African explorer Sir Harry Johnston noted that “almost every girl” in east-central Africa ceased to be a virgin “well before puberty”.
Not that he personally knew “almost every girl”, one supposes, and certainly not carnally. Unlike many fellow adventurers back then, in the heyday of empire a hundred years ago, he does not appear to have been a sexual libertarian. He was a careful and talented observer, though, as evidenced by his studies of the flora and fauna of the region, and his knowledge of native culture was regarded as authoritative.
He was among the better colonial governors, too, keen to train and promote African staff. What he shared with his less enlightened colleagues, who felt the black Africans were inherently inferior and needed to be ruled by force, was a firm belief in the superiority of western culture – a superiority that must have seemed obvious from the fact that the British, and others westerners, were the conquerors not the conquered, the rulers, not the ruled. So of course the exotic sexual practices of the “heathens” and “savages” were regarded, like so much else about their “uncivilized” lives, as appalling, and most definitely not to be emulated.
We have done a bit of re-thinking since those days, but not enough. Imperialism is now thoroughly discredited and we are beginning to question the wisdom of global market capitalism – Lensman’s recent articles here on the aetiology of paedophobia, and our Deep Green future have added to what is becoming a vast debate.
Another aspect of this re-thinking, which re-evaluates “primitive” lifestyles more positively, is as yet only in its very early stages, and for the most part remains of fringe interest. One exception (sort of) is Jared Diamond’s book The World until Yesterday, which significantly bears the subtitle What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Diamond came to prominence through his hugely successful and rightly acclaimed Guns, Germs and Steel, which provided a profound explanation, rooted in contingencies of geography and climate, as to why westerners became the conquerors and rulers of the world.
Part of its success, I suspect, lies in the fact that its western readers could bask in the satisfaction of being “winners”, even as the book’s contents obliged them to admit that their success had nothing to do with innate superiority. Diamond’s later books, including Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, have faced more resistance: the environmentalist message they promote proved uncomfortable for those who do not wish to face the need for change.
At least Diamond had a substantial readership based on his having already made a name for himself. Others who urge a re-evaluation of non-WEIRD lifestyles remain at the margins. In line with this blog’s mission to promote such non-dominant narratives, Heretic TOC today fanfares the arrival of an important (or so it should be regarded) new article in the Archives of Sexual Behavior: “How Children Learn About Sex: A Cross-Species and Cross-Cultural Analysis”, by clinical psychologist Lawrence Josephs.
In this paper, Josephs draws together, from primatology, anthropology, and the history of childhood sexuality, evidence which supports the hypothesis that throughout most of our evolutionary past children have learned about sex basically by taking part in it, initially through direct observation of parental sex and also, still in early childhood, by engaging in sexual activity themselves, usually with peers but often also with a degree of adult involvement and encouragement. Evolutionary psychology may be all the rage in some quarters, but, says Josephs, contemporary theories of psychosexual development have failed to consider the possibility that young children have an innate disposition to learn in this way. It is a primate-wide trait that is conserved in humans, he says, but has been suppressed in modern societies. In other words, the dogma of childhood sexual “innocence” is a recent imposition that goes against the grain of human nature.
There are echoes here of Bruce Rind’s censored monograph on pederasty, which eventually appeared as a 90-page chapter a couple of years ago in Censoring Sex Research. I critiqued it in The pre-WEIRD world, according to Rind. While there was much to be welcomed in Rind’s work, its gender-specific theme of the man-boy erotic dyad was focused on adult and adolescent sexuality, whereas contemporary society’s investment in “innocence” is expressed primarily through its insistence on the supposed need to protect prepubescent children from sex, whether boys or girls. Yes, there are many who are hell-bent on discouraging even adolescent sex, but only a few deluded souls would argue that adolescents are naturally pre-sexual. This is very much the current mainstream attitude towards younger children, though, even a century after Freud.
