So ladies, last year a friend WhatsApped me in a panic. She had just broken up with a woman she had been dating for about a year. The woman had children. Though her relationship with their mother was over, my friend adored the children. She enquired about them frequently and got updates on their lives. Her ex-partner’s daughter was six, and the day I got the panicked WhatsApp her ex had called her in a fit. What happened? Well, the ex had caught her six-year-old daughter masturbating. She had blown a gasket, yelled at the child, told her to never dare do that again and then grounded her.
My friend, upon hearing the story, was uncomfortable with her ex’s actions. But part of the reason why the woman was an ex in the first place was that she did not have the most receptive personality. As she listened to her ex rant, my friend just said the requisite “Oh wow! … Is that so? … Oh so she’s grounded, my poor baby …” Then she signed off. She couldn’t stop feeling some typa way. Yet, she didn’t think she would be able to be diplomatic enough to not set her ex off if she called to discuss her reservations. So she called me.
Well, I don’t have kids. But I know a thing or two about sexuality and shame. As far as I was concerned her ex’s response had been a little problematic. Children do sexual things all the time, without thinking of them in sexual ways. They may not understand the mechanisms and motivations of sex but they know when something feels good. And if they figure out how to reproduce that good feeling they will. They don’t have context of what that good feeling could mean. They don’t experience a sexual desire; they just experience a pleasurable sensation —and who doesn’t like pleasurable sensations? This is one of the reasons why some child sexual abuse victims feel so much shame. This in no way encapsulates everyone’s experiences. But I’ve heard from some friends — particularly ones who weren’t being penetrated or made to perform sexual acts on the adult — that the physical sensations the abuse evoked weren’t entirely unpleasant. Sensing that what was happening was wrong was destabilizing. Engaging in something furtive and secret was unsettling. Being cajoled and or threatened was scary. Being mentally diminished and manipulated was terrible. Feeling alone and unprotected was debilitating. Realizing the full implication of what it meant to be exploited by someone who was supposed to be protecting you; that was all a source of severe psychic damage. But the touching itself felt… sorta kinda good.
Children, like all humans, welcome pleasure. It is how, when, by whom, and under what circumstances this pleasure is dispensed that is the issue.
Her ex’s daughter just liked feeling good; she wasn’t thinking about sex.
My friend thought I had a point. However, she didn’t think this was a good enough explanation for her ex. I asked her what she thought her ex’s specific fear was, concerning her six-year-old masturbating. Because all anger comes from fear. My friend said her ex was probably horrified that it meant her daughter was a bad girl. That is a common thing, not just where I’m from, but among black people in general. “Fast” “Loose” “Easy” “Spoilt” “Too-grown” These are all labels we give little girls when they express their sexuality in ways that make adults feel uncomfortable. For my friend’s ex, raising a bad girl was the worst failing she could have as a mother. I mean, if the child was touching herself at SIX! then what kind of debauchery would she engage in as an adult?
I told my friend’s that her ex’s fear was probably two-fold. One, she felt like her daughter had been doing something behind her back. If she didn’t know this, then what else didn’t she know? Like who or what was making her child do this. Knowing you have been unaware of something you consider serious is terrifying. Second, my friend’s ex feared that once her daughter had discovered that touching herself down there caused pleasurable sensations, she would be addicted to these pleasurable sensations. She would seek them out wherever she could find them. She would become a target for pedophiles and an easy mark for horny boys. I could understand how a mother could have that fear. That was a justified fear, I told my friend, and any discussion she had with her ex needed to be rooted in that sensitivity. The woman wasn’t just being regressive or a drama queen. She was a mother who loved her child and was trying to protect her. However, I told my friend, the way her ex was reacting was a pathway to shame.
I know about sexuality and shame because I started masturbating as a child. I was a precocious child, so I kind of knew what sex was. However, I was also informed enough to know that it was something that didn’t usually work out well for women and girls. I knew it was something I shouldn’t be doing as a child. So I never sought physical pleasure outside of grinding on my pillow. Still, I knew sexual stuff was bad somehow and that people would disapprove. So I hid it. I didn’t admit to my mother that I was touching myself till I was about fifteen. She wasn’t thrilled because she felt it was too sexually mature. Looking back, I can see that she was scared it was a sign I was sex-crazed and would be promiscuous. Still, she didn’t shame me for it or forbid me from doing it. By the time I was eighteen it was something she was fine with (probably because I had turned out to be the opposite of promiscuous). When I bought my first vibrator at nineteen, after I left for college, she was the first person I called. I was still a virgin, and her advice was “Don’t get too used to it because the real ones don’t vibrate.” By that point all she was worried about was that I might have unrealistic expectations and set myself up for disappointment when I finally knocked boots with someone else.
