Gender, sex, and childhood

I actually do believe that children are “sexual beings”, although not in the way that the sickos Laura Wood quotes mean it.  There’s a strand of progressive thought that likes to insinuate that children have sexual desires.  Freud is their big hero.  I’m always baffled that this opinion is given so much respect, given that EVERY ONE OF US remembers being a child and not having sexual urges until puberty.  Scientism is the enemy of science.  The prestige of science comes from its grounding in experiment and observation.  The mark of scientism is that one will believe a claim that directly contradicts all experience if only it’s made by someone claiming to be a scientist.

As I’ve noted, gender roles facilitate our relationships with children, even before they’re born:

The pregnancy books list the advantages of determining the child’s sex before birth; the main one is that you can buy gender-appropriate baby stuff.  They don’t qualify it by saying “things our homophobic, patriarchal culture regards as gender-appropriate” or anything like that.  In the pregnancy world, there are boyish boys and girlie girls…

It is interesting that parents are most insistant about gender distinctions at this time in life when they really do matter least.  After all, without the cues from colored clothes, we would hardly be able to tell the difference between a baby girl and a baby boy.  And perhaps this is the issue.  For us, being manifestly gendered is a part of being human.  If what you’re carrying in your stomach or your arms isn’t a “he” or a “she”, it must be an “it”, a thing.  It was a real relief for my wife and I when the ultrasound technician told us we had a girl.  At last we knew what pronoun to use, and this allowed us to relate to our baby much more vividly.  We could only really think of her as a person when we knew her as not just a person, but as a girl.  All deep relationships are “gendered”.  Only in the impersonal workforce are people just “people”, rather than being the rich realities of men and women.

When we dress a baby girl in girlish clothes, or surround her with girlish toys, we are attempting to complete the manifestation of her humanity.  “This is not an ‘it’”, we say, “This is a ‘she’”.  As children mature, sex differences become more obvious, and there is less need for color cues.  The battle switches inward.  Then we must resist the capitalist-feminist complex that is ever-eager to reduce our “he”s and “she”s into “it”s.

Sex roles are powerfully present in all our memorable children’s literature, including Disney movies:

One Disney movie treats sex in a particularly profound way.  I mean The Jungle Book.  In this movie, Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, lives happily in the jungle outside of human society.  The jungle is a place of danger, but–provided one is content with the “bear” necessities–one without work or responsibility.  Mowgli’s position resembles the “state of nature” of the philosophes’ imaginations.  What will draw him out of it and force him to join human society?  How about physical danger?  That was a popular eighteenth-century answer.  Man lives in society to pool his defenses.  At first it seems like this is what’s going to happen.  The animals determine that Mowgli must leave the jungle to protect him from Shere Khan, the tiger.  However, the tiger is later defeated, so Mowgli will not be forced to leave the jungle for this reason after all.  And, in fact, Mowgli fully intends to stay with the animals, away from the world of men…until he comes near the human village and sees a girl.  While fetching water for her family, the girl sings a song about the duties of husbands and wives.  Hypnotized, Mowgli follows her into the village, laying aside the freedom of the jungle and taking upon himself the duties of civilization.  The wise panther Bagheera explains that Mowgli is now “with his own kind”, “where he belongs.”

What is the message?  First of all, the movie affirms Aristotle and rejects Rousseau:  civilization is man’s natural state.  And what holds man in society?  Sex, of course.  That is, the duties to spouses, children, kin, and clan.  So it was, and so it must be.  Notice that Disney’s treatment of sex is the opposite of the one fashionable now.  Movies nowadays tend to treat sex as an anarchic thing.  They associate it with the breaking of social bonds in pursuit of pleasure.  “Freedom” and “sexual bliss” are as sononymous to screenwriters as they are to adolescent boys.  But this is entirely backwards.  As The Jungle Book makes clear, it is the nature of sex to bind.  First of all, it binds a man to his wife and the children this act produces.  Less directly, it locks the man into the wider civilization, forces him to work, gives him a stake in the social order.

