In the locker room of my upscale athletic club in Boca Raton, Florida, I was struck one day by two women standing outside the shower. Facing each other and standing close, they were casually conversing while washing their hair — both naked. Nudity with openness and ease is not generally seen in my locker room, where women walk around in towels, sit in the steam room in towels, and wear bathing suits to soak in the Jacuzzi, under a sign reading “Wear proper attire.” The two nude women must be foreign, I thought. They were Finnish.
In the US, we equate nudity with sexuality and thus view it as forbidden fruit. And like seeds in the wind, we transmit these attitudes to our children. As I undress in the locker room to take a shower, a four year old walks by and glares at me, eyes open wide. “I can see her private parts,” he whispers to his mother. “I can see your ladies’ locker room days are over,” the mother answers, dragging him out the door. At four, his age of innocence is gone.
Next, a bevy of little girls in bathing suits stroll by. One look at me makes them giggle with hands over their mouths. No, I’m neither fat nor flabby — merely naked. At age two, children gleefully throw off their clothes, but at three nudity embarrasses them.
Since in this country we are embarrassed by nudity, we cover our bodies from our children’s eyes and cover our children’s bodies as well, preventing them from viewing each other naked. We put colorful bathing suits on our infants and young children as they frolic at the beach, a habit in existence long before we knew of the sun’s damages. And childcare workers, fearing flak from parents ill at ease about childhood sexuality, restrict children from going to the bathroom together, “hiding” together, or undressing together. Of course the more something is forbidden, the more piqued a child’s curiosity will be and the more they will seek to uncover the naked truth — thus their staring and giggling.
By contrast, in other countries, nudity is accepted as natural, including between parent and child, and we do not find such attempts to conceal it. In Europe, parents routinely bathe and undress with their children, and in Japan the family bath is a tradition that continues until prepuberty. In Israel, I was struck by all the children romping freely in the nude at the beach, as they do throughout Europe. A Swedish student of mine once told me that she did not get her first bathing suit until age ten! In France, women bare their breasts at beaches, a common practice throughout Europe.
With normal exposure to nudity, children have the opportunity to place within a continuum of development — from little budded breasts to rounded voluptuous ones; from a flat tummy to a rounded pregnant tummy or sagging one; from a hairless, finger-like penis to an elongated, and sometimes erect, one embedded in a crop of hair. Such knowledge, wrote Margaret Mead, enables children to develop a cultural script of certain parts of their body — and thus their self — as acceptable and consequently to grow up more relaxed about the naked body. Lacking this knowledge, children are more likely to perceive the human body as a forbidden and erotic object and see their own body as inadequate, or even dirty, and to experience anxiety as it develops.
Our children do, of course, see nudity in the media, but in an exaggerated, eroticized form. Thus, when their bodies begin to develop, they compare themselves to unrealistic images, resulting in drastic practices such as dieting by prepubescent girls.
Repression of our sensuality begins at birth, when mothers are sometimes not handed their babies to hold for the first time until they have been washed and wrapped up. This deprives both mother and baby of the exquisite sensation of one warm, wet body touching another and imparts a distinct message: “Don’t become too intimate with your baby.” Later, the sheer pleasure of being naked with our children is often accompanied with uneasiness, especially mothers with sons and fathers with daughters, as if a wagging finger were warning us not to let our tenderness go too far.
Our repressed sensuality has a long history. The people who sailed on the Mayflower brought with them the puritanical notion that the pleasures of the flesh were sinful, an attitude that continued through the stiff-laced Victorian era. In 1906, about the time my grandparents were born, mothers were told to keep a careful eye on their children, even infants, lest they sin against themselves and lose their sexual purity. To eradicate masturbation, the mother was told to tie the baby’s feet to opposite sides of the crib so that he couldn’t rub his thighs together and to pin his nightgown sleeves to the bed so he could not touch himself.
Even the affectionate touch of the mother was viewed as sinful. In The Psychological Care of the Infant and Child, the parenting Bible for the first quarter century, John Watson viewed mother love as inherently sexual. He warned that while mothers might appear to coddle their children to make them happy and to express their love, the root of this desire was “a sex-seeking response in her, else she would never kiss the child on the lips.”
Unfortunately, Watson’s legacy continues to haunt us: Cultural ghosts that equate bodily pleasure with evil sexual impulses creep between the bedcovers at night when we wrap our baby’s little rounded body in ours; when, in a surge of exuberance, we kiss his alluring plump body; when we whip out our breast: to feed him; when we languish in the bathtub with him, enraptured by our mutual warm nakedness. These lingering phantoms make it hard to unabashedly enjoy the pleasure parents and children take in the sumptuousness of each other’s bodies.
