Sexual abuse and the perception of children: Jerome Kagan and The Nature of the Child

In graduate school, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Jerome Kagan’s The Nature of the Child. I have excerpted the beginning of chapter 7 below as a means of continuing the conversation about the relevance of childhood events for sexuality. This chapter is titled, “The Role of the Family” and the excerpt comes from pages 240-242.

I have said little about the influence of experience on the child, especially the consequences of parental behavior. The most important reason for this omission is that the effects of most experiences are not fixed but depend upon the child’s interpretation. And the interpretation will vary with the child’s cognitive maturity, expectations, beliefs, and momentary feeling state. Seven-year-old boys who are part of a small isolated culture in the highlands of New
Guinea perform fellatio regularly on older adolescent males for about a half-dozen years; but this behavior is interpreted as part of a secret, sacred ritual that is necessary if the boy is to assume the adult male role and successfully impregnate a wife (Herdt, 1981). If an American boy performed fellatio on several older boys for a half-dozen years, he would regard himself as homosexual and pos­sess a fragile, rather than a substantial, sense of his maleness.
Children growing up in Brahmin families in the temple town of Bhubaneswar in India hear their mothers exclaim each month, “Don’t touch me, don’t touch me, I’m polluted.” These children do not feel rejected or unloved, because they know this command is a regular event that occurs during the mother’s menstrual period (Shweder, in press). And a small proportion of American children, whose affluent parents shower them with affection and gifts out of a desire to create in them feelings of confidence and self-worth, become apathetic, depressed adolescents because they do not believe they deserve such continuous privilege.
As these examples make clear, the child’s personal interpretation of experience, not the event recorded by camera or observer, is the essential basis for the formation of and change in beliefs, wishes, and actions. However, the psychologist can only guess at these interpretations, and the preoccupations and values of the culture in which the scholar works influence these guesses in a major way. For example, Erasmus (1530), who believed the child’s appearance reflected his character, told parents to train the child to hold his body in a controlled composure – no furrowing of brows, sagging of cheek, or biting of the lip, and especially no laughter without a very good cause.
Educated citizens in early sixteenth-century London, who were disturbed by the high rate of crime, begging, and vagrancy among children of the poor, blamed the loss of a parent, living with lazy parents, being one of many children, or a mental or physical handicap. These diagnoses ignored the possible influence of genetics, parental love, or social conditions existing outside the home. Two centuries later, a comparable group of English citizens concerned with identical social problems, but still without any sound facts, emphasized the influence of the love relation between mother and child (Pinchbeck and Hewitt, 1969 and 1973).
Many contemporary essays on the influence of family experience also originate in hunches, few of which are firmly supported by evidence. This is not surprising; the first empirical study to appear in a major American journal that attempted to relate family factors to a characteristic in the child was published less than sixty years ago in The Pedagogical Seminary (Sutherland, 1930). The fact that a hunch about the role of family originates in a society’s folk premises about human nature does not mean that it is incorrect. Eighteenth-century French physicians believed that a nursing mother should bathe the baby regularly and not drink too much wine – suggestions that have been validated by modern medicine. But those same doctors also believed – mistakenly, I suppose – that cold baths will ensure a tough character in the older child. The absence of conclusive evidence means that each theorist must be continually sensitive to the danger of trusting his or her hunches too completely, for at different times during the last few centuries of European and American history, the child has been seen as inherently evil, or as a blank tablet with no special predispositions, or, currently, as a reservoir of genetically determined psychological qualities. Modern Western society follows Rousseau in assuming that the infant is prepared to attach herself to her caregiver and to prefer love to hate, mastery to cooperation, autonomy to interdependence, personal freedom to bonds of obligation, and trust to suspicion. It is assumed that if the child develops the qualities implied by the undesirable members of those pairs, the practices of the family during the early years – especially parental neglect, indifference, restriction, and absence of joyful and playful interaction – are major culprits.
I cannot escape these beliefs which are so thoroughly threaded through the culture in which I was raised and trained. But having made that declaration, I believe it is useful to rely on selected elements in popular theory, on the few trustworthy facts, and on intuition in considering the family experiences that create different types of children, even if my suggestions are more valid for American youngsters than for those growing up in other cultures.