The story Walt Disney tells here is very old.  Indeed, it is the oldest known story in the world.  When the countryside of Uruk was being ravaged by the wild man Enkidu, Gilgamesh sends out a temple prostitute to give herself to the savage.  By uniting himself to a woman, Enkidu is separated from the world of animals and joins the world of men.  The Sumerians, too, knew that sex binds.

14 Responses

  1. “I’m always baffled that this opinion is given so much respect, given that EVERY ONE OF US remembers being a child and not having sexual urges until puberty.”

    That much, alas, is not for everyone true.

  2. The pervs are coming after our children. This is one attack. Another is the de-perversing of pedophilia.

  3. Could you expand upon this? I know that gays frequently claim to have known their orientation from an early age, and presume this knowledge must be grounded in some sort of pre-pubescent sexual desire. Because I think Bonald’s claim is probably true, I have concluded that the gays who say this are either suffering from false memories, lying, or profoundly different from heterosexual children in this respect. I am genuinely curious about this, and am not baiting you into an argument.

  4. Sexual identity seems be very strong in children, but I see no evidence of sexual desire. When I was a boy, my sex was highly salient to my identity, but I was barely conscious of what teenagers and adults called “sex.” As with most of you, I developed normal sexual desire in adolescence, and this was, thereafter, part of my sexual identity.

    I’d like to suggest that the sexualization, or really eroticization, of children is, at least in part, a consequence of our repression of non-erotic sexual identity. Clearly, erotic desire for the female cannot be the “essence” of male identity, since one can be a male without it. But in our anti-sexist culture, it gets treated as if it (or homosexual desire for the male) were the essence, and so we seek to find it where it doesn’t exist

    Of course the liberal discourse of “sexualities” doesn’t help, since it reduces sexual identity to sexual desire. A sex(uality) is a social group that shares a common object of erotic desire. Where does this leave children?

    And, as Continental Ops remarks, perverts will always project their erotic desires onto the objects of these desires. You know, “Turning me on just has to be a big turn on for you.” This isn’t unique to pedophiles and ephebophiles, just uniquely deluded and dangerous.

  5. Yes, that’s it! We’ve reduced sexual identity to sexual desire, and so we can’t make sense of childhood masculinity/femininity.

    Ironically, I imagine that the loudest spokesmen for the view that children are “sexual beings” actually don’t believe that any human is a sexual being, because they regard sex differences as oppressive social constructs.

  6. This is a fascinating subject. Interestingly, some would say that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. The following is a passage from a (non-fiction) book that I read a while ago. I don’t think you have to be a capitalist or a feminist to be a little repelled by it. The author is talking about walking into the toy section of a large store:

    “Here, it was as though someone had jammed rose-coloured spectacles over my eyes, and yet the effect was nauseating rather than beautifying. Everything was pink, from the sugared-almond pink of Barbie, to the strawberry tint of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, to the milky pink of Baby Annabell, to the rose pink of Hello Kitty. There was a pink nail bar where little girls could paint their nails, a pink ’boutique stand’ with earrings and necklaces, and dolls in pink boxes that came with pink ‘manicure bedrooms’ and pink ‘salon spaces’.”

    She continues in the same vein. One particularly memorable example is a company called Indigo Worldwide which produces sets of magnetic words for boys and girls who are learning to read. The girls’ words include “heart”, “love”, “cooking”, “friends” and “angel”. The boys’ include “scary”, “running”, “monster” and “money”. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

    I don’t think you have to be a crazy liberal feminist to find this stuff excessive and a little creepy. There must be a psychologically health mid-point somewhere, and, of all the many problems with bringing up children in the modern world, I would suggest that a lack of gender stereotypes is not among them.

