Childhood sexual rights

by bjmuirhead

Michael Seto (footnote 3, Seto 2012 234) summarises the general view on children desiring sex with adults:

I realise that adults have more opportunities to speak and be heard, at least by other adults, but I have never heard (directly or indirectly) a child speak on behalf of his or her right to have sex with an adult.

This is to say: children do not want sex with adults.

This footnote intrigued me for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there is the fact that I have heard 12 and 13 year olds (in another room, talking with my same age children—the advantages of no soundproofing) talking about wanting sex with people I knew to be 18 and over, i.e., legal adults.1 At the time they were pubescent, and at least one identified then, and now, as “pansexual”. Secondly, there is the fact that, prior to puberty, my children and their friends, questioned me consistently and thoroughly about sex and who they could have sex with.

The answers I gave them are less relevant than the simple fact that they asked me in an attempt to seek guidelines bout who were appropriate sex partners/experimenters for them. They were not arguing for their right to have sex with adults; rather they were assuming that they could, if they wanted, and wondering why it wasn’t so. Hence their questions.

My problem with Seto’s footnote, therefore, is simple:

  • Perhaps he has not listened to children. That would explain why he never heard things that I have heard.

One difficulty in appreciating the verbal expression of a child’s sexual curiosity, needless to say, is that they do not use the same words and conceptual approaches that adults use. Sometimes they talk about their desires and express their curiosity in a frustratingly roundabout manner, but rarely in such a manner that they cannot be understood.

The second issue which his footnote raised for me was one of children’s rights, and specifically children’s sexual rights.

One right which I always have believed children have and always should have is the right to honest, accurate answers to any question they ask, and to have that answer expressed in a manner they are capable of understanding. (If you must use technical language or any “big” words—explain those words and teach them to use them properly.)

Most parents, to the extent that they are able, i.e., depending on their knowledge, education, time and willingness, extend this right to children in all areas other than sex and sexuality. In respect of sex, the primary “right” English speaking Western cultures maintain is the right of children to be, and remain, ignorant. Moreover, this ignorance is extended to a child’s sexual behaviour, which parents frequently, if not always, do their best to stop.

Needless to say, a child’s sexual behaviour, with themselves and with others, is a matter of rights. Concerning this, Haroian (2000) says:

In the western culture, great controversy has been perpetuated over what adult (parent and professional) attitudes about children’s sexual expression should be. Many child rights advocates believe that children are a disenfranchised minority in the age/class system and state that the privilege and responsibility of sexual behaviour is one of the many human rights denied them. They suggest that the proper adult stance is one of permissiveness to encouragement. This argument is more than vaguely akin to the rhetoric of the paedophile groups who have a vested interest in the relaxation or abolishment of child protective (albeit restrictive) laws.

This reference to paedophile groups,2 is disappointing simply because it takes attention away from the very notion that children may have sexual rights which should not be transgressed against. Haroian continues:

Children, by definition, are not consenting adults in sexual matters and may need protection from the liability of sexual contracts in the same manner that they are not held accountable for business or labour contracts.

This position does not suggest that there is inherent harm in sexual expression in childhood; in fact, we have considerable evidence to the contrary. Sexologically, it is based on the knowledge that the benefits of free sexual expression of children can only occur in a sexually supportive society: a society in which all people have sex for sexual reasons, one in which sexual knowledge, skill and pleasure are valued for both males and females. A society that encourages sexual competency rather than constraint and in which every man, woman and child can say yes or no to sex without prejudice or coercion. To encourage children to be sexual in a sexually repressive or permissive/ambivalent culture is to exploit their healthy sexual interest, as they will be left alone to deal with a double standard and the sex-negative, self-serving attitudes of peers and adults.

The mention of paedophile groups now makes a little more sense—we do not, by and large, live in sexually supportive societies; certainly not in the USA or Australia,3 where generally agreed upon socio-cultural views on sex are schizoid and held a long way from coherence; we do not, by and large, accept that children can and often do enjoy sexual pleasures, such as masturbating, mutual fondling, and other activities which usually are described as “foreplay” in adults; we do not live in sex positive societies where children can learn about sex and be sexual safely.

In saying this, I am not taking a side-swipe at paedophiles, or dismissing adult-child sex as wrong or harmful.

I strongly suspect that if we lived in sex positive societies, more children would engage in sex (sexual games, if you prefer) with each other, and that some children would seek and be willing to engage in, sex with older women and men. The best way to learn, after all, is to go to someone with experience. This would not be a large moral and legal issue in a sex positive society where children learnt from the earliest ages, simply because the children would know both what they were getting into, and that they can say no and be heard.

These ideas are bound to be thought to be rosy idealism of the most dangerous variety by many people. And perhaps it is just that when we consider the negativity which surrounds sex in our modern culture. But it has worked well in other cultures and in other times, and one must always maintain some optimism. I have, after all, listened to my kids and their friends grow up, and I have noted the damage done to their sexuality. All I had to do was listen to know just how much they want to be comfortable sexually.

Our research psychologists, however, seem incapable of listening. Fortunately, at least some clinical psychologists fall off the hysteria bandwagon and treat childhood sexuality sensibly. But, it also is true that many clinical psychologists also are incapable of listening.


Haroian, Loretta. 2000. “Child Sexual Development.” /volume3/Haroian/body.htm.

Seto, Michael C. 2012. “Is Pedophilia a Sexual Orientation?” Archives of Sexual Behavior 41 (1): 231–36. doi:10.1007/s10508-011-9882-6.


1Sometimes I just had to go in and tell them that they had it all wrong. Inevitably they were astounded that I could hear them, and they would try to talk quietly for a while. But, the quiet rarely lasted for more than a few minutes

2PIE, or the Paedophile Information Exchange, comes immediately to mind.

3I really cannot comment on the non-English speaking West, as I do not know enough about those societies. Nor, by and large, can I comment on the UK, which seems to be following the US and Australia; but I may be wrong about this.