Sexual bullying may not reach its full force until junior high or high school, but many of its root causes are created much sooner than that, and trace back to messages children began internalizing before they started elementary school. So in order to truly understand why sexual bullying is such a problem – both in its prevalence and in the destruction it causes – we must first understand its roots and origins.
Sexuality: An aspect of every child’s identity
People mistakenly assume that sexuality begins at puberty. It actually starts much, much sooner than that. Centuries of research across thousands of studies clearly shows that children have an actively evolving sexual nature from birth. In fact, ultrasound studies even show that both male and female fetuses sometimes engage in masturbation from inside the womb. (Meizner, 1987) The most renowned experts in psychology and child development – people like Mariah Montessori, Sigmund Freud, Erik Erickson, Dr. Spock, John Bowlby, and pretty much anyone else whose spent time with kids – have all observed and commented on the early emergence of sexuality and sexual behavior in children. A full discussion of this subject is beyond the scope of this book (you can find a more detailed review of the research throughout other materials on our site), but the point is that the idea of childhood sexual “innocence,” much like Santa Claus, is a myth dreamed up by adults and perpetuated out of their own prerogatives.
Because sexuality is a basic part of life, and because children have a sexual nature and identity from birth, this forces parents to react to it; either embracing or rejecting this aspect of their child’s identity. Some societies embrace sexuality as a positive thing, allowing kids to explore or experiment freely, perhaps even training children in sexual practices just like they teach them to tie their shoes. (Ford & Beach, 1951) Societies such as ours are on the opposite end of the spectrum. We shame the instinct, wrapping it up in guilt and fiercely preventing any type of sexual expression. And because children absorb their environment, our own sexual insecurities and attitudes are transferred to them, even (or perhaps especially) if parents never say a word about the subject. This has many unintended consequences.
The origins of sexual prejudice: How adults elevate the topic of sexuality
A few years back in Iran, a video surfaced that depicted teenage girls at a party, dancing to loud music and having a ball. This probably seems like no news at all to you or I; it might describe a scene engaged in by millions of American teenagers every Friday or Saturday night. But in conservative parts of Iran, dancing is looked down upon as a grave sin – an act that brings dishonor upon oneself and one’s family. So the video spelled disaster for the teen girls who could be seen in it. Suffering from the perceived shame they had brought against their family and fearing their fathers’ wrath, within the week, all 13 girls depicted in the video had committed suicide. Death seemed an appropriate penalty for the “horrendous” crime of dancing.
This is an example of a social-psychology phenomenon we refer to as elevation. It occurs when a culture takes an otherwise insignificant and harmless experience and then inflates it with negative meaning and added significance, until that benign activity which was perfectly harmless or even enriching to life before is now connected to psychological devastation. Mankind’s greatest talent – our ability to think in abstract terms – can also be our biggest downfall when we attach destructive symbolic meaning to otherwise normal human behaviors and experiences.
To most people in the Western world, the story above seems like a tragic and barbaric consequence of a belief system gone awry. Yet unfortunately, we in the Western world engage in THE EXACT SAME THING in our own ways, and sadly, with consequences that are every bit as destructive as the example just illustrated.
Children start off life entirely unashamed of their bodies and its functions or sensations. But over the course of childhood, because of these attitudes which lead us to believe that sexuality is a horrible thing, parents will inadvertently assault this innocence, bombarding children with a variety of negative messages and beliefs. An infant who touches themselves in the tub or during a diaper change loses the freedom of their hand or finds a bath toy quickly placed into it. If a little girl is “caught” masturbating, we’re told in some ill-advised parenting books to slap her hand and inform her that such an activity is “dirty” or “naughty.” We systematically make children ashamed and embarrassed about their bodies, so that the same girl who was thrilled to parade around naked in front of others as a preschooler becomes self-conscious and embarrassed if her undeveloped chest is seen bare by someone else by the time she’s in elementary school. We place restrictions on affection while teaching children that touching is a potentially horrible thing that should be regarded with suspicion. Through ways too numerous to mention here, we send kids a very clear message that their body and sexual identity in general is something bad, naughty, evil, sinful, unnatural, perverted, sickening, offensive, shameful, embarrassing, etc. Although none of this conditioning succeeds in eliminating sexuality from our children, it does impede, distort, and damage its development. What before was a natural aspect of themselves and a basic part of their human identity now becomes filled with all sorts of negative meaning. Hence we proceed in elevating the significance of the sexual instinct from an enriching aspect of affection to a source of profound shame and vulnerability.
