I remember many years ago when my daughter and god-daughter were playing in her room just off the kitchen. The girls were about four at the time. My friend and I were in the kitchen making dinner and sharing a glass of wine when one of us looked over at the room and said, "It’s been a little too quiet in there”. We quietly approached the door and could hear the girls whispering and giggling. As we opened the door we were presented with a live Rembrandt. Both girls were stark naked and with their bodies as the canvas, had colored all over each other with colored markers. It was clear that the whole body was used, not just parts. To this day I still regret not grabbing the camera before I said, "Oops! Markers are for paper and you girls need a bath!” Karen and I had a good laugh, in part because we knew this was normal curiosity at this age (I had been through it with my son), because one of our favorite kid’s books was Purple, Green and Yellow by Robert Munsch, and also because the markers were washable!
A vast majority of the people I have interviewed or counseled during my career tell stories of being yelled at, humiliated or embarrassed when "caught” playing doctor with a same age neighbor, cousin, sibling or friend when they were five or six. Many other stories are told of ‘being caught’ when engaged in developmentally normal sexual curiosities and behaviors in childhood and adolescence. When this is coupled by an otherwise silent conversation about sexuality and an authoritarian or controlling parenting style, children deeply root shame and worthlessness within themselves.
In my research I have found that at least 90% of people raised in the U.S. have grown up in homes that were mostly silent, ignorant and often reactive about sexuality and sexual development. When kids do not feel safe to ask questions about their body and pleasure and do not feel safe to exhibit normal curiosities about their genitals and pleasure, they feel shame! Shame says, "Something must be wrong with me. Something must be wrong with who I am, not just what I do.”
We are born sexual. Yet childhood sexuality is as ignored and thus poorly understood as adult sexuality. Infant and childhood sexuality is about being playful and sensual and doing what feels good. Whether alone or with playmates, this is as natural a developmental phase for humans as learning to walk. Yet unlike stories of learning to walk, most people tell stories of being sexually shamed or otherwise injured by what is fundamentally a sexually reactive, ignorant and stunted society.
The One Thing I Tell Young Parents
The most important thing young parents can do to help their child to develop a secure sense of sexual health, beyond the obvious factors of safety and protection, is to understand the developmental tasks of their child, including their sexual, sensual, and physical curiosities. This requires preparing for their curiosities and in-opportune comments (like walking in on you having sex, putting their hands down their pants in the grocery store or peeing on the church lawn). Being prepared buys you time to decide how to respond to such an event, instead of react. This also includes the ongoing plan to have one hundred, one minute conversations about sexuality, bodies, relationships and gender along the way … NOT ONE, ONE-HUNDRED MINUTE (PAINFUL) CONVERSATION!
Think of the life education conversation (which includes sexuality) as a conversation that happens at least weekly. Look for opportunities to frequently say a little something. This is why you want to be one step ahead of them developmentally and aware of what is coming next! The more often you talk about the normalcy of sexuality and intimacy in the human condition, the easier it becomes for everyone! Research shows that parents who do this, not only help to assure their child a healthy sense of self, but kids who grow up with ongoing sexual health conversations with their parents describe themselves as closer to their parents overall!
The Four Things I Tell Adults to Grow Healthy Sexual-Esteem and Sexual Intelligence
1. FRAME your knowledge. Get sex education. Learn about your physical body and the physical body of the other gender. Learn about arousal cycles, safe sex, and STI’s. Learn about your own pleasure - what your own body is like. See it as a miracle – unique, unlike anyone else’s. You be the expert on this unique and special body. Learn about gender and power messages in our culture. With friends, watch documentaries such as Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In by the Representation Project, and discuss social and cultural pressures, and how to protect and support each other. If you are a woman, role play how to stand up for yourself. If you are a man, role play how to protect women. Learn about intimate relationships. Read books like The Heart of Desire by Stella Resnick, Sexual Awareness by Barry McCarthy, Love Sense by Sue Johnson and listen to Men, Women and Worthiness by Brene Brown.
2. CLAIM your body. So much of culture is aimed at inviting you to despise or disapprove of your body or appearance so that in your dissatisfaction you spend more money. But life is too short. You have a right to appreciate every day the gift of your life, the health of your body, the beauty of your uniqueness, and your desire to be seen, known, loved and accepted. This is yours to claim and to live boldly and loudly. Each day. Do gratitude lists. Write affirmations. Let your thoughts lead you to new feelings, and ultimately to new actions. Feel in your body the places of joy, gratitude and love. Live from these places. Let yourself know sensual pleasure and play. Find that inner child and discover your body again and the joy it can bring you. Learn to befriend and inhabit the power in sexual arousal. If there are places in your body that feel tight or hurt, learn to listen deep to the story within. Learn to give to yourself whatever amount of love and grace is needed for any hardship or pain you have suffered. Always give yourself permission to heal and to find whatever help you need.
3. NAME your story. If your sexual story up to this point has been shrouded in secrecy or ignorance or trauma, fear or shame, find a safe tribe of compassionate, loving, and empathic people who can hear your story and love you in and through it. Shame cannot live in the presence of love. Your story needs to be witnessed and you deserve to feel love and compassion. You cannot grow up in a culture as sexually silent, ignorant and confused as ours and not have heaps of shame. Nothing is wrong with you! You were fearfully and wonderfully made. You have done the best you could with what you were given. You deserve to have your story heard, and grace and knowledge to be granted.
4. AIM to write your story of sexuality and intimacy in any way that will bring you joy and nourishment. This is your story and it is yours to write. What are your values, your hopes, and your desires? Aim to write this sexual story. What is the legacy you want to begin to live into? What is the story you want to share with your children or nieces/nephews? You get to write your sexual story everyday by the choices you make. What do you want your new story to say? When will you know you are ready for varying degrees of vulnerability (emotionally/physically/relationally/spiritually)? You determine this. This is your story. What will be the story to honor the beautiful unique gift that is the sensual powerful you?
When I imagine more people living boldly and unapologetically into the gift of their sexuality in ways that allow them to feel deeply seen, known, loved and accepted and in ways that heal generations of ignorance and shame, I can imagine more giggly little four year olds surprising their mothers by their curious naked antics. And I can imagine more mother’s laughing, rather than reacting, remembering to grab their cameras before hoisting them off to the bath!
Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers, PhD, LMFT is the Founder and Medical Director of the Northwest Institute for Intimacy (NWIOI). The Institute provides comprehensive training to therapists, integrating the critical skills of sex therapy and relationship counseling. www.tinaschermersellers.com Tina is also an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology, Family and Community at Seattle Pacific University and Director of Medical Family Therapy.