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Childhood Sexuality: Further Thoughts
by Bill Paris
We received a number of responses to my article The Cult of Childhood
and the Repression of Childhood Sexuality. Most were positive and a few were either
negative or, while supportive of our concerns, feared that our frank approach would
get us into legal trouble. I'm going to try and summarize some of those responses,
react to some and quote from several which seemed to especially express some helpful
thoughts. It is my hope that I can provoke additional feedback and dialog, which
will then contribute to the creation of additional material which will find its
way into the pages of future newsletters.
A Personal Statement
First, however, I would like to make a personal statement clarifying my personal interests in this very sensitive and even controversial area, a statement that probably should have been made as a preface to the original article:
My primary motive in research and writing on the subject of childhood
sexuality is a deeply felt concern to see young people "saved" from the
kind of confusion, ignorance and pain that I went through as a kid and young adult
regarding sexuality. Positively, I want to make some contribution to youth's discovering
and exploring the joys of their own sexuality and the joys of sharing with others
in safe, nurturing ways, without the guilt, shame and fear that is so common. I
want them to understand that sex is not just for marriage. They need to understand
that the ridiculous "cult" of virginity or abstinence that has been part
of our cultural/religious traditions for centuries, and is having a new heyday because
of the false AIDS scare, is not what our Creator intended for them, no matter how
it is defended and promoted by most "religious" people in our society,
even those who are of relatively "liberal" persuasion. They need to understand
and their parents need to understand that these "children" ARE sexual
and are going to ACT sexual no matter how much they are preached at and repressed.
Our youth need to understand that, with proper education, encouragement and support
from parents and other responsible adults, they can take control of their own sexual
lives and live them safely, responsibly and productively.
I want our youth to understand that they can have healthy sexual relationships
without feeling that they have to be lifelong or necessarily lead to marriage in
the modern cultural circumstances in which early marriage is not very practical
for most. I want them to understand that in a nurturing community of family and
friends such relationships can contribute to overall emotional, social, physical
and spiritual health--and that in fact you can't really be healthy without them.
I also want parents and other adults learn to communicate openly with
children about sexuality without all the fears and reluctance that most parents
still feel. This would contribute significantly to bridging the terrible social
gulf between adults and kids (see my original paper for a discussion of the origins
and development of this gulf) since there is no other issue that so completely separates
these two groups.
The paper on childhood sexuality raised the difficult and sensitive
question of how "practical" should parent/adult instruction of children
be in the sexual area. Various historical examples and examples from other cultures
were introduced to indicate that the typical Western European/British/American "hands-off"
policy in this area is not the only approach and that there is strong evidence that
children growing up under non-Western approaches to sexual education grow up perfectly
healthy emotionally and MORE healthy in terms of their sexuality.
Once again, as in the paper on childhood sexuality, I want to state
clearly that the purpose of that paper and the purpose of this and other writings
on childhood sexuality that will appear in the future is not to encourage or promote
adult/child sexual activity. The purpose is to encourage open-minded consideration
of a wide range of issues relating to childhood sexual development, needs and education
that are overlooked by most in our society, including many so-called child experts.
I have recently encountered a new (to me) book with some very helpful
analysis of modern research and historical attitudes towards childhood sexuality.
I will describe this book in more detail at the end of this article. Based on guidelines
discussed in this book, I want to state that we of Liberated Christians deplore
and reject in relating to children's sexuality, for educational or any other purpose,
any acts or threats of acts of physical violence, any form of bribery or the use
of intimidation or coercion, physical or psychological, from an adult in a position
of influence, respect or authority. It is our opinion that such methods are used
and can be used only by persons who are seeking their own sexual gratification at
the expense of the child or in order to exert control/power over the child for its
own sake or for some derivative purpose.
Of course, it may be pointed out here that such guidelines are simply
those that should exist in terms of sexual activity with persons of ANY age. NO
ONE, child or adult, should be coerced in any of the ways mentioned above.
We recognize that the area of PSYCHOLOGICAL coercion, in particular,
is open to interpretation and that those who adamantly oppose any form of adult
physical involvement with children's sexual experiences will insist on drawing the
line as conservatively as possible, that is, forbidding and condemning ANY physical
involvement at any level and at any time. It should be pointed out, however, that
such attitudes are those which have produced the kinds of parent, teacher and other
adult fears in the past fifteen years or so about even HUGGING children. So this
hard-line perspective doesn't work and in fact causes harm by potentially depriving
children of even CASUAL physical intimacy.
