Out on a Limb

Hypothesis: Nudity, pornography, and open sexuality have absolutely no harmful effects on children (when the child is not the subject of sexual behavior).


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  • Anonymous

    Hmm. Nudity in of itself is, I’d argue, a natural human state. Clothing is only useful for warmth, although our culture has evolved to attach more meaning to the act of wearing clothing (and, beyond that, wearing certain kinds of clothing). In that way, I’d say that it would be more harmful not to expose a child to nudity; the lack of understanding of one’s natural state, I think, would be more likely to lead to a distored body image than seeing the family in their birthday suits sometimes (or all of the time).

    Sexual behaviour in front of kids is a bit of a tricky issue. First of all, what defines sexual behaviour? Most people would argue that kissing in front of a child is okay, but that is an intimate experience. What does our taboo on being sexual in front of children boil down to? Why do we avoid it? Is it simply, like with the nudity, a product of a sex-negative culture that feels the need to hide human sexuality (another natural process) like it is something shameful?

    I think maybe part of my hesitancy in endorsing more of the intimate actions around children (like having sex) is the exhibitionist/voyeuristic element to that. In that case, the child would become a subject of sexual behaviour — when one goes to a play party and watches other couples having sex, one is participating in the scene in a tangible (if hands off) way. Would the same be true with kids if there was no intent on either side to arouse? I don’t know. Is most people’s arousal at seeing others fuck a natural tendency or is instilled by our society and made more enticing by our taboos on sex? I don’t know that, either, but I feel that it’s likely influenced by biology.

    With pornography, I’d say that it depends on what the child sees. Material that doesn’t involve violence against women — which I do believe most mainstream porn does to a certain extent — and isn’t problematic at all in terms of oppression (gender, race, class, etc) is A-okay in my book. But, really, we live in a messy society and I don’t think something like that exists.

    In practice, I think talking about pornography should be a part of any sexual primer discussion. I think doing it in steps would be best — catering to the level of the child’s understanding in a way that builds up defences that can fight against the oppressive, sex-negative culture that we live in. Handing a child a Playboy magazine without doing anything else is, I think, harmful. Not because the child is *gasp* being exposed to sexuality, but because magazines like Playboy can help to create an unrealistic view on sex/sexuality that can actually work against having a fulfilling sex life (and, in some cases, the unrealistic standards can cause direct harm to onself and one’s intimate partners).

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for all that, Tekanji! This was an intentionally cryptic post, but I could add that I wrote it in response to a story about a Bush proposal to require labeling of any website that contains material “harmful to minors”. It’s explicitly aimed at pornography sites, but I got to thinking, a) what’s harmful about that? and b) what else might be considered harmful? (Is this site harmful? What about Planned Parenthood’s site?)

    What is proposed as harmful seems to be, at the moment, any material that might sexually stimulate a minor. While I can get behind the argument that pornography, even Playboy, in the absence of any context may well lead to unrealistic expectations and negative attitudes about women (though it might not — where’s the clinical psychologist willing to show 6-year olds porn and track their development over the next, say, 20 years?), I think that’s more in the nature of how images and material is consumed, rather than in the nature of the images themself.

    The issue of involving children in sexuality, though…. I’m not sure. Lots of other societies don’t share our squeamishness about sex in front of the children (though children are expected to look away if they are present) with no apparent ill effects. In fact, lots of societies involve their chilren in sexual relations, whether through ritual sex with adults or through permitted and sometimes even arranged sex with their peers, again with no apparent ill effects. I’m not arguing that, in our society, anything goes, but I do think a closer look at our inhibitions about children are in order. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that a lot of god-fearing patriotic Americans lived in homes with 1 bed, 6 children, and a wife that was pregnant full-time — I doubt our current inhibitions would be very functional in 19th century farm life. Granted, this is patriarchy at its purest, but disregarding the overall cultural expectations of women, I can’t see any long-term harmful effects of simply being around sex acts in progress on 19th century psyches.

  • Anonymous

    the voyour aspect making the child the object…

    that seems right on. i managed to get out of my early childhood with pretty deeply sex negative ethics…so i keep wondering how to avoid that when i have young ones. more than anything, i want to give them their *own* space in which to define, explore, and create their idenity (including sexuality ). but i get totally stuck on trying to figure out what is avoiding the topic and creating silence…and what is respecting their need to become themselves in a way that isn’t about me, my hangups, my needs…etc…the kind of objectification that i abhor.

