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Sex In Infancy

( Originally Published 1923 )

3. Sex in Infancy. In the ordinary use of the word "sex" the infant would seem to be entirely free of desires or interests that are strictly sexual. Nevertheless it is found that the feelings and impulses which become clearly related to sex later in life have their beginnings in the infant. And the development and conditioning of these impulses determine very largely the character of the individual throughout life.

The sensual element of sex, that is, the capacity to derive pleasure from sensations, is manifested in the satisfactions and enjoyments which the child gets at the very first from every kind of contact. The whole skin is sensitive, and mere touching is pleasurable. Certain regions of the body, however, are particularly sensitive, and here contacts arouse a larger amount of pleasure. These erogenous areas or zones are the lips, the genitals, and the anus, that is, the two openings of the food-tube and the opening of the urethra, regions in which the skin and mucous membranes meet. The pleasure which the child feels when touched or handled, when tickled, when sucking the nipple or his thumb, when passing urine or feces, is in part unspecialized pleasure which comes from every sensation; and it is in part due to a relief from internal strain, as for example, the pressure in the bladder or rectum. Gradually, however, the child becomes aware of a special pleasure from these experiences, and he comes to seek this pleasure. He discovers, long before he has any clear consciousness, that he can get this pleasure by sucking his thumb or by handling the genitals. And unless he is carefully watched, he is very likely to apply his discovery and make use of it.

Because the child is capable in this period of supplying himself with these pleasures, this period is some-times called the autoerotic stage. While he is still very closely dependent upon others for food and cleanliness and protection, he has already become independent of others for certain pleasures of a kind that become later tied up with the sexual life. It is not to be supposed that the child who is sucking his thumb really entertains desires or satisfactions that are "sexual" in the narrow sense, or that the child who is tickling himself or handling his genitals has sex ideas. Nevertheless such activities are closely related to masturbatory practices and often establish long-enduring habits which interfere with the further development of the child's character in certain respects. Such practices should not cause alarm on the part of the parents; nor should the child be made aware of doing something reprehensible. They indicate the need for helping the child find greater satisfaction in a different use of his hands—for substitution, not repression.

Early in life the child will manifest pleasures related to his dealings with other people, chiefly mother and father. The pleasure. furnished by the mother is associated with the supplying of food or stilling hunger, and with the warmth and contacts of her handling and fondling him. Here is an outside object which brings satisfactions of desire and pleasurable sensations. Later the child finds pleasure not only in what is done to him, but also in the reactions he can draw from others, the effects he can produce. He can gurgle and make his mother smile; he can babble and make his father raise him up in the air. He can give as well as take. The satisfaction of producing effects and the satisfaction of receiving effects or impressions from others are two opposite modes of getting pleasure which in many cases go to the extreme of causing pain or inviting pain. The pain is the extreme of sensation and indicates a high degree of attention from others, or a high degree of ability to impress others. While it is desirable that the child should get the satisfaction which comes from being noticed and that which comes from his trying to impress others, it is not desirable that he should either give or take "till it hurts." But the developing ego would rather be hurt than ignored, and he would rather cause pain than have his presence or blandishments disregarded. Later this pair of impulses become part of the personality and show themselves in love and court-ship in endless variety. The balked or perverted impulse to impress may take on the aspects of cruelty and is called "sadism." The opposite tendency, showing itself in a yielding to the cruelty or imposition of others, is called "masochism."

The child's affections are early tied up to the people, the objects, the situations that arouse pleasurable feelings. Under normal conditions the mother thus becomes the first "love-object," since from her come the deepest and the most numerous satisfactions. This affection finds an outlet in the effort to impress the mother; and it finds satisfaction in receiving renewed attentions of various kinds. The child should receive the mother's affection if he is to develop in a healthy way. But there is quite as much danger of overfeeding the child in this respect as of starving him. Exaggerated manifestations of love, over-solicitude, demonstrativeness, carry the danger of fixing the child's love so strongly upon the mother that it becomes later difficult if not impossible to transfer his love to other objects and persons; and such transfer is absolutely indispensable to further growth. Indeed, we may say that the growth of character and power consists of the progressive transfer of affection from the mother to a long series of "love-objects" consisting of various persons of both sexes, various ideas, activities, interests, and ideals.

