Is There Sex Before Adolescence?
The scene is an Oprah Winfrey talk show and the topic is
"Dial-a-Porn." Parents are talking about how their
children have called Dial-a-Porn phone numbers and heard
explicit sex talk. Repeatedly these parents emphasize the
point that the "innocence" of their children was
taken away forever by being exposed to such phone
conversations. The audience is horrified by their stories and
disgusted that things like this can happen. Oprah sums up the
feelings being expressed:
Once you are exposed to sex - you're never able to regain
innocence again - from then on you have sexual thoughts - you
have sexual feelings - innocence is forever gone. It
encourages sexual curiosity that would not have been there. [*1]
[Senator Gore and his wife]
A similar kind of alarm concerning the loss of "sexual
innocence" has also recently been voiced by Tipper Gore,
wife of Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee, a 1988 Democratic
Tipper Gore bought Prince's Purple
Rain record for her eleven-year-old daughter. When she
played it, she, like Oprah, was shocked by what her daughter
was hearing. In Tipper Gore's case the greatest shock came
when she heard the lyrics to the song "Darling
Nikki," which describe a woman masturbating with a
magazine. Tipper, like Oprah, bemoaned the "loss of
childhood sexual innocence" that such songs bring about.
If you don't try to shield them from ... all this explicit
kind of stuff until they're ready to handle it, then you're
robbing them of their innocence, their one time in life to be
somewhat carefree. [*2]
Tipper reacted by proposing that legislation be passed
requiring recordings of rock music to be rated like movies, so
parents would be able to better control what their children
heard. She founded the organization Parents' Music Resource
Center (PMRC) to help accomplish this purpose.
together with others like Susan Baker, wife of current
Secretary of State James Baker, Tipper persuaded her husband,
Senator Albert Gore, to conduct hearings in the United States
Senate on rock music. Some record companies were frightened
that they might lose sales and offered voluntarily to put
warning labels on recordings with explicit sexual lyrics.
of the musicians strongly resented this impediment to the free
flow of music. Performers as far apart as John Denver, Frank
Zappa, and Dee Snider argued against enacting such restrictive
legislation. Fortunately for our First Amendment rights, and
the diversity and quality of our music, no "innocence
protection" legislation was passed. But the attempt has
intimidated record companies and labels, or "Tipper
Stickers" as they are called, are now being
"voluntarily" placed on many records.
Tipper Gore's reaction to "Darling Nikki"
illustrates our fear of sexuality, our view of sex as dangerous, and especially our apprehension of what might be
released if children "who weren't ready" were
exposed to explicit forms of "it."
Let's look at
We can't stop our children from finding
out about types of sexuality that we don't like. But if we
openly and honestly discuss sex with our children, we can help
make them responsible and caring in their own sexual choices
regardless of what today's world exposes them to.
if a mother discovers her son listening to a record she
doesn't like, that is a perfect opportunity for mother and son
to sit down and talk about why she objects. She could suggest
other music for her son. Wouldn't that contribute more to that
child's development of a responsible approach to sexuality
than blindly following some committee's judgment about what
record deserves a stigmatized label?
I wonder if it isn't Tipper who is not ready to handle
"this explicit kind of stuff," rather than her
daughter. Comments like those of Tipper Gore and Oprah Winfrey
assume that children really are innocent of sexual pleasures
and desires unless they are exposed to sexual ideas by hearing
phone messages or recordings of rock music. [*3]
As I will shortly discuss, we know that infants masturbate and
children of all ages explore each other's genitalia. So sex in
children is far from dormant even if one doesn't experience
Dial-a-Porn or hear "Darling Nikki."
People like Oprah and Tipper seem to mean by "sexual
innocence" the absence of sexual thoughts, genital
responses, and the awareness of how one is sexually aroused. A
lot of parents would probably feel more relaxed if childhood
did not have any sexual component and if sexuality magically
appeared at puberty or better yet at marriage. Many parents
have mixed feelings about their own sexuality and any
recognition of sexuality in their children may arouse their
own unresolved anxieties.
But let's be honest about preadolescent sexuality
| - were
you "sexually innocent" prior to reaching puberty? |
Is that an accurate view of your preadolescent
| When you were a child wouldn't you have preferred
learning more about the meaning of your sexual development
rather than being blocked from such clarification by parents
who were trying to keep you "innocent"?|
We still don't want to believe what Sigmund Freud said
eighty-five years ago when he shocked Vienna and most of the
Western world by asserting the reality of childhood sexuality.
Here is what he wrote back in 1905:
Popular conception makes definite assumptions concerning
the nature and qualities of this sexual impulse. It is
supposed to be absent during childhood and to commence about
the time of and in connection with the maturing process of
puberty; it is supposed that it manifests itself in
irresistible attractions exerted by one sex upon the other and
that its aim is sexual union or at least such actions as would
lead to union. But we have every reason to see in these
assumptions a very untrustworthy picture of reality. On closer
examination they are found to abound in errors, inaccuracies,
and hasty conclusions. [*4]
Almost all of the research of the twentieth century
supported Freud's assertion that children were sexual
Alfred Kinsey, almost a half century after Freud,
shocked this country with his own revelation of sexual
responses involving erection and lubrication not only in
preadolescent children but even in newborn infants!
What seem to be sexual responses have been observed in
infants immediately at birth, and specifically sexual
responses, involving the full display of physiologic changes
which are typical of the responses of an adult, have been
observed in both female and male infants as young as four
months of age. . . .
Masturbation (self-stimulation) is an
essentially normal and quite frequent phenomenon among many
children, both female and male [and] is not infrequently the
source of orgasm among small girls. . . .
We have . . .
records of observations made . . . on . . . pre-adolescent
girls and pre-adolescent boys under four years of age. . . .
