CHILDHOOD SEX PLAY
Children develop their concept of sex only gradually. Thus, as already mentioned, they are taught to identify themselves as male or female and to act accordingly. It is important to realize, however, that the rehearsal of a gender role involves many things that acquire a sexual meaning only after puberty. In other words, children learn some "sexual" behavior patterns long before they realize their true implications. For instance, on many American and European beaches little girls are made to wear two-piece bathing suits while boys are allowed to wear simple trunks. From a strictly logical standpoint, this difference in clothing may at first be hard to understand. After all, before puberty the breasts of males and females look exactly alike. Nevertheless, in anticipation of future differences, girls already learn to be modest about this particular part of their anatomy. As a result, the female breast is "eroticized", and the male breast is not. (In certain non-Western cultures, on the other hand, the female breast remains exposed throughout life and has no special erotic significance.)
As this example shows, children may adopt certain sexual attitudes well in advance of any actual sexual encounters. However, they may also have intimate physical contact with other people without considering it sexual at all. They have to be told by adults or older children that some things or actions have to do with "sex" and are therefore especially important, mysterious, secret, exciting, or naughty. It is quite obvious, therefore, that the parents have a decisive influence on a child's sexual development. If they feel uncomfortable or even guilty about their own sexuality, they are bound to convey these negative feelings to everybody around them and, as a result, the child may become confused and apprehensive. This would be very unfortunate. Children cannot develop properly if they are not encouraged to experiment, to seek new experiences, and to exercise all their faculties. With such encouragement and proper guidance, however, their "sex play" will eventually turn into purposeful, responsible behavior.
As noted above, very young infants are already capable of certain sexual responses. Indeed, many boys are born with an erection of the penis. Infants of both sexes may be observed rubbing their sex organs against the bed, the floor, or some toy in a thrusting motion, and there is no doubt that they derive physical pleasure from it. For some time, they are still unable to coordinate their movements and to use their hands for a more direct stimulation. However, after a while, they may learn to do so and begin to masturbate. Quite often such deliberate masturbation is carried through to the point of orgasm.
A child's orgasmic capacity Increases with advancing age. By their fifth birthday, more than half of all boys have reached orgasm, and for boys between 10 and 13 years of age the figure rises to nearly 80%. Naturally, the orgasms of these boys are not yet accompanied by ejaculations, since no seminal fluid is produced before puberty, (Even then the ejaculated semen may not contain any sperm cells for some time.) On the other hand, some boys are capable of several orgasms in quick succession. They normally lose this capacity as they grow older.
It seems that, on the whole, fewer girls than boys masturbate to orgasm at an early age. One reason for this may be found in the different anatomy of the two sexes. (A penis is comparatively easy to manipulate, and its erection is more difficult to ignore than the lubrication of the vagina.) A second reason may be the passive, nonsexual attitude that girls learn to adopt as a result of social conditioning. In our culture, little girls are usually not encouraged to be sexual beings.
Parents who see their boys or girls masturbate make a serious mistake if they become alarmed about it and force them to stop under the threat of punishment. This will only create needless feelings of guilt in the children as they continue the practice in secret. The sexual response is a normal function of the human body at any age and, as such, cannot possibly do any physical harm. Neither can it stunt a child's growth. On the contrary, for many children masturbation is simply part of growing up, and there is no medical reason why they should not enjoy it. Nevertheless, children can and should learn that, in our particular culture, masturbation is a very personal and private activity which is unacceptable in public. At the same time, they should be made to understand that what is done in private is not necessarily bad, shameful, sinful, or dirty. As long as such negative connotations are avoided, childhood masturbation creates no problems.
Sex Play with Other Children
Children are naturally curious and, as they grow up, they try to learn everything they can about themselves and the world around them. Once they have explored their own bodies, they are eager to find out whether the other children are in any way different. This is especially true for children who have never seen their parents or brothers and sisters in the nude.
Just as boys and girls compare their height and physical agility, they are also likely to compare the various parts of the body, including those that are kept covered by clothing. Usually, they find a practical way of doing this by playing "doctor," or "house," or "mummy and daddy." Such games give them an opportunity to study each other's bodies at leisure, to touch and fondle the sex organs, or even to engage in mutual masturbation. Indeed, they may lie on top of each other and try to imitate coitus or anal intercourse. Boys as well as girls may also take a penis in their mouths and suck on it.