  • Anonymous

    I could add that I wrote it in response to a story about a Bush proposal to require labeling of any website that contains material

  • Anonymous

    Thinking more on it, I think the potential to cause harm is, in part, contingent on the culture one grows up in.

    Yes, that’s the point I’m trying to get at. Sembia boys (the Sembia are a Papue/New Guinean people) undergo oral insemination from grown men as part of their coming of age rituals; in the context of their culture, this helps them grow up into well-adjusted adults. The same practice carried out in an American context is likely to produce lasting psychological trauma, because we live in a culture in which such practices are defined as wrong and carry a heavy dose of shame and fear. The questions I’m trying to ask here strike to the root of feminist activism — is the goal to end practices that, within our cultural context, are harmful, or is the goal to create a kind of culture in which sex cannot be considered harmful? A little of both, I’d wager, but I’m not sure we can even manage to wrap our heads around the issues involved. When I read about “protecting children from pornography”, for instance, I think to myself “viewing pornography becomes harmful for children more because of the reaction of their parents if they find out than because of the inherent nature of pornography” — which speaks to the “taboo” aspect as well as the “shame-ification” of sexual expression altogether in this culture, especially as it’s coupled with an almost willful denial of children’s sexualities. At the same time, I wonder if it’s true what some people believe, that in a truly egalitarian society the possibility of pornography itself disappears — and what that might entail. Does it mean that the same acts performed and recorded the same way might no longer be considered pornographic, or does it mean (as Hugo Schwyzer has said, I believe) that the desire for viewing representations of sex might disappear, or something else entirely? Consider the lengths anti-pronography folk are willing to go to in order to avoid having to define what pornography even is, and I think it’s clear why I find it hard to pin down what the harmful effects are supposed to be. I myself wonder if it might be normalizing violent or pseudo-violent ways of relating to women, or if, as Tekanji says, it doesn’t feed into the unrealistic body images that work as a trap for young women (among others). But without even allowing for a definition of what makes a pornographic image “pornographic”, these wonderings have to remain speculative; porn may well turn out, as bacon and smoking did in _The Sleeper_, as the healthiest thing you can do for yourself.

  • Anonymous

    >he voyour aspect making the child the object

  • Anonymous

    This strikes me as a pretty ethnocentric discussion, or at least a uniquely American one- i.e. parents and children sleep in different beds in different rooms, and therefore children are insulated from “exposure” to nudity or sexual activity.
    My in-laws would find this idea rather funny- the entire family (Mom, Dad, Grandma, kids) lived in one room with 6 other families, with only hanging bedsheets for privacy. Their experiences are in no way unique.
    Oh, and they aren’t Japanese, either.

  • Anonymous

    Dawn, I agree. I’m having a hard time with the notion that any awareness of parental sex is necessarily “involving” the children — both because I’m not sure where the line is (e.g. What if the kid knows his parents are having sex upstairs, in their room? Is s/he involved? Does s/he have to be within sight range?) and because I’m not sure what “sex” is (Holding hands? Kissing? Nudity? Nude rubbing? Oral sex? Penetration? Anal? Intercourse?). Plus, my original contention is wider — I think that children having sex with each other, or engaging in sex play, probably isn’t that harmful (until an adult walks in and shrieks at the top of their lungs), kids watching or reading pornographic material, kids otherwise engaged with sex at some level, probably are all ok in the Big Picture.

  • Anonymous

    Nudity: Fine, in theory–nothing wrong with nude folks. Bodies are bodies.
    Problems with nudity: Can interfere with your attempts to teach about what is/is not considered “OK” in society. (this is workable).

    Open Sexuality: trickier. Certainly it can be a trigger that you might not want your kid exposed to. But (for example) no kid is really harmed by walking in on their parents, once they get over the embarassment.
    Still, for me it would seem completely unaccaptable to KNOWINGLY expose my kids to open sexuality. I’m not sre why though, it just would.

    Pornography: In a general sense, I usually think of this as “a subset of open sexuality which is definitely not suitable for kids” so it’s a de facto “no” for me. My superaccurate answer really depends on what you’lre classifying as “porn”.

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