Of the females in our sample, 27% recalled that they had been
aroused erotically before the age of adolescence . . . 48% of
the adult females in the sample had recalled some sort of
pre-adolescent sex play. [*5]
More recent reports by social scientists, like Boston
therapist Larry Constantine and Gustavus Adolphus College
sociologist Floyd Martinson, support and elaborate upon these
earlier reports. [*6]
Children's preadolescent sex play occurs both with the same
gender and with the opposite gender. Actually, somewhat more
of it involves sexual exploration with someone of the same
gender. The vast majority of such play involves simply
exhibiting one's own genitalia and/or touching the genitalia
of the other child.
Such preadolescent sex play is even more
common among boys: 70 percent of the preadolescent boys in
Kinsey's sample reported having such experiences. [*7]
Many of us seem to have forgotten our own preadolescence. Do
we really need to be reminded that "doctor" is not
just a role played in hospitals by M.D.s?
[Mothers speak out]
Around 1980 a study was undertaken by a group of five women
educators and researchers who formed the "Study Group of
New York." They asked 225 parents of children three to
eleven years of age how they handled sexuality in their
children. One of the topics explored was masturbation. A
mother of a six-year-old boy commented:
Oh, yes, he masturbates. He walks around with his little
hand on his penis for hours. It started when he was a baby,
I would say every night, going to sleep holding his penis.
Here is a response of a mother of a ten-year-old girl:
She feels very comfortable with her body. She can be
sitting in the living room watching television and stroking
her legs almost up to the vaginal area. I think mainly she
does it in bed. It relaxes her to sleep. ... So I definitely
think that she masturbates. [*9]
Not all parents were so tolerant. Some wanted masturbation
to be more of a private matter. There were also parents in
this study who clearly did not approve of masturbation by
their small children, whether done privately or publicly. One
As a Christian, I see that it's not a normal thing,
because your body is not only something for pleasure. It
belongs to God, and when you're married you enjoy that part
with your husband. [*10]
But those parents who accepted masturbation still exhibited
some obvious anxieties about sexuality - for when they did
discuss sex with their children, they most often failed even
to mention the pleasurable aspect of sexual experiences.
wanted their children to emphasize relationships and
affection, and so they hesitated to mention pleasure too
prominently. Since intensity of bodily pleasure is the aspect
of sexuality that most clearly distinguishes it from other
activities, this hesitancy surely defeats any realistic
preparation for sexual behavior. Children experiencing these
bodily pleasures must wonder why their parents don't seem to
understand what they are feeling!
The belief in sexual innocence is even harder to accept
when one looks at older preadolescents. In the late 1970s
University of Minnesota sociologist Gary Fine studied Little
League Baseball players. These were mostly white, middle class
youngsters, eleven and twelve years old. Fine didn't believe
that much sexual behavior beyond kissing and "above the
waist" petting was occurring, but sex was a constant
topic of conversation among these preadolescent boys. Here are
some excerpts from Fine's study:
I asked a group of boys what they did when they went out
with girls. One twelve-year-old said:
"Make out. Squeeze their tits." . . . One of
Harry's friends says that Harry and his girlfriend sit in
the back of the movies and give each other
"mouth-to-mouth resuscitation." [*11]
This sampling of evidence should make it clear that there
is no period when there is an absence of sexual activity by
Nevertheless, child sexuality is not the same as adult
sexuality because children lack the full set of social scripts
about how sexual relationships should be carried out. But
children do explore their own and other children's bodies,
they do have pleasurable genital responses, and they learn
what turns them on sexually. Clearly the way parents and
others react to childhood sexual behavior will have an
important impact on the child's adolescent sexual development.
For parents not to face the reality of child sexual
explorations is to forego a major opportunity for a positive
input into shaping their child's future sexuality. The very
acts of denying child sexuality, trying to limit it, and not
discussing sex give the child the clear message that sexuality
has something taboo and negative associated with it.
is the perfect time for parents to give their children permission
to explore sexuality, to give them a positive view
about it, to open up a dialogue, and to help prepare them for
establishing their future sexual relationships. One parent I
spoke to made this point quite vividly. He told me that his
father saw him playing with his penis and yelled at him:
"Get your hand off of that!"
He promised himself he would be different and when he
noticed his four-year-old son playing with his penis, he
responded by saying:
"I do that sometimes myself and it
does feel good. But it's kind of a private feeling and best to
do when you're alone."
Childhood sexual exploration should not be seen as a step
toward sexual obsession
As all parents know, children have a
limited concentration span in almost all of their activities.
Talking about sex can easily get boring to a child if too much
time is taken from other interesting activities.
professional work involves studying sexuality, I have
frequently talked about sex with my three children, and I can
testify that they showed no obsession with it. They would
often say to me:
"Okay Dad, let's talk about this later.
I'm going out to play now."
Sex is just another activity
that children are learning about and seldom does it become a
key focus of a child's life.
Finally, although I am surely not
saying we should encourage sexual intercourse for
preadolescents, it is important to note that their exploration
of one another's genitalia is quite safe from the point of
view of disease and pregnancy - a lot safer than during the
Adult anxiety about childhood sexuality is thus not based
upon any rational appraisal of what is happening in their
child's life. Rather, because parents see sex as dangerous and
threatening, they conclude that kids should be kept away from
Of course, parents can have a realistic fear that other
adults may take advantage of their child's lack of knowledge
about sex and may sexually exploit the child. But if that is
your concern, it follows that you should talk more about
sex with your child rather than promoting ignorance by acting
as if childhood sexuality is a disruption of some
"natural state of sexual innocence." I will delve
into this important point later in this chapter.
Parental Hang-ups About Sex
Even parents who accept a more modern view of sexuality are
sometimes reluctant to prepare their child for sexuality. For
example, the typical response I receive from modern,
liberal parents is:
"I am open about sexuality with
my children and I will always try to answer any question at
all that they raise about sexuality."
