An ongoing patient comes in yesterday and wants my advice: she says she caught her 5-year-old playing doctor with her pal Jenny. Mom's arrival apparently broke up whatever they were doing, but mom wants to know what to do now.
The word "caught" caught my ear.
I start with a few routine questions:
How old is Jenny?
They've known each other a while?
Did it seem friendly or coercive?
Friendly. Very friendly.
Were large objects inserted anywhere?
Getting impatient, mom tells me a few things that she thinks are relevant.
The door was closed.
Did you knock?
No. She's never closed her door before.
Oh. I guess the closed door meant something to her.
They jumped when I walked in.
Well, you interrupted them.
They looked guilty.
Since your attitude was that you "caught" them, I guess they felt "caught."
Mom senses that I don't appreciate the gravity of the situation. So, somewhat reluctantly, she spells it out for me.
I think they were, you know, playing with each other.
Yes, you already said they were friends on a play date.
No, playing with each other--you know, with their private parts.
You mean their vulvas?
Dead silence. Mom knows from experience that I won't rescue her by speaking, so she bravely continues.
OK, whatever. But they were playing with each other.
Yes, I understand. You seem upset.
Well...that isn't healthy, is it? I mean, they're 5!
Yes, that's the age at which playing doctor would make sense.
You don't think there's anything wrong with it? They're too young!
Too young? I don't think you mean you'd rather she do it when she's 10, right? I'm being sincere here, not snarky.
At this point I'm accused of being snarky. Worse, mom calls me "one of those liberal sex therapists who probably thinks I'm just a prude." Well of course I am, and of course I do. But I don't say so, because that's beside the point. But I do respond.
Actually, I'm a professional. I'm extremely sympathetic about your distress, and fairly knowledgeable about developmental psychology and sexuality. Let's definitely talk about your feelings, and when you're ready I can share some facts about kids' healthy sexual development.
I'm sorry I brought this up. I should have known better.
I'm glad you brought it up, because this is a turning point in the history of this family--not to mention her development and yours.
Well, let's just skip all the psychology and just answer me one question. What should I do?
I don't want to be difficult here, but do about what? Your feelings? Her need for privacy? Her relationship with her body and her sexuality?
Oh God, this is just getting worse. C'mon--should I let them play together anymore? Should I forbid them to close the door? Should I tell Jenny's mom--oh God, don't tell me to do that.
No, I won't tell you to do that. In fact, I won't tell you to do anything, because it isn't clear yet what you want to accomplish. I know you want your kid to be healthy and happy and strong, so I know you don't want to derail her normal sexual development.
Rolling her eyes, mom interrupts:
But she's so young!
Yes she is. That's exactly when kids start learning about taking care of their teeth, the importance of good manners, how to deal with conflict, how much easier life is if you put your things away--the skills they'll need as an adult. That's when their sexuality starts developing, too. "Young" is right on schedule.
OK, so just answer me: should I stop her from playing doctor?
It depends on what you want to accomplish. If you want to interrupt her from exploring her sexuality in a safe, comfortable environment, stop her. If you want her to hide her sexual questions and exploration from you, stop her.
Now came the hard part.
I understand that you're uncomfortable being confronted with her sexuality. And I know you adore her and want what's best for her. I'm afraid this won't be the last time you feel those two things battling inside you.
Mom seemed thoughtful about this, so I continued.
I know you want to support her in being healthy and happy. I want to support you in that project. I also want to support you through your difficulty here. And just like you want to handle this episode with her to empower her in the future, I want to handle this with you to empower you in the future. Because, as we both know...if she's healthy, she's going to become more sexual rather than less, and probably on a faster timetable than you're comfortable with.
Mom's face was a mixture of relief, sadness, confusion, longing, and surrender. She looked very, very human.
Can you recommend a book for me?
Well, I enthusiastically recommend this.
I showed her my copy of It's Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris.
This is a book for kids!
Yes. Buy it for her. Feel free to read it first; then read it with her; and then read it again on your own. You'll be joining the 1,000,000 happy-sad, nervous-proud, slightly queasy parents who have already read it.
Ladies & gentlemen, get ready for America's new moral panic--sex trafficking!
Yes, CraigsList has bowed to pressure from law enforcement, non-profits, and CNN, and has blocked access to its "adult services" section. They've replaced the link with a black bar stamped "censored." CraigsList has been pummeled with criticism for allegedly facilitating prostitution and "sex trafficking" in the U.S..
Some of the CraigsList adult classifieds are used for coyly-disguised adult prostitution--a predictable development in an age when all commerce has taken to the internet. OK, prostitution is illegal in 49 states, and so some of these ads promote an illegal activity. A tiny fraction supposedly offer paid sex with minors, which can be really illegal (although the age of consent in many states is 16 or 17, not 18--so minors there can consent to sex). And finally, some women are forced into prostitution or kept there through coercion or unscrupulous manipulation. That's not a sex crime, that's a terrible crime, period.
But if the 17 state attorneys general pressuring CraigsList have any real data connecting it with prostitution, teen sex, or sex trafficking, they're keeping it a secret. Which means they don't have any.
If those opposing prostitution would simply say "CraigsList shouldn't run ads that facilitate prostitution because prostitution is against the law," or because "prostitution is bad for prostitutes and/or America," that would be honest, and even semi-reasonable.
But in America, opposing any aspect of sexual expression--from freeway billboards for strip clubs to, well, strip clubs themselves--is typically done by painting the most grisly picture possible. And so the Myth of Massive Sex Trafficking is spreading like some evil crabgrass after spring rain.