More importantly, I knew what pleasure felt like. I evaluated everybody who wanted to sleep with me under this criteria: Would I enjoy it or were they the kind of person who, either due to inconsiderateness, immaturity or inexperience, would not be able to pleasure me? Nobody seemed like a sure bet until I was twenty-three. The first time I had sex it was entirely on my terms and pretty damn excellent. I had found someone who was invested in making me feel good and I was able to guide them because I knew what I liked.
Before you think it, I’m not saying the two things are exactly the same. My starting to masturbate at ten with a hazy awareness of sex isn’t necessarily equivalent to a six-year-old touching themselves. Mine was kinda sexualized, the kids isn’t. But at the end of the day, I told my friend, it was still about pleasure. Shaming a child for pleasure would just give them all sorts of baggage.
My suggestion: Her ex needed to ask her child why she was doing it? That was important. How had she discovered that touching herself down there felt good? If she had just figured it out by herself that was okay. If someone had told her to do it or she had seen someone like an adult or sibling doing it and was copying them, then that was a red flag. If another child had taught her to do it, then that was a problem too. It meant her six-year-old was being sexually abused, or being groomed, or not being supervised and seeing adult stuff. Or it meant that her kid was spending time around sexually precocious children (who would only be acting that way because something inappropriate was going on in their homes). If any of these things were happening, I told my friend, her ex should be rightfully alarmed and put a stop to them. If that was the case it would help to try to think of catching her child was masturbating as a sort of silver lining. It revealed a sinister situation that she could now put a stop to.
If her child was touching herself, not because of any of the reasons above, but just because it felt nice, my humble opinion would be that her ex should explain a couple of things to the kid:
- It was okay to want to feel nice.
- There was nothing shameful about what she was doing and she wasn’t bad or dirty for doing it.
- But there were other nice things in the world like playing with friends, and games, and books, and ice cream and playgrounds, and learning new things. And those things could also make a person feel good, inside and out. So touching her body wasn’t the only fun thing to do. She should make sure it wasn’t the only thing she was doing and she should make sure she was not doing it all the time.
- Though there was nothing shameful about what she was doing, there was this thing called “privacy” and it was veeeeeerrrrrry important. It meant that she should only touch her body when she was absolutely alone.
- Doing it in front of other children or siblings or adults was wrong because of privacy. Teaching what she was doing to other children was also wrong because their Mummies and Daddies might not want them to know about it. Every Mummy and Daddy got to decide what they wanted their kids to know, not her.
- Touching her own body when she was absolutely alone was okay but touching other people in their private areas was wrong. Letting other people touch her in her private areas was absolutely wrong, and if anything like that happened she had to tell Mummy immediately.
My friend said my advice sounded reasonable, wrote it down and sent her ex an email. Her ex didn’t respond, lol.
Now, I’m not a parent but I want a daughter and intend to have one someday soon. I hope that if I found out she was masturbating as a child; the response I gave my friend is exactly what I would tell myself.
Now, I’ve been told there is something about the child being yours that makes the situation far less theoretical. That if I were in my friend’s ex’s place I would just see red and not be able to access this reasoning from whichever corner of my mind it was stored in. All I would feel was cold, icy fear that my child was doing something that I couldn’t protect her from. I concede that that might be true. That’s why I pray about it all the time.
I pray that as a parent I can answer every question my child asks about pleasure honestly, without judgment. I pray that if my child was interacting with her body I would let her. I pray that I will always be open with her about sex, and give age-appropriate, accurate answers when she asks questions. I pray that my child feels close enough to me to not want to harbor any secrets. I pray that she thinks of me as her safe place; that though she knows unequivocally that I am her parent and not her playmate, she still considers me as a trusted confidante. I pray that she will tell me when she starts thinking about sex and when she starts having it — secure in the knowledge that I will guide her but not police her, and I will not internalize her choices as some reflection of a persona that I am trying to protect or maintain. I pray that she loves the way the flesh falls on her bones, whether it is a little or a lot; and feels at home in her skin; and knows that she is everyyythanggg. I pray that if/when she was feeling sexual as a teenager, and for some reason became curious about vibrators, she would discuss it with me. True, she is not yet here and I can speak with the certainty that comes from detachment, because I haven’t yet felt that all-consuming wave of love, and that all-encompassing terror of loss, which dictates why so many parents are the way they are about sex. But I pray that I will still be the person I am today, and if she did her research and decided a vibrator was something she wanted I would buy it for her. I haven’t talked to my friend over WhatsApp in a minute so I haven’t followed up on what is going on with her ex’s daughter. But I think of that little girl every once in a while and pray that I will have the courage to do things differently.
Where do you stand on this issue and what do you pray for about your children?
F.N. is a thirty something Ghanaian free-lance writer who alternates between living in Accra and Washington, DC.