Such uneasiness is destined to get worse. In our current sexual climate, where an alarming 30 percent or more of all children are sexually abused, we have become vigilant of any act that might imply sexual misconduct toward children. The recent Russian film Burnt by the Sun c pens with a mother, a father, and a young daughter in the family steam room. The mother stands naked to the waist, and the father, wearing only underwear, lies on a table, the naked daughter on top of him and riding him like a jockey. The intent of the scene was to show the warmth and affection between father and daughter. However, if this had been a Hollywood film, the intent would have been to foretell later sexual abuse.
Because childhood molestation has been hidden for decades, our quick suspicions are well founded. But there can be backlash: innocent acts by parents are often falsely misconstrued as sexual abuse. This can result in the loss of a parent’s reputation, as well as custody of their children.
Among the many stories that have flashed across the headlines was one of a father in New Jersey who was forced to leave his home for two and a half months after taking nude pictures of his six-year-old daughter. The court found it irrelevant that the photos, taken as part of an assignment for a photography class, were shot while the child’s mother and nanny stood nearby. Lewis Carroll, who wrote the “Alice” books, would likely have been writing them from a jail cell today. A photographer, he took nude pictures of a real-life young Alice, as well as other young girls, with their parents’ permission — and this was in Victorian England!
In addition, mothers are also sometimes accused of sexually abusing children. For example, Denise Perrigo, a young mother living outside of Syracuse, New York, found herself sexually aroused while nursing her two year old. Concerned that this was not a normal response, she tried to call La Leche League for advice, but never reached them. Instead, a community volunteer center referred her to a rape crisis center, which in turn reported her to a child abuse hotline. Arrested and subjected to a five-hour interrogation, Perrigo was separated from her daughter for an entire year.
With stories like this abounding in the press, parents, especially fathers, have become increasingly hesitant about touching their infants and children in a way that can be misconstrued as sexual. Today, teachers or other people who come into contact with children worry that an irate parent may accuse them of inappropriately touching their child.
Consequently, though fewer than 1 percent of all reported child sexual abuse cases occur in childcare settings, fear of those menacing words “I’ll sue you” is enough for some daycare centers to institute a restricted-touch policy. Caregivers are told to let hugs come from children, to not put children on their lap, and to not help children in the bathroom or change their soiled clothing without another adult present as witness, since this could involve touching children’s naked bodies.
For male childcare workers or directors, the issue is extremely sensitive. A mere tap on the shoulder could lead to an accusation of fondling, even molestation, causing many workers to avoid touching children at all. To protect themselves, some childcare centers go through the expense (paid by the parent) of putting security TV cameras in every room.
At the elementary and high school level, accusations of child sexual abuse have become so prevalent that Keith Geiger, the president of the National Educational Association, advises teachers to, “Teach but don’t touch.” Some teachers even draw back when a child touches them.
Putting hugs on the endangered species list, however, is not the answer: In spite of our hands-off policies, child physical and sexual abuse is on the rise. This leads us to question whether we are neglecting all children to protect a few. Tiffany Field, a psychologist at the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute, discovered that children who are not touched by their teachers are more aggressive; experience greater attention, sleeping, and eating problems; and get sick more often.
Human sexuality begins at birth. As a mother rubs her baby’s arms, nibbles her baby’s fingers and toes, strokes her baby’s forehead and cheeks, and fondles her baby’s genitals — something native cultures do routinely — the baby receives a lesson in the language of sensual pleasure. Later, he or she will also stroke, cuddle, and tenderly fondle another. The more often flesh meets flesh, the more pleasurable and sensual life is for the baby.
Mothers also feel sensual pleasure in touching their infants. If a mother is nursing, she may even become sexually aroused, as did the woman from Syracuse. Some experience orgasm. Oxytocin, the “feel good” hormone, rises during sex, and also while lactating. According to the late Niles Newton, former professor of behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, the experiences are similar: during both, the uterus contracts, the nipples become erect, body temperature rises, and the woman becomes flushed.
These feelings are called love and, in a normal parent, are pleasurable not seductive. Comfortable touching with our mother and father creates an ease in human intimacy, emotionally and sexually. Fathers given their newborns to hold, to bathe, and to diaper are more affectionate with their babies, more likely to bond with them, and unlikely to sexually abuse their daughters.
As for shared family nudity, it is lewd only in our mind’s eye. Research has found that when children sleep next to their parents, see them naked, or even witness them “in the act” they tend to become adults who are more relaxed about touch, about their body, about nudity, and about sexuality. The key is in how relaxed we are about our own sexuality, how in touch we are with our own sensual nature.