Consider whether we would wait for questions to be raised
in any other area of great importance to our children? We
don't wait for children to ask before teaching them how to tie
their shoes, or how to add, or why not to play in the street.
How well would children know how to read if we waited for them
to ask us before we taught them how to read? We think these
are things they should know and we make sure they know them, whether
they ask about them or not.
There are a number of reasons that childhood sexuality is
so difficult for many parents to deal with. One reason is that
if children's lives are viewed as having a sexual dimension,
then we must face the reality that children will act on those
feelings and masturbate or play childhood sexual games
exploring one another's genitalia. To acknowledge the reality
of childhood sexuality means that we must face up to the
unresolved conflicts we feel about managing and experiencing
For example, some married people feel guilty about
masturbating. Maybe when we were kids our parents disciplined
us for exploring our playmates' or our own bodies and that may
still be an upsetting issue. Perhaps also we don't want our
kids to be aware that we are doing some of the same things
How can we deal with a preadolescent's openly
pleasure-centered type of sexuality when we are not at ease
with openly discussing the pleasure dimension of our own
sexuality? Facing up to the reality of the pursuit of sexual
pleasure by our children may well challenge us to examine our
own ambivalent views about sexual pleasure. What better escape
than to tell ourselves that children benefit by being kept as
"sexually innocent" as possible?
[The myth of
childhood sexual innocence]
These are just a few of the reasons that the myth of
childhood sexual innocence has a strong emotional appeal,
which makes many of us want to believe in it despite the fact
that Freud, Kinsey, Constantine, Martinson, and all other
researchers say this belief is false and potentially harmful.
Like so many mythical beliefs, this one earns its way by
easing our personal anxieties.
Miriam Feldman, a Minneapolis medical writer who writes
about AIDS, is a perfect illustration of the point about
parents I am making. As the mother of a seven-year-old girl,
she talks of the
"little things that set off the alarms
in my mind."
She illustrates her feelings by noting how
she responded when her daughter recently picked up an AIDS
pamphlet with a picture of a condom:
I snapped it out of her hands the moment I realized what it
was. Then I thought, "What happens when I am not there to
edit the world for her?" . . .
How much does she really
need to know about AIDS? . . .
Now I worry that I may have to
explain more than the rudiments . . .
I'm not advocating a
return to the days when sex was something unspoken or
whispered. Yet I wish I could shield my daughter a bit longer
from the realities that we must face because of AIDS. I wish
she could share some of our innocence. There was an aura of
mystery to sex then ... as long as she is missing teeth and
wishing for dolls - and for some time after that - I will try
to edit the world for her. [*13]
If this is the reaction of a medical writer who is well
educated about sex, imagine the response of millions of
parents who are not so well educated.
We literally seem to
walk in fear that our children will learn about sex. The myth
of childhood sexual innocence is a refuge sought by many
parents. It comforts some to believe that if children wish for
dolls or building blocks, they can't be sexual. Children know
this isn't so. Isn't it time for grownups to become more aware
of what their children already know?
What Non-industrial Societies Do
|But how different are American parents from parents in
other societies? |
| Are there any societies that do acknowledge
childhood sexuality and actually accept it openly, or even
encourage it? |
First well look at the sexual customs in some non-industrial societies and then turn to some comparable
modern industrial societies.
Many non-industrial societies accept children having sexual
intercourse as early as ages seven to ten.
One of the most
famous examples of this was reported over sixty years ago by
the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. [*14]
During the first World War Malinowski found himself as an
alien in England and persuaded the British to drop him off at
the Trobriand Islands in the Southwestern Pacific Ocean for
the duration of the war. It was a stroke of luck for him. He
spent four years there and established himself as an expert on
Trobriand culture for the rest of his long career. In his
accounts of Trobriand life, he noted that between the ages of
eight and eleven most boys and girls started having sexual
intercourse with one another. As long as these boys and girls
avoided their brothers and sisters, this behavior was
perfectly acceptable to the adults in that society.
In Mangaia, near the Cook Islands in the South Pacific,
preadolescent masturbation is openly acknowledged. Children
also privately play at copulation. Just prior to puberty at
about ages twelve or thirteen training for sexual intercourse
In this society it is customary for an older male to
circumcise a young boy and then to give him the first
instructions regarding intercourse. The young boy is further
trained in the art of coitus by an appropriately related
kinswoman or some other older experienced female. The boy is
taught how to hold back his orgasm until the girl has had two
or three orgasms of her own. An adult woman instructs the girl
about sexual intercourse and teaches her how to achieve
multiple orgasms. [*15]
|What about childhood homosexual behavior? |
| Is that too seen
as acceptable in some societies? |
In the highlands of New Guinea, north of Australia, there is a tribe called the
Gilbert Herdt, an American anthropologist lived with the
Sambia from 1974 to 1976 and described their childhood male
In this society, childhood heterosexual
play is strictly forbidden. In this sense, they are quite
Victorian. However, what they substitute is anything but
At about age seven or eight, each boy joins an all
male group of older teenage boys. The pre-adolescent boys are
taught that they should fellate the older teenage boys. The
practice is supported by the belief that only by swallowing
sperm can a young male develop his own sperm. In short then,
this homoeroticism is viewed as
"the royal road to Sambia
Without it fatherhood is thought not to be
possible. When the young man gets married, in almost all
cases, this same-gender behavior ceases. Gilbert Herdt
estimates that over 95 percent of Sambian men are exclusively
heterosexual after marriage.
Interestingly, homoerotic sexual behavior that to us would
be taken as a certain sign of homosexuality is seen as an
essential part of heterosexual socialization in this
culture. Childhood sexuality too is accepted as normal as long
as it is not heterosexual.
Americans who wish to
prevent heterosexual childhood behavior would never consider
the Sambia method of substituting homo-erotic behavior even
though it is much more effective than our Victorian measures.