It's another one-sided battle in America's War On Sex.
The Myth is fueled by TV shows like the CSI franchise and the shamelessly exploitative Nancy Grace (motto: "Little Mary's mutilation is our bread & butter"). It's fueled by law-enforcement officials who toss around expressions like "the increasing problem of sex trafficking" without providing any statistics. It's fueled by non-profits who take a single sensational case--e.g., the arrest of a Boston medical student charged with murdering a woman he met on CraigsList--and claim it reflects a meaningful trend (while asking for tax dollars to fight these "trends").
Groups like Stop Child Trafficking Now throw around wildly inflated numbers of women and girls "trafficked" by simply including all prostitutes in the category. Another statistical manipulation is including women and teens who are subject to the coercion of local gangs or racketeers. Organized crime is obviously a horrible problem, but conflating it with "human trafficking" is simply a devious ploy for public sympathy.
And then we have completely bogus numbers (bound to be reprinted endlessly)--like the Rebecca Project's "An estimated 100,000-300,000 American children are at risk for becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation."
"At risk!" Not in any way harmed, just vulnerable! The technical word for this is "nonsense."
The U.S. State Department's own country-by-country report states that what little human trafficking there is into the U.S. is "primarily for labor;" out of the nine most common categories (which include agriculture and janitorial services), strip-club dancing is the only one related to sex.
The penetration of the internet into every aspect of American life has spawned a corresponding series of sex-related moral panics--not unlike the panics that resulted from the equal penetration of radio, comic books, and TV in their respective times.
Just two years ago we were hearing how MySpace was supposedly filled with predators, making it incredibly dangerous for kids. Then a sophisticated nationwide report documented that it isn't a hotbed of danger after all. And yet we still hear about this alleged problem.
Last year the Big Child Sex Problem was sexting, with the allegation that predators somehow get hold of teens' nude photos and then stalk them (makes no sense to me, either). Just a few months ago we started hearing about sextortion--in which evildoers use these photos to extort even more explicit photos from teens.
Of course, the goal of eliminating human trafficking is 100% worthwhile. But as with all moral crusades, there's a temptation for action designed to make activists and the public feel safer, rather than actually accomplishing real goals. This wastes resources and simply empowers feel-gooders, hypocrites, and opportunists.
It's comforting to identify a bogeyman--in this case CraigsList--and to focus our anxiety and anger on it. People feel especially empowered to do so under the rubric of "protecting the children." First Amendment? Adults' civil rights? Privacy guarantees? It's easy to trample these under the hooves of a cavalry charge to rescue children who are "at risk."
Both federal law and a subsequent federal court have ruled that CraigsList is acting legally. If America really wants to take care of its children, let's take all that anti-trafficking (and anti-molesting, anti-kidnapping) money and double schoolteachers' salaries--and make sure every kid has a hot lunch Monday through Friday.
Every week or two some magazine wants to interview me about sex. Twenty years ago, when I was young(er) and hungry, I usually said yes. Now I usually say no.
Today I said yes to a well-known national magazine. You see it in every supermarket and airport, with a good-looking busty model on the cover. Let's call the publication "Young Women Interested in Sex." (YWIS)
The article they called me about is "75 things about men--in 1 sentence each." The staff writer, a respectful, pleasant woman about 26, hoped I would answer about a dozen questions. By the end of the interview, we were glad to be rid of each other. The questions included:
- Why do men always ignore you after they finish?
- What are men most insecure about?
- How do you know if men like a new thing you do in bed?
- Why are men so rude when looking at your boobs?
- Of course, men always think about other women when they're in bed with you. Who are they most likely to think about?
- They stereotype men and women: men are like this, women are like that
- They ignore the reality that "men" and "women" are heterogeneous categories: they claim that ALL men are like this, and ALL women are like that
- They perpetuate inaccurate information: men do and think and feel this, women do and think and feel that.
It's ironic that this publication boasts that it's the most sex-positive magazine on the market; its founder was legendary in her insistence that women claim their sexuality. Indeed, each month's cover displays another woman with huge, barely-covered breasts, featuring articles like "How to climax every time" and "How to drive him wild even when he's tired." But for all their pseudo-frank talk about sex, these articles always end up problematizing it.
YWIS loves the traditional battle of the sexes, maintaining women's anxiety about losing or winning it. And because "communication" is SO not-sexy, the editors overlook it for things like lingerie, positions, talking "dirty," and sexy vacations. A self-help article that says "let's face it--talking during sex ruins the mood" can't possibly be of much help.
YWIS's young female staff in New York does most of the "writing"--which means taking the story ideas they're assigned and calling experts to provide quotes proving the story's primary thesis. They take the title, thesis, and expert quotes, add a few conjunctions, and crank out yet another article written by a kid with very little understanding of sex or relationships (much less writing).
This perfectly nice staff writer didn't like a lot of my answers, because they challenged the foundation of her questions. No, most men DON'T think about other women when they're with you. No, most men DON'T freak out when a woman initiates sex. No, most men DON'T hate "foreplay."
But I was sincere when I answered, kept my answers brief as she'd requested, and brought to bear the glorious edifice of my 30,000 hours as a psychologist and sex therapist.
Ironically, it was my best answer that she appreciated the least. When she asked "What do men think when they see a new woman naked for the first time?" I told the truth: "Wow!" She thought I was either putting her on or simply misinformed.
I dunno--do you really have to be a guy to understand that amazing experience?