Children and Sexuality

Warning – the following excerpt about children and sexuality is not explicit but it will shock you. If you’re easily offended, you might want to skip this one.

What is the appropriate attitude a parent or caregiver should have towards a child’s budding sexuality? In the US, we tend to sweep the subject under the rug and assume that a few good talks at puberty will somehow make up for ten to fifteen years of silence. We thought the same thing about racism for a long time too.

The result of this silence (or invisibility) in childhood is that, as adults, we tend to see our own bodies as foreign or distasteful. I am one of those unfortunate males (and there’s lots of us) who were not only bred to see our bodies and desires as sinful, but contact of almost any variety with other male bodies as homosexual. The result is that millions of men across the country (and the world) are trapped in their own bodies. Is it any wonder, then, that some of these men commit heinous crimes? Women have an entirely different set of circumstances, just as unfortunate, and then the two meet. Ugh.

We might like to think that children don’t know or care about sex, but as all parents learn – children are inherently curious. They have to be taught not to touch this or that, or that certain subjects are taboo. Instead of offering them mature advice from adults (which we do with every other subject), they are often left to figure it out on their own or with their peers.

I’m the last person who should be writing about this subject. I won’t claim any degree of health or freedom either for myself or my daughter. But in the course of my studies, I came across the following excerpt from Centuries of Childhood by Philippe Aries. The book is dry and boring, as one might imagine it to be written as it was by a Eurocentric French historian in the 1950’s. Yet, it is provocative all the same because, as all good histories reveal, our current attitudes did not always prevail. His overarching point (which has little to do with sexuality) is that, until quite recently, the entire concept of childhood was foreign (at least in Europe).

To begin with, he says, most children died before reaching adulthood. Families simply could not invest the kind of emotional attachment to children we take for granted because all too frequently they died. Typically, they were buried without so much as a name. This seems barbaric to us today, but Aries documents this and other subjects with exhaustive detail over the last thousand years, from clothing to art, to games, school, sexuality, domestic life and more.

In a chapter dedicated to the concept of age, something we take for granted without much thought, he documents exhaustively how for many centuries people had only the vaguest sense of when they were born or how old they were. This held for merchants and nobles as equally for the poor and peasants. Once a child reached the age of viability, they were simply considered a young adult, and it was not strange for a boy of ten to mingle in the company of men twenty or thirty years of age. The ten-year-old was considered a man.

The book is eye-opening, but in this essay I merely mean to quote the following excerpt about sexuality, because it caught me completely off-guard. Aries sees this behavior as perfectly in step with the lack of a developed sense of childhood then current in seventeenth century Europe.

Now, listen to this:

“One of the unwritten laws of contemporary morality, the strictest and best respected of all, requires adults to avoid any reference, above all any humorous reference, to sexual matters in the presence of children. This notion was entirely foreign to the society of old. The modern reader of the diary in which Henri IV’s physician, Heroard, recorded the details of the young Louis XIII’s life is astonished by the liberties which people took with children, by the coarseness of the jokes they made, and by the indecency of gestures made in public which shocked nobody and which were regarded as perfectly natural.

Louis XIII was not yet one year old: ‘He laughed uproariously when his nanny waggled his cock with her fingers.’ An amusing trick which the child soon copied. Calling a page, ‘he shouted, “Hey, there!” and pulled up his robe, showing him his cock.’

He was one year old: ‘In high spirits,’ notes Heroard, ‘he made everybody kiss his cock.’ This amused them all. Similarly everyone considered his behavior towards two visitors, a certain de Bonieres and his daughter, highly amusing: ‘He laughed at him, lifted up his robe and showed him his cock, but even more so to his daughter, he then, holding it and giving his little laugh, shook the whole of his body up and down.’ They thought this so funny that the child took care to repeat a gesture which had been such a success; in the presence of a ‘little lady’, ‘he lifted up his coat, and showed her his cock with such fervor that he was quite beside himself.’

[At this point, you might be wondering if these liberties were reserved for males. Admittedly, Aries largely reports on boys because they are the ones for whom there are records. However, what’s important here isn’t so much the specific actions of any child or adult, but the prevailing attitude which is well documented in both men and women.]

During his first three years nobody showed any reluctance or saw any harm in jokingly touching the child’s sexual parts. ‘The Marquise often put her hand under his coat; he got his nanny to lay him on her bed where she played with him, putting her hand under his coat.’ ‘Mme de Verneuil wanted to play with him and took hold of his nipples; he pushed her away, saying: “Let go, let go, go away.” He would not allow the Marquise to touch his nipples, because his nanny had told him: “Monsieur, never let anybody touch your nipples, or your cock, or they will cut it off.” He remembered this.’ Again: ‘When he got up, he would not take his shirt and said: “Not my shirt, I want to give you all some milk from my cock.” We held out our hands, and he pretended to give us all some milk, saying: “Pss, pss,” and only then agreeing to take his shirt.’

It was a common joke, repeated time and again, to say to him: ‘Monsieur, you haven’t got a cock.’ Then, ‘he replied: “Hey, here it is!” – laughing and lifting it up with one finger.’ These jokes were not limited to the servants, or to brainless youths, or to women of easy virtue such as the King’s mistress. The Queen, his mother, made the same sort of joke: ‘The Queen, touching his cock, said: “Son, I am holding your spout.”’ Even more astonishing is this passage: “He was undressed and Madame too [his sister], and they were placed naked in bed with the King, where they kissed and twittered and gave great amusement to the King. The King asked him: “Son, where is the Infanta’s bundle [the Infanta of Spain, to which the little prince was engaged]?” He showed it to him, saying: “There is no bone in it, Papa.” Then, as it was slightly distended, he added: “There is now, there is sometimes.”