Kagan refers to Gilbert Herdt’s book, Guardians of the Flutes, published in 1981 which describes the masculinity rituals of the Sambian tribe (not the actual tribal name) in Papua New Guinea. Essentially the tribe “believes” boys become men by ingesting the semen (“male milk”) of older boys. And of course, by the teen years, it “works” and the boys attain manhood. At that point, the vast majority of males choose a female partner.
Kagan’s reference to this practice reminds us that these experiences are embedded in a culture. In our own, such experiences would not be normalized and contextualized as a contributing to masculinity but rather detracting from it.
I cannot improve on Kagan’s description of his thesis. He is a gifted writer. However, I will elaborate for sake of discussion. He proposes that perception drives the psychological impact of a given experience. How differing perceptions effect the development of sexuality seems to me to be highly individualistic. Thus, for some, sexual maltreatment might push an essentially heterosexual person toward same-sex preoccupations. For others, abuse might strengthen the budding heterosexual impulses toward heterosexual preoccupations. For others, the abusive events may have no effect on attractions but rather influence attachment security. My point here is not to describe all possible trajectories, but rather to illustrate the potential of many variations.
A related point made by Kagan is that our culture looks at parenting as causative of adult personality. I believe many people do not question this assumption. In the last several years, I have looked for data to support or contradict it. I find little support that individual personality traits or conditions are strongly related to particular family dynamics. However, some broad trends can be observed. Fatherlessness is associated with a variety of problems in children and society. However, not having a father around may be interpreted in different ways by different children. For some, having the wrong kind of father around might lead to anti-social behavior. Thus, simply isolating childhood variables and relating them to adult outcomes is insufficient. These points are often lost on reparative therapists and other advocates who want to reduce homosexuality to a set of family dynamics or childhood experiences. On the other hand, biological determinists err on the side of discounting these social experiences as potentially influential for some people.
A satisfying position to me is to consider homosexual behavior to be determined by different factors in different ways for different people. For some, there is a very early awareness of romantic and sexual attraction for the same-sex independent of any trauma or parenting actions. For others, trauma and poor parenting occur but the same-sex attractions appeared prior to these unhappy events. For yet others people, the unhappy experiences may serve to create a disconnect between impulse to same-sex behavior and internal desire and attraction which may be toward the opposite sex. While these complexities create PR problems for culture warriors on both sides, I believe we must recognize the existence of multiple pathways to adult sexuality if we are to be true to the data and experience.

12 thoughts on “Sexual abuse and the perception of children: Jerome Kagan and The Nature of the Child”

  1. Trinidad–
    I don’t know the answer to that one. I was brought up in the age of sexualization…a teen in the 60’s. I think that men can and do talk to one another in the restroom, my anecdotal reference was to the seeming custom of women to invite another woman along…not just converse with someone who is already in there.

  2. I’m inclined to believe that social expectations and the individuals response mix in a variety of ways that guide our sexuality. Regardless of what culture or social taboos are present in the behaviors of sexuality, there will always be people who experience something out of that cultural norm or who interpret it differently than others. Hence we can be pushed and bumped by our interpretations and social expectations in many, many ways.

  3. Eddy, my brother or cousin would put sunscreen on me but I am black so I don’t use it. I think it depends on how comfortable you are as well.
    My question is: before the sexualization of everything (or more specifically the gay rights movement) did men talk to one another in the restroom?

  4. The examples provided in this thread caused me to reflect on this weekend’s ‘pool party’ at my brother’s house. My nephew was there with his wife; my niece with her boyfriend, myself, my sister in law, and two other single adult males. My sister in law is part American Indian; she and her children are naturally darker in complexion than the rest of us ‘very white’ folks.
    What occurs to me now is that the only people who were able to recline on their stomach, hence exposing their backs to the sun, were the couples. In short, even though I, and the two other single males, needed sunscreen more than any of the others, we had no one to ‘lotion’ our backs. The need for sunscreen was not sexual but neither family bond or close friendship was sufficient to break through the notion that lotioning someone’s back is somehow sexual and intimate.
    We may be sexually liberated on some levels but we are bound by a boatload of taboos.
    LOL. Go to a restaurant or bar with a group and ask a guy at the table to ‘accompany you to the restroom’. Women do it all the time…not because they need help urinating and not necessarily because they need protection…sometimes it’s just to chat. Even if the guys did need to chat, they’d do it anywhere except the restroom.
    Branding by others would happen to some level if we violated either of these taboos.

  5. Perception and subjectivity, agreed, are reasonable qualifiers to assess actions toward SSA.

  6. More:
    “Furthermore, and although initiates, like youths, are initially impelled into this act, their later participation (e.g., choice of partners, frequency, interpersonal tone) is mostly a matter of personal interest. Bachelors tend to engage regularly in homosexual fellatio. They seem (impressionistically) excited by it, joking among themselves about especially attractive boys whom they prefer as fellators, but are often willing or wanting to have sex with any appropriate. Last, most youths continue homosexual practices for as long as they can do so (until their wives’ menarche or first birth), having bisexual relationships for a time, whereupon those same men prefer coitus once they have made the transition to heterosexuality”
    Herdt, Gilbert (1981). Guardian of the Flutes: Idioms of Masculinity. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. pg 282.

  7. Agreed…yet.
    Kinsey and Mead were both very effective at reshaping mores.
    Neither one was practicing in a reasonable scientific culture.
    Their results could not stand scrutiny in their day given the well established criteria of the time…and could do so even less today…
    May I ask…who is Herdt (1981) and why should his study get such prominence, except as a vehicle to moral relativism and subjectivity…especially sexually.
    Kagan could have used all sorts of cultural examples of culturally endorsed childhood training that would be abhorrent to westerners…why fellatio of teens by pre-teens?
    Examples anyone?

  8. David – Is your concern that these experiences become morally acceptable here because they have a different meaning elsewhere in the world?
    There is no need for that result in my view.

  9. Warren,
    This is an interesting article…but this tribe is obscure, at best…should we be using such an example to asses the impact of CSA?
    Furthermore…Margaret Mead (?) as a westerner misunderstood the sexual behavior of a primitive culture, yet her conclusions shaped “enlightened” views of sexuality for decades.
    Rare, obscure examples interpreted through “open-minded” westerner’s eyes and published by a willing social scientific press have added little to the understanding of human sexuality.
    Frankly, they have damaged the protections previously surrounding sexuality and provided ready, “scientific” rationalizations for the exploiters and the manipulators.

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