Saturday, November 15, 2008

Children aren't asexual

Of the posts in this series, this is probably the one that I feel most uncomfortable about for reasons that I think will become clear. The subject is the claim that children aren't asexual.

I have seen several places that insist on viewing children as sexual beings, though I haven’t seen any that explicitly argued for it. Sometimes this is done without explicitly mentioning children—for example, in the Planned Parenthood quote at the start of this series: “All people are sexual beings from birth to death.” By emphasizing that people are sexual beings from birth, the implication is clearly that children are sexual beings. In other places, it is clearly stated that children are sexual beings or that they're aren't asexual (contrary to how many people, apparently, view them.)

From what I can tell, there seem to be about four main reasons for saying that children aren't asexual. The first is that when it is claimed that all people are sexual beings, one of the main purposes is often to encourage readers to think of sexuality in broad terms rather than in narrowly defined ones. Thus, rather than thinking of sexuality merely as a matter of a few behaviors and desires to engage in those behaviors (thus equating sexuality with sex and sexual desire) it is conceived of in broader terms. In these terms, sexuality includes things that do exist before puberty, and thus it makes sense to think of children as sexual beings before sexual desire begins. (Actually, evidence suggests that the average first experience of sexual attraction is a couple years before average onset of puberty.) Sexual attraction does not occur ex nihilo around the age of ten.

The second reason for insisting that children are not asexual is that many children engage in sex play. (Figures vary quite a bit. I've seen some but don't remember them. As I recall, it's around half, give or take a lot. However, many of these involve only one or two brief experiences.) Parents (it is claimed) view their children as asexual, often deluding themselves into thinking that their children would never do anything like that with other kids, when in fact they do. The third motivation is (at least sometimes) to call into question the prohibition in many modern cultures against any kind of child-adult sexual interaction . (For an example of how this fact is used to criticize the claim that all people are sexual, John Leo is a conservative columnist with a less-than-positive view of Kinsey.)

Take as an example an except from this article on childhood sex play.
As mentioned earlier, our Western civilization has not always believed that children should be protected from all sexual contact. In medieval Europe, children were still freely touched, caressed, and fondled by every member of the household. Particularly in rural areas, parents, nurses, or servants were accustomed to masturbating small children to please them or to keep them quiet. (This practice is also found in many non-European societies. In the United States today, it is still alive among the Hopi Indians.) However, in modern times there has been a growing tendency to view children as asexual beings. Only in this century, under the influence of Freud and his followers, has the sexuality of children regained at least partial acceptance. Nevertheless, most people continue to believe that there cannot possibly be any harmless sexual contact between children and adults.
(Note: In the following paragraph, they go on to talk about how damaging sexually abusing children is and in the end recommend that whatever sexual behaviors children do should probably only be done with peers. I'm not sure if this claim represents their actual views or rather is more of an attempt to protect themselves against the charge that they support pedophilia. A little bit of googling will find you similar examples.)

If we look at this quote, "asexual" has a considerably different meaning than it did in the claim that 19th century white, middle class Americans thought women were asexual. There, "asexual" meant a lack of sexual desire. By that definition of asexual, it would be appropriate to call children asexual, which would be a problem if you want to say that all people are sexual beings. Rather, in insisting that children aren't asexual, a different meaning of "asexual" is used. What that meaning is, I really don't know. The argument seems to be that since some children can enjoy some "sexual" activities, children aren't asexual, and since some children engage in sex play, children aren't asexual.

In trying to understand the claim that children are sexual beings propositionally, I can't really get anywhere. (It might mean the potential to enjoy sexual activities, but I don't think that's quite right. If this were the case, then the claim would be one of potentiality rather than actuality. And also some people don't enjoy sexual activities, so if that is what it meant to be sexual, then some poeple would be asexual.) There doesn't seem to be any particular attribute in mind such that having that attribute makes a person sexual; children have that, therefore children are sexual beings. It seems that in claiming that children are sexual beings rather than asexual ones, the main function of the claim is not to assert any fact about children. Rather, it seems to function to tell the reader how to think about sexuality as it relates to childhood--children, just as adults, stand in relationship to this thing called "sexuality." Their relationship to this complex of desires, behaviors, ways of relating to people, the organization of society, etc. does not begin with the onset of sexual attraction at around ten. Rather, people stand in relationship to this thing "sexuality" since the time they are born (or before.) Insisting that children are not asexual seems to be a matter of telling the reader to think of the relationship between children and sexuality. Thus, if people think of children as asexual (not standing in relationship to sexuality,) it is difficult to account for the facts that are used to argue that children aren't asexual. This fits well with what seems to be the fourth purpose of claiming that children aren't asexual. Sometimes people claim that others want to shield children from (all?) information about sexuality. This is then said to be because those who want to thus shield children are assuming them to be asexual. This way of insisting that children aren't asexual fits well with the idea that being sexual means standing in relationship with sexuality. If children do not stand is such a relationship, then there is no purpose of providing them information of the subject. If, on the other hand, they do stand in such a relationship, then it makes sense to provide them with (age appropriate) information.