  7. Hi Reggie,

    I have noticed this too, that kids’ stuff is bizarrely exempt from the drive toward androgyny in the adult world. In a couple of new mothers I know, it’s like having a baby girl has finally given them a legitimate outlet for girlishness; they can finally go on a pink splurge without betraying the sisterhood. I had to put my foot down with my wife’s pink-buying. “Just because she’s a girl, doesn’t mean all her stuff has to be pink”, I said.

    Gender stereotypes are a very eviscerated version of what I want, which is gender roles. The former are often frivolous, but the latter exist to connect biological facts to virtues and duties. Normal boys want to be masculine, and normal girls want to be feminine; a healthy society wouldn’t just manipulate these desires to sell stuff, but would present positive masculine and feminine ideals.

  8. Sadly, my impression is that modern Euro-American culture is lacking in healthy ideals of masculinity and femininity. This is a very sore point with me, because as a child I was never offered a model of masculinity that I could identify with. Come to that, I still don’t have such a model. The crass, caricatured model of masculinity that I come across in British popular culture is a deeply unattractive combination of drinking beer, watching football (or Star Trek for geeks), being emotionally retarded and treating women like sex objects. The metrosexual aesthetic was a shallow and feeble attempt to counteract this. Unfortunately, there is no established cultural model for a man that is sufficiently flexible and subtle to allow one to be strong and sensitive, self-confident but not aggressive, loving and honourable, and intellectually and emotionally intelligent.

    I don’t believe that biology is destiny (I always remember the old feminist slogan “if being a woman is natural, how come you have to tell me how to do it?”). I reject biological determinist views of gender, and I prefer to avoid the discourse of “normalness”. Having said that, there must be a healthy medium somewhere, one which recognises sex differences without forcing children (and adults) into Procrustean blue and pink boxes. I would be sad if I thought that the only choices were a crass androgyny and an equally crass men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus dichotomy.

  9. “Unfortunately, there is no established cultural model for a man that is sufficiently flexible and subtle to allow one to be strong and sensitive, self-confident but not aggressive, loving and honourable, and intellectually and emotionally intelligent”

    Why do you need a cultural model to be these things? Why not just be them?

    Is the problem that men are not be directed towards a good lifestyle as their is no cultural model? Was there ever such a model? What exactly would it look like?

    “there must be a healthy medium somewhere, one which recognises sex differences without forcing children (and adults) into Procrustean blue and pink boxes”

    Is this just a vague hope or do you have a concrete idea of what exactly the happy medium is and how it can be achieved?

  10. “Unfortunately, there is no established cultural model for a man that is sufficiently flexible and subtle to allow one to be strong and sensitive, self-confident but not aggressive, loving and honourable, and intellectually and emotionally intelligent.”

    The typical educated Western man prior to 1965? Probably excluding the “emotionally intelligent” part.

  11. Culture is important. “Acting like a man” is in part a way of relating to people (e.g. chivalry towards women, camaraderie with one’s group of men), and that can only be and pulled off correctly if both parties know their parts in the script. We need culture to understand each other. There is a sense in which one cannot practice perfect masculine virtue in a society that doesn’t provide a cultural code for it. Thus, all American men are emasculated by the government letting women in the military because it makes nonsense of a man’s duty to protect women. How can we protect them if they won’t let us?

    There’s also the all-important fact, as Reggie pointed out, that our culture has corrupted the idea of masculinity to mean something more like brutishness. Thus, boys wanting to acquire a virtue are led to develop a vice.

  12. Speaking from firsthand experience, I know that some children (including heterosexuals) undergo sexual, erotic desires. I’m not happy about the matter, nor do I know how pervasive the unfortunate phenomenon is, but certain young children do experience such urges.

    I can’t really get into more detail without breaking confidentiality.

  13. To clarify: by “sexual desires,” I mean desires for sexual activity with others, desires that must be counteracted if they are not to be followed through to their realisation. By “children” I mean boys or girls younger than eleven or twelve. I am saying that firsthand experience of mine confirms beyond reasonable doubt that not all children (so defined) are free of sexual desires (so defined).

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