CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS
Children are sexual beings from birth. Infants of both sexes are capable of certain elementary sexual responses and can experience some sexual pleasure. At first, their sexuality is rather diffuse, but it becomes more focused as they grow older. Children may begin to masturbate at an early age and learn to enjoy sexual contact with various partners. Where childhood sex play remains uninhibited, it simply continues until puberty brings a dramatic and rather sudden intensification of sexual interests. Adolescents are sexually highly responsive, although in our culture this responsiveness may arrive sooner and be more pronounced in boys than in girls. (See "The Development of Sexual Behavior.")
However, our modern Western civilization does not grant young people the right to sexual satisfaction. In the last few centuries, first childhood and then adolescence have become established as special, protected periods of life in which sexual activity is assumed to be either "unnatural" or dangerous. Thus, most males and females in Europe and America remain sexually frustrated until they are able to marry, i.e., in most cases until they are well over twenty years old. Even worse: They are systematically alienated from their own bodies and indoctrinated with rigid puritanical attitudes which impede their emotional growth. As a result, many of them become insensitive, intolerant, and conformist in sexual matters. Their erotic potential remains underdeveloped and unrefined. This negative conditioning already begins in infancy when mothers deny their babies the most intimate communication by raising them on the bottle, or when they suppress all lustful sensations while breastfeeding them. The deprivation continues when they keep them wrapped up in diapers, clothes, and blankets, instead of allowing them to enjoy complete skin contact and occasional nudity. Finally, the damage is compounded by inflexible daily routines, harsh toilet training, withholding of sexual information, punishment of masturbation, and prevention of exploratory sex play with other children. These and other direct and indirect pressures often succeed in blocking all sexual interests and experiences out of children's minds. This leads to a loss of important primal memories and produces a long period of "latency". (Psychoanalysts ascribe these developments to the "Oedipal conflict".) Puberty then arrives as an unexpected and unpleasant time of trial. The sudden onset of menstruation in girls, more frequent erections and the first ejaculation in boys may be misunderstood as symptoms of a disease. Thus, the lack of sexual knowledge may cause anxiety and confusion. Yet even where adequate knowledge is provided, one basic problem remains: The greatly increased sexual capacity of adolescents cannot be exercised. Modern teenagers may well be told some of the "facts of life", but at the same time they are also informed that for them regular sexual intercourse is out of the question. Therefore, they find themselves restricted to masturbation and various forms of "petting", but even these behaviors are not considered desirable and may actually be denounced as sinful, unhealthy, or immature.
All of this has very serious consequences for the emotional and moral climate in our society. After all, about 40% of the population are sexually mature, but unmarried. Since our official morality makes no allowance for their sexual needs, it creates in our midst a great deal of resentment, hostility, and, indeed, violence. Many young people become openly rebellious or "drop out" of the established system. Those that adapt to it are often emotionally crippled for life. They cannot be happy before they are married and are disappointed thereafter. The reason for this is plain: They are erotically incompetent. Our children and adolescents simply never learn how to be lovers, how to be tender and affectionate, how to give and receive physical pleasure, how to build and maintain mutually rewarding sexual relationships. Instead, they are raised on a steady diet of sexual shame and guilt until some rnagic wedding ceremony supposedly somehow transforms them into passionate, sensuous, and satisfied husbands and wives. However, in real life such miracles rarely happen. Our sexual rules for the young are therefore not only absurd, but inhumane and destructive.
Many non-Western cultures have shown that this kind of sexual oppression is not necessary. Some American Indian and Polynesian societies, for example, permitted and even encouraged early sexual experimentation in their children. The Muria in Central India even set aside a special building, the ghotul, in which children of both sexes spent their nights together. (Similar customs existed among the Trobriand Islanders and the Masai in Africa.) Usually after their sixth or seventh birthday, boys and girls began to sleep in the ghotul to which their parents did not have access. Inside, the children practically governed themselves. The older children encouraged the younger ones to become sexually active and instructed them in all sexual techniques. Regular and frequent sexual intercourse was enjoyed as an integral part of childhood and constituted one of the greatest attractions of life in the ghotul. Not surprisingly, the Muria children were friendly, graceful, well-behaved, self-reliant, and cooperative. As adults, they lived happily in exclusive and stable marriages. It is only recently with the arrival of compulsory education in government-sponsored schools that this pattern has been disrupted. The "new" Muria children seem to have become just as anxious and inhibited as their counterparts in the rest of the modern world.