In any case, it is clear that the notion of a period of
childhood sexual innocence would be seen as quite ridiculous
to the Sambians as well as to the other cultures that I have
There are no reports of children becoming
"addicted" to their sexual behavior in Sambia or in
any of the other cultures that I have read about. [*17]
Childhood is often seen as a time for sexual pleasure as well
as a time for many other sources of pleasure. In fact, in a
number of societies the name for the period of childhood and
early adolescence means "the time for pleasure."
Contrast that with our approach to childhood sexuality and you
will see who is running scared from childhood sexual
The point I am making is not that we in America
should copy any of these other cultures, but rather that other
societies do prepare their children for their future sexual
lives in much more direct ways than anyone in our society even
proposes. Preparation of some sort is essential.
leave their teens about 80 percent of American youngsters will
have had sexual intercourse. Our failure to take advantage of
pre-adolescence to prepare our children for post-adolescent
sexuality is, in my view, a tragic attempt to avoid the erotic
reality of our society. The disastrous consequences of this in
terms of early teenage pregnancy will be commented upon in the
It is important to realize, however, that pre-adolescent
sexual exploration is not given a carte blanche in any society
- it is always limited in some way, even in the societies I
have mentioned above. But permission is given in all those
societies to engage in acts that will prepare children for
In America we still avoid preparing our
children for the reality of sexuality in today's complex
society. Pluralism asks parents to grant permission to their
children for sexual exploration involving masturbation and
examining genitalia and to use those occasions to discuss the
meaning of sexuality with them.
Most parents" do not do a
good job at this and, as I shall discuss in the next chapter,
that builds the foundation for a myriad of very serious sexual
problems in the teenage years. If we were really as sexually
open and honest as we think we are, we could never be this
inhibited with our children.
What Other Industrial Societies Do
I imagine many of you are thinking that these non-industrial
societies are so exotic that it is hard to see their relevance
for our society; it would be more relevant to know how the
sexual upbringing of American pre-adolescents compares with
that of pre-adolescents in other developed countries.
the very few studies that makes this comparison examined
children's sexual thinking in four modern countries. The
research was carried out about ten years ago by two
Australians - Ronald Goldman, a psychologist, and his wife
Juliette Goldman, a sociologist. The Goldmans compared the
thinking of Australian children about sex to that of children
in North America (United States plus Ontario, Canada),
England, and Sweden, using a total sample of 838 children ages
five to fifteen. [*18]
Many of the children's responses were quite revealing of the
sexual attitudes in their societies.
For example, only half
the American children, compared to almost 90 percent of the
Swedish children, were aware that sex was pursued for reasons
other than reproduction. This means that Swedish children were
much more likely to know that pleasure and enjoyment was a
major reason for having sexual relationships.
For example, at
age nine, 60 percent of the Swedish children, compared to only
4 percent of the North American children, listed enjoyment as
a purpose of sexual intercourse. The Goldmans comment:
There is a clear progression with age of those who see the
function of coitus to be enjoyment. More Swedish children
express this earlier at 9 years, compared with the majority of
the English-speaking 13 year olds who do not achieve this view
until that age. [*19]
It is also important to note that Swedish children do not
run out and have sexual intercourse at age nine just because
they know about the pleasurable aspects of sexual intercourse.
In fact, as I will discuss in the next chapter, teenage sexual
behavior in Sweden is far more responsible and
problem-free than in our own country.
Swedish children knew about contraception earlier than
children in the other societies studied by the Goldmans.
Swedish children also had the lowest scores when boys and
girls were measured for "aversion" to each other.
addition, they were the best informed concerning the origin of
babies. This was so even though in all countries every child
in the sample had a younger sibling, and so had a chance to
learn about birth. Despite this, many of the five to
seven-year-old children, particularly in America, thought
babies came out of their mother's anuses. An inch or two off
can make a world of difference in their understanding of
It was most informative to find that children in all
cultures, but especially in America, felt that their parents
were hung up about sexuality. The Goldmans put it this way:
One fact is abundantly clear. Children perceive it is the
adults who have hang-ups about sex, and adults who
deliberately or unconsciously withhold the information and
knowledge the children seek. [*20]
Perhaps the most critical finding of all was that American
children had the least and the longest delayed sex education
of the four cultures. Our children also had the least adequate
vocabulary with which to talk about sex. Without an adequate
vocabulary, clear thinking is impossible.
Imagine trying to
talk intelligently about driving a car without a vocabulary of
terms that have clear, shared meanings like gas pedal, brakes,
steering wheel, and car keys. What if we called the gas pedal
"it" and the brakes "that thing"? When we
needed to stop, we would say: "Get your foot away from
'it' and put it on 'that thing'! " We'd have a lot of
accidents that way and there would be even more reckless
That is very often the way we talk about sex with young
children, and to them it sounds as if we're talking about a
part of life that is not very nice and whose existence we'd
rather not openly discuss, unless some problem forces us to.
It is precisely these restrictive sex attitudes that breed an
abundance of future sexual "accidents" for ourselves
and our children.
Our notions that children "aren't ready" to
discuss this or that aspect of sex seems largely based on the
fact that many adults aren't ready to talk with kids about
sex. Swedish children demonstrate that kids at early ages can
comprehend complex notions about many aspects of sexuality.
Our unwillingness or inability to be honest with our children
about sex and to prepare them realistically for the sexual
world in which they will live has produced more harm than any
of our words ever could.
To illustrate the harmful
consequences of our attitudes let's examine the sexual abuse
of children to see how our approach to childhood sexuality
contributes to this tragic problem.
What You Don't Know Will Hurt You
Even those professionals who set up preventive sex abuse
programs for our public schools often seem unable to be open
and honest about sexuality with children. Sociologist David
Finkelhor from the University of New Hampshire, a recognized
expert on the study of the sexual abuse of children, has
There has long been a consensus among professionals in the
field that one thing that inhibits children from telling about
abuse is that they do not have a vocabulary or past experience
for discussing sex-related matters. . . .