Many mothers, with the best of intentions, contribute to an early fixation of their children's affections and corresponding interests, by having them sleep with them, by over-fondling them, by giving them a disproportionate amount of personal attention, by manifesting extreme concern about every scratch or bruise, and so on. As a result of such over-emphasis of the mother-love, the child may fail to find for himself suitable playmates, suitable play activities and interests, so that he misses all the educational and developmental benefits of con-tact with others, the ability to give and take on an equal footing, the independence and initiative which should mark a maturing boy or girl, the sympathy and co-operativeness with others, in short the ability to take his place and responsibilities in the complex social world in which he is to live. In many cases this means also the inability to find a mate and to adjust himself to the normal sexual relations of adult married life.

This danger of the mother-fixation is greatest for an only boy, or for a youngest boy in the family. There is a corresponding danger of a father-fixation for the little girl, since the father is more likely to give satisfying attention to the girl, as the mother is to the boy.

There is, of course, the corresponding danger of ignoring or antagonizing the child's affections. Absence of sympathy and understanding often leads to repression. The child's impulses, finding no response, turn in upon 'themselves. The child is forced to find his pleasures without his parents' aid, invents imaginary love-objects or spends himself on the cat or a favorite toy. These substitutes, however, are naturally incapable of making satisfactory responses to the child's advances, and he gets his satisfaction by elaborating an imaginary world of kind and lovely people; or he gets his compensation by avenging himself upon helpless animals, by destroying things, or by indulging himself in his phantasy. A child in this situation can seldom, if ever, learn to like his fellows; he is forced into seclusion or aloofness. His shy approach is a constant handicap and at least makes difficult his eventual adjustment to the opposite sex.

If punishment or harsh treatment is added to the withholding of affection, the child is all the more likely to resort to cruelty to animals or to weaker children, and to playing mean tricks upon the parents or others. In many cases certainly the frequent use of punishment by parents, however reasonably they may justify it, is a continuation of the treatment which they had themselves received during childhood. The cruelties often practiced by jail-keepers, by severe teachers, by self-important petty officials, and by any men or women who take advantage of their power to abuse those placed at their mercies, seem to indicate not the existence of a cruel type of human being, but the perpetuation of a cruel mode of reacting to the world; and this perpetuation of cruelty seems to be the direct result of depriving children of the opportunity to express their kindly feelings and affections in satisfying modes of conduct.

Where the cruelties and penalties imposed upon children, for disciplinary purposes as we suppose, take the form of corporal punishment, a further danger is present. The combination of emotional excitement and heightened sensitiveness may turn the punishment, even though painful, into an ecstasy akin to a sexual experience. The whipping may come to bring sensual and emotional satisfactions, it may even come to be accepted as some-thing to be desired. Here, then, the affections craving recognition and attention are first antagonized and then partially gratified by suffering and over stimulation of the sensitized skin. The pain is compensated by the fact that the child does receive undivided attention, and the emotions find relief from strain in a brief but intense orgy. A communion of sympathy and love is replaced by a communion of hatred. The relation of such an experience to the partial satisfaction of sexual feelings is of course unrecognized by the child.

Where a child is punished in the presence of a third party the evil effects are still further aggravated, for now his self-esteem is severely wounded. Thus his own capacity for cruelty is cultivated. The child who has been humiliated is all the more likely to seek his compensations by inflicting injury upon others, whenever the opportunity presents itself; or by learning either to be indifferent to his punishments, or to get a certain satisfaction from them. Moreover, any child who witnesses the punishment of another may come to be indifferent to the sight of suffering, or even to take a certain pleasure from it.

