Why be happy when you could be normal? Our culture’s stifling obsession with normality and conformity, brilliantly captured in lesbian novelist Jeanette Winterson’s ironic question, has been snapped into focus for us by oral sex in the kindergarten and its shocking abnormality – or assumed abnormality. OK, most little kids don’t do it, but would they if they were not under a regime of constant surveillance and prohibition?
Hard to be certain in the absence of careful observational studies in conditions of true childhood freedom such as we are unlikely to find in the developed world. Studies of that sort would give us a benchmark. We would be able to measure the frequencies of particular childhood sexual activities, noting which were usual and which were rare. Statistically, some would be normal and some would deviate from the norm. And some idiot would seize upon these results to pronounce the “deviant” activities pathological and harmful!
I will say no more here about normality and abnormality, except to say there is a great guest blog in the pipeline titled Show Me An Abnormal Mountain.
For the moment, then, Heretic TOC will proceed with the assumption that there is nothing necessarily wrong with any childhood sexual activity simply by virtue of its being unusual. But studies of what is usual and unusual, or would be in conditions of freedom, would be very valuable in order to tell us more about the nature of childhood sexuality. One key question is whether infantile and early childhood sexuality is really sexual or whether it is just an aspect of discovery and play. Kinsey’s work showed that children of both sexes are capable of orgasm from infancy onwards, and there is a wealth of evidence, especially from less uptight cultures than our own, that children of all ages (including Freud’s alleged “latency period”) exhibit sexual behaviours spontaneously when they are not discouraged from doing so.
There is also evidence that individual children, like the four-year-old boy and his five-year-old girl partner at the Carson pre-school, will consciously desire to repeat experiences they have found to be pleasurable. Belittling this as merely exploratory behaviour is just a tactic to avoid facing the fact that children can indeed be truly sexual. Are such children exceptional? Do most children, as is commonly supposed, only become significantly driven by sexual desire with the hormonal surge of puberty? Or does this frequently come earlier? In my own case I can answer very definitely that I was highly sexual from age 10 onwards, fully three years before any visible signs of puberty.
Remarkably, considering how little has been made of it in “expert” discourse, there is substantial evidence that 10 is a common age for the awakening of distinct and abiding sexual attraction and desire. The silence is even more remarkable given that this awakening has been associated with a physical substrate, the non-gonadal “mini-puberty” known as adrenarche. Sex hormone levels in the child’s body are low in early childhood and remain so until the maturation of the adrenal glands around age 6-8. With increased adrenal activity hormone production begins to increase exponentially until it reaches the low adult range at about 10. In a paper titled The magical age of 10, anthropologist Gilbert Herdt and psychologist Martha McClintock noted that 10 is the age for initiation into adulthood in numerous quite separate and isolated tribal cultures in New Guinea, with sexual intercourse for boys typically starting around this age.
Freud, as is well known, insisted on the sexuality of much younger children, locating the development of sexual orientation in the resolution of the child’s connections of erotic attraction and rivalry with its parents at around age 5-6. Important as this “Oedipal” period is, though, to the child’s sense of identity and social development, there is no convincing biological basis to suggest this is a key period of children’s sexual development in terms of the strength or persistence of genitally oriented desires.
For that, oddly enough, we might have to go back much further. It has been noted before here at Heretic TOC (search for “The Clitoral Truth” in the comments) that ultrasound evidence has demonstrated the phenomenon of pre-natal masturbation. Kids get their jollies even in the womb! This is not all that surprising when another little known (to the layman, at least) fact is taken into account: newborn babies have adult levels of the key sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen in their bodies. These levels then tail off to a low level. The high level at birth reflects a pre-natal regime in which the sex hormones play a vital role in developing the body of the foetus, including divergent sexual development for males and females of the baby’s sex organs and brain. Just how vital that role is was dramatically illustrated by a finding reported last year from a study of boys aged 8-11 whose foetal testosterone levels were known from amniotic fluid measurements at 13–20 weeks gestation. Higher levels of foetal testosterone were shown to be associated with increased “approach” behaviours, related to the brain’s reward system, all those years later as the boys approached puberty. The official news release from which I have taken this information does not say so, but I am guessing sexual forwardness could well be among the rewarding “approaches” in question!
Drat! I meant to get around in this post to writing, as requested and promised, something about sex in the Swedish kindergartens and how it is viewed by the adults – or used to be in more liberal times – as described in the book The Love Life of The Child, of which I translated parts from the Norwegian edition. Never mind, another day I hope. I should not finish, though, without mentioning a couple of relevant articles kindly dug out by Dave Riegel. One, a translation from a 2007 article about Norwegian kindergartens, appears to indicate that things have not necessarily changed all that much from the research I described from over thirty years ago. This more recent article has already appeared in the comments: just search down the page for “Pre-school Teacher Pia Friis”. The other is a rather good piece following the Carson pre-school scandal in an online magazine called Jezebel, which promises “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women”. The writer, Laura Beck, teeters near the edge of downgrading children’s sexuality to “play”, but never actually loses her footing in a reassuring article titled Kids Are Going to Touch Genitals. Let’s Not Get Too Freaked Out About It.