This avoidance of
explicit sexual content must be patently obvious to the
children. Even in some wonderfully creative prevention
programs, what they are seeing once again is adults using
euphemisms and circumlocutions to talk about sex.
behind the message for some children may be that, in spite of
what adults say, they still do not want to talk in plain terms
about sex. ...
It is possible that when adults talk to
children only about avoiding the coercive forms of sexuality
they leave children with the impression that sex is primarily
It is possible that through some of these
programs children come to feel uncomfortable or guilty about
childhood sex play they may have engaged in.
try to leaven their approach by talking about positive touch,
but almost never do they discuss what might be positive
The fear that public schools would not permit a more
outspoken prevention program is one reason for the sexual
timidity in these abuse prevention programs. Yet Finkelhor and
others are convinced that children cannot be protected from
sexual abuse in a setting where adults are afraid to talk
openly with children about sex. One price of our myth about
the value of childhood sexual innocence does appear to be
increased risk of childhood sexual abuse. This is so because
sexual ignorance offers the weakest protection against sexual
In an ideal program we would discuss
| the feelings involved
in sexual experiences and |
| present an open and honest view of a
wide range of sexual acts like
| masturbation, |
| oral sex, |
sex, and |
| intercourse. |
| Contraception including condoms would be
talked about even though we don't expect many preadolescents
to have intercourse. |
| Condoms, like tampons, are best discussed
prior to their being needed, rather than afterwards. |
discussing sexuality with children we have to take the point
of view of the participant in a sex act.
| What does that person
| What are the pleasures and risks? |
| What are the different
moral views on that act?|
This sort of sophisticated understanding by our children
from the very youngest ages on may not be easy for some adults
to accept, but the alternatives in terms of sexual abuse and
many other sexual problems are horrendous.
In America today we
are dealing with children who are likely to engage in
masturbation and eventually in oral sex and intercourse. We
must keep in mind that we are dealing with sexual creatures
who by the time they enter grade school are quite aware that
their genitalia have some special significance.
Promoting abstinence offers some parents a refuge from
having to face an ongoing open dialogue on sex with their
children. They can simply give their children one answer to
all sexual acts: Just say no! But we must realize that we
cannot prepare our children for the sexual reality they will
face in our society as long as we think abstinence is the only
standard that adult society will openly endorse.
For the great majority of our young people abstinence is an
outmoded standard that they will surely discard. Most parents
today did not themselves abide by an abstinence standard and
they probably expect their children to have intercourse at
some time before marriage.
It is time that we face our
obligation to be honest and realistic with our children about
sexuality and talk with them about our sexual feelings and
thoughts. I am convinced that such an approach to sexuality
would lead to a tremendous increase in our ability to produce
adolescents who are sexually responsible and know how to
control the outcomes of their sexual acts.
We can't arm children against being sexually abused by an
adult by simply preaching abstinence as the only right
standard. We can arm them only by giving them realistic
preparation for future sexual choices and empowering them with
the right to think sexuality through and to say yes or no to
various sexual choices as they get older.
that empowerment would include the ability and the awareness
to object to an adult who is trying to sexually abuse them. I
will spell out exactly how the empowerment of children would
help in the rest of this chapter.
Our Panic Response to The Sexual Abuse of
The major research on sex abuse of children shows the
commonness of all forms of sexual abuse.
The one national
study we have, the 1985 Los Angeles Times National Study,
found that 27 percent of women and 16 percent of men in our
country reported they had experienced some form of childhood
sexual abuse. [*22]
A large proportion of that abuse was perpetrated by people
known to the child, like friends or relatives, and in a
significant minority of cases the father or stepfather was the
Sociologist Diana Russell from Mills College in the San
Francisco Bay area studied sexual abuse of children with
emphasis on father-daughter incest. Russell found that 2
percent of those growing up with a natural father were
sexually abused as were 17 percent of those growing up with a
Sociologist David Finkelhor, the specialist in the area of
child sexual abuse whom I mentioned above, has estimated that
for the country as a whole about 1 percent of women are
sexually abused in some fashion by their fathers. [*24]
The type of abuse varies from fondling to sexual intercourse.
Finkelhor's 1 percent estimate amounts to about one million
American women aged eighteen and over who have been sexually
abused by their fathers! If these estimates are anywhere near
the mark, father-daughter incest is far from a rare
But we don't like to believe that father-daughter incest
occurs with such a high degree of frequency - it makes too
many of us feel like a potential victimizer or victim.
Sigmund Freud came to reject the accounts of his female
patients because he could not believe that father-daughter
incest was as common as he was being told in therapy sessions.
He finally decided that his patients' assertions of incest
were fantasies based on their unconscious desires to have
intercourse with their fathers. (Talk about blaming the
victim!) Out of Freud's inability to accept father-daughter
incest came his notion of the Oedipus and Electra complexes.
Here is how Freud put it:
Almost all of my women patients told me that they had been
seduced by their father. I was driven to recognize in the end
that these reports were untrue and so came to understand that
the hysterical symptoms are derived from fantasies and not
from real occurrences. ...
It was only later that I was able
to recognize in this fantasy of being seduced by the father
the expression of the typical Oedipus complex in women. [*25]
Today there are many who, like Freud, still prefer to deny
the reality of such incest; however, the evidence is
overwhelming. Unfortunately, father- daughter incest is a
reality, not a fantasy.
