[Articles & Essays]  




Presented at the International Conference on Love and Attraction, University College, Swansea, Wales, September 1977. Reprinted from M. Cook and G. Wilson (Eds.), Love and Attraction, Oxford: Pergamon, 1979

[Page 255]

THE sexuality of children has been discussed in the literature from many viewpoints, but rarely have the sexual rights of children been seriously considered. Certainly it has been firmly established and, at least among professionals, widely accepted that children are sexual beings from birth. Yet it is common to grant that children are sexual while denying them the right to behave sexually. 
Consideration of the sexual rights of children requires rethinking already convoluted issues, such as sexual activity of children with adults; incest; and pornography. 
This chapter is an attempt to put these issues into thoughtful perspective .


The children's rights movement, or "crusade" (Time, 1972; U. S. News & World Report, 1974), has already generated a considerable literature (Adams et al., 1971; Gottlieb, 1973; Gross and Gross, 1977; Harvard Educational Review, 1974; Koocher, 1976). Much of this literature is little more than traditional conservative concern with protecting battered 

[Page 256]

children. However, many protective institutions deprive minors of rights while simultaneously offering less protection than is routinely granted to adults, thus, like many forms of benevolently intended protection, ultimately proving to be an oppressive disservice to the very group to be served.

Some current initiatives are distinguished from their predecessors in advocating full recognition of children as persons and citizens with essentially the same human and civil rights that adults have. While various lists of essential children's rights have been proposed (Farson, 1974; Foster and Freed, 1972; Holt, 1974), the basis of all of them is that they would grant to children most or all of the primary and secondary rights now enjoyed by adults, including the right to choose guardians and living arrangements, to exercise political and economic power, and to receive information. Farson (1974) and Foster and Freed (1972) have effectively shown that the arguments for restricting rights of minors are essentially the same as those used to rationalize oppression of women and racial minorities.

Any substantial expansion of children's rights is likely to have a profound impact on many basic cultural institutions. Even token extension of rights to children threatens to undermine the most pervasive and universal status distinction in human society. Yet this erosion of social structure would not necessarily be without its benefits. The family would necessarily become more isocratic, adaptive, and open as children became both equal partners in the enterprise of family living and full citizens of their communities. The "open family" is described as a life-style founded on just such principles (Constantine, 1977c). It is interesting that open families resemble the healthiest families identified by Lewis et al. (1976) in their study of healthy families.


True liberation of children includes liberation from handicaps engendered by sexually anxious and ambivalent parents and societies. The fundamental sexual rights of children include 

"the right to know about sexuality , the right to be sexual, the right of access to educational and literary sexual materials, the necessary correlative right to produce and distribute these materials, ...[and] the right of the unwilling or inappropriate audience to have its privacy or peace of mind protected" (Calderone, 1977). 

In the absence of other, enabling, rights, however, the frequently advocated simple protection of "the unwilling or inappropriate audience" reduces to a protectionistic arrogation of majority rights.

The conceptualization of children's sexual rights presented in this chapter changes the perspective on some of the knottiest of contemporary social and psychological issues. To better understand these sues it is helpful to examine briefly something of the nature of childhood sexuality and its expression. 

[Page 257]


The frequency, variety , and completeness of prepubertal sexual reaction tends to increase from the lower mammals to the higher. [Among humans,] 

"regardless of the cultural ideal with respect to sex play in childhood, the underlying drive toward such activity constitutes one [expressed] feature of the heredity of the human species" (Ford and Beach, 1951). 

Even in the most punitive and restrictive societies, some children engage in secret sex play. The sexual "drive" of children may be lower prior to puberty, but it is not insignificant. Where cultural values are compatible, children freely engage in a variety of sexual practices, beginning coitus as young as 6 to 8 in some societies; in others few virgins over the age of 10 or 11 are found (Ford and Beach, 1951). Such "precocious" sexual activities do not seem to impair the personality development or adult functioning of children who engage in them. Indeed, there may be cogent reasons for promoting free and early erotic expression by children, since Prescott (1975) has demonstrated in cross-cultural studies that physically affectionate childrearing and sexual permissiveness are connected with reduced levels of adult violence.

It "seems safe to assert that the human child prior to puberty is capable of enraging in the same range of physiological sexual activities as the adult" (Martinson, 1976, and Chapter 3 in this volume). Yet we know little of the child's subjective experience of sexuality. The literature is notably lacking in direct observation and first-hand reports from children, but this has not deterred legions of adults from theorizing and pontificating on the nature of child sexuality , categorically asserting, for example, that adult and child experiences of orgasm are somehow fundamentally different. It is necessary to speculate, of course, yet it makes sense to seek clues to objective understanding in nonrestrictive subcultures within our own Western society (such as communes), where children are growing up more sexually free.