In a way, then, Josephs’ contribution is even more fundamental and radical than Rind’s, and it is very good news that his article, far from being censored, has appeared in the most prestigious journal in its field. So how did he go about it?
The idea that concealing sex from children is a species-wide norm is a WEIRD fallacy, he begins. Actually, it is plain weird, as well as WEIRD, because anyone with an ounce of imagination would realise that in the long millennia before the invention of doors and locks, even tiny children would inevitably have seen lots of bonking by their parents and others: it would have been a wild, constantly played spectacular, the internet porn of its day. That did not stop Freud believing exposure to the “primal scene” (i.e., a scene of parental sexuality) was harmful. In his view, it was a vital precondition of “civilized” behaviour that we need to repress and control our libido – including the incestuous “Oedipal” impulse he discerned, which he claimed we feel in early childhood towards our own opposite-sex parents.
It was in 1918 that Freud warned about the primal scene. By 1990, as Josephs points out, the sexologist John Money was proposing that “human beings who are heirs to Western civilization have a long cultural heritage of negative strategies for dealing with juvenile sexual rehearsal play. These are strategies of vandalism that thwart, warp, and distort the normally developing lovemap and make it pathological”. By this time he had some research (Hoyt, 1979) to support him. Soon there was more (Okami et al., 1998), when it was confirmed that witnessing the primal scene does not increase psychopathology. A range of historical research, moreover, is cited to show that concealing parental sexuality from children and prohibiting sexual rehearsal play have only become normative in the West in the last 300 years – research which includes studies appearing in a book recently mentioned on Heretic TOC, George Rousseau’s Children and Sexuality: From the Greeks to the Great War. I have now got hold of it: there is plenty of good stuff.
Much of the evidence that Josephs presents will already be familiar to many heretics here. The value of his paper comes from drawing on a range of disciplines and concisely presenting a case for re-evaluating the current negativity towards children’s early sexual learning and expression. The classic anthropological review remains Patterns of Sexual Behaviour (Ford & Beach, 1951), which I drew on extensively for my own Paedophilia: The Radical Case. Josephs also brings in more recent work, including a review of hunter-gatherer childhoods (Konner 2010), in which it is reported that hunter-gatherer children imitate parental sexual relations in simulated sexual intercourse in relatively small mixed-sex, multi-age play groups.
One point that particularly struck me from Josephs’ sources was this:
“Curiously, hunter-gatherer cultures, like the Hazda or !Kung, that are permissive towards childhood sexuality tend to be fiercely egalitarian and highly respectful of individual autonomy (Boehm, 1999) and do not pressure children to obey authority (Shostak, “A !Kung woman’s memories of childhood” in Lee & DeVore, 1976).”
This ought to be music to the ears of feminists who keep banging on about the need for equality in sexual relationships and fretting over adult power abuse in intergenerational sex. It shows that if we really do start learning from traditional societies, as Diamond urges, they can relax – the kids could be socially empowered as well as enjoying an agreeable childhood.
There is a price to be paid, though. Hunter-gatherer economies favour social equality; relatively acquisitive and competitive agricultural and industrial economies have different social priorities. Ancient Athens at the height of its glory had a democratic, and hence relatively egalitarian, political system, but even in that era the social ethos was one of ferocious competition: pederasty thrived not least because boys who wanted to get on in life needed a lover who was a good mentor, someone who was not equal to himself but far more knowledgeable and authoritative – and, quite possibly, authoritarian. Modern life, too, is intensely competitive. The way forward, however, as outlined by Lensman, could well involve more cooperative, and less competitive, lifestyles.
Getting back to Josephs, his paper addresses not just children’s sexual knowledge and experience with peers but also adult-child sexual touching. He notes a range of cultures in which it appears entirely normal for adults, especially mothers, to masturbate their infant children, especially as a substitute for satisfaction at the breast.
