to a point. In Western society, more women are now 'learning' to be sexual: their first experience of orgasm often follows socio-sexual activity, whereas before this activity commences, and it can be quite late in life, there appears to have been no 'drive' sufficiently strong to compulsively push them toward seeking orgasm, either alone or with a partner. The same may be true of some children, who, once introduced by an adult, or other child, to their potential for orgasm, 'learn' to be sexual. Everyone, adult and child, so the argument goes, has from birth all the necessary mental wiring and bodily plumbing for sex to take place but it needs a social, not a biological, stimulus to get it going and to accord it significance.
The theory becomes overstated, however, if it is claimed that no sexuality is compulsive. The evidence, at least in relation to males, is overwhelmingly that at some point, which is usually associated with puberty but is often well in advance of that stage, the attainment of orgasm (sometimes involuntarily, in 'wet dreams') is all but universal and, what is more, the urge is felt so powerfully that no amount of social deterrence can contain it. Some adherents of the 'no drive' theory suggest that one only conceives of sexual feelings as 'powerful' because of the guilt which surrounds them in our society. Guilt itself; they say, is an element which makes sex exciting. Some people doubtless find it so, but for my own part, as a schoolboy, I recall sexual guilt as a matter of utter misery, not of excitement.
It has already been copiously established above that children are capable of sexual activity at all ages. It is also reasonably certain that a large percentage of boys, if not girls, become sexually active well before puberty, even in societies where this is severely discouraged. A study published in 1943 by G.V. Ramsey, 30 an associate of Kinsey, was based on interviews with 291 boys, mostly white, middle-class Protestants, in the American Mid-West. Five per cent of Ramsey's boys reported masturbation by age five. The figure rose to over 20 per cent by age nine, 60 per cent by eleven and 80 per cent by thirteen. 31
The figures do not tell us how much of this masturbation was merely occasional and of only peripheral interest to each boy, or how much was part of an habitual and compulsive pattern of behaviour. But bearing in mind that they were growing up in a culture in which a massive degree of shame attached to masturbation, it would seem reasonable to infer that many of these boys must have felt a great urge to masturbate, a compelling temptation, in order to do it at all. That a majority should have done so by the pre-pubertal (for nearly all boys) age of eleven, despite every attempt to deter them, is in my view testimony to the fact that many pre-pubertal boys have a high level of libido. 32
The study of sex offenders by Gebhard et al. acknowledged the strong sexual inclinations of boys in the 12-15 age group, a group which could be expected to include, at the lower end, a high proportion who had not reached puberty. The study said that these boys exhibit 'an intensity of response matching or frequently surpassing that of an adult. This fact is well known to many homosexual adults who are thereby subjected to temptation that the heterosexual adult is largely spared. 33 If twelve- to fifteen-year-old girls had as developed libidos as boys of the same age, our penal institutions would burst at the seams.' 34
The development of sexual behaviour in girls, like that of grown women, appears to be far more susceptible to cultural factors than that of boys. Women, as remarked earlier, can much more easily than men go through the whole of their life without discovering their capacity for orgasm; but once having discovered that capacity, and enjoyed it, a psychological basis is established for wanting to continue the pleasure.
Just as this happens to a proportion of women, in their marital and other relationships, so it also happens to some girls before puberty. A small proportion, in our society, of course: but there is evidence, in the 'victim' studies, that of those who become involved in sex with adults, a substantial proportion play an active, positive role, even though most of the studies are based on cases brought before the courts, and are heavily biased towards including a high proportion of genuine child molestation as opposed to consensual child-adult sexual activity.
The participation of the child is not always entirely attributable to a strong sex drive on its part, but it is nonetheless interesting that Schultz, collating the results of various research, was able to point out:
'In past sexual research, young female victims were described as having a "collaborative" role in the offence in 7.8 per cent of 330 offences (Gagnon), as "non-objecting" in 40 per cent of 1,994 offences (Radzinowicz), as "encouraging" to the offender in from 66 per cent to 95 per cent of all sex offences (Gebhard), as fully "participating" in 60 per cent of 73 cases (Weiss) and as "seducers" in 21 per cent of 185 offences (Glueck).' 35
Unfortunately some of these studies do not separate out younger children from older ones. The Gebhard one does, and there is also a breakdown by sex: his study considered 'children' of either sex, under twelve, and 'minors' aged 12-15. Offences which involved physical aggression by the adult, and cases of incest, were considered separately. The offenders concerned were all male.
