Infant Sexuality

A child's SEXUALITY is normally understood to mean the precursors and parallels to adult sexuality which are found in childhood, although right up to the present time it is disputed whether one may ascribe sexuality to children at all prior to PUBERTY, and the topic has only with difficulty been approached scientifically, since any systematic investigation collides with legislation protecting children against sexual abuse.

While there has been, throughout history, an extensive literature concerning sexual relations of adults toward children, accounts of the sexual inclinations and sexual activities of children themselves remained sporadic until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when a number of childrearing manuals warned against the danger of children masturbating. Educators thus conceived ingenious methods of surveillance so that all instances of MASTURBATION could be eliminated from the outset by, for instance, installing small bells to reveal nighttime hand movements. In 1879, the pediatrician S. Lindner noted that even finger sucking could be a sign of premature sexual maturation and lead to masturbation. Signs of sexuality in children were as a rule regarded as morbid deviations caused by hereditary disposition and bad influences.

Freud's Theory of Infant Sexuality

Scientific theorizing about childhood sexuality began with new observations in embryology. The fact that every human being has to pass through a bisexual stage on the way to monosexuality was used to explain cases of biological hermaphrodites as well as certain sexual "deviations," particularly HOMOSEXUALITY, which was thought to be caused by incomplete or defective sexual differentiation, with remaining traits of the opposite sex continuing to be at work. This way of thinking included a rudimentary theory that infancy was the period when sexual differentiation takes place but is not yet complete. Beginning around 1890, several scientists put forth ontogenetic as well as phylogenetic hypotheses, in which the child's sexuality was viewed as a transitional phase on the way to adult sexuality. Of these, SIGMUND FREUD's theory of infantile sexuality soon became dominant.

Freud called the child's sexuality polymorphously perverse because it has certain similarities to adult "perversion" (sadomasochism, voyeurism, exhibitionism, fetishism, and homosexuality). It is spread across a plurality of activities, does not have procreation as its purpose, and is tied to bodily zones other than just the genitals. The most important of these so-called erogenous zones associated with pleasurable stimuli are the mouth, anus, and genitals, and Freud assumed that these three orifices successively play a major erogenous role in sexual development.

The simple version of Freud's developmental theory thus contains three successive phases: first is an oral phase during the first two years of life, when the oral sensations of pleasure are dominant. When the mother breast-feeds the child, the child experiences oral pleasure and subsequently sucks his or her finger in order to recover this pleasure. The nature of the breast-feeding determines the kind as well as intensity of oral sexuality. Second is the anal phase, in the third and fourth year, when the pleasurable sensations of the intestinal zone dominate. Anal sexuality is primarily linked to the pleasurable excitation arising through defecation and rectal hygiene and secondarily linked to pleasure associated with playing with excrement. Third is the phallic (infantile genital) phase, during the fifth year, when the genitals become central, though they are still lacking any procreative function. During the so-called latency period, which lasts until puberty, sexuality is less apparent, as its immediate expression is repressed or sublimated. It has, however, been pointed out that no sexual latency period is found in cultures without a restrictive sexual upbringing.

According to Freud, infantile sexuality is from the outset predominantly autoerotic (masturbatory), after which it, in the course of development, is linked to various so-called partial objects. Around the age of three to four, it finds an object in the parent of the opposite sex. When the erotic lust of the child connects with a possessive drive, the oedipal complex begins and the child will normally encounter obstacles along with prohibitions and possibly punishment. The oedipal conflict is typically expressed as obstinacy, antisocial activity, and demandingness. Children at this stage develop a special ability to do precisely what their parents consider most revolting, embarrassing, and offensive. The conflict-ridden material is itself culturally determined but is always thought to have its basis within the psychosexual register. In Western culture, it is often linked to TOILET TRAINING, the proscription of masturbation, and sexual roles. According to psychoanalytic theory, the struggle to renounce polymorphous sexuality and accept one sexual identity or the other causes the child both anxiety and envy. Overcoming the oedipal conflict is assumed to have wide-ranging significance for the child's gradual compliance with family and social norms.

Later Discussions

Theorists both within and outside the psychoanalytic community have at times tended to downgrade pre-genital sexuality and instead focus on the presence of genital sexuality from the time of birth. If a child was found to have a special interest in the oral or anal area, this was regarded by, for instance, Wilhelm Reich and Karen Horney as defective development and not, as Freud saw it, a part of normal sexual development. Alfred Kinsey, also a critic of Freud, in his seminal publications on human sexual behaviors (1948 and 1953), provided a detailed description of the child's genital-sexual reactions. Although he was later criticized for using manifest pedophiles as his source, he seems to have demonstrated that the child is physiologically capable of sexual activity comparable to adult sexuality, including the erection of penis and clitoris and orgasm through rhythmic muscular contractions in the genitals.