Our avoidance of facing up to sexual abuse often leads to
hysteria and irrational acts when it becomes clear that it has
The sensational 1984 Scott County,
Minnesota sex abuse case is a good illustration of precisely
Twenty-four adults from the small town of Jordan,
Minnesota were legally charged with molesting children and
most Minnesotans reacted with great emotion. The allegations
contended that there were two interlocking rings of sexual
abusers. Altogether sixty-nine people were suspected as child
molesters and sixty children were thought to be victims.
man, a garbage collector with a history of sexual abuse,
admitted guilt and was sentenced to forty years in the state
prison. Of the other adults charged, one couple went to trial
and was acquitted. Twenty-two other cases were dismissed when
Scott County District Attorney Kathleen Morris dropped all
One of the reasons for dropping the charges was the
constant questioning of die children involved. One
eleven-year-old boy was questioned by therapists, social
workers, and detectives a total of 74 times! For three months
he denied being sexually abused, but then he changed his story
and said he was abused. The media covering the event reported
A psychiatrist who studied the cases said the children have
suffered more because of the investigative techniques used by
authorities than they did by being molested - if any were
sexually abused at all. [*26]
Many of the parents tried to sue Kathleen Morris and Scott
County, but it was ruled that county officials were immune
because they were "just doing their jobs."
Nevertheless, the Minnesota Supreme Court did reprimand Morris
for the way she prosecuted her cases of alleged sexual abuse
of children. [*27]
Children had been separated from their families - at times
for over a year. The aftershocks for children and parents were
Dr. Jonathan Jensen, the Director of the University
of Minnesota's Child Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic, together
with Dr. Barry Garfinkel, wrote a report about the Scott
County experience. They described the atmosphere in Scott
County as that of a witch hunt and charged that the children
involved had been put into conflict with their parents and the
rest of society.
In the Scott County system, the procedure of removing the
child from the home for a long period of time, changing the
child's identity with a new name, separation from siblings,
change of religion, and instructions not to reveal any
identifying information about themselves produced a strong
undermining of the children's personality structure. ... An
entire County organization failed to understand the impact of
these procedures on child development. [*28]
Other types of sexual abuse cases also seem to involve a
great deal of mishandling and emotion.
The widely publicized
McMartin Preschool case in California began in 1983 and
finally in 1990 the not-guilty verdict on fifty-two of the
charges was handed down. The case cost an estimated thirteen
million dollars and a second trial on some remaining charges
led to a mistrial.
The district attorney's office made perhaps
the most serious error in referring the frenzied parents of
children who might have been abused at the McMartin Preschool
to a little known sex abuse center. There 384 children were
interviewed by social workers who were not trained in proper
methods for a criminal investigation. The sex abuse center
reported that they believed that more than 340 of the children
had been sexually abused.
However, these social workers
employed a very leading type of questioning and so it was
unclear whether they had blurred the line between fact and
fancy in the children's minds. After the McMartin not-guilty
verdict, several jury members commented publicly that one of
the main reasons for their verdict was that they had very
little confidence in the results of the interviews of the
children because of the leading method of questioning.
There are other cases where overzealous child protection
workers have led and prompted answers from children and where
there has been carelessness in accusations of abuse. [*29]
We are having these difficulties in part because we haven't
yet developed clear guidelines for child protection workers.
Besides more accurate methods of interviewing children,
everyone involved must be aware that differences in sexual
values may well enter into judgments about whether something
is "sexual abuse."
For example, in a day care center a situation might arise
where during a nap period a girl is privately masturbating
herself to sleep.
| If the day care worker permits such
behavior, is that sexual abuse of children? |
| What should the
day care worker do? |
| Is the day care worker doing enough if she
or he checks with the child's parents to see whether they
accept that behavior in their child? |
| Should the day care
worker just insist that such behavior stop? |
| Should she educate
the children about sexuality and if so, using what guidelines?|
In good measure your answers to such questions will depend
upon whether you believe in the sexual innocence of children
and therefore see sexual acts as destroying a child's
innocence or whether you see sexual displays and explorations
as an expected part of preschool children's lives.
have open discussion groups of parents, child protection
workers, and social scientists so that we can learn how to
judge what "sexual abuse" is. Then instead of
panicking, we can determine exactly what has happened and what
we should do about it.
No one can deny the lasting trauma that sexual abuse of
children can produce. We must encourage children to come forth
and tell us about acts of sexual abuse and we should not
assume their charges are just childhood fantasies.
But it is
equally true that we must avoid allowing our emotional
reactions to add additional harm. Certainly we must act when
we suspect there may be child abuse, but let's think of the
children's welfare first and not allow our own emotional
response to the abuse to lead to extreme actions that will
only increase the harm to the children.
If we discussed sexuality with our children more openly and
honestly, we would not only strengthen them against being
manipulated but we would get more in touch with their feelings
and our own feelings about sexuality.
If abuse occurred, we would then be better able to focus
upon minimizing the harm to the child instead of creating a
The Production of Sex Abusers: Father-Daughter Incest
But how do we stop producing adults who abuse children?
That is surely a central concern. We need to know more about
the people who sexually abuse children. What attitudes toward
sexuality do sexual abusers have?
During the summer of 1986,
to help answer these questions, I sat in on five therapeutic
groups treating sex offenders at the University of Minnesota.
Most of the men had been sent there for group therapy by the
court because of incest offenses. They were given the option
of spending two years in therapy groups or staying in jail for
that same length of time.
In order to produce change the
therapy groups had to probe deeply into the motives and
feelings of the men and that process was often quite unnerving
for the offender. Accordingly, some men chose to stay in jail
rather than undergo therapy. Sitting in on these therapy
groups helped to develop my own ideas about the causes of
The two leaders of each of the five sex offender groups
would routinely ask the eight or ten men in their group why
they had committed the sex offense. In most of these cases,
the offense was incest with a pre-adolescent daughter.
struck by the explanation given by "Bill" in one of
the first groups I attended. He explained that he was often
very sexually turned on and he needed an outlet beyond his
wife. The group leader asked him why he didn't masturbate to
relieve himself instead of having sex with his daughter. Bill
was taken aback by that suggestion and blurted out:
not me! The way I was raised made it clear that masturbation
was bad for a boy and even worse for a grown man. I sure as
hell wasn't going to do that."
