Gail Hawkes, who co-authored the excellent Theorising the Sexual Child in Modernity with Danielle Egan, responded last month to Heretic TOC’s Being a predator is child’s play. She requested, “I would love to read some of your comments or translation of the Norwegian book.” Well, how could I refuse? My response has been a bit slow off the mark, but perhaps I can make amends by throwing in that Danielle Egan has a new book out this month, Becoming Sexual: A Critical Appraisal of the Sexualization of Girls. The title sounds conservative, but a review in Times Higher Education suggests otherwise. I’m sure it is good and I imagine Gail is rooting for her colleague’s success with it.
There’s not much space, in a reasonable blog-length, to give comments as well as translation, so I’ll focus mainly on just two passages of the latter. To recap briefly, the Swedish pre-school scene was extensively reviewed in The Lovelife of Children by Gertrude Aigner and Erik Centerwall, published in Sweden in 1983. It came out in Norwegian the following year, and my translation is from that. It is worth noting that in a cross-cultural comparison between North American and Swedish children aged three to six, more sexual behaviour was reported among the Swedish children (Larsson, Svedin & Friedrich, 2000). Among the boys, behaviour such as walking around with no clothes on, using sexual language and talking about sex, touching the mother’s breasts and touching their own sex organs in public, demonstrated the greatest differences between the countries.
In another work, IngBeth Larrson noted that “In the 1970s and 1980s, in the spirit of sexual liberalisation, some pedagogical literature on children and sexuality was published in Sweden. The books were based on the idea of ‘good sexuality’ and included advice on how adults could teach small children to masturbate using a good technique and how day-care staff could encourage children to play explorative games of ‘doctors and nurses’.” The Lovelife of Children is one of the books Larrson mentions. (Larrson, 2001)
Teaching kids to wank? That’s enough, right there, to give many Americans hysterics. Even heretics here might puzzle over the need to teach “what comes naturally”. But what if a kid isn’t doing it right, so that he or she gets frustrated over not being able to come? That’s the sort of issue The Lovelife of Children gets into. But here’s a little boy called Kim, aged seven, who clearly does not have that problem. He tells of his feelings in an account called When I think about Tina (Når jeg tenker på Tina…, Aigner & Centerwall, 1984, pp.37-8):
Every morning I get a prickling in my tummy – I think I am the only one who feels like this. I have tried to talk to Mummy and Daddy about it, and at the kindergarten with Karen and Michael who are staff – I can’t talk with Magda, she doesn’t listen, she only talks. She certainly doesn’t like children. When I think about Tina my willy goes all hard. When I’m on my own I take my cock between my thumb and three fingers and pull backwards and forwards, right till I begin to get a shudder in my body. It’s really strange, because the feeling goes right into my bum-hole, and up into my hair and down into my toes. I often want to press myself up to Tina, stroke her and kiss her, and sit and look at her. She smells s good. Her hair is golden. When the sun is shining the light shines off it. Her hands are so beautiful. I would love her to take me and stroke over my whole face. I want her to like me as much as I like her. But when there is something I don’t know, when I don’t dare ask, the blackness comes on in my eyes and tummy. Strange that I am alone in this, maybe I was really born earlier than my Mummy says, so that I am older. After all, it’s only adults who do such things. That’s what I saw in a porno magazine that Daddy had under other books and papers in a drawer of his writing desk. Besides, why did he hide it? He puts all the other magazines out on the newspaper shelf. Grownups are so strange! Why don’t they talk about what they do? How it feels to be in love – like I am with Tina, even though she is only six. I’ll ask Michael today. He is going steady with a girl, so he must know. Maybe he knows about these feelings I have, these black feelings. I wonder if girls feel the same thing?
We are not told how Kim’s story was compiled. As presented here it is a much longer and more coherent narrative than we would expect from most children of his age. Perhaps his story has been pieced together from what he said at different times; perhaps his writing truly was as precocious as many would feel his sentiments and sexuality to have been. What we may be sure of, though, is that such fully realised expressions of love among quite little children are not just a freakish quirk of an exceptionally liberal childcare system. The early sexologists Sanford Bell and Albert Moll encountered similar childhood passions over a century ago and have been rediscovered more recently by Floyd Martinson and others.
Kim’s lust, if not his love, appears to be expressed from afar. Aigner & Centerwall also present accounts of somewhat more consummated attraction in the kindergarten’s “Cosy Room”:
Maria, Susanne, Mickey and Tomas are playing “mother, father and children”. Three of them are making up the bedding in the doll’s pram: Maria, Susanne and Tomas lie the dolls on their sides, wrap the quilt over them, kiss the dolls in turn and rock them.