This, however, is not without difficulties. Even the "sexual" things that some children do, are these really sexual? Is this the meaning ascribed to the acts by the actors themselves? Or are they only sexual because they are perceived as being so by adults? Or because they would be perceived as such if they knew about them?

Viewing children as sexual beings has some important consequences for defending the claim that asexual people are sexual people too. In particular, they form a group of people who do not experience sexual desire but are considered sexual beings. However, I have a nagging suspicion that this has something to do with a belief that children are teleologically oriented towards developing sexual desire later on, assuming that all of them will, given "normal" development.

In my next post, I will finish No and start exploring Huh?


Ily said...

This question has some interesting implications on whether or not someone is "born with" a sexual orientation. I wonder if what made you uncomfortable was the same thing that squicked me out-- that article that implied that we should consider "harmless" sexual contact between adults and children. Obviously, babies can't consent, and I would guess that most adults, if they were told that someone masturbated them as a child, might be pretty disturbed by the fact. The authors are implying that this practice is some sort of acknowledgment of children's sexuality, when I doubt that's what the practitioners are thinking.

pretzelboy said...

Yes, that is the part that made me uncomfortable as well. I tend to have a relatively high tolerance for things, but writing about adult-child sexual interactions definitely pushes the line. On the other hand, I felt that this was the 'best' quote that I found in discussing the reasons for challenging the notion that children are asexual.

As for the idea that people are born with a sexual orientation, I personally think it's a pretty stupid idea. Having a pattern of attraction based on whether people are the same or other gender as you (which is how sexual orientation is for most, though not all, people) probably requires a sense of "this is the gender I am," as well as being able to categorize people as either the same or the opposite gender as yourself. I am going to guess that this involves learning after birth, though at a young age. I would expect that sexual orientation could only develop after or along side of development of gender identity. My guess is that sexual orientation develops at some point early in life, though after birth. Of course, I could be wrong.

Cerberus said...

Actually, sexuality at birth is quite likely as sexuality is at least partially genetic. The simple level of incidence of homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality in culture-lacking animals as well as its repeated incidence in every culture at every time reveal that it is indifferent to social or environmental factors.

However, you could also be correct in that it takes some time after birth for those parts of the brain to form and exist, because the brain is actually incomplete at the time of birth and actually does much of its development and growth during the first few months of life. However, it's likelihood of being correlated to environmental factors of male-female interaction, etc... is unlikely due to the aforementioned every culture, nearly every species incidence rate of alternative sexualities.

As such, I find it quite likely that children can be their future sexualities at a young age, but that the language to express it usually doesn't manifest until near-puberty or post-puberty (evidence for this is homosexuals who found themselves drawn to same sex people on the TV long before puberty in ways they had no method of explaining).

But then, it might not be as the precise mechanism is completely unknown at this level of neurobiological knowledge. However, the incidence rates state that no matter when the onset of sexuality, its origins are most assuredly in-born rather than externally-influenced.

On the child-adult sexuality, I would put more weight on their second comment. While it is possible that genuine sexuality expresses itself early and these instances certainly do raise that distinct possibility, children have no real language of understanding or freely expressing their nascent desires. As such, every parent should give the age-appropriate education, but stay the f--- away regardless of what was once done in history or in certain tribes.

But yeah, main point, sexuality is in-born, not externally influenced.

pretzelboy said...

I'm not sure that it is clear what can be drawn from incidence rates. The numbers vary quite a bit from study to study. Even though it seems that same-sex sexuality exists in every culture, it is entirely possible that certain cultures have lower or higher rates of incidence than others. Determining this is, however, another matter entirely because of methodological issues. (In cultures where homosexuality is more accepted, I would expect more people to report same-sex desires, regardless if there actually are much such people in those cultures. If a culture is more accepting, people are probably more likely to a) acknowledge these feelings to themselves and b) acknowledge such feelings to the stranger doing to research.)