Looking beyond infancy, he reminds us of Malinowski’s conclusion in 1927, based on anthropological evidence, that when it is not socially suppressed we see “a steady and gradual increase of sexuality in the child, the curve rising in a continuous manner without any kink”. There is no Freudian “latency period”, in other words. More recently, Gilbert Herdt and a colleague (Herdt & McClintock, 2000) proposed a stage of psychosexual development between six and ten which they refer to as adrenal puberty as opposed to gonadal puberty. Beginning around six years old, the adrenal gland in both sexes begin to secrete increasing levels of androgens that are associated with the increasing intensity of childhood sexual attractions and desires. Heretic TOC reported this in The magical age of 10? Actually, with the age of puberty currently dropping at the speed of a whore’s drawers, the magical age in question may now be even lower: Josephs points to recent evidence (Palmert et al., 2001; Remer, Boye, Hartmann, & Wudy, 2005), that adrenarche begins as early as three years old, “around the time children begin to engage in sexual rehearsal play” – not to mention, I would add, that boys (or future boys!) have been observed with erections in the womb, and masturbating, as recorded via ultra-sound imagery.
All this leads Josephs to pose a brave and urgent question:
… Exactly what constitutes interpersonally sensitive sexual touching at various ages prior to puberty has yet to be researched. Such research is necessary to understand what kind of childhood sexual touching is traumatogenic and when deprivation of interpersonally sensitive and age appropriate sexual touching becomes pathogenic…
Less bravely, but, hey, he had to get published, the author ducks away from extensive anthropological evidence for normative adult-child sexual conduct in many cultures (Nieto, 2004). He writes:
“… traumatic experiences are most likely when adolescents or adults use pre-pubertal children as sex objects to facilitate orgasm. Such sexual practices do not appear to be normalized in cultures that allow limited playful or soothing fondling of infantile genitalia, observation of parental sexuality, and pre-pubertal playgroup sexual experimentation.”
So is he saying that fondling of infantile genitalia, etc., are not allowed among the Lepcha, for example, where “old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds”? Or among the Sambia, where all small boys from age six or so are expected to fellate young bachelors? Actually, for men to fellate boys, as opposed to the boys being fellators, is definitely forbidden by the Sambia, so the answer to my query is not entirely obvious. I’d have thought, though, that even with this stricture in mind there would not necessarily be a bar on Sambia mothers fondling their children’s genitalia. Perhaps I should read Herdt’s famous studies of the Sambia more closely…
What I can say with confidence is that Josephs has made an unusual and useful contribution to the literature. Perhaps the best of it is that he has drawn the attention of psychologists, in particular (who read the Archives) to work from other disciplines: a range of inter-disciplinary perspectives is vital if progress is to be made in this complex field.
The importance of re-discovering the normality of children’s sexuality hardly needs to be impressed upon heretics here but it is worth noting the growing evidence of our failure to do so. I see that Freedom of information requests by The Sunday Times last month revealed that on average two “sex crimes” a day were reported last year from schools, two thirds of them “committed” by children, with a number of four- and five-year-olds among the “criminals”: Schools report four-year-olds for sex offences.
MORE MILESTONES PASSED BY HERETIC TOC
I was so busy moderating the comments to Lensman’s wonderful guest blogs recently that I omitted to mention a significant milestone: over 5,000 published comments since Heretic TOC was launched late in 2012. In the two and a half years since then there have been over 150 blogs and well over 180,000 “hits”, with the average running at above 200 per day this year.
The most remarkable feature by far, though, is surely the high proportion of comments that have been substantial and well argued contributions, rather than one-liners, some of them amounting to a blog in their own right. These comments now run to 256 online pages in the administration dashboard, totalling over three quarters of a million words! The blogs themselves, both my own and guest contributions, are usually around the 2,000-word mark, so these have notched up around 300,000 words. The total takes us well past a million words! Heretic TOC may be “not the dominant narrative” but its scale is becoming positively biblical!