“Our basic sexual identity as male or female; our primary erotic orientation to the same or the opposite sex; what arouses us sexually and what turns us off; our sense of security and comfort as sexual beings; our sexual fears and preoccupations; all of these and more are fixed or first established in childhood.”
– Psychologists Larry Constantine & Frank Martinson (1981, p.3)
This may all seem harmless at the time. But what parents fail to realize is that this drowns an entire aspect of their child’s identity in shame and insecurity. Seen through the principles of child development, it’s one of the most harmful types of emotional abuse that adults can commit against children, and yet it’s so commonplace that you’d be hard pressed to find a single child in Western society who grew up with out it. If you were to come upon a parent repeatedly berating a small child, telling them how evil and naughty and ugly and repulsive and freakish they are merely on account of the way they were born, most would instantly recognize this as abusive. Yet because of the cultural brainwashing we all endure, parents will severely shame a child over their sexual identity and inherent nature in precisely this manner without ever thinking twice about it, and many reckless authorities on children even push off such abuse as good parenting. It is not. The consequences of shrouding one of the most prominent aspects of your child’s identity in profound shame can be as serious as any of the other types of child abuse that parents worry about.
“Children are emotionally abused in sexual areas every day because of repressive,guilt-ridden, punitive ideas that are transmitted to them under the guise of sex-education.”
– Child abuse specialist David Walters (1975, p. 131)
All of this shame, embarrassment, and humiliation that kids experience over the sexual aspects of their body or over expressions of sexual affection is a serious problem, but unfortunately, the emotional abuse aspect is only part of the problem.
“In order to achieve maturity (a child) must establish a distinct self. This means a separate sexual self also.”
– Pediatrician Alayne Yates (1978, p.202)
Neglect of sexual issues = insecurity that leads to sexual bullying
A coinciding side effect of these attitudes is that it also results in a type of developmental neglect. Parents can pretend that their kids have no sexuality as much as they would like, but this doesn’t make it true nor does it make the issue go away. While we’re busy trying to maintain a belief about childhood that doesn’t exist in the real world, our kids are left abandoned to try and establish a sexual identity that extends far beyond the sexual act itself and reaches deep within their very psychology as a person:
- What constitutes sex roles and what it means to be male or female.
- How attractive they are to the opposite sex, which in turn has a profound influence on overall psychology. As Aline Zoldbrod, Ph.D. states, “Body image is a hefty part of self-esteem. It determines whether or not you feel good about yourself…” (Zoldbrod, 1998, p. 47)
- How sexuality fits into social relationships: How to interact with the opposite sex, how to elicit interest from the opposite sex, how they are viewed by the opposite sex (which has an enormous influence on developing psychology), how to develop meaningful sexual relationships that are self-affirming and based on affection, how to approach those you’re attracted to, and so on.
- How things like sexual orientation, sexual desires or fantasies and everything else related to sexuality fits into their sexual identity, and what this means about them as a person.
In order to navigate life successfully, this sexual identity needs to be strong enough to withstand things like . . .
- Sex stereotypes
- Failures in relationships
- Sexual bullying and teasing
- The ability to withstand rejection
- Handling sexual humiliation or embarrassment
- Coping with ambiguity in the sexual drive (i.e., understanding that the occasional homosexual thought is fairly normal and does not necessarily make one gay)
- The ability to withstand sexual experiences that don’t go according to script
- Effectively handling and/or managing interest from the opposite sex
- Being secure enough to deal with interest from the same sex without finding it threatening
- How to recover from sexual failures,
- and on and on.