Although many of these men spoke in an earthy and open
fashion about sex, it was most often in a way that indicated
they viewed sex as a "dirty" practice, but their
"natural" desires drove them to do it anyhow. The
typical beliefs of these sex offenders caused them to picture
sex as a "drive" controlling them, rather than a
choice they were making. Sex was bad but they had to have it.
Although there is surely no view of sex held by all the
offenders, this sort of dangerous and degrading perspective
about sex was very common.
Despite the fact that these men believed in the power of
the male sexual drive, they were not usually very aggressive,
Other researchers like anthropologist Paul Gebhard,
an associate of Alfred Kinsey, also reported that incest
offenders were often ineffectual, non-aggressive, and dependent men. These were men who were not, in their
own minds, living up to the masculine image they admired.
Their incestuous behavior was their distorted way of proving
to themselves that they were indeed "real men."
If a man is raised with the idea that almost all forms of
sexuality are "dirty" but quite compelling, then he
has very few guidelines for how to act sexually outside of
marriage. In his view all sex outside of marriage is
considered "bad," so all non-marital sexual acts get
lumped together as "dirty," even though he knows he
will engage in some of them because of his irrepressible
"sex drive." Just how does such a man judge the
relative worth of each of these forbidden sexual acts?
Faced with this situation he may resort to whatever sexual
outlet offers the least resistance, and that may well be his
own or someone else's child.
In all areas of social life, gross imbalances in power
generate abuse of the less powerful. If men accept a
traditional male role, then they feel they naturally have
authority over their children and their wives. Children become
a type of property of their fathers. The more powerful a man
is, the more means he has at his disposal to do anything he
may desire to those with less power.
It was the former
Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who said,
the greatest aphrodisiac."
Having power makes the
possessors of power feel that they can demand whatever
sexual pleasures they desire and it coerces others to do what
is desired. [*31]
Power differences are present in magnified ways in father-daughter incest. In this case, gender, age, and
authority differences converge to create a formidable power
imbalance - one that is prone to produce sexual abuse.
particular incident that happened during my group observations
brought this vividly home to me.
A new member joined one of the sex offender groups - I'll call him "Jim." One of the group leaders asked Jim
how he now felt about his sexual abuse of his two daughters -
"Mary," age 9 and "Cindy," age 11. Jim's
response was a revelation of his inner attitudes toward his
"Everything was going along just fine until Cindy
called the cops. When she did that, she took my power away
from me! She shouldn't have done that!"
The key phrase that struck me was: "She took my power
away from me!"
To Jim, the power he had in his family
authorized him to do what he wanted sexually to his daughter.
He defended his sexual relations with his daughters by saying
that he really cared for them, and he asked how he could do
them any harm just by teaching them a little about sex.
"Sex with me was one hell of a lot better for them than
it will be when they grow up and guys start grabbing them and
trying to do all kinds of things to them."
The joining of sex negativism with male dominant gender
roles is an explosive mixture
The negative view of sex does
not afford much insight into how to make sensible sexual
choices for it is all forbidden territory. Such men learn to
think of sex as a dangerous emotion that drives them to act
sexually. When this view of sex is coupled with a belief in
male dominance, some men may feel justified in yielding to
their desire to have sex even with their own child.
Massachusetts psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman agrees that
sexual restrictiveness and male dominance are two of the key
causes of sexual abuse. Herman obtained in-depth information
on forty women in therapy who had experienced incest with
their fathers and compared them to twenty other patients who
had not experienced incest. [*32]
Although this comparison is important, it consists of a sample
of white middle class women who are going for therapy, and so
her findings may not represent all types of father-daughter
incest in this country.
Herman found that the incestuous fathers were hard working
and often successful men who were trying to fulfill the
traditional male role of breadwinner. However, these fathers
seemed to lack confidence and acted meek and ingratiating when
they were with men of higher authority. In addition, fully
half of these fathers were physically abusive to their wives.
All the wives were homemakers and only a few ever worked
outside the home. In addition, these wives were often ill,
both physically and emotionally, and thus not fully available
to protect their daughters. When the daughters did tell their
mothers about the incest, the mothers did very little. These
family characteristics were much less likely to be present in
the comparison group of twenty women who had not been sexually
abused by their fathers.
The bulk of the father-daughter sexual contact involved
masturbation and oral sex. Force was rarely used. Incestuous
fathers often told their daughters that they were teaching
them about sex and getting them ready for marriage (just like
the excuse I noted from a father in the sex offender program).
Thirty-two of the forty daughters were the eldest daughters or
the only daughters and many of them played a sort of
wife-substitute role that came to include sexual relations.
The long range price paid by the daughters was high
| many had sex without contraception with almost
anyone who wanted them, |
| some tried suicide, |
| others ran away
from home or were raped by other men, and |
| almost all developed
very low self-esteem. |
Nevertheless, the daughters had high
regard for their fathers and had great difficulty in
challenging their fathers' authority.
At the heart of such
sexual abuse is a conflict between
| wanting to obey their
fathers and |
| feeling that what they were doing was very harmful |
- a most difficult conflict for a young child to resolve.
One of the most provocative findings concerns the sexual
attitudes in these incestuous families. Many of these
families were church-going and conventional to a fault.
Usually, both the mother and the father had restrictive
attitudes toward sexuality. Female bodies in particular were
considered "dirty." Sex was a taboo subject at home:
The fathers conveyed to their daughters the sense that sex
was evil and shameful, at the same time that they continued to
display their own sexual preoccupation with their daughters.
