Child sex - who is to blameChild sex: why are we so fucked up about it?

By Miranda S Givings

The picture that accompanies this article is deliberately provocative in the hope that it will encourage the open-minded and intelligent reader to think for themselves rather than swallow the misinformation and media-fuelled hysteria that surrounds this thorny topic!

Author's note: In a previous article I discussed the subject of paedophilia and suggested that it might be our own warped attitudes to sex and nudity that are to blame for child sex abuse. Now I would like explore those attitudes further to try to discover how this dire state of affairs came about

The prevailing view in our modern western society is that children shouldn't have sex. This presupposes that there is a broad consensus on what we mean by 'children' and 'sex', when, in reality, the terms can mean very different things to different people. Should childhood be defined by civil laws that lay down the legal age at which a child may engage in sexual activity, always assuming we can agree what we mean by 'sexual activity', or should childhood end when an individual has attained puberty? At the present time the legal constraints which most western countries, including the UK, impose upon children are widely out of step with the biological age at which puberty occurs. Should a child be legally permitted to have sex at puberty, and if not, what outlets (if any), should it be permitted to express it's natural urges during the intervening years between puberty and the age of sexual consent?

Before we can answer that, we need to clarify what we mean by 'having sex'. In the popular mind it generally means sexual intercourse. Whilst most parents would be rightly horrified at the thought of their prepubertal children engaging in sexual intercourse, they may take a different view of other forms of sexual contact. As the mother of two grown-up children for whom bath time was a daily ritual for many years I am only too well aware that it is virtually impossible to wash a child without touching their genitals! Does that make me and millions of other parents a paedophile? Of course not. What about the child who touches their own genitals or those of its playmates in play, or in conscious experimentation? It is a most unusual child who does not explore their sexuality unless prevented from doing so by a parent or guardian. Quite why parents might wish to prevent or discourage such exploration is something this article will try to address.

Although British criminal laws make it a punishable offence for adults to touch the genitals or breasts of children under some circumstances, the law is very vague about whether a child who touches themselves, or another child, is committing a criminal offence. What about a parent or guardian that touches a girl's breasts at bath time as I mentioned above? Is this an offence? Or a father than assists his son to go to the lavatory by holding his penis? I could go on about the confusion, both popular and legal, which exists in our society on the subject of childhood sexuality. The fact remains that adults and children alike today find themselves in a desperate situation which ignorance and repression do nothing to enlighten or alleviate. How have we got ourselves into this dreadful mess?

I lay the blame firmly at the door of the Church. From the beginning, the Church was a conservative, patriarchal organisation which considered human sexuality an inconvenience at best, and a certain path to hellfire and eternal damnation at worst. Women were debarred from the Priesthood and every method, both legitimate, and illegitimate was employed to excise sex from the body catholic. This was due in no small part to the role sex had played in the so-called 'pagan' religions which preceded the establishment of dogmatic Christianity, which the Church was determined to stamp out, not least because well-adjusted, sexually satisfied human beings are unlikely to embrace the concepts of sin and redemption which the early Church Fathers so zealously taught to their guilt-ridden followers.

Anything which tended to remind people that a sexually fulfilling relationship was their natural birthright was ruthlessly suppressed, and as most sexual activity takes place without clothes on, nakedness became quickly associated with sex, and thus with the pernicious dogma of 'original sin'. Once you have convinced someone that sex is a dirty necessity needed to procreate the race, it is a small step to persuade them that anything which might encourage such activity is equally shameful. Where better to begin such 'instruction' than with the children of those parents who were already firmly convinced that the ignorant dogmas the Church taught, were essential for their 'salvation'?

Prior to ascendancy of the Church children were generally regarded as either potential adults or actual adults in the eyes of the societies in which they grew up. As such they were valued for the actual or potential contribution they could make to the prosperity and culture of their communities. Work was not incompatible with play, and went hand in hand with their gradual transformation into adults. But after the abuses, to which the industrial revolution subjected the children of poorer families, our young were gradually excluded from the labour force. As these developments continued, the lot of children vastly improved, but their role as productive, even essential, members of society diminished.

