Photo: Lynne Fernie, 1994
Jane Rule, The Body Politic June 1979
"When the relatively simple task of teaching table manners takes so many years, why do we assume that sexual manners need not be taught at all?"
The furor created by The Body Politic's "Men Loving Boys Loving Men" posed hard political questions for me.
On the one hand, I deplore repressive police action designed not only to stifle any discussion of the subject of sexual activity across generations, but also to intimidate anyone even so involved with the paper as to be a subscriber.
On the other hand, I understand the rage against sexual exploitation by men not only of children of both sexes but of women and other men, the pleasures of which The Body Politic can sometimes be accused of advertising.
I am convinced that censoring serious discussion of unconventional sexual relationships does nothing to protect those who might be exploited. To test, to contest, is the only way to reach forward into understanding areas of human experience vulgarized by either taboo or glorification. As a society we are so fearful of sexual initiation we pretend that by ignoring it, it will not take place. What we really want is not to know when or how it does.
We no longer frighten our children with threats of insanity and death as results of masturbation. It is, instead, clumped with picking one's nose, belching, farting -- something not to be done in public, by implication not to be done by nice people at all -- but we give our children enough privacy so that the guilty pleasure can be discovered and practiced not only alone but in the company of other unsupervised children. Children caught may be shamed, the more sexually aggressive children ostracized, but it is not, as it used to be, a cause for brutal retribution.
Our embarrassed liberality on this matter does not extend to encounters between children and adults. Though anyone who spends any time with very young children knows that they are aggressively curious about bodies -- everyone's bodies -- apt to stick a finger not only in another's eye or nose but to reach for a nipple or penis, we pretend that these assaults have nothing to do with sex, are only part of the random and innocent activity which can be ignored or distracted. The adult who actively participates in sexual instruction of children -- whether the nurse who teaches a child masturbation as a sedative or the adult male who complies with a four-year-old's demand, "Show me your penis" -- is simply criminal.
"Why we feel more concerned over children's sexual dependence than over their physical, emotional, and intellectual dependence says more about us as sexual incompetents than as responsible adults."
Sexual education in this culture, when undertaken at all, is presented impersonally in abstract diagrams, unlike any other teaching of bodily function or domestic habit. Once the breast is unavailable for nourishment and the lap outgrown, sexual pleasure is presented as a far off and nearly mystical reward for years of asexual (or at least secret) behaviour.
If defecating and eating were left to the same secrecy and chance we might face the same problems with basic sanitation and nutrition that we do with sex. When the relatively simple task of teaching table manners takes so many years, why do we assume that sexual manners need not be taught at all?
Formal sexual initiations in other cultures may serve as bad examples of what we might teach if given permission: the mutilation of female genitals and the equating of sexual gratification with the kill in males. Both these puberty rituals express attitudes toward sexuality in our own culture, and it is no wonder that we can therefore be alarmed at exposing children to adult sexuality.
If we viewed sex as a basic appetite normally satisfied and gradually cultivated, we would not need to keep our children isolated and in ignorance for so long, building in them what we have ourselves experienced: intense fear and desire which, so long uninstructed, produce dangerous stupidity.
Of course we don't want dangerously stupid adults initiating our children. Fear of that leaves the children to themselves, not out of our conviction that children are, in this matter, the best teachers, but by default. We have so little trust in what we have to teach that we not only abdicate our responsibility but label criminal any adult who might attempt instruction.
There are adults who do sexually exploit, damage and kill children. It makes no more sense to deal with the question by taking them as the norm than it would to take rapists as the norm for heterosexual relationships between adults.
To say that any sexual activity between adults and children is exploitative because of the superior size and power of the adult is really to acknowledge that, overall, relationships between adults and children are unequal. Why we feel more concerned over children's sexual dependence than over their physical, emotional, and intellectual dependence says more about us as sexual incompetents than as responsible adults.
Children are at our mercy. They are at each other's mercy as well. It makes about as much sense to leave children's sexual nourishment to their peers as it would to assume that the mud pies they make for each other are an adequate lunch.