Mickey sits looking on through all this play, then he gets up, goes over to Maria and says: “I want to fuck you. Come on, we can do it in the bedroom.” “Wait a bit,” says Maria, but then she goes off with him into the Cosy Room, where they lie down clasped tight together, hugging and kissing. Maria sits astride Mickey’s midriff and makes coital movements. Then Mickey asks: “Is this what people do? Maybe we’re not doing it right?” Maria answers: “It’s what Mummy and Daddy do anyway.” Mickey: “Do they let you watch? I have never seen my parents do anything like that. They lock the door sometimes, and then I try to peep in through the keyhole, but I don’t see anything. Can I come to your house and watch your Mummy and Daddy?” Maria is silent for a while before she answers: “I don’t know. No.Yes. No, but you can always stay for the night at our house one Saturday, but they don’t fuck all the time.” Mickey asks: “Can I see your bottom then?” Maria pulls her trousers down over her backside and shows it, but then Mickey protests: “I want to see the whole of your bum.” Maria says that the front side is not called bum, but lap or cunt or pussy or pisshole. “But I say ‘lap’ because that is what Daddy says to Mummy: ‘Now, Lena, what have you got in your lap today?’ ” Mickey listens and asks if it is possible to have anything there. Maria answers: “Yes, of course, Daddy’s penis or Mummy’s tampon, if she’s having a period, and sometimes she has a yearning there as well, but I don’t know what it looks like. Funny, isn’t it?”
Now Mickey wants to see the front: “Front, Front, blunt, dunt”, I can talk in rhyme he says to Maria. [TOC: “Skyød, skyød, brød, sprød”. Literally: Lap, lap, bread, nonsense word.] Maria takes an active part in the play. She takes her trousers off first, then continues by taking off her frock and becoming quite naked. She challenges Mickey to take off his clothes, but he hesitates and says: “What if Miss sees us and tells Mummy. Then she’ll be angry.” Maria answers: “Miss won’t do that. What’s wrong with being naked? Grownups are so funny, apart from mine. If you don’t take your clothes off I’ll put mine on and I won’t play with you.”
Mickey takes out his penis. Maria feels it, caresses it and at the same time says: “Daddy’s is much bigger, and the top of his penis is as big as everything you’ve got, and he can get it even bigger when it stands out straight. Then it gets hard and then Daddy says he’s sticking out and that often happens when he plays with Mummy.” Mickey says: “So exciting.” Maria kisses Mickey’s penis: “Oh, it’s so sweet, so pretty.” Mickey: “It’s standing up!” Maria wants intercourse: “Lie together, lie together, fuck, bonk, fuck!” [TOC: “Samleie, samleie, knulle, pule, knulle.” In Norwegian “samleie” is the usual polite word for sexual intercourse. It is derived from component words meaning lying together. It may be thought a small child would be unlikely to use the word “intercourse” unless specifically taught it but the more graphic “lie together” would trip from the tongue more easily.]
There is a ring at the outer door. Mickey hears it, snatches his trousers on again and runs out of the Cosy Room. Maria is less bothered. Mickey comes back and says to Maria that she should hurry up, that no one should see her naked. “And if Mummy comes soon, you mustn’t say anything to her.” Maria looks slightly uncomprehending but pretends to accept it. (pp.40-41)
The kindergarten staff were evidently able to observe and hear exactly what was going on without the children’s knowledge. In the introductory chapter much is made of the need to respect children’s sexual feelings, experience and secrets. Some would doubtless argue that spying on the children was itself a breach of their privacy and that the book compounds the intrusion by sharing these children’s secrets with a wider public. That would be to interpret respect far too narrowly. Real respect lies in keeping a distance in a practical sense: not storming into the Cosy Room to chastise the children for their sexual behaviour, not suppressing that behaviour or valuing it negatively. Keeping a secret in this case would have meant not rushing off to Mickey’s parents to “tell Mummy and make her angry”.
Maria’s remarks about seeing her father’s erect penis would set alarm bells ringing furiously in modern America. It would instantly be suspected she was a victim of sexual abuse at home. Her frankly sexual invitation to Mickey would clinch the matter. This would identify her not only as a victim but also as a perpetrator in need of treatment to prevent her “harming” other children. But would this be a reasonable reaction? Maria had not been not coercive towards Mickey; neither did she disclose any coercive behaviour by her parents. It is not clear how intervention would serve any purpose, either for Maria or any of the other children in the kindergarten. The downside of such intervention becomes massively apparent, of course, when we consider the impact such interventions have in the United States, as shown here so recently.
Aigner, G. & Centerwall, E.; The Lovelife of Children (Barnas kjaerlighetsliv), Pax Forlag AS, Oslo, 1984
Larrson, I., Svedin, C.G. & Friedrich; W.N. Differences and similarities in sexual behaviour among pre-schoolers in Sweden and USA, Nordic Journal of Psychiatry 54, 251-257 (2000)
Larrson, I., Child sexuality and sexual behaviour, Linköping University, Sweden, 2001