Summary. Contemporary concern over pedophilia and child sexual abuse usually rests upon uncritical and under-theorized conceptions of childhood sexualities. This article examines some of these assumptions and then outlines the social 'constructionist' alternative. Focusing upon the process by which a child comes to script its sexual world, a number of central dimensions are posed: the scripting of absences, of values, of secrecy, of utility, of gender and of generation. By analysing the complexity of childhood sexualities, the implications for cross-generational sexuality may be clarified.
[...] Sexuality here is a biological potential in everyone at birth, and like all other human potentials it awaits a social environment to become significant. Potential is only possibility, not outcome. In this view, childhood sexuality is largely contingent upon the social environment: it is not something fixed in the child that awaits repression or liberation, or even biological timing; rather it is something which is socially constructed. The culture furnishes the child with scripts which help to define the who, what, where, when and why of sexuality (Gagnon and Simon, 1973). This process starts in childhood and continues throughout the life cycle. It also varies, of course, according to class, race and, mostly centrally as we shall see, gender.
In this view, the contexts matters enormously. The child learns sexual meanings through sexual encounters - though it also brings earlier acquired meanings to such encounters. It is the total social context that matters for the child, and here there are no totally predictable and uniform outcomes. Thus, if the child can see the relationship as a positive one - it will be positive. If a negative one - then problems may ensue. Most commonly its perceptions will be mixed. But always it is the total context which matters. We can make our own sexual hells and alternatively our own sexual heavens - and always with a little help from our friends (and enemies). John Gagnon (1977) has put this view well:
The supposed and actual significances of adult-child interaction are in ironic opposition. The way adults behave toward children affects their sexuality - not by suppressing or controlling it but by creating it. When adults react or do not react to what children do "sexually," they are creating what sexuality will be for the child (not what it is). Thus an adult who stops a child from touching its genitals is not suppressing some natural urge, but taking one activity among many others and giving it a particular meaning. (p.82)
Children then have bodies, relationships, and feelings which have to be handled by them. There is no given sexuality but there is most assuredly a capacity and potential; there is no intrinsic sexuality but neither are children nonsexual. Parents and caretakers play a critical role, along with media, peers, etc. in helping children construct their own sexualities.
There is much evidence from biology, anthropology, psychology and sociology on the irrefutable existence of a potential or capacity for something that can be called 'sexual' by young children - a capacity that is often manifested in various 'sexual' behaviors. In those societies where sexuality is viewed positively and encouraged amongst children, nearly all boys and girls move from vague fingering of the genitals in the very early years to a systematic masturbation by the age of six to eight and coital relations may frequently be experienced prior to puberty (Ford and Beach, 1965; Ch. 10). But even in societies where childhood sexuality is looked on askance we find a lot of evidence for things going on that adults can see as sexual: serious researchers all over the world have noted this from the kindergarten onwards. #
Ironically, though, to show that boys can have erections and that girls can have orgasms at very early ages, that they can engage in masturbatory, homosexual and heterosexual play, and that they can develop a curiosity about birth and reproduction is NOT to show that they are necessarily sexual. Sexuality certainly has its physiological and behavioural base: but amongst humans it has an essentially symbolic, socially constructed meaning. Nothing automatically translates itself for the child into sexual meaning - this, like everything else, has to be learned and is culture specific. So although a baby may experience a physiological change called orgasm, meaning has to be given to it. Hence the experience is likely to be very different for a five-month-old baby, a five-year-old child, a fifteen-year-old adolescent, and a fifty-year-old adult. The physiological base remains, but the meaning shift with the context. The simple imposition of adult sexual meanings (in all their diverse forms) onto the child's experiences (in all their divers forms) is a gross error.
The problem for analysis thus becomes: how does a little child come to assemble a sense of sexuality, and to acquire a language with which it can handle its bodily sensation and connect these with the outer world: how does it come to acquire a sense of a sexual self, of a gendered being with specific seuxal interests; how does it asquire a series of explanations for sexuality and a language for what it is all about?
First is the scripting of absences. Whereas in most aspects of a child's life and elementary language is provided, with sexuality there may be many voids which have to be filled by the child itself (cf. Goldman and Goldman, 1982; Gagnon and Simon, 1973). In one major study on sex education, it was found that "while parents wanted to be helpful to their children they felt unprepared and uneasy: they reported not knowing what to say as well as not knowing how to say it" (Gagnon and Roberts, 1980, p.276). With few messages or even "emptyness" coming from adult worlds, many children are left to sort out their scripts with peers, media or alone in secretive and dark corners. It is not that childhood sexuality is being repressed; it is rather that a pattern of communication is being set up which starts to put 'sex' into a separate compartment cutt off from the rest of experience - a compartment which may grow tighter and become even more closed in adult life. Left in a void, sex may come ultimately to inhabit an autonomous realm of its own.
A second process at work is the scripting of values: the child soon comes to appreciate that sexuality is not a neutral value-free zone but one that is heavily embedded in judgments and emotion. In more 'permissive' contexts it may come to be seen as supremely important, but more typically it is scripted negatively. Martinson (1981) has suggested that adults, when asked to offer a retrospective view of their childhood sexual encounters, will typically use negative words:
Such word as embarassed, miserable, awkward, irritating, uncomfortable, afraid, confused, disturbed, distrustful, ashamed, depressed, repulsed, frustrated, and guilty are more often heard than words like excited, proud, enjoyable, warm and comfortable, uninhibited, beautiful, accepted. (p.32)
This negative set of meanings helps to establish patterns of communication around childhood sexual worlds that are largely about guilt. If the child comes to put sex in a separate compartment, then it is also a pretty dirty one!