This, however, did not bring the discussion to a close. Perhaps the most important of the psychoanalytic hypotheses regarding infant sexuality is that it has to be evoked through object contact in order to be expressed, as Jean Laplanche and his collaborators stressed. According to this view, the body may be compared to a photographic plate, which can be exposed in a multitude of ways. A child with no physical contact, no touching, and no intense object relations does not get to know his or her bodily pleasure potential. René Spitz, who in the 1930s and 1940s did research on children placed in institutions, found that the lack of physical contact led to inactivity and in the long term to illness, while children with good bodily contact were sexually curious and actively masturbated. Freud's original intuitive understanding of infant sexuality as requiring some sort of "seduction" in order to come into play thus seems to be confirmed.

Following the youth revolution of the 1960s, the 1970s saw a renewed interest in the child's pre-genital sexuality, which many regarded positively, as an alternative to the tyranny of genital sexuality. Some theories of sexual politics considered pre-genitality truly revolutionary. The discussion of the child's sexuality became more structured, and it was held that since children harbored obvious sexual potentials, they should also have the right to exercise these in some form or other, although how and with whom remained an open question.

Beginning in about 1980, a reaction emerged against these approaches to the emancipation of infant sexuality. It was claimed from many sides that sexual abuse in childhood was occurring on a hitherto unknown scale and that a great deal of mental suffering was caused by early sexual abuse. Alice Miller, among others, blamed psychoanalysis for having overlooked this, and an at times hysterical campaign was waged against scientists who insisted on the natural sexuality of the child. The sexual games of children came into focus once more, since they were seen as being linked to abuse, even when the age difference between the children was small. That the strongest arguments for the sexual rights of the child often came from pedophile associations did not help the credibility of the argument.

Social Implications of Infant Sexuality

It is in no way the case that an overtly negative stance against infant sexuality will prevent infant sexuality from existing. Sexualization often goes hand in hand with prohibition, as Michel Foucault pointed out. The function of the prohibition is to hem in and intensify sexuality, after which it may be formed in a socially acceptable manner by enhancing the character traits that receive priority within a given society. This becomes clearer when one looks at cross-cultural studies. Entire cultures have been classified according to the fixations embedded in their handling of the problems of child rearing, as Ruth Benedict, MARGARET MEAD, and ERIK H. ERIKSON have shown.

Infant sexuality is never found in a purely natural form but is always defined in relation to socialization. Sexuality is most clearly exposed in societies where sexual relations between children and adults or among children themselves are instituted as a norm. In ancient Greece, boys were sexually initiated by adult males. In many so-called primitive societies, children are encouraged to practice sexual games, and their sexual initiation often takes places with older children (see Bronislaw Malinowski's research on the Trobriand Islands during World War I), but it may also take place with adult men (as shown by Gilbert Herdt's research in New Guinea during the 1970s). When a restrictive sexual morality prevails, as it did in Europe from the time of Rousseau, the explicit interest in children–their formation, manners, and illnesses–constitute a source for understanding how they are formed, for better or worse, as sexual individuals.

Anthropologist William Stephens (1962) found a connection between the severity of the demand regarding the mother's sexual abstention following childbirth (postpartum sex taboo) and the sexual exposure of the child when she, as compensation, throws all her love at the child. Something similar must be assumed regarding the development of the bourgeois family through the 1800s, when mothers were locked with their children within the sphere of intimacy. This close relationship generates a sexuality of friction. When physical lust is blocked, the sexual tension will instead appear as a high-strung sensibility, as a sentimental binding to the mother and to the childhood universe, or as "nervousness," the most noted form of illness in the Victorian period. This is richly illustrated in literature and in contemporary educational instructions, pathographies, childhood memoirs, and so forth.

Sexual emancipation has, during the twentieth century, gradually shifted from adult culture to YOUTH CULTURE to child culture. The sexual emancipation of youth gathered momentum following the youth revolution of the 1960s, when premarital sex became the norm rather than the exception; in the final decade of twentieth century, genital sexuality is breaking through to the realm of childhood, which cannot be explained solely by the fact that puberty has, during the last century, been brought forward from the age of fourteen to twelve. As adult sexuality becomes increasingly more visible to the child, sexuality becomes an explicit theme from the age of eight, and the presence of pornography in the public domain has allowed it to enter the children's room also. Despite efforts by puritan parents, sexually provocative clothes, in-depth knowledge of sexual matters, and games involving sexual roles are all communicated to young children by older children, by the media, and by an industry that has helped to make children's culture a poor copy of adult culture. This is arguably a more massive problem than the approaches of pedophiles, which has usually been the focus of suspicion in cases of premature sexual maturation. This is of particular concern because there seems to be a connection between children assuming adult roles inappropriate for their age and a longer struggle after puberty to overcome infantile personality traits.

See also: Child Abuse; Child Psychology; Incest; Pedophilia.


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