Childhood Sexuality and Shame
I had been humping Happy, my stuffed Mickey Mouse doll, and now I was in trouble. Happy was a present from the tooth fairy, so I must have been about six years old. We lived on an American island in the Caribbean. I stood on my family’s wooden deck as the mid-afternoon sun beat down, an hour the local television channel advised tourists to avoid should they not wish to turn into bright red lobsters. I wore a fur scarf draped over my chest, tucked into a ballerina tutu. My friend Scarlet wore a matching outfit. We had chosen clothes our child brains deemed “sexy” (although Scarlet’s dad had told us that word just meant “pretty”, and had nothing to do with what we had seen in his Playboys). We had been caught humping stuffed animals by my parents. That moment – standing on my deck, a little kid dressed “seductively” in furs and a tutu, clutching the Mickey Mouse – was the first time I remember the feeling of shame related to my sexuality burn into my chest, long before I was to understand what sexuality is.
Over two decades later, while speaking about this incident with my friend Ariel, she laughed and replied, “My hump animal was Winnie the Pooh!” While she was never caught humping Winnie the Pooh, Ariel too has a distinct memory of feeling shame about her sexuality. The youngest of three sisters, Ariel grew up as an expat in Costa Rica. She recalls playing with another American – a boy – and being caught by her mother during a game of doctor that involved looking at each other’s genitals. “I wasn’t able to play doctor after that. My mum saw us totally naked,” she said.
Lots of young children have hump animals or play doctor. It’s a mostly harmless part of childhood development. According to Perfect Parenting: The Dictionary of 1,000 Parenting Tips, this exploratory behaviour is totally normal. Yet often, parents aren’t sure how to react. “I think that parents not only have trouble dealing with their teenager’s sexuality, but most have even more trouble dealing with their child’s sexuality,” Dr Barbara Greenberg, adolescent and child psychologist, told me. “I think a lot of parents think sexuality and little kids are two mutually exclusive concepts.” When this happens, the important thing is not to shame your children. “They grow up thinking that sexual feelings are something for them to feel guilty about. They’re bad, their sinful. They’re not good. When in fact, they should be learning that these will later on, when appropriate, become part of the loveliness of their life,” said Dr Greenberg.
Shame sucks and can wreak havoc on your emotional state leading to flawed relationship patterns in years to come. According to Psychology Today, “shame is especially difficult, if not toxic, for children because it is an emotion that is concealed, especially by victims of aggression or abuse. The anticipation of being shamed by peers creates anxiety in a child.”
Another embarrassing childhood memory associated with getting in trouble for doing something unintentionally sexual is being in a video rental shop and lifting up my skirt to twirl. I just wanted to twirl like the princesses in the videos I was interested in renting, but for an observer, it was an inappropriate act, prompting a stranger to scold me. And it’s during encounters like these – with a concerned and perhaps overbearing stranger, our parents or, as my friend Jade experienced, with a school teacher – that young girls first experience embarrassment related to their bodies. “I had a red leather coin purse with a gold clasp, and I liked how it felt against my vagina so I kept it in my underwear for a few days,” Jade, now in her early 30’s, recalled. “Until my playschool teacher, Mrs Hawkins, took me to the the toilet and saw me take it out. I remember being like, ‘Isn’t this GREAT?’ And she looked very disapproving, and said never to let anyone touch me there and I was like ‘WHOAH, party’s over!’”
While little girls are off squeezing stuffed animals between their legs, boys recall exploring their bodies by humping pillows. A male friend of mine, Brad, remembers riding in the car with his mother around seven years old. He asked her why his penis got hard. She replied calmly, “That’s just what penises do sometimes.” Which, according to the professionals, is a pretty awesome answer. “Label it for them,” advises Dr Greenberg. “‘Yes, that’s a ticklish feeling,’ or something like that. ‘But, that’s private’. Calling it private behaviour doesn’t make it shameful. Because kids don’t need to do it publicly.”
