Childhood sexuality

Today, I learned that fetuses masturbate. I was intrigued and went on to search for and read stuff about masturbation in fetuses, babies and toddlers on various websites.
It was both fascinating and frustrating.

First of all, babies and toddlers do masturbate. (Or at least enough of them do that parenting sites feel the need to address it.) Which makes perfect sense: they own genitalia that feel good when stimulated, and hands that can be used to stimulate genitalia, so naturally, they put the two together.

Most of the sites I’ve seen are quick to emphasize that this is perfectly normal and nothing to worry about before they go on to give helpful tips on how to keep the toddlers in question from doing it in public/in front of grandma. (Although why grandma would be shocked by toddlers diddling their junk when she has obviously raised children of her own, who were presumably just as happy to do so, is not quite clear to me.)

Fortunately, most of the advice centers around distracting them and/or giving them something else to play with. While I’m sure there are also parenting sites and books advocating abuse, this is not the frustrating part. The existence of norms against masturbating in public is more questionable (and were questioned even back in Ancient Greece – apparently we have not made progress here), but would not merit a whole post.

No, what irks me is shit like this: “Your toddler doesn’t yet know what sex involves, so her masturbating isn’t a sexual act.” (Read on BabyCentre, which warns against scolding toddlers for masturbating two paragraphs later, because “[i]f your toddler is made to feel bad for exploring her body, she may associate sexual feelings with guilt and shame later on.”)

Do we need to know how metabolisms work to eat? Do we need to know what oxygen is to breathe, or how exactly gravity works to walk without falling on our ass? Whether your toddler knows that adults sometimes use the parts they’re currently playing with together with other adults is irrelevant: they can get sexually aroused without that knowledge just fine.
And if they didn’t get sexual feelings from masturbating, there’d be no reason to associate sexual feelings with guilt and shame later on if they got into trouble for masturbating.

What to Expect takes it even further: “Your toddler’s touching of her genitals isn’t really masturbation (that also goes for little boys who get erections while playing with their penis). Yes, it feels good (even comforting), but there’s nothing sexual about a young child’s intent or emotions.”

If manually stimulating one’s genitalia, possibly to orgasm, is not the very definition of masturbating, what is? (Wiktionary gives almost the exact same definition, by the way:  “Manual erotic stimulation of the genitals or other erotic regions, often to orgasm, either by oneself or a partner.”)
Hell, lots of people masturbate to things other people would not think of as sexual (and that certainly are not somehow inherently sexual) – say, leather, or fire, or car crashes. It’s still masturbating. The sexual intent is the intent to be stimulated and possibly get off on it, which is an intent toddlers can have just as well as adults.

There is obviously a very heavy taboo around acknowledging that children of all ages can be sexually active (even just with themselves), and I don’t understand it at all. I don’t understand how it works (if it ever really works, instead of just leading to trainwrecks like the above), and I don’t understand why it exists.

It’s connected to the notion of innocence as a childhood trait, and innocence and sexuality as mutually exclusive – that much is clear. But neither of those make any sense, either. I don’t understand how people who have been children, or even just interacted with children, can see some special kind of innocence in them: any human emotion and impulse, from altruism and compassion to anger and vengeance, exists within children.
Is it about seeing other people as sexually desirable? Acknowledging that children can be sexually active and masturbate does not necessitate believing they get aroused by other people in the same ways adults typically do; this does not seem to be the case. (It’s also not the case for all adults.)

I don’t understand why sexuality and innocence should be mutually exclusive, either. There’s probably a lot of circularity involved: people think of sex as something shameful and dirty, so they feel like sex is shameful and dirty, and then that in turn strengthens their opinion that sex is shameful and dirty.
Which seems sad: while I’ve experienced sexuality as shameful (and overall bad) in some cases, I’ve also had sexual experiences filled with curiosity, good humor, and even wonder. Is that so extraordinary? I hope not.

Fetuses and toddlers certainly do not seem to experience their sexualities as shameful or dirty, and there’s no reason they should ever start doing so if not for their slow socialization into a culture that tells them to.


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