by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Wondering as I do about socially gendered responses to expressions of childhood sexuality, I find myself drawn to the idea of The Other, that old, constant scapegoat. The Other is an amorphous entity that disquiets because of its familiarity covered over with a veneer of foreignness. The Other conveniently directs our attention away from our own perfectly human issues of contention and casts them unfairly onto a foil that reminds us of ourselves under the guise of our discomfort with someone else.
As men are socially deemed “normal,” I think that women and children are perfect representations of The Other. As said Berta Bornstein in the 1948 article “Emotional barriers in the understanding and treatment of children,” “Children frighten us by their unpredictability, their highly charged emotions… and by their closeness to the unconscious… although it has rarely been admitted, children throughout the ages have been considered a threat by their parents and by society in general.” To clarify, I do not mean to suggest that female-bodied adults may be described this way, but that society clumps them in the same category, effectively creating in the cultural conscience the construct of the infantilized female who, alongside the naturally infantile infant, both pose a “threat” to our generalized sense of “adulthood” which is represented by a particularly repressed idea of maleness.
However, this unease around children–especially children of the opposite sex in a world that generally sees gender as a binary and gender-meddling as inappropriate–can be seen as an inverted unease concerning oneself, and the unconscious fear of the Oedipal crime, which may make itself known in “unnecessary brutalities in training and discipline, for the alleged purpose of changing children into human beings.”
To a misogynistic or misanthropic adult (which are basically the same), all children seem non-normative in that nothing they do conforms to a particularly stringent superego’s enjoinders to be quiet, disciplined, sexless. Holdover ideas of Victorian sexlessness pervasively inform our cultural sense of sex. The societal message is still that sex is bad and specifically women and children are “untainted” by this badness unless they are tainted, in which case, they are bad. But of course, all people are sexual and all people were children. This fretful, cultural finger-wagging only serves to make obvious the finger-wagger’s own discomfort with sexuality. Sexuality, after all, has vastly different meanings and significances to different people. Sexuality in children is equivalent to the body. Early erogenous zones include the nose, eyes, skin; sexuality is the sensations of being held, fed, bathed. It is safety and comforting excitement.
How do parents or caretakers, informed by our cultural Victorianism, experience and react to expressions of childhood (and female) sexuality based on socially gendered conditioning? As says Joseph D. Lichtenberg in 2007’s Sensuality and Sexuality Across the Divide of Shame, “Throughout the developmental cycle parents and other authorities indicate to children those body pursuits they regard as approved, and those body pleasure pursuits they regard as prohibited, and shameful.” Prohibited actions might be those considered “too” sexy (like touching your genitals even though a body is all you have) or “perverse” (like not conforming to socially-created gender roles even though, according to Lichtenberg, the “repudiation of opposite-gender traits… signals a failure in development and the formation of a defensively rigid masculinity or femininity.”)
Children who are thus constricted and emotionally manipulated are precluded from the development of empathy, which can only develop in an environment of relativism. As says Lichtenberg, “Analytic theories of sexuality have failed to give adequate attention to the effects of parental responses of overt or tacit approval or disapproval to infant, toddler, and older children’s specific pursuits of body pleasure. Freud’s (1930) theory of instinctual development broadly recognized the significance of civilization’s moral restrictions. However, traditional analytic emphasis on an endogenous unilateral unfolding of sexuality/libido has understated the effect of the moment to moment intersubjective interplay of responses of all those involved in the expressions of sensual and sexual desire.”
A good, empathy-engendering intersubjective interplay between parent and child is encouraging, gentle and unimpeded by (usually) misogynistic gender barriers. To think about this developmentally….
In infancy: Parents ought to be delighted that a child is discovering his or her body! Naming parts and mirroring affects legitimizes and honor’s the child’s experience of his or herself. Maligning the child à la “Yuck/How sinful/What’s wrong with you?” gives a child the impression that the world is unsafe and that anytime they express feelings, they’ll get humiliated and hurt; in the Oedipal stage: When children begin to feel sexually interested in their parents of the same or opposite sex, parent ought to emotionally and psychologically understand that the interest is formative, immature and not take advantage of early sexual feelings, no matter what the oppressive culture says about the evils of sexuality AND female-bodied people. And then in latency, desire is generally quiescent and in adolescence, the Oedipal conflict resurfaces with good parents accepting and showing faith in their child while supporting their growing autonomy.
It all sounds so simple! Unless you’ve been hurt and manipulated by the oppressively sex-negative culture and its osmosis via a harsh nuclear family and are thus (consciously or unconsciously) bent on hurting others. As we know, when children are shamed for their natural curiosity about their bodies, the curiosity becomes repressed and overemphasized in fetishes or sexual perversion (not in the pejorative sense, but in the clinical case of, say, not being able to have sex unless you have a shoe in your hand or are hurting somebody). As says Sylvia Brody in the 2009 book of case studies Beginning to Grow, “Until the past half-century, psychological vulnerability during infancy was generally discounted. Underestimation of the impact of early experience was coupled with an overestimation of an infant’s capacity to escape the effects of (seemingly) benign neglect” or other forms of abuse.
So long as we externalize our fears onto externally-defined Others in order to avoid what is too close for comfort, the intergeneration transmission of trauma will continue! Since we live in a patriarchal society, the superego is generally associated with male authority figures, and as said Robert Stoller in 1975’s Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred, a child raised to be a man learns “that if he is to be considered masculine in our culture, he is expected to be a bad, cocky little sadist.” This attitude (which is no more organically “masculine” than pink ruffles are organically “feminine”) is incompatible with the relativity of empathy. Only empathy can prevent subscription to artificial gender roles and cruelty which seeks to avoid discomfort. Only empathy can provide us the willingness to see The Others as Ourselves.
About the Author:
Rebecca Katherine Hirsch is a hustler-writer amalgam and Human Sexuality Education student at Widener. She informally specializes in parroting psychoanalytic theories of development and forcefully injecting them with hefty, unequal doses of critical feminist theory, queer theory and oomph! Quotidian research topics include the relationship between identity and orientation and herself and her cat. She co-creates the making of videos (http://vimeo.com/user4315393), blogs (http://ducttapedance.wordpress.com) and has written for Feministe, Persephone, Hollaback! and The Good Men Project.