And so we arrive at the modern era of the development of institutional education for children. Prior to this, families had lived in larger units, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and so forth. Within this structure most of the education of children took place. While in older times little verbal instruction was given about sex in the modern sense of 'sex education,' children learned by seeing and hearing what went on in the family and in the natural world around them. As the extended family was replaced by the nuclear family, outside institutions took over the education of children, and the natural, family form of sex education began to disappear along with much of the rest of traditional instruction.

This resulted in the modern view that children are to be completely 'protected,' cared for, isolated in various ways, and treated as a fragile, vulnerable species entirely different from adults. This inversion of the natural order culminated in the cult of childhood and of 'the teenager', both entirely artificial constructs with no basis in biological or psychological reality. These radical changes have rapidly brought us to the point where children are often worshipped, treated as 'trophies' and increasingly 'spoiled,' yet contribute little or nothing to the practical, productive life of our society.

The result was a head-on clash between the biological and sexual maturity of children and the new social roles assigned to them, which provide no socially sanctioned outlet for their sexuality. When this conflict was eventually noticed, both secular society and the Church were forced by their own bondage to the childhood culture they had created to declare children to be non-sexual. But when faced with the awkward biological reality of the 'non-sexual' child who could not help but explore and express their sexuality, the adult social, educational and religious powers turned to a variety of repressive tactics to keep the dirty little moppets down. These tactics ranged from admonitions about how 'nice' girls didn't 'play with themselves', through physical restraints and corporal punishment, to legal sanctions and psychiatric committals, culminating in the 19th century obsession with chastity belts and diabolically ingenious mechanical devices to prevent masturbation.

Some might consider this an overly harsh indictment of the role of the Church in fostering sexual repression, but having met countless numbers of people who can vividly recall the fear, shame and physical punishments connected with their sexual development as a child, I am left in no doubt that their ignorance and guilt was largely the outcome of the pernicious dogmas of fanatical Christianity. The irony is that many of the parents who continue to inculcate these misguided notions into their children are neither practising Christians nor particularly religious, and often blissfully unaware of the origin of the repressive beliefs they embrace. The end result is that many millions of parents have passed on to even more millions of children the belief that their sexuality and their naked bodies are things to be ashamed of and concealed.

Nowhere is this more evident or prevalent than in the United States, where many senior politicians and pillars of society routinely fulminate against any expression of sexuality by children and enthusiastically endorse the imposition of ever more ludicrous legislation in an attempt to stem what they see as a tide of unbridled promiscuity and hedonism among American teenagers. And yet the same guardians of morality do nothing to curb the violence inherent in US society nor to restrict the availability of the 'weapons of mass destruction' which every US citizen regards as their God-given right to own and use. In 21st century America, it's OK to display a handgun, but God forbid that a woman should display a naked breast or a teenage girl show a bit of leg in case it might encourage passersby to sexually molest or assault them. Have we so little self-control that we need to be protected from our own sexuality?

One of the areas which the treatment of children as a species apart from adults has most affected, is marriage. Throughout most of human history societies have allowed marriage at or near the time of puberty, sometimes very much earlier. When it was done at very early ages it was almost always for political reasons which are irrelevant to this discussion. The Church itself for centuries tended to follow the Jewish pattern of a minimum age of twelve for girls and thirteen for boys, though by no means everyone married that early! Yet puberty clearly marked the point at which childhood ended and adulthood began — just as it does in nature. Most earlier societies recognised and celebrated this important transition with 'rites of passage and 'puberty rituals' which formally signaled the entrance of the child into the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood. These practices continue to this day in some so-called 'primitive' cultures where young people are expected to be sexually active at puberty and often begin raising families soon afterwards, even though most Western civil and religious laws forbid it.

In such cultures children are not only permitted sexual play and experimentation from puberty, but actively encouraged in it. This is seen as the beginning of a natural process that prepares them for their future role as sexually balanced adults. Perhaps the most pernicious effect of the modern cult of 'childhood' is the widespread denial that our children also indulge in various kinds of sex play. Yet, because that play is either ignored, actively discouraged or even punished, it becomes part of the secret life of our children who quickly acquire the guilt and shame which contribute so largely to the ignorance, denial and repression which bedevil adult sexual relations in our society.

It is ironic that despite the so-called 'swinging sixties' and the sexual freedoms which they ushered in — particularly for women — we cling to the notion that sexual activity should only begin with marriage, despite the fact that most of us reach puberty many years, sometimes decades before we marry. I firmly believe that not only are healthy, sexual relations within marriage seriously inhibited by the negative teachings most of us received as children, but that even more damage is done by the typical postponement of marriage far into the years of sexual maturity.