I use the term "sexual" rather than "sensual" because it seems to me that both our embarrassment about and focus on genitals make us the inept sexual creatures most of us are. A child's need for physical contact is as sexual as our own. It takes as little imagination to know that a child's sexual appetite is different from an adult's as it does to figure out that a newborn baby can't eat an apple or a steak. We don't therefore refuse to feed an infant.
If children's sexual independence were as thoughtfully taught as their ability to feed themselves, masturbation would become the satisfying accomplishment that it should be. Being able to gratify oneself provides an autonomy that is basic to self-respect and therefore respect for others.
"The choice is not really between perversion and orthodox heterosexuality. We do have the further option of accepting our own sexuality and therefore that of our children as a complex blessing which we and they must learn neither to exploit nor deny but to enjoy with sensitivity and intelligence."
Sexual play based on the understanding of pleasure can have associated with it as many small courtesies as eating with other people, as much ritual wonder as the most sacred of games. Just as children gradually learn greater autonomy and responsibility in all other aspects of living, so their development in sexuality should be gradual until they come to the choices of commitment in relationships, in parenting, not as sex-starved barbarians willing to barter anything for the experience so long forbidden, not as infantile, gluttonous, guilty and dangerously stupid, but as warm, sexually intelligent human beings.
Until we have a responsible view of our own sexuality, we will go on shirking our responsibilty to our children. We live in so homophobic a society that most adults are terrified of expressing any affection with children of their own sex, and even discourage those friendships often most meaningful among children.
Mothers can be jealous of, rather than delighted in, their daughters' sexuality, so ambivalent about themselves as women that they don't know what sort of victimization to recommend. Fathers compete with sons, warning them off the lotus land of sexual pleasure which will only deter them from the conquest of whatever world has been chosen for them, be it military service or medical school. For every child traumatized by overt and brutal sexual treatment, there are many, many more suffering the damage of ignorance and repression which makes masochistic women and sadistic men the norms of our society.
The choice is not really between child-rape and chastity into late adolescence, nor is it between perversion and orthodox heterosexuality. We do have the further option of accepting our own sexuality and therefore that of our children as a complex blessing which we and they must learn neither to exploit nor deny but to enjoy with sensitivity and intelligence.
Such a change in attitude doesn't come quickly or easily. It will not come at all unless we are willing to address the question seriously and openly. Police who use violence and intimidation to silence such discussion, who see in every adult interested in the sexuality of children a molester and murderer, are themselves victims as well as perpetuators of our sexual sickness.
If we discover through reading "Men Loving Boys Loving Men" that we question the motives of the men involved, we must as certainly question our own in allowing our children to choose such experiments while pretending not to. We must also examine the motives of all interaction between adults and children (how much has ever been done "for their own good," how much we simply reinforce our own values) before we are too purely suspicious of anything but disinterested altruism in adults who relate to children.
More important than judging the quality of other people's experience and relationships is the exercise of our own memories. Certainly my own initiation came long before I was legally adult. Though a number of males around my age offered to participate, a woman ten years my senior was "responsible," at my invitation and encouragement.
The only fault I find with that part of my sexual education was the limit her guilt and fear put on our pleasure, the heterosexual pressure even she felt required to put on me. What she did "for my own good" caused both of us pain. If I were to improve on that experience now, it would not be to protect children from adult seduction but to make adults easier to seduce, less burdened with fear or guilt, less defended by hypocrisy.
If we accepted sexual behaviour between children and adults, we would be far more able to protect our children from abuse and exploitation than we are now. They would be free to tell us, as they can about all kinds of other experiences, what is happening to them and to have our sympathy and support instead of our mute and mistrustful terror. There are a thousand specific questions, all hard to answer, but we can't begin dealing with them until our basic attitude changes.
Children are sexual, and it is up to us to take responsibility for their real education. They have been exploited and betrayed long enough by our silence.
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