Also, with genetic issues, all human traits are partly genetic. The fact that many humans can speak English but no mice can is a matter of genetics, but the fact that someone grows up speaking English rather than some other language is clearly a matter of environment. Studies show that identical twins are more likely to have the same sexual orientation than nonidentical twins, but this doesn't necessarily mean that it's inborn. It is entirely possible that genetics have a strong effect on personality, and personality interacting with the environment determines sexual orientation. If this were the case, genetics would have a significant, though indirect, effect on sexual orientation.

Cerberus said...

Actually, that's not fully true. Language isn't actually genetically based except for the development of the larynx. A human is born with the ability to make sounds by vibrating the larynx (except those born mute), but they have no in-born ability to speak a recognizable language. Language is 100% a cultural invention, which is why no child born to say Mexican parents will suddenly start speaking Danish and also why no animals will speak the wrong language without being imprinted with the wrong language at a young age.

It is true that divergent language can be a precursor to biological differentiation. Many species will undergo a cultural divergence while still being biologically compatible due to difference in mating language or rituals, but they do not mark true speciation until the biological shifts that follow. I suspect this is where the "language is partly biological" mistake comes from.

Sexual attraction on the other hand, has the ability to arise in hostile or foreign cultures. It arises in cultures that even punish homosexuality with death or in animal cultures where it would seem foreign to arise due to a lack of culture. It is the equivalent of a Mexican child growing up speaking Danish. If such an artifact were to occur regularly. That every culture would randomly spout Danish speaking children, all independent of their raised language. If a subset of animals were to speak Danish in addition to their native calls, or as the incidence rates show, an overwhelming minority in every animal species, we'd be forced to conclude that the ability to speak Danish had genetic roots.

This may be an odd example, but it shows a simple reality. It's not the modulation that proves the reality. It's the incidence to begin with and how wide-spread it is. If it was an environmental artifact much like language, we would expect it to only occur in specific cultures and to be absent in animals. Instead it is universal and occurs in animals with a rather high incidence rate (some species are almost entirely bisexual and rely on bisexual behavior for pack formation and cohesion) including asexuality (a recent sheep study found "non-sexual sheep occurred at roughly 1% incidence rate"). This would not occur without a genetic component. It is simply impossible. In fact, it's pretty amazing for a genetic component in general, showing incidence, not as a human mutation, but one long before humanity diverged and even before mammals diverged. Essentially alternative sexuality likely has existed since possibly the time sexual-dysmorphic sexes first biologically developed (in other words, alternate sexualities is likely as old as the concept of sex).

But yes, you are correct in that the variation in reported sexualities is affected by social pressures. More educated, more open cultures will report higher rates than more closed cultures, though the actual rate is likely to be rather similar.

I'm a Biology Master's Student so this stuff is pretty interesting to me.

What isn't fully known is whether environment can add onto that genetic component. In other words, whether things like being turned on by BDSM is a cultural artifact or is similarly genetic or whether sexual people's specific turn-ons (racial preferences, body-shape preferences, etc...) are fully influenced by culture. These seem to be more culturally linked, see different generations having different standards of stereotypical beauty, but there are also others who claim to have been interested in it since childhood.

It's also possible that the genetic component could be altered by personality development as a kid. The brain is a mysterious organ and there is little knowledge as to what is set and what is variable, especially as to regards sexual attraction and love. I mean as example, why is there such strong variation among a group completely uniform in sexual attraction as to whom they fall in love with. What prompts falling in love and how does it chemically manifest, especially in difference to lust? Is it even outside the brain as religious people would claim?

So yeah, a lot of variation on that road.

But shorter long-winded Biology rant: The fact that there is visible incidence among nearly every culture and species is what supports the genetic argument, not the variance between said incidences.

pretzelboy said...

On the subject of cause of sexual orientation, I would strongly recommend the book The Mismeasure of Desire by Edward Stein as it is the book that has had the strongest impact on my own thinking about the matter. Since this is getting way off topic, I'd rather leave it at that. As for the issue of language, you might consider The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker.

Anonymous said...

Very nice text... I agree with you :)