In the affluent nations of the world (coincidentally the same nations that have the greatest problems with pornography and paedophilia) the average marriageable age has steadily advanced through recent centuries to the mid-twenties — some twelve years later than the average age of puberty! This irony has not been lost on many health professionals and psychologists, yet continues to be completely ignored by the vast majority of parents and teachers.

The evidence from historical, cultural, biological and psychological causes overwhelmingly demonstrates that Nature intended us to be sexual adults at puberty and to experiment sexually to some degree much earlier. Yet our modern, western culture so inhibits this natural growth process that we enter adulthood seriously crippled sexually, psychologically and often morally and spiritually too, often unable to enjoy satisfying lives of sexual intimacy. It is my firm conviction that the primary cause of this dire state of affairs is the sexual persecution and guilt inflicted on children by the traditional negative views of dogmatic Christianity and our sexually repressed, western culture.

What alternative is left to our children, conditioned to regard sex as 'dirty' and their bodies as 'shameful', but to succumb to furtive, guilt-ridden fumblings on the one hand, or the denial and repression of the most fundamental of our desires on the other? Is it any wonder that countless millions grow up to become deeply frustrated, confused and damaged adults, who in turn, will pass the same dreadful inheritance onto their children, thus continuing the vicious circle of guilt, repression, perversion and abuse? It does not surprise me in the least that millions of frustrated and damaged adults should seek some outlet for their sexual urges in pornography, nor that some should wish to have sex with children, nor that many others can only express their sexuality through pain, humiliation and abuse. What does surprise me is that we are not all like that!

Well, some of us are clearly headed in that direction as a recent Internet news item reporting the complaints of two women against the proprietor of an American petrol station for selling 'pornographic' cigarette lighters, brought home to me all too painfully. The lighters apparently 'featured' pictures of naked men and women engaged in various sexual acts, the mere sight of which caused one of the female complainants, a Ms Danielle Dickenson to say, "I just looked over to my right and I saw there was these lighters with women's breasts exposed."

Women's breasts? Exposed! Heaven forbid that we should be exposed to the sight of something we women have possessed since creation which our babies (and sometimes, our lucky husbands and lovers, too) see and fondle daily. The outraged miss went on to say: "I don't want to have to go into a gas station, pay for gas and see naked people having sex, that's not appropriate at all." No doubt Ms Dickenson thinks it is appropriate to pay for 'gas' and see men killing each other on television and other men buying the weapons that make America the murder capital of the world. Another customer, also female I am ashamed to say, is reported to have added: "I'm just shocked at what is on these lighters." Is she really. Am I the only one who finds such attitudes not only hypocritical but also deeply disturbing? What possible hope is there for the children of such women to grow up into loving, well adjusted, sexually mature adults?

Until we as adults learn to accept, heal, and explore our own sexuality as a natural part of our humanity and spirituality, there is little hope that the dreadful descent into ever more extreme forms of aberrant sexual activity and its attendant evils of mental illness, abusive relationships, repression and violence, can be halted.

We need to teach our children that it is perfectly natural and normal to explore their own sexuality and that of their peers. Children need to see that their parents are not ashamed of their own sexuality. Parents who deliberately conceal their own bodies and sexual encounters through misguided feelings of guilt and shame do not realise how much damage they are doing to their children. The most serious sexual problem in our society today is not premarital sex, unwanted teenage pregnancies, paedophilia, AIDS or even sexually explicit cigarette lighters; it is our failure to accept that children are sexual beings. By denying them the right to explore, express and enjoy their sexuality as nature intended, we are ensuring that many of them will grow up to be the paedophiles, perverts and rapists of the future.

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NOTE: Some readers have contacted us to complain that this article condones paedophilia. We suggest they read it again with greater attention to the author's words rather than their own preconceptions. The author wishes to make it quite clear that she does not condone adults having sex with children, or sexual abuse of ANY kind, of which she considers the repression or punishment of a child's natural curiosity and healthy, sexual development the worst kind. This article was last edited by the Author on 24th July 2005.

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Last updated 27 July 2005
© 2005 Miranda S Givings and utterpants.co.uk /271004 / A240705