Unfortunately, children get absolutely no affirmation over issues related to their sexual identity, so they become both confused and profoundly insecure. When kids ask sexual questions, we lie to them or refuse to answer. When they behave in sexual ways or try to test out their prowess in this area, they are scolded and embarrassed, if not severely punished. When they seek appreciation for their body, we offer only rejection in return . . . which is why kids even in elementary school are “sexting” nude pictures of themselves to peers or even complete strangers: they desperately seek affirmation that they are “good” and desirable when it comes to this aspect of their identity. While children can see from the people and culture all around them that these issues are profoundly important in life, their normal source of positive, affirmative feelings – the adults around them – are either silent on the topic or they administer only shame. If an adult caretaker were to compliment a little girl on how attractive her body is, he could find himself in jail. Yet children need precisely these types of affirmations in order to feel good about themselves and their sexual identity. This lack of positive messages will come into play once a child reaches puberty and has only shame, embarrassment, and insecurity built up around their sexual identity, with absolutely no positive experiences that would normally provide a buffer against the adversity they’ll face.
After working so hard in the early years to ensure that kids become deeply ashamed and embarrassed over sexual matters, our kids have no self-esteem and no place to receive support. Too embarrassed to even think about discussing such matters with those they normally rely on, they’ve been thrown to the wolves. Nor are parents in much of a position to respond even if a child did muster the courage. Most parents can’t even say the word penis or vagina without blushing and acting as though they’re confessing to a horrible crime. So the idea that any sort of meaningful support or education can occur amidst such an environment of shame and vulnerability is absurd. It’s sort of like a cripple giving a bicycle to a quadriplegic and hoping that he somehow wins the Tour De France. When talks do occur, they are awkward and uncomfortable (a result of our earlier shaming of the subject matter), covering a basic plumbing lesson at best but being otherwise entirely devoid of meaningful dialogue. It certainly doesn’t come even remotely close to offering support in all the areas that would instill a healthy sexual identity, which extends well beyond what goes where to make a baby. And unfortunately, the problem is that there is no way to conquer this insecurity without fundamental changes in the way we regard children’s sexual nature. The shame created by our attitudes is not something parents can magically set aside when the time comes and it’s convenient for them. Unless parents embrace a child’s sexual identity early on without judgment and rejection, it will be impossible for them to overcome the shame and embarrassment built up in their child later.
The end result is that by the time a youngster reaches puberty, their sexual identity has been shredded to pieces and is so wrapped up in insecurity and guilt complexes that they are profoundly vulnerable. Then they enter adolescence and find themselves navigating a world where sexual identity has suddenly been flung to the forefront of their very existence as a person. It’s in this moment that all of this early emotional abuse and neglect which seemed relatively harmless at the time proves to be not-so-harmless after all.
“By the time an American boy or girl reaches maturity he or she has so much symbolic baggage attached to the sexual impulse . . .”
– Psychologist Philip E. Slater (1976, p. 80)
When Insecurity Meets Elevation
Sexuality plays an important role in identity formation as it is, but once again, our earlier elevation of sexual behavior becomes a double edged sword. By now we’ve pumped the issue so full of added meaning and significance that it’s morphed from an expression of affection to a sinister domain filled with life-altering and potentially devastating consequences should anything not go precisely according to script. Kids are all too aware of this elevated meaning. Many will never forget the over-the-top reactions of their parents to their innocent childhood explorations. They overhear talk about how “gays should be killed on sight” and learn that the wrong type of sexual thoughts or experiences render one an “abomination” deserving of death in the eyes of others. They turn on the TV and see how we elevate the significance of sexual matters, taking great pleasure in the sexual humiliation of others while promoting the idea that an improper sexuality or experience makes one a throwaway of society, and at the very least leaves one forever tainted. Kids get the message loud and clear: To have a sexual failure in some way or to have the “wrong” sexual thoughts or to be “abnormal” in any small way in the sexual realm is to be a worthless failure as a person.
So they must now navigate a potential minefield of pitfalls and problems. They must do this from a sexual psychology that is damaged and insecure, and which has had no affirmation or positive experiences which could buffer against the adversity they’ll face. All in a society that has elevated the consequences of sexual failures to a holy pedestal with life or death consequences, and with absolutely nowhere they can turn for comfort or support. There’s a reason many psychologists consider this early shaming over sexuality to be one of the most destructive types of child abuse there is.
So how does all of this relate back to bullying? The next section will discuss how this upbringing translates into more sexual bullying in our schools and how it creates children who are more vulnerable to its effects.