Another aspect of the infant's sex life shows itself in the early establishment of jealousies. When the mother has become the love-object of the little boy, or the father the love-object of the little girl, jealousy is likely to appear should the person in question manifest too much affection for somebody else. It may be the embrace of one parent by the other, it may be the attention given to a younger brother or sister, or even a diversion of attention to some stranger. The child who is too much indulged by the affectionate parent will come to expect exclusive love and attention. He will come to feel a proprietary interest in the beloved, and to tolerate no division of the affections from that source.

The avoidance of this unfortunate state lies not in continuing the excessive and concentrated indulgence of satisfactions, nor in withholding from the child the affection which is his due. By supplying a wide range of satisfying experiences, it becomes possible to have the child diffuse or spread out his affections, to include other persons besides his mother, his pets, his toys, his games, his companions. As the child grows older, new contacts and experiences must furnish both the stimuli for his curiosity and exploration, and objects for his constructive efforts and self-assertion. That is to say, instead of depending upon the indifference or hostility of the parents to drive him to finding satisfactions in other people and experiences, he should have both the affection of the former and the adventure of an enlarging world of interests. This means both an enrichment of life for the child, and the avoidance of fixations of interest at infantile levels.

When we consider that the highest feelings of which human beings are capable, whether in relation to other people or in relation to art and nature, result from the progressive development of the feelings already present in infancy, we can see the importance of protecting the child against distortions, while assuring him full opportunity to express himself. Sympathy, altruism, chivalry, and self-sacrifice, as well as the esthetic enjoyments, devotion to persons, to institutions, and to principles, will emerge as the childish feelings have such opportunities and are at the same time guided into forms of expression that are compatible with social living. In guiding the child we must take into account not alone what we want him eventually to desire and to do, but also the impulses that are active in him at the present moment. While it is necessary that many of his acts be inhibited or aborted, many of his feelings repressed, it is also necessary that the repression be not followed by permanent conflicts. The child can learn to sit still, he can learn to avoid all activity; but it takes about as much energy to avoid performing an act as it takes to do it, and this energy of inhibition is set up against the energy or drive of the impulse to do something. Instead of accomplishing something worth while by using his impulse, the "repressed" individual clamps them down and gets nowhere, achieving nothing but his own frustration.

The natural impulses to find out, at first by the exercise of his senses and muscles, later by, asking direct questions, show themselves in every child if we do nothing to obstruct them. Helpful guidance consists in supplying the child a variety of materials with which to become acquainted, and in answering his questions. This is just as true when he is exploring his genitals as when he is exploring his toes or his face. And it is just as true when he is asking questions about reproduction or fatherhood as when he is asking questions about the stars or the rain. In the same way, his play inventions may be considered as elaborations for getting outlets and satisfactions for the natural impulses; and by watching what the child does or tries to do, we can discover his needs much more surely than by considering exclusively our own convenience or the possible effects of his activities upon the things around him.

It is necessary finally to guard against the inference which some are likely to draw from the above statements that so long as the child is happy all is well. This might be accepted as a true index of the child's healthy state if it were always interpreted in a positive and progressive sense. The child will be content very often if left to himself without interference of any sort. But in that case he will be discovering methods of securing pleasure from his own activities and his own person. From playing with his fingers and toes he would pass to playing with his lips and his genitals, to sucking his thumb and so on. Leaving a child in this state to his own resources simply because he appears satisfied and is making no trouble—no demand for attention—would tend to fix upon him the habits of this period. What is needed is the supplying of constantly new stimuli, new situations, new personalities, new objects, graded to meet the growing capacities and interests of the child. The child whose intelligence is allowed to remain content with what he has acquired during the first few years of life will never attain the mental stature of which he is capable; but neither will the child whose emotions are allowed to stagnate in infantile satisfactions and manifestations attain to the character and personality of which he is capable. Being happy is a growing, positive, dynamic test of a suitable spiritual environment for the;'' child, just as being healthy is an indication that all is well with him as an organism. Both health and happiness depend upon constantly changing conditions, which it is our business to supply for the child.

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