There are many in our society who not only wish to repress the sexual
development of children AND adults, but also want to stifle DISCUSSION of sexuality
issues. There are several interrelated reasons for this, including their own fears
and guilt (they want to impose the same draconian restrictions on others that they
feel they must impose on themselves to keep their sexual urges "under control"),
ignorance (often willful) of the normality of sexual expression, and their own heritage
of vicious, unhealthy morality attitudes promoted by religious tradition.
Such people will, if they read material such as mine, react violently
and attack such thinking with any weapon they can find at hand, including accusations
of encouraging illegal, immoral (in their view) activities. They will push all of
the current hot buttons to which so many non-thinkers in our society react in their
ignorant and immature zeal to protect "innocent" children.
It is wrong before God our Creator to stifle debate and discussion
of issues so important to our emotional and spiritual well-being. It is also LEGALLY
wrong in our society to stifle such discussion. We will continue to publish in this
newsletter material which we believe will make a small contribution to growing healthier
children, healthier families and, ultimately, a healthier society.
Responses to the Childhood Sexuality Article
One individual shared several concerns with us. The first was that parents should be encouraged to help their children engage in "age-appropriate" sex play with peers, so that they can recognize when someone is suggesting activities that are beyond their understanding or physical capacities. This, she suggests, would help children avoid the abusive behavior of older children and adults. I certainly agree with this suggestion. A family therapist with whom we have been discussing these issues, as well as others, has suggested some guidelines for such "age-appropriate" activity. I will discuss these in a later report.
This writer also suggests that in teaching children about sexuality,
they need to be taught self-respect as individuals, which I take to mean helping
them towards SEXUAL self-esteem as well as self-esteem at all levels.
The same individual was concerned that writing so frankly about childhood
sexuality, especially regarding the possible involvement of adults in the "practical"
sexual education of children, might attract the attention of those elements of law
enforcement apparently lurking around corners of the postal service and the Internet
hoping to catch people who dare to think thoughts not approved by the so-called
"moral majority" who seem to dictate our sexually repressive laws. The
writer thought I should have positioned a disclaimer at the front of the article
which "would include the theoretical/scholarly aspect of the paper, or at least
say "while we cannot condone adult/child sexual activity, etc.'" She pointed
out that some such statement occurs near the end of the piece.
I would respond to this concern in several ways: First, I think that
the citing of "scholarly" evidence for a number of the thoughts and conclusions
in the article is clear enough evidence of my commitment to rely on the work of
serious, responsible researchers in this field. (The book I mentioned above is a
prime representative of such responsible research, although it was not utilized
in the earlier paper because I had not encountered it at the time of writing. I
hope to utilize its material significantly in future writing.)
Second, I sense in the respondent's use of the term "theoretical/scholarly"
the desire that I suggest that we are only dealing with intellectual ideas and are
not suggesting that people take seriously their practical implications. Such an
approach MIGHT deflect criticism, but if followed would render all that I say useless
and both children and adults have suffered long enough with "theories,"
conservative and liberal, which have never really changed for the better the sexual
circumstances of children in the real world. In any event, those who tend to see
the "evils" of sexuality, and, in particular, childhood sexual abuse under
every bush are going to see it no matter the nature or extent of any disclaimer!
I believe that fair-minded people will understand from the cautions and concerns
expressed in my writings on this subject that I have a deep concern for children's
safety and security and am not suggesting that anyone exploit them. Those people
who get their moral kicks by persecuting others for daring to think creative thoughts
are not fair-minded in the first place and no disclaimers will protect us from them.
Finally, since the "morals police" would not be put off
by disclaimers, I will not have my right to free speech controlled by THEIR agenda,
which I believe would be the result of following this respondent's suggestions.
My integrity will have to stand on the basis of what and how I write, concerning
which I may not always be right (and I hope I am willing to be corrected), but I
will not apologize for lobbing a few grenades into the midst of those too complacent
to try and change the sexually repressive system in which ALL of us, children and
Some who wrote negative responses apparently did not read the article
carefully or read it with such bias that they simply did not understand what I was
saying (or maybe I should plead guilty to not making myself clear in places). One
reader said: "I think it is CLEAR (my emphasis) that young people under the
age of 18, and particularly those in early puberty, are ill-equipped emotionally
to handle the full range of sexual experiences that would be okay for adults."
In my paper I specifically claimed that it was NOT AT ALL CLEAR that young people
are incapable of handling substantial ranges of sexual activity, though these should
be appropriate not so much to their chronological ages as to their maturity and
level of understanding. I also specifically challenged the legal age for sex, which
I pointed out varies as much as five years from state to state. Whose age is right,
one might ask. The answer is: no one's. Only those who fear sex, as did those who
originated the concept of legal age, can rationalize such boundaries.
