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Alice in Wonderland: Sexual Upbringing in America

Reiss, Ira L.
Publisher Prometheus Books
Extent 287 pp.
URL http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/BIB/AETS/bind.htm

(Ch. 2 of pub.)

Is There Sex Before Adolescence?

[Oprah Winfrey]

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 Presidential candidate. 

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. 

In 1985, 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.

Most 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 this realistically

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. 

For example, 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 sexuality? 
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 creatures. 

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. [*8]

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 mother said:

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. 

They 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!

['Sexual innocence']

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 children.

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. 

Childhood 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. 

Since my 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 teenage years.

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 it. 

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 sexuality. 

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 they do.

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. [*12[

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 begins. 

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 Sambia. [*16]

Gilbert Herdt, an American anthropologist lived with the Sambia from 1974 to 1976 and described their childhood male homosexual behavior. 

In this society, childhood heterosexual play is strictly forbidden. In this sense, they are quite Victorian. However, what they substitute is anything but Victorian. 

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 manliness." 

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 mentioned. 

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 explorations.

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. 

Before they 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 next chapter.

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 adult sexuality. 

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. 

One of 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. 

In 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 childbirth.

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 drivers.

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 written: 

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. 

The message 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 negative. ... 
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. 
Programs often try to leaven their approach by talking about positive touch, but almost never do they discuss what might be positive sexuality. [*21]

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 abuse. 

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
oral sex, 
anal sex, and 
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. 

In discussing sexuality with children we have to take the point of view of the participant in a sex act. 

What does that person seek? 
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. 

Most importantly, 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 Children

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 abuser.

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 step-father. [*23]

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 phenomenon.

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. 

Even 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 actually occurred. 

The sensational 1984 Scott County, Minnesota sex abuse case is a good illustration of precisely this point. 

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. 

One 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 charges. 

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 that:

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 dramatic. 

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. 

We must 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 witch hunt. 

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 sexual abuse.

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. 

I was 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: 

"No, 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, macho men. 

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? [*30] 

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, 

"Power is 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.

One 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 family: 

"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

After the abuse, 

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

As I 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. 

Forbidding 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. 

In summary, 

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 reasoned manner? 

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 masturbation, 
to avoid discussion of sexual feelings, or 
to 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. 

The way 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 life.

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. 

Parental 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 innocent."