Last week I proposed the idea that sexual roles tend to break out along gender lines. That is, men typically exploit women sexually and women can be unable to protect themselves. We don’t have to noodle very hard to discover that this is so. As far back as the Old Testament it was taken for granted that the rape of women was a part of the spoils of war. The rape of the Sabine women in ancient Rome is a tale of tragedy that rings through the ages. In modern times the systematic rape of women has been used consistently as a way to humiliate a defeated enemy. Vice-President Joe Biden and Lady Gaga—bless their hearts—brought the sexual assault of women into public awareness in their presentation at the Oscars.
It is a grim topic to be sure but it is something that parents must face as they educate their girl children. (Boys too! But we will get to that next. ) How does a parent convey to a girl that she is the agent of her body and her sexuality? As I said last week I believe that our attitudes toward our bodies and ultimately our sexuality begin in infancy. A little girl learns respect for her body when those who care for her show respect towards her. When caregivers are patient and loving about the myriad of tasks required to feed and clean and comfort that tiny body, a child starts to learn just how precious it is.
Consider for a moment the video of a father changing a baby’s diaper. He opens the diaper and looks inside, then instantly begins to gag. He makes outrageous noises of revulsion and disgust and eventually has to throw up. It is hilarious and has been viewed thousands of times. But if we think about it from the perspective of the baby she would have been frightened and horrified to see that her father was so disgusted by her—her body, her person, all of her. Yes. The baby would have no way of knowing that he was reacting to her bowel movement—its sights and smells. The point is that whatever frame of mind we carry into the nursery the baby will take it in as a commentary on her person. With infants it’s a whole body thing.
We must honor the body from the very beginning of life. It is our space ship here on planet earth. If we ignore our bodies or treat them disrespectfully they will betray us sooner or later. So the first thing we are teaching a baby, whether boy or girl, is that we honor the body. That is how she will learn to do so as well. If a girl child learns to honor her body at a young age she will know that she must care for it. She will not be tempted to engage in risky habits or destructive behavior that will harm her body. She will, if possible, stay away from those who would harm or exploit her body. Of course, in the egregious situations of child abuse, a child is not always able to protect herself and that is why the perpetrator is accorded the blame. With a child or any incapacitated person there is no “he said, she said.”
We teach children of both sexes to honor their bodies. That being said I believe that as children grow into sexual beings they have very different experiences, depending on whether they are male or female. Those differences are grounded in the very different anatomy and physiology that each possesses. We will talk more about that next week!
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Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.