Such behavior is not necessarily sexual in the adult sense of the word. Children learn only gradually to invest certain activities and social situations with erotic meaning. At first, childhood sex play is just another way of becoming familiar with the human anatomy. Thus, boys play not only with girls in this fashion, but also with other boys, and girls often play with each other. As a matter of statistical fact, before their tenth birthday boys have more sex play with other boys than with girls. It would be foolish, however, to view such incidents as early evidence of homosexuality. While the term "homosexual behavior" may be technically correct whenever partners of the same sex are involved, it is quite misleading in this context because same-sex play in childhood in no way precludes an adult heterosexual orientation. The premature application of labels to the behavior of children only creates unnecessary problems. By the same token, it is unwise to speak of a "homosexual phase" in every boy's personal development. It may very well be true that many boys go through a period of "hating girls" in which they prefer to associate with other boys. However, this attitude is much better explained as an attempt to consolidate the masculine gender role. (The theory that children progress from self-love through love of the same sex to that of the opposite sex has never been proven, and recent scientific findings strongly suggest that it is false.)
Almost all children play sexual games at one time or another, and very often it is a wholesome, pleasant experience for them. They may not realize the erotic potential of these games right away, but sooner or later they will become aware of It. If their sex play then continues to be enjoyable, it may help them to accept their own bodies and to grow up without sexual fear and guilt.
Unfortunately, this positive outcome is not always assured. Indeed, under certain circumstances, sexual games can become quite disturbing for children. This is the case, for example, if they are threatened or exploited by older friends or some playground bullies. Children can be cruel and are very well capable of mistreating those who are timid or weak. Obviously, any sex play that involves unwilling participants must be considered harmful.
Another potential source of trouble is the reaction of parents. Many parents are horrified when they discover that their child has been involved in sex play and, in some cases, they feel that such "bad" behavior deserves drastic punishment. This attitude is incomprehensible to children, and thus they may, for the first time in their lives, feel misunderstood, betrayed, and abandoned. They also may become so fearful and suspicious of anything sexual that their further personality development is seriously impaired. Some sensitive children never outgrow such an early traumatic experience. It is therefore very fortunate that, in recent decades, adult sex education has made great progress and that, generally speaking, parents have now become more sophisticated and tolerant in these matters.
Sexual Contact with Adults
As mentioned earlier, our Western civilization has not always believed that children should be protected from all sexual contact. In medieval Europe, children were still freely touched, caressed, and fondled by every member of the household. Particularly in rural areas, parents, nurses, or servants were accustomed to masturbating small children to please them or to keep them quiet. (This practice is also found in many non-European societies. In the United States today, it is still alive among the Hopi Indians.) However, in modern times there has been a growing tendency to view children as asexual beings. Only in this century, under the influence of Freud and his followers, has the sexuality of children regained at least partial acceptance. Nevertheless, most people continue to believe that there cannot possibly be any harmless sexual contact between children and adults.
There are indeed some adults who abuse children sexually, and parents are justly concerned about this danger. Unfortunately, this concern leads some parents to become overcautious and overprotective. Children who are constantly warned against strangers, and who are taught to be suspicious of any friendly gesture on the part of adults, may become nervous, hostile, and withdrawn. Eventually, they may learn to fear all adults and all sexual feelings and thus become emotionally crippled. This may also happen if they have a sexual encounter with an adult which is then discovered and misinterpreted by other adults. Even if the encounter was disturbing, it may in itself cause less psychological damage than the overreaction of parents, neighbors, and public officials. A case in point is the public attitude toward exhibitionists. Children who are familiar with the nude human body may be startled, but are unlikely to be seriously shocked when they see a man exposing his penis. Moreover, since such a man is usually nonviolent, no great harm will be done if the parents remain calm and explain the incident properly.
Nevertheless, as a general rule boys and girls in our culture are well advised to keep away from strangers and to avoid any sexual contact with adults, or even with much older children. A child is clearly better off playing sexual games with close friends of the same age.