To other sources that were used in preparing this chapter the author adds his experience as a family therapist helping nontraditional families; his research on children in alternative families (Constantine and Constantine, 1973, 1976); and his informal observations of, and reports from, children.

Among children raised in asexually free atmosphere, such as in some American communal families (Johnston and Deisher, 1973; Rothchild and WolL 1976), openly sexual behavior has been common, often occurring in bursts of activity separated by periods of more or less in-

[Page 258]

difference. Unconstrained by a restrictive or repressive familial and social context, prepubertal sexual interest appears to be cyclic but a-periodic, neither supplanting nor interfering with other activities of childhood. This seems to support Money's concept (1973) of a threshold for release of sexual response, prepubertal children simply having a substantially higher threshold of sexual stimulation. Rather than lacking "drive" children may simply require more stimulation to become "turned on."

Since there has been no research into what does turn children on, only tentative hypotheses can be offered. Children are notably responsive to tactile stimulation, yet are also highly visually responsive; they want to touch and see in learning. Only recently has attractive, graphic sex education material become available (e.g., McBride and Fleischhauer-Hardt, 1975). It seems possible that the importance attributed to fantasy and non-tactile stimulation in the adult erotic response is connected with the touch-deprivation of typical adult interaction, a thesis supported by current sex therapy strategies, which stress sensate focus and immediate physical experience. Undeniably, nudity and genital exposure can be erotically arousing to children; they also find romantic-affectional situations and portrayals and certain eroticized secondary stimuli (e.g., underwear) sexually exciting.

Children appear to prefer their own age-mates as sexual partners, even in the freest settings, but not to the complete exclusion of older or younger partners (Berger, Chapter 18 in this volume; Johnston and Deisler, 1973; Rothchild and Wolf, 1976). It also seems that they are likely to prefer, for voluntary sexual encounters, people who are close to them and familiar.



Comparatively few problems arise in extending the right to sexual activity to consenting minors of similar ages, but sexual encounters between adults and children are another matter. Nearly all writing on adult-child sexual encounters presumes that all such contacts constitute abuse. This contention ultimately rests on the notion that children are neither sexual nor possessors of sexual rights. If they are considered to be sexual beings with the right to express themselves sexually, then not all sexual contact between adults and children can be categorically dismissed as abuse. Only a few writers have attempted to differentiate abuse from non-abuse in this context. Brant and Tisza (1977) define "sexual misuse" as

"sexual stimulation inappropriate for the child's age, ... psychological development, and role in the family. ...

[Page 259]

Symptoms in the child and evidence of family dysfunction [are] criteria for. ..inappropriateness."

Their approach suggests that the effect of the experience on the child can differ, and that effects themselves might distinguish sexual abuse of children by adults from legitimate sexual expressions of affection between children and adults.

A careful review of the literature on adult-child sexual encounters (Constantine, Chapter 17 in this volume), indicates that immediate negative reactions are minor or completely absent in the majority of cases and significant long-term psychological or social impairment is rare, truly remarkable findings considering that most studies have dealt with criminal or clinical samples.

Where negative consequences of a shorter long-term nature are manifest, they are generally associated with identiable factors:

(1) use of physical force, coercion, or psychological pressure, with the most adverse reactions occurring where physical violence is involved or the child attempts to resist but is unsuccessful;

(2) an unsupportive family with poor communication so that sexual matters cannot be discussed openly and the child receives, or anticipates receiving, strongly negative reactions to disclosure or sexual activities;

(3) little sexual knowledge on the part of the child, and/or the child has absorbed values that imply that sex is dirty, shameful, frightening, or the like. It appears that, when these factors I are not present in an adult-child sexual encounter, there is a strong probability that the child will not be harmed, and may even benefit.


A rationalized legal framework that recognized the right of the child to a free choice of sexual partners would

(1) require informed consent and participation of the child, and

(2) exclude the use of force, coercion, or psychological pressure.


If the child was not fully knowledgeable of the nature of the sexual activity or was demonstrably not capable of informed consent, or if any force or coercion was employed, sex between an adult and a child would constitute rape of a minor. A statement by a minor that he or she did not feel free to refuse should be a prima facie case for rape. An extra burden would thus appropriately be placed on the physically and intellectually more powerful adult to assure that the participation of the child was both informed and voluntary.