The Court was amused, in fact, to see his first erections: ‘Waking up at eight o’clock, he called Mlle Bethouzay and said to her: “Zezai, my cock is like a drawbridge; see how it goes up and down.” And he raised it and lowered it.’

‘He stood between the legs of Mme de Montglat [his governess, a very dignified, highly respectable woman, who however did not seem to be put out – any more than Heroard was – by all these jokes which we would consider insufferable today]. The King said: “Look at Madame de Montglat’s son: she has just given birth.” He went straight away and stood between the Queen’s legs.

[Aries goes on and on here, including other families and children, so I’m editing out some of the countless examples. We then continue.]

Nowadays the physical contacts described by Heroard would strike us as bordering on sexual perversion and nobody would dare to indulge in them publicly. This was not the case at the beginning of the seventeenth century. There is an engraving of 1511 depicting a holy family: St Anne’s behavior strikes us as extremely odd – she is pushing the child’s thighs apart as if she wanted to get at its privy parts and tickle them.

The practice of playing with children’s privy parts formed part of a widespread tradition, which is still operative in Moslem circles. These have remained aloof not only from scientific progress but also from the great moral reformation, at first Christian, later secular, which disciplined eighteenth-century and particularly nineteenth-century society in England and France. Thus in Moslem society we find features which strike us as peculiar but which the worthy Heroard would not have found so surprising. Witness this passage from a novel entitled The Statue of Salt. The author is a Tunisian Jew, Albert Memmi, and his book is a curious document on traditional Tunisian society and the mentality of the young people who are semi-Westernized. The hero of the novel is describing a scene in the tram taking him to school in Tunis:

‘In front of me were a Moslem and his son, a tiny little boy with a miniature tarboosh and henna on his hands; on my left a Djerban grocer on his way to market, with a basket between his legs and a pencil behind his ear. The Djerban, affected by the warmth and peace inside the tram, stirred in his seat. He smiled at the child, who smiled back with his eyes and looked at his father. The father, grateful and flattered, reassured him and smiled at the Djerban. “How old are you?” the grocer asked the child. “Two and a half,” replied the father. “Has the cat got your tongue?” the grocer asked the child. “No,” replied the father, “he hasn’t been circumcised yet, but he will be soon.” “Ah!” said the grocer. He had found something to talk about to the child. “Will you sell me your little animal?” “No!” said the child angrily. He obviously knew what the grocer meant, and the same offer had already been made to him. I too [the Jewish child] was familiar with this scene. I had taken part in it in my time, provoked by other people, with the same feelings of shame and desire, revulsion and inquisitive complicity. The child’s eyes shone with the pleasure of incipient virility and also revulsion at this monstrous provocation. He looked at his father. His father smiled: it was a permissible game [Aries’s italics]. Our neighbors watched the traditional scene with complaisant approval. “I’ll give you ten francs for it,” said the Djerban. “No!” said the child. “Come now, sell me your little…” the Djerban went on. “No! No!” “I’ll give you fifty francs for it.” “No!” “I’ll go as high as I can: a thousand francs!” “No!” The Djerban assumed an expression of greediness. “And I’ll throw in a bag of sweets as well!” “No! No!” “You still say no? That’s your last word?” the Djerban shouted, pretending to be angry. “You still say no?” he repeated. “No!” Thereupon the grown-up threw himself upon the child, a terrible expression on his face, his hand brutally rummaging inside the child’s fly. The child tried to fight him off with his fists. The father roared with laughter, the Djerban convulsed with amusement, while our neighbors smiled broadly.’

You can imagine my surprise as I read this passage one morning while my daughter slept nearby.

Having lived my whole life with the sense that sexuality is taboo, as an adult I have a somewhat stunted relationship to my own sexuality. Many of my friends report the same. I’m not condoning the behavior of the men and women depicted here, but I was shocked to learn how comfortable everyone seemed to be with the subject, both at home in the family and in public with strangers, between children, between children and adults, etc. – and not more than a few hundred years ago. Surely, Aries hasn’t covered the subject with absolute exhaustion (there must have been some dissent back then, too), but this reading exploded the notion I had always had, which is that for many hundreds of years Europeans have been prudes.

But more than that, it forced me to think about my own behavior and that of my daughter. I so deeply want her to grow up with a healthy sexuality. In part, that means protecting her, but I believe it simultaneously means somehow modeling to her that her body and sexuality is wonderful and healthy. How do we balance that? Is it right to think that we can just ignore it for ten to fifteen years, and then “have a talk”? I doubt it. I bet the healthiest people in the world (and maybe they don’t grow up in Europe and never did) learn at an early age that their bodies are lovely, that there’s no reason to hide from them or think they’re dirty, etc.

I know this topic will set some people off, so forgive me. I honestly don’t know what to do, or think. All I really know is that what I’ve learned isn’t enough. And what Aries’s excerpt reveals to me is that it hasn’t always been this way, even for our recent European ancestors.

My daughter knows what a vagina is (how could she not?). Every child discovers his private parts. To date, if my daughter asks me a question, or touches herself in a way that discomforts me, I mostly just feign ignorance, as though I don’t even notice. That feels neither right nor mature. It feels wimpy, in fact. And I don’t want to be a wimp.

I don’t think our society knows what’s right. Wanton sexuality like Aries’s reports doesn’t strike me as health. Neither does the prudishness of our current society. How do we as parents help our children evolve into something better? That’s probably one of the hardest questions for me.