Oddfrid Skorpe Tennfjord is a psychology Ph.D. at RVTS Mid-Norway (Resource center for violence, traumatic stress and suicide prevention). She is also an associate professor at RKBU Mid. She is the coordinator of the National Competence Network on Children and Young People with Harmful Sexual Behaviour, the leader of editorial staff for the website seksuellatferd.no and coordinates Resource team for problematic and harmful sexual behaviour (REBESSA).
SEXUAL JOY AND MASTERY
The foundation for sexual happiness and mastery is laid when we are children, along with the security of deciding what happens to our own body. Our early experiences make up the foundation on which we form attachments and experience intimacy later in life.
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What do you think of when I say the word “sexuality”? Or “sex”? If you’re like the rest of us, you probably think of intercourse. We know, however, that sexuality is more than sex, and sex is more than intercourse.
The Norwegian Minister of Health has called it “a force”, but the World Health Organization goes into more detail; it is a basic need and aspect of being human, and can not be separated from other aspects of life. It is in the energy driving us to seek love, intimacy and warmth, and expressed through emotions and movement. Sexuality seeps through every aspect of our personality and being; it can’t be separated from the rest of our person. It all has to do with love; wanting to love someone, and wanting to be loved.
Sexual development is spontaneous, meaning we don’t have to “activate” it – it just happens on its own. As with other types of development, we are predisposed to it biologically. However, we are also influenced by the environment we grow up in, and different people can learn from different cultural “manuals”. They can come from family, or be a larger part of the culture, but there are “manuals” to follow for nudity, sexuality and relations to others. The goal is to live in a society where our sexuality is acknowledged as something positive.
For example, if a teenager is playing with their genitals, we don’t tell them “you need to stop that immediately”, but rather let it happen. Or, if the setting is inappropriate, turn their attention over to something else.
This brings us to self-reflection, which is very important in regard to sexuality. How do you, as an adult, feel about your own sexuality? Is it difficult to talk about? Or can you easily speak and think about it? Does thinking about sexuality incite feelings of shame, or joy and excitement? How do you show respect and care towards yourself and others when it comes to sexuality? What does sexuality mean in your life? Becoming conscious of these things is a good step on the way to dealing well with the sexuality of children and young people.
But what is sexuality to children? Pleasure, exploration and fun – which also characterize a healthy sexuality. The principles of other games and playing apply too; sexuality occurs and ends spontaneously between peers of a similar understanding and maturity, both physically and mentally. The participants often know each other, and everything should be voluntary with no discomfort or anxiety. It should also be easily disrupted, by adults or other things.
To be concise: for infants, sexuality is about closeness and care, because they are forming bonds with their caregivers. When they become two years old, toddlers start noticing the differences between the sexes. An example of this was when a mother stepped out of the shower, and her barely-able-to-speak two-year-old stared intently at his mother’s genitals, before pointing and asking “gone?”.
Children slowly become more knowledgeable. Take one of my favorite stories, for example, in which a four-year-old is about to become an older sister; her parents had found her a book about becoming an older sibling, and when her aunt came to visit, the four-year-old grabbed the book to show her what she’d learned. They sat down, and the girl explained, with all the wisdom of a four-year-old: “…and here you see the baby inside the plastic bag, and over there it’s eating cake from the placenta, yum yum.”
Role playing is very typical, also for kindergarteners. They may pretend they’re a doctor and patient, or have one child lay on top of the other and move in a way they call “sexing”. This is, of course, immature knowledge. Children’s erotic actions do not have an end goal, unlike with adults. This is important to be aware of when observing them. The time will come when there is more meaning behind their actions, though the timing varies, since all children are different. However, reservations usually develop when they start school. They try to hide away from adults, be more discreet, while still thinking sex is gross. “Ugh, you having four kids means you’ve done it four times.”
Children also adopt a mean language at this age, boys to a higher degree than girls, though we believe this, too, is a result of cultural influences. In addition to mean language, they develop an understanding of sexual orientation by learning about homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality, and other terms we use in accordance with orientation. Our society has gotten better at accepting and introducing these concepts, which has helped many children and young people learn about themselves, but there is still a way to go.
Leading up to puberty, children become more conscious of how they are sexual beings. They have sexual fantasies and might get turned on. The realization hits that they are sexual and now want to know more: about romance, the world of adults and the world of teenagers. Exploration of their own body is common, along with girls beginning to masturbate.
Puberty is characterized by a fascination for body, nudity, sex and sexuality. It’s all about what relation you have with yourself, and your relations with others. You seek to explore, both verbally and online. The phone is never far away, either. Adolescents don’t want to stand out in the wrong way, so they care about when it’s possible to start “doing things”, and what things they can do. They are still uncertain, though, and need knowledge from outside the world of porn and Ex on the Beach; having a penis as big as porn star is not normal. Neither is extreme ejaculation. We’re talking about a teaspoon here.
And the clitoris is just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the clitoris is hidden under the skin on each side of the vagina. This is why girls enjoy being touched there, too!
Another aspect of sexuality is romantic relationships. Having a partner attempt to control you is not good, and you are allowed to tell them “stop”. This, too, is all about relational competence. Adolescents in these situations are prone to asking friends or the internet, but do express that they wish adults had told them more about it and how to handle it.
So, to summarize, sexuality is a part of us from we are born and until we die. It does not disappear, and for this reason I think becoming friends with our sexuality is beneficial. You, as an adult, can assist children and young people in doing exactly that.
Oddfrid Skorpe, Rådgiver, Psykolog, ph.d.