The issue of children and pornography is twofold: the effect of pornography on children and the participation of children in pornography. There simply are no adequate research studies on the effects of pornography on children. Even the President's Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (1970), with socially justifiable cowardice,

[Page 260]

failed to conduct studies on children, although this did not deter them from concluding (from research on adults) that pornography did not harm children. Somehow it seems reasonable to suspect that the effect of graphic or written erotica on children should not be worse than the effect of "precocious" sexual experience, but in the final analysis this question probably reduces to personal views on the intrinsic goodness or evil of sex. A case should be made that too little of a healthy erotic nature is accessible to children, not too much. The poor quality, dehumanizing character, and paraphilial emphases that are the hallmarks of contemporary pornography are byproducts of its socially marginal and only quasi-legitimate status. Were sex sufficiently acceptable in our culture so that healthy and affectionate but erotic portrayals of human sexuality could become an integral part of children's literature and television, the likelihood of interest in, exposure to, or negative effects from poor quality pornography would be reduced. Currently the basest and most degrading material is forbidden in our society but available, while affectionate, healthy erotica is censored.

Child pornography has become, almost overnight, an American outrage (Dudar, 1977; Behavior Today, 1977a, 1977b). It is a complex issue to which few seem capable of bringing reason and balance (Constantine, 1977d). That the abuse and exploitation of children by certain pornographers is detestable and unconscionable should not obscure other issues involved: the sexual rights of children or their ultimate best interests, for example. But public outrage has indiscriminately attacked and ultimately may undermine the rights of educational innovators such as McBride and Fleischhauer-Hardt (1975), talented serious artists like photographer David Hamilton (1976), and legitimate minority groups such as nudists. Indeed, materials such as these are often experienced as sexually exciting by children (Constantine, 1977b), and therefore to have access to them should fall within the rights of children.

Few commentators have considered whether erotica portraying minors may represent the only acceptable outlet for the sexual preferences of pedophiles and, as such, may be a substitute for actual child molestation. The experience in Denmark appears to support this hypothesis. If this hypothesis is valid, then by inference legal scapegoating of the publishers, sellers, and buyers of child-oriented pornography could actually contribute to arise in crime against children.

Were the sexual rights of children to be vigorously defended, pornography using children would undoubtedly continue, but its production could be made more accessible to policing. Child actors in legitimate media are protected by the scrutiny made possible in a legal industry in which rights to participate are recognized; if it were legal

[Page 261]

to produce and sell pornography, children who did not wish to participate could be better protected from exploitation at the hands of parents and other adults. The extremes of exploitation, kidnapping, rape, and other excesses of the pornographer using children are at the present time products of the illegality of the enterprise. It might show more concern for children to permit some children to participate willingly in pornography under monitorable conditions, than to have others brutally exploited because of their status as runaways or mere chattels of their parents.


No topic seems more capable of disabling the rational faculties of the most intelligent adult than the subject of incest. From a radical perspective, children have the right to express themselves sexually even with members of their own families. Is incest, as some have argued, categorically a harmful experience? Popular supposition to the contrary, careful research has produced no definitive conclusions.

Nearly all the published literature derives from studies of clinical and criminal cases and is therefore hopelessly biased, yet the only general conclusion warranted is that not even prolonged incest is necessarily harmful. Again, it has been shown that the absence of force or coercion; openness of communication in the family, especially about sexual matters; and knowledgeable, positive attitudes about sex appear to contribute to positive (or less negative) perceptions of the experience, and to favorable outcomes.

Recent studies of incest in nonclinical, noncriminal populations (see, for example, Ramey, 1972, and studies by Finkelhor, Symonds et al., and Nelson, Chapters 11, 12, and 13 in this volume, respectively) and accumulating anecdotal data indicate that many people have incestuous experiences that they regard positively and that do not appear to have impaired them socially or psychologically. The basic rationale for the incest taboo may be tied to assumptions about human relations and family structures that were once, but ! are no longer valid (Constantine and Constantine, 1973: 218-227) namely, that family roles (husband, sister, son, and so on) must be sharply delineated and that one can successfully maintain only one intimate sexual relationship within a family or living group.


It must be emphasized that this analysis is not a work of advocacy. Rather, what is attempted in this chapter is an exploration of the implications of extending a presently radical view of children's rights into

 [Page 262]

the area of childhood sexual experience. Almost certainly this extension will be found repugnant, perhaps even frightening, by some; it is unlikely to be looked upon with favor by more than a few. There is little doubt that between contemporary Western sexual mores and full recognition of the sexual rights of children lies a social gulf of awesome magnitude. Nevertheless, the serious and open-minded appraisal of such farfetched possibilities can be useful as we tread, small step by small step, toward healthier acceptance of the sexuality of all, young and old.