Some daughters perceived that their fathers were essentially
blaming them and holding them responsible for the sexual
interest they aroused. [*33]
These fathers emphasized that sex was difficult to control
and this became even clearer as their daughters began to date.
The fathers became very jealous and restrictive and warned
them to beware of their date's sexual aggression.
Herman's study concludes that one major reason for this
sexual abuse is the authority traditionally granted to fathers
to dominate their families. That authority is seen by some
fathers as giving them a license to do whatever they wish with
their daughters. Herman feels this traditional father
authority role must change before we will see a reduction in
the sexual abuse of daughters.
As long as fathers dominate their families, they will have
the power to make sexual use of their children. Most fathers
will choose not to exercise this power. But as long as the
prerogative is implicitly granted to all men, some men will
use it. [*34]
It seems clear to me that the view of children as property,
as completely controllable by adults, encourages the sexual
abuse of children. What Herman is saying here about fathers
and daughters fits very well with that explanation.
We have to empower children
mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, if we want to
reduce exploitation of children, we have to empower children.
Young people need to know that they have real choices to make
in the area of sexuality. To do that we must develop a
pluralistic rather than a dogmatic approach to sex.
or ignoring all child sexuality does not give a child control
over his or her sexuality. Only when children are given the
right to say yes to some forms of sexual exploration will
children feel that they have the responsibility to say no to
other sexual practices.
There is another type of sex offender background ...
... that is
often mentioned by therapists who treat sex offenders. It is
not as common as the sex negative, male dominant background,
but it is worth mentioning.
Sex offenders do at times come
from a sexually unregulated family environment where just
about anything goes. That sort of "normless" family
environment can be accompanied by poverty, alcoholism, and a
lack of any predictable structure. Included in that chaotic
environment is the sexual abuse of children. In addition to
father-daughter abuse, there is a good deal of sexual abuse of
boys by their fathers and step fathers. [*35]
I have focused here on father- daughter sexual abuse because
that is the much more common form of abuse both in a chaotic
environment and in a traditional family environment.
the evidence is persuasive that at least one of the
major causes of the sexual abuse of children lies in
traditional beliefs about sexuality and male dominance that
are too narrow to provide fathers with an understanding of
other less destructive ways of coping with their desires for
sexuality and power.
Ironically, it is the traditionalists who
are the most emotional in condemning the sexual abuse of
children. These same traditionalists fail to see how often
their own footprints lead up to the scene of that crime.
Sexual Pluralism: Pathway to Non-abusive Sex
Few human societies and no other species on this planet
raise their offspring with such inept preparation for
sexuality as we do in America. We often call ourselves
"liberated" and "modern," but we have seen
how hesitant we are to inform and discuss sexuality with
children. We are particularly reluctant to point out the
positive aspects of sexuality. We fear that if children know
that sex is pleasurable, they will pursue it constantly during
all their waking hours - if not also in their dreams.
Many people say sex is too emotional, too embarrassing, and
too complex to deal with dispassionately and rationally. How
can we possibly get people to think about sexuality in a
It may not be easy but it can be done and it
must be done if we are to help our children. The starting
point has to be the acceptance of a pluralistic view of
sexuality. We have to reject the dogmatic sexual philosophy
that states that it is always dangerous to encourage open
discussion of sexuality with preadolescents.
| To impose such
"sexual innocence" on all children, |
| to forbid
| to avoid discussion of sexual feelings, or |
condemn sexual exploration |
is to guarantee that a child will
develop a negative view of sexuality and learn more sexual
customs from the street than from his or her parents.
out of our sexual impasse is to reject traditional restraints
on children's sexual education and to accept the importance of
socializing our children to sexuality from birth onward.
Let me state clearly that I am not talking of encouraging
children to have sexual intercourse with one another. On the
contrary, what I am suggesting here is a way of avoiding
sexual abuse. I am talking about our willingness openly to
encourage our children to learn more about sexuality. In that
way we can empower them to make better choices during
childhood and to use their sense of sexual awareness to avoid
being exploited by others during childhood as well as later in
As I've noted, many parents minimize discussing sex with
their children out of the same mistaken fear that Oprah
Winfrey and Tipper Gore have, namely, that they will
"start" their children's sex life. But as we've
seen, our children's sex life is on "start" when
they are born. We can show our children that sexuality like
other childhood pleasures, such as desserts or watching
television, can be managed. It is our fear and not our
children's lust that most needs control.
We all make sexual choices from birth onward when we
masturbate, when we play "doctor," and when we kiss
or touch each other. The most important thing is not that we
try to prevent or deny the reality of these behaviors but
rather that we give our children guidelines for understanding
these sexual experiences. Children need this parental support
for exploring and understanding their own sexuality.
denial of sexuality loads childhood sexuality with the baggage
of guilt and repression, which they may carry throughout life.
Parental acceptance gives children a belief that they can
manage their sexual behavior in ways comparable to the
management of other important parts of their lives.
Some of the acts of our children will be homosexual. Such
acts are commonplace during childhood. Surely some children
will come to prefer homosexual acts over heterosexual acts.
Homosexual behavior occurs in all major civilizations and it
is a perfectly normal behavior. Here too the best way to help
the child and the parent is to encourage open discussion of
what is being experienced and what it means to both the child
and the parent.
We don't lose control by empowering children with sexual
rights; we gain control, for it is we, the parents, who give
our children permission. If our children move in directions we
think harmful, we can redirect them but only if they view us
as part of the learning process rather than as a repressive
element in their lives. We abdicate our responsibilities as
parents if we deceive ourselves into thinking we are
prolonging our children's sexual "innocence" by not
dealing openly with their sexual choices.
Our children will be sexual whether we participate in
helping them learn about sex or not. We can neglect our
responsibility to sexually educate our young children. We can
make them naive; we can make them vulnerable to abuse; we can
set them up for many future sexual problems; but no matter how
hard we try, we cannot make them "sexually