Regarding children under twelve, Gebhard found that 'according to record', 16.4 per cent of girls had encouraged the offender, and a further 8.2 per cent had been passive. 'According to offender', 48.4 per cent had been encouraging and 36.9 per cent passive. Among boys under twelve, according to the record, no less than 52.3 per cent had been encouraging, with 6.8 per cent passive. According to offender, these figures were 60.5 and 26.3 per cent respectively.
I realise that, where girls are concerned, there are those who will think it far more significant that, according to the record, 83.6 percent (100 per cent less 16.4 per cent) had not encouraged the offender, i.e. they were molested. I can only emphasize that it is not my intention to pretend that child molestation does not exist, nor to suggest that it is an unimportant problem: I simply want to establish that molestation does not account for all child-adult sexual relations even when the child is quite young and even when the study in question has an inbuilt methodological bias towards producing figures which make the proportion of molestations look artificially high.
The figures for 'encouragement' rise enormously in relation to minors of both sexes aged 12-15. According to record, 86 per cent of girls were encouraging, and 0.9 per cent passive; for boys the figures were 70.3 per cent and 11.0 per cent. The figures according to offender were of course higher still, at 89.5 per cent encouraging and 3.5 per cent passive for girls, and at 82.8 encouraging and 9.3 passive for boys.
While it appears that there is a distinction to be made between the levels of participation of younger compared with older children, it is also clear that the extent of participation by younger children, even according to 'the record' which may be just as biased as what the offender has to say is not minimal or insignificant.
A judge, who has made a special study of the subject, has said as much. Judge David Reifen, of Tel Aviv, has said that
'. . . sexual play, at pre-puberty and puberty age, particularly if not involving genuine sexual intercourse, is a source of attraction and satisfaction to many. For these reasons child victims of sexual offences often continue to participate and influence their friends to do likewise.' 36
Even a Home Office research report has recently given an important measure of official recognition to the fact that children over ten (this being the age of criminal responsibility: no attempt was made to assess consent in younger children) can and do consent in sexual acts with adults. The report refers to child 'partners' in such sexual acts, rather than 'victims'. 37
In the latter part of this chapter I have had a lot to say not just about the fact that children can respond sexually, but also on the question of whether many of them feel strong sexual inclinations, especially towards adults. There are those for whom this question will be of overriding importance. They will suggest that if it cannot be shown that most young children have a burning and frustrated desire for sex with an adult, then there is no point in liberating children in order to make it a possibility. They would rather maintain the present emphasis in social and legal policy on 'protecting' children from the sometimes unwanted attentions of adults who undoubtedly have burning and often frustrated inclinations towards them.
What I hope I have shown is that children of all ages are capable of orgasm, and that in sexually free cultures they express themselves sexually. Some young children, a substantial minority of those involved in discovered sex offences against them (indeed, a majority in some categories), encourage the adult in question, despite the taboo nature of the act. While I agree that children who do not want to be involved should not be pressured into sex, I see no reason why their freedom to be uninvolved should not quite happily co-exist with the sexual liberation of others.
There are many aspects to the sexual freedom of children, including the freedom of access to their own bodies in masturbation, freedom to engage in sex with their peers, and freedom to have sex with adults. These freedoms are to a great extent bound up with each other. The kind of society which has a total taboo on child-adult sex is also likely to be anti-sexual in other ways, particularly in frowning on children's sexuality. Children's impressions of sexual prohibition in their early upbringing have a profound effect on their attitudes, and in my judgement the effect is a negative one for all children, not just for those who happen to be highly interested in sex with adults. Later chapters expand on this idea. First, however, it is necessary to examine some of the prevailing conceptions of what child-adult sex is all about, in particular the supposed dichotomy between two opposed parties between 'the molester' and his 'victim'.
Chapter 1 : Home : Chapter 3