Mulling over the reaction of Brad’s mother compared with the stories my female friends had shared, I wondered if he just had a great mum, or if while boys are met with “boys will be boys” reactions due to varying societal views of gender, there’s more of an “Oh no!” pearl-clutching reaction when young girls inadvertently behave sexually. I asked Dr Greenberg if she had any thoughts on this. “I think his experience is the norm, not the exception. Parents are uncomfortable with the idea of sexuality and little kids, but definitely more uncomfortable with girls.”
When researching, I was impressed with the progressive advice on parenting blogs about speaking to your children, reminding them that this behaviour is normal. Yet I also accidentally turned up some Google results for YouTube videos that sounded exploitative, reminding me that parents do have very real fears with regard to older kids, or even adults, taking advantage of or harming their children in unspeakable ways.
But while we want to protect young girls from monsters, we also want to protect them from the virulent and long-lasting effects of being shamed for their bodies and expressing normal sexual development. Melanie grew up in New York with a younger sister and a younger brother. “I was a hyper sexual kid, pretty much wanted to fuck everyone all the time,” she said. “My family made it seem as if virtuous, worthwhile women don’t take pleasure from sex.” She felt that while her family’s reaction may have been well-intended, it actually had the opposite effect. “It inadvertently teaches people that their only source of power is their body and what they do with it. And places a weird pressure on ‘preserving innocence,’ because if you’re not innocent, you’re not respectable,” said Melanie. “I feel like the rhetoric backfires and makes people (me) think the only way to relate to people is through sex, and that the more desirable you are, the more power and influence you have.”
During secondary school, the stink of Christian ideals wafted from the curriculum as we were taught the value of abstinence. I was taught by both teachers and culture that a girl is valued through her virginity. I wanted nothing to do with it. The afternoon before the night I lost my virginity, I went to a petrol station, bought some condoms and decided I was going to get rid of it. I did, with someone I was somewhat involved with, and was glad to be done with it. I’d continue on to have plenty of sex with a boyfriend, all safe, all consensual and (for secondary school) all enjoyable.
But as I grew up, and became an adult woman shamed for her sexuality, during sex, I felt the familiar sting, burning deep within the walls of my chest. At 19, at university, I did what most sexually active women do – I sat on my boyfriend at the time and fucked him in his dorm room bed. We thought the door was locked, but a drunken male friend of his swung it open, and instead of shutting it, began hollering about what my body was doing, watching, while more joined him at the door. I scrambled to collect the plaid print bed sheets. There it was again – that red-orange energy, caused by other people’s reactions to witnessing a normal expression of sexuality. The boys who pointed, laughed and gawked were my age, legal adults, but emotionally still children. Thankfully, my boyfriend shared my reaction, and threw the covers over us while screaming at them to close the door.
I asked Dr Greenberg how she had seen early experiences of shame related to sexuality manifest in her young adult female patients. “Avoidance,” she answered. “And when having sex, feeling like aggression is being perpetrated on you. Using substances while having sex. Even going in the opposite direction, feeling so conflicted and confused that you become promiscuous,” said Dr Greenberg. Skip the shame. Instead, “Give your kids a message that, ‘Yes sexuality is something we talk about, it is normal, these are the parameters around it.’ But in no situation should we ever make them feel ashamed. Even if something happens to them and they get exploited. That’s not a time to shame them, that’s a time to protect them, teach them and love them.”
Jade grew up to be an avid coin-purse collector, and an amazing artist in a healthy relationship with a man. Melanie, one of the most intelligent and radiant women I’ve met, happily identifies as queer and poly. Ariel recently got out of a long-term relationship and is embarking on a path of self discovery, looking to move somewhere close to water, like where she grew up. Myself, I can’t say that all my sexual experiences as an adult came from a healthy place, and I felt the weight of shame far more than deserved. Yet, I’m happily coupled with a live-in boyfriend and now get to write about sex. I can own it, I can occupy it and I can have it – on my own terms.
Photograph by Sophie Saint Thomas