The shame and secrecy around sex is a social convention that does much more harm than good. The sexual nature of adults is often juxtaposed with the innocence and purity of children. This contrast rests on the assumption that sex and sexuality is inherently linked to corruption and immorality – an invention of religious doctrine we have all come to live with and have mostly internalised. This assumption draws on some of the meanings attached to concepts of normativity, morality and righteousness, which I have introduced in the first two articles in this series. Again, this is not a conversation that entertains such notions, but simply seeks to look at sex and sexuality as a part of human development with a view to considering an earlier start to its trajectory.
We are made to believe that children don’t know about nor have sexual impulses or curiosities. This belief, stemming from the general criminality attached to sex and sexuality, creates a fearful environment in which children are taught to be afraid of their bodies and their related thoughts. The picture for queer children, in a global context of disdain for queerness, presents even more grim. Despite the evidence that sex education is beneficial for children to learn about and understand sex and consent, we remain largely entranced by moralistic hogwash. What could it look like to approach childhood sexuality from a factual, observational perspective?
When people ask me how old I was when I first knew I was queer, I can confidently respond with age 4. Most people respond with some version of disbelief, tinged with disgust. This response is hinged on the misconception that queerness is only related to sexual activity – an already reprehensible action except under the rules that religion creates to sanitise it. This view of queerness is often a projection of the neurosis heterosexuality operates from around topics like sex. More important, this view deprives queer children of sex education that is specifically tailored to their imminent realities. Children know more than we are willing to admit, and instead of ignoring this reality, parents and adults in their ecosystems should use it as an opportunity to prepare them for life.
When a child starts discovering their bodies and the pleasure centres on them, their curiosity gives parents and guardians a gateway to exploring this with them. Making children feel okay about enquiring about their bodies teaches them that a relationship with pleasure and sexual bodily functions are commonplace in the process of growing up. This also allows for conversations about consent and choice. Allowing kids to understand that sex is an activity that involves the power to choose by all involved, develops an understanding of power in other spheres of life too. Personally, an acknowledgement of my sexuality, curiosities about sex and a few lessons about consent would have set me up to wield consent much more effectively in my adult life, beyond sex. The reach of moral condemnation arches far over our lives.
To speak about sex with queer children, also requires an effort to understand sex beyond the narrow prescripts of the heterosexual imagination. Knowledge about different kinds of sex is essential learning for all people, children included. To understand sex from the perspective of the function it serves for humans as varied, from recreational pleasure, to work and procreation allows for us to develop a consciousness around varying facets of human life that is not hierarchised. Ultimately, the point of such education has great value for rearranging gendered forms of social organisation too.
How we understand sex and how it is had relates to how we treat the people who have it. Connotations of dominance and submission in a sexual context often spill over into gender roles in the home and workplace. These dynamics are co-constructed in a loop that falls back on itself meaning sexual power dynamics and social power dynamics influence each other in both directions to create a status quo. Without an understanding of these dynamics, we walk into life groomed for assimilation into this system that harms everyone. Starting the conversation sooner, allows for better timing of introducing these various elements.
Although the topic of this conversation is childhood sexuality, it is more important to understand what we can achieve by acknowledging it. By acknowledging childhood queerness that is not framed as sexual depravity, queer children are allowed to see themselves and their desires as acceptable and valid. Exploring sex as an inevitable part of life also allows queer children to learn about safety and bodily autonomy in ways that are relevant to them and their well-being. Parents who are faced with this task have a responsibility to learn as much as they can about sex in all its forms, to ensure their children have the necessary information to empower them.