Indeed, the "Westernization" of the world has, along with obvious improvements, also brought sexual misery to a great number of formerly satisfied peoples. As we have mentioned earlier, many countries of the so-called Third World are now more puritanical than the old Christian colonialists. Thus, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says nothing about sexual rights. Neither is there any mention of them in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child (passed in 1959). Its ten principles mention the right to a name, a nationality, food, housing, medical care, and compulsory education (!), but are silent about the right to sex education, sexual activity, and the freedom from sexual stereotyping. The document merely states that "the child . . . needs love and understanding" and that he shall, "wherever possible grow up in the care ... of his parents" (Principle 6). Unfortunately, under present circumstances there is little hope that this declaration will be amended any time soon.
Nevertheless, in those Western countries that are committed to the ideal of individual freedom we can find a growing willingness to extend much of this freedom to children. Thus, in recent years various European and American writers have demanded a more positive sexual education and, indeed, a new "bill of rights" for children that would include sexual rights. These proposals differ in details, but generally agree on these basic points: Children should have the same right to sexual information and sexual activity as adults, and they should not be forced into stereotypical sex roles. This means not only that children would have to be told about contraception, abortion, and venereal disease, but also that they would have to be given access to all "adult" books, magazines, films, and stage shows, including those that are called "pornographic". It further means that children could choose their sexual partners freely (including adult partners), as long as they observed the same decorum as everyone else. "Child molestation" and incest would therefore no longer be crimes unless they involved unwilling children. (Needless to say, at the same time the right and the ability of children to refuse sexual advances would have to be strengthened.) Finally, all sexual discrimination between children would have to cease. Boys and girls would have equal rights to all toys, games, sports, schools, training programs, and occupations.
Undoubtedly, even in the present "permissive" moral climate many parents will find that these suggestions go too far. It is still widely feared that most children would abuse their complete sexual freedom or that they would be exploited by their unscrupulous elders. This fear cannot simply be dismissed, because in our society even many adults are being exploited, and children with their limited strength and experience are all the more vulnerable. However, we should perhaps ask ourselves if it makes sense to condemn sexual activity in children even where no exploitation or any other harm is involved. This also applies to sexual contact between children and adults. By no means all of such contacts are harmful, and it seems irrational to punish them all in a summary fashion.
Less controversy may be created by the sexual liberation of adolescents. It is now commonly agreed that, at least from the age of puberty, boys and girls need accurate information about sexual anatomy and physiology, reproduction, contraception, abortion, and venereal disease. It also seems self-evident that such theoretical knowledge is not enough, and that contraceptives, abortions, and medical treatment of venereal infections must be available to all sexually mature persons regardless of age. (Those teenagers who oppose contraception and abortion should, of course, have the right to refuse them.) It is only fair that girls who can become pregnant and boys who can cause pregnancy should be given the ultimate control over their own bodies. At any rate, their sexual decisions cannot be left up to their parents. Adolescents who are old enough to reproduce are old enough to decide if, when, and how they should become sexually active. It is the duty of society to educate its young in such a way that they can make these decisions responsibly.
If these principles are accepted—and there is a definite trend in this direction—it will be only a matter of time before sex education becomes mandatory in all public schools and safe contraceptives are available from public vending machines everywhere. Moreover, the medical privacy of adolescents will be protected, and parents will not have a veto over their daughter's abortion, no matter how young she might be. All criminal laws against consensual sex acts in private will be abolished, including the notorious laws against "statutory rape". Adolescent boys and girls will be free to choose sexual partners of any age and any sex. They will no longer be declared "delinquents" on account of their sexual habits alone.
Naturally, spelling out these implications of adolescent sexual freedom makes us realize that we still have a long way to go. As a matter of fact, the majority of adults in our society probably prefer to stand pat and resist any further movement. Their concern is genuine, and many of them also have the best interest of their sons and daughters at heart. Therefore it can only help the common cause if their "conservatism" is given a proper hearing. Sexual permissiveness can easily turn into an excuse for emotional neglect. Parents who do not care what their children do, simply do not care for their children. Sexual freedom means sexual responsibility, not anarchy and license. Boys and girls want, indeed need, firm guidance as they grow up. After all, the development of a human being from self-centered infant to modern citizen repeats, in abbreviated form, the long and arduous civilizing process of the whole human race. This process is not automatic. Spontaneity alone is no longer enough. Some inhibition, coercion, and deprivation will always be necessary.
These may be truisms, but they are sometimes forgotten by overzealous liberationists. Yet, we do not do our young people a favor if we leave them entirely to their own devices. Only if this elementary truth is understood can we begin to grant them sexual freedom. On the other hand, however, we have no right to deny them this freedom, since we know that our present sexual standards are oppressive. It would be a crime to force our children and adolescents into the blind acceptance of a morality that is long overdue for reform.