With these two features of absence and negative valuation, a third scripting process becomes very probable: the scripting of secrecy. A child comes to understand that sexual matters are not a matter of public knowledge: they must be pushed into private thoughts and private spaces. Such a process adds to the sense of ambiguity and confusion in a child's world: it is left to clarify a whole domain of experience by itself - with an enormous potential for misunderstandings, an exaggeratted and spiraling concern for relatively minor matters, and the construction of strong fictional worlds. "Fantastic socialization" becomes probable (Stone, 1962).
A fourth issue is the scriptin of the social uses of sexuality. In the recent interactionist tradition where sex is seen as neither drive nor essence, it becomes central to ask questions about the social uses to which sex may be put. It may, for example, be used as a challenge of authority, as a means of gain, as a form of play, as a means of expressing anger (cf. Plummer, 1984, p.42). The point here is that not only does the child have to learn that 'sexuality is a drive,' it also has to learn the uses to which 'it' can be put. In one study of children's ward, for instance, the children learned that they could use sex as a way of disturbing authority and distressing adults (cf. Mitchell, 1977). In another study, "boys allowed themselves to be fondled and then masturbated ... because they wanted to be loved" (Ingram, 1981, p.184). Others have learned that they may e able to use sexuality as a means of exploitation - or even as a way of making money.
All these scripting mechanisms - of absense, of valuation, of secrecy, of utility - are complex, intertwined and scarcely researched at all. What is important here is the mode of approach: looking at sexuality through the child's eyes to grasp how it actively has to construct a sexual world. The issue of whether the child is sexual or not need not be of concern. What matters is how the child interprets sexuality. Of this, we know very little.
This gender dimension is crucial to any understanding of paedophilia since how little boys and little girls respond to intergenerational sexualities may be organised on diffenrent lines. Two key continuums stand out.
First, there is the continuum of dependency-independency. Evidence suggests that boys are encouraged to break away from their mothers earlier than girls, and to establish patterns of behaviour that are more autonomous, assertive, active, aggressive and achievement-oriented. This floods over into their construction of sexual meanings, whereby the boy is much more prone to organize sexuality around the satisfaction of his needs and to see himself as the active pursuer of sex. Many adult paedophiles say that boys actively seek out sex partners - perhaps this is partially a training ground for them to establish their prowess. In one of the few accounts provided by a boy, he says: "It's often not the man who goes out to seduce the boy, but the other way around. In my first experience, I did the seducing ... It is mostly the boys who go out in search of sexual satisfaction from men ..." (Mark Mofett in Tsang, 1981, pp.14-5).
Girls by contrast often learn that their worlds are much more limited and compliant. [...]
A second, and closely linked, dimension of gender sexualization concerns intimacy and distance. Girls are encouraged to move towards a complex but essentially private world where emotional sensitivity to others is very important, while boys are encouraged to move out into the public world where little emotionality should be seen or felt. [...]
Students of this preadolescent boy culture consistently suggest it is a world of "dirty play" - of aggressive pranks, sexual talk and racist invective (Fine, 1987). It is a world where boys test themselves and establish status through dirty words and aggression: It is a world where "fag talk" is developed "as terms of insult, especially for marginal boys" (Thorne and Luria, 1986, p.182). By adolescense, it can become highly developed (Willis, 1977, Ch. 2). In one sense thse are crude stereotypes - most concrete experience will not fit - but they suggest a central dimension which impinges upon the construction of childhood sexualities. [...] Boys seem much more prone, for instance, to create their own exploratory masturbatory circles (Langfeld, 1981), and to develop an interest in pornography and specific, fetishistic sex acts.
All of this has been put very clearly by Stevi Jackson in her marvellously clear account of Childhood and Sexuality (1982):
Becauase boys are encouraged to be independent and exercise their own judgment, while girls are expected to be dependent and compliant, it is not surprising that men usually take the initiative in sexual relationships. Because boys learn dominance, girls submission, the most common position for sex has the man on the top, the women supine beneath him in symbolic affirmation of their relative social status. Because boys learn to be physically aggressive, as men they are capable of using sex as a means of coercion; if they have learnt to regard women as inferiors, the likelihood becomes that much greater. Because girls' emotional capacities are developed to a greater extent, their sexuality will be more closely tied up with feeling and they will find it harder to divorce sex and affection. Because boys have a choise of how to prove their masculinity, while girls' opportunities to affirm their femininity are more limited, girls come to regard long-term, romantic relationships as more central to their lives, and so invest more in them. (pp.88-89)
4. Most useful here is the volume edited by L. Constantine and F. Martinson (1981), though they do take the view that children from very early ages are intinsically sexual, whereas I believe their evidence is more adequately seen as demonstrating children's sexual otential and capacity. Much other work exists. Forexample: the Newsons (1963) found that 36% of mothers of one-year-olds reported genital play (though it is more common in boys than girls). Sears, Maccoby and Levin (1957) found a lot of genital interest, sex play and masturbation amongst pre-school children. And Kinsey (1953, p.104 and 1948, p.177) recorded orgasms in babies of five months. (See also Yates, 1978; Elias and Gebhard, 1974; Martinson, 1976; Rutter, 1971.)