A position such as that taken by this respondent must ignore the possibility
that children of even very young ages can be encouraged in appropriate, responsible
sexual enjoyment by their parents and indeed such is the case in some homes. They
can be guided to fulfill the normal needs they have and WILL explore whether we
encourage and help them or leave them to flounder in ignorance and guilt.
This individual says he would be "alarmed" to find out that
his ten-year-old was doing anything more than masturbating. Perhaps we should be
glad that this parent at least seems to acknowledge the normality of sexual self-pleasuring.
His statement, however, suggests that he has little actual idea WHAT his children
are doing. This is precisely one of the greatest problems in families--the lack
of communication from parents to children which results in no communication the
other way and children's exploration of sexuality behind their parents backs.
This kind of response reminds me of the point suggested by some researchers
that the reason so many adults react negatively to their children being sexual or
to suggestions that they be allowed or even encouraged in their sexual activity
is that the adults are THREATENED by such sexual awareness and activity in children.
The adults are insecure about their own sexuality and the notion of their children
being sexual suggests that there may be something very powerful in the lives of
children which they, the adults, cannot easily control.
One respondent suggested that the high-profile efforts by moral conservatives
today to curb children's sexual explorations are motivated by the desire to hold
power over our youth. The fact that many parents accept these notions traces, he
suggests, to the fact that "parents are feeling powerless to face the challenges
of raising kids today so they buy into whatever sounds like it will give them some
power back." He goes on to say that in place of such negativism the biblical
message of loving one another as one loves himself has never been more needed.
On the points of communication and educating our children, one reader
wrote: "It may be one of this decade's great ironies that society's failure
to honestly treat sex may be a leading factor in the recent rash of sexual abuse
charges not to mention teen pregnancies. If sex were treated as its basic instinct
SOUL MATE HUNGER (my emphasis) and thus children received both theoretical and,
at the appropriate degree of maturity, practical education, I submit the child would
be sufficiently educated and self assured to thwart unwanted sex. Would the aunt
or uncle or step-parent even be in a position to solicit undesired sexual response?
The primary threat of 'If you tell I will harm you' would lose its power because
the child would feel comfortable in going to its parent...and discussing the matter
openly, freely, and without embarrassment." (Note the similar point of view
of the first respondent above.)
I think that this reader has perceived correctly that sexual desire,
even in the young, is indeed a "soul mate hunger," that is, evidence of
our basic need for emotional and physical bonding throughout life, something that
we have denied ourselves and our children to the effect of great impoverishment
when young. Because of this denial we are ill equipped to bond when we are finally
"permitted" to do so as adults.
Another helpful respondent wrote: "Two of the main things that
could have made [his youthful sexual experience] better would have been better education
and social nudity. The nudity would have overcome those needless body fears and
opened up communication. The education would have helped overcome the mistakes from
ignorance. The worst thing is that I see the same mistakes still being made out
there. Rising numbers of divorce and [the ] percentage of single adults show that
something is not going right."
AND HOW! Things are not going right. On a personal note, my own marital
woes and subsequent divorce were partly fueled by problems of sexual ignorance,
anxiety and the inability to communicate about these issues. Guess where these problems
In the above material I have mentioned a book which has been extremely
helpful to me in my more recent research. It is entitled Childhood and Sexuality:
A Radical Christian Approach, by John L. Randall. It is published by Dorrance Publishing
Company, Pittsburgh (1992). This book has helped confirm a great deal of my previous
study and conclusions and has expanded considerably my knowledge of other research.
The author is familiar with an extensive body of modern research as well as historical
materials related to childhood sexuality. I have drawn on his thoughts at several
points in the present article. I want to highly recommend this book to anyone seriously
interested in pursuing this subject. The book is so valuable that I want to make
interested readers aware of some of its important conclusions. In a future newsletter
or in another special report I hope to share this material more extensively and
interact with it.
I hope that this article will be helpful in clarifying our approach
to the area of childhood sexuality and that the thoughts shared by some of our readers
will stimulate thinking and further feedback. I want to express my thanks to those
who took the time to respond. For those who would like to contact me directly for
additional feedback or discussion, you may write me, Bill Paris, at the Liberated
Christians address or E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would also like to have feedback from parents who feel that their
approach to sex education can be helpful to other families or from adults reflecting
on the good sex education they were given as children. I am also appreciative of
those readers who have recommended books on these issues (the book referred to above
was so recommended) and will always welcome suggestions for other published resources.
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