INFANCY AND CHILDHOOD
When, at the beginning of our century, Sigmund Freud first wrote about the sexuality of children, he was vehemently attacked as an evil-minded man bent on destroying purity and innocence. Most of his contemporaries were convinced that children had no sexual feelings or capacities whatsoever. Indeed, there are still some people today who are deeply troubled by the suggestion that children start having a "sex life" the moment they are born.
However, even in our Western civilization, people have not always felt that way. Indeed, the very notion of childhood as a "pure", protected period of life is only a few hundred years old. In ancient and medieval Europe, children were not treated very differently from adults and shared in most of their activities. They did the same work, played the same games, sang the same songs, and wore the same kind of clothes. Medieval painters portrayed boys and girls as miniature adults with sinewy bodies and serious faces. Medieval poets and writers took no special notice of children and mentioned them only in connection with adult experiences and concerns. There was no special children's literature. If they could read at all, children read the classical Greek and Latin authors in the original language. As a matter of fact, there were no special schools for children. Most children had no formal schooling of any kind, but simply worked for their parents, became apprentices to some artisan, or lived as pages with a noble family. Some exceptional children had private tutors, and others attended classes for students of all ages. It was not until the 16th century that certain religious orders founded exclusive schools for the young.
The sexuality of children was not considered a problem. In general, sex was equated with reproduction, and thus people paid little attention to sexual behavior before puberty. As long as boys and girls were unable to reproduce, they remained free of sexual restrictions. It also has to be remembered that nobody made any effort to determine a person's exact age. Children often did not know how old they were, and neither did their parents. In any case, as soon as a girl had her first menstruation, she was believed ready for marriage.
These traditional attitudes began to change toward the end of the Middle Ages. Technological progress, the increasing specialization of labor, the growth of the cities, and the rise of the middle classes produced a new family structure and a new way of life. The churches started to keep accurate birth registers. Age differences became more important, as did the efficient use of time and the strict observation of schedules. Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, childhood began to be perceived as a separate phase of life with special needs of its own. People created schools, fashions, books, games, and toys that were considered suitable for children. Thus, the emotional, intellectual, and social maturity of boys and girls was postponed for quite a while. Beginning with the 18th century, this "protection" of the young was extended into still another special period of life—adolescence. In short, young people began to live in a world very different from that of adults. (For further details, see "Adolescence.")
This new world was one of growing sexual repression. As mentioned earlier in this book, the modern age with its emphasis on efficiency and performance demanded a great deal of self-control from each individual. People could no longer afford to follow their impulses, and they became very sensitive about their spontaneous bodily functions. Open coughing, sneezing, yawning, belching, and farting, which had been considered healthy and natural, were now unacceptable in polite society. Nudity was no longer tolerated. The organs of excretion and reproduction began to be seen as disgusting and dirty, and finally they were completely taboo.
In the 18th century, physicians suddenly claimed to have discovered a horrible new danger to physical and mental health—childhood masturbation. According to many popular medical books of the time, masturbation was at the root of nearly all human disabilities and diseases, and it could actually prove fatal. Parents endangered the lives of their children by ignoring the practice. Among the "pampered" children of the rich, there were only a few who did not indulge in this "solitary vice" between the ages of 6 and 12. (These are the same years that were later believed to constitute the "latency period.") Only desperate measures could save these unfortunate boys and girls from death or insanity.
The crusade against masturbation, which lasted more than 200 years, led to many bizarre educational practices. Their goal, however, was always the same: protecting children against their own sexuality by denying its very existence. Children had to be kept ignorant about sexual matters, and they had to be isolated from all "bad" influences. In fact, they had to be watched and controlled at all times, lest their "purity" became contaminated with "filth." (At the same time, adults saw nothing wrong with child labor. Even in Victorian England, poor children were forced to work more than 12 hours every day in coal mines and factories.) Eventually, childhood masturbation was no longer openly mentioned. Parents and teachers began to act on the assumption that it was nothing but an "unnatural" habit of evil or sick children, and that "normal" boys and girls had no taste for it. By the end of the 19th century, most adults had persuaded themselves that childhood was indeed the one period of life in which the individual was totally free from any sexual urges.
It is easy to understand why people who held this belief were shocked and dismayed by Freud's writings. After all, he seemed to be saying the exact opposite. According to his theory, every child was born with a powerful sexual instinct, and the first years of life were decisive for its eventual proper expression. In spite of considerable opposition, this psychoanalytic view gradually gained a wide following. However, it did not change the protective attitude of parents and educators. On the contrary, while they no longer denied the child's sexuality, they were now all the more concerned about the possible influences on its development. Moreover, they became aware of their own responsibility in this respect, and this awareness sometimes created new apprehensions and anxieties.
Today, Freud's influence seems to have passed its peak. Many contemporary sex researchers no longer accept his assumptions, and, in general, they are much less preoccupied with the experiences of childhood. There is now a greater awareness than ever before that men and women are capable of learning, unlearning, and relearning many sexual attitudes and reactions throughout their lives. Nevertheless, the importance of sexual conditioning in infancy and childhood remains well recognized. There is also no doubt that parents and close relatives have a great influence on a child's sexual development. The discipline they demand, the routines they establish, and the examples they set give boys and girls the first concept of sexual differences and teach them how to relate to their own bodies. Adults convey their sexual attitudes to children in a thousand different ways: through their sense of modesty and privacy, the way they answer questions about sex, the words they use for sexual organs and sexual activity, their tone of voice, their gestures and facial expressions.
Unfortunately, in our culture many adults are rather uncomfortable with their own sexuality, and thus they are unable to accept their children as happy and healthy sexual beings. As a result, there often develops a serious communication gap between the generations. Children who are made to feel ashamed and guilty about their natural physical responses lose confidence in their parents and soon stop asking them sexual questions. When this happens, some parents may secretly feel relieved, and they may even conclude that their children have lost interest in sexual matters. At any rate, most adults today have become accustomed to viewing the years of late childhood as a period of sexual "latency", i.e., a phase of life when the sexual development comes to a temporary halt.
Indeed, as children approach puberty their social interests and obligations expand considerably, and their sexual activity may therefore seem to decrease for a while. Furthermore, older children are often sexually segregated in their leisure activities. There is less opportunity for physical contact between boys and girls. Especially girls are warned against kissing, embracing, exposing their bodies, or having sexual intercourse. Still, those children who have begun masturbating to orgasm usually continue to do so. In other words, if there is indeed a latency period, it does not seem to have a biological basis. This conclusion is also supported by various anthropological studies. Children in sexually permissive "primitive" societies do not give up their sex play in late childhood. (For further details on social attitudes toward childhood sex play, see "The Sexually Oppressed.")