My dear colleague, sexologist Dr. Logan Levkoff, gave a guest lecture at NYU to my human sexuality class about child sexuality. I convinced her to stay an extra 20 minutes to have a chat with me (on my Periscope) about this fascinating topic. Dr. Logan is an expert on adolescence and child sexuality and I’m excited to share this with you all! (If you’d rather watch the video of our interview, scroll to the bottom of this blog 🙂 )
Me: Can you tell us who is Logan?
Logan: I am a sex educator. I have a Masters and a PHD in human sexuality, marriage and family life education, and I have been teaching now for almost 20 years. I work with children, teens and parents.
Me: Do you think that a child is born with sexuality or is it learned?
Logan: We are all sexual beings from birth to death. Sexuality is something that is innate to all of us, and it’s not just about our sex lives. Sexuality is about our biological sex, our gender identity, how we express ourselves, our sexual orientation, our desires, our body, how we communicate, our role we play in relationships, and basically how we interact with the world around us. All of us, even those of us who identify as asexual, are part of being a sexual being. I worry that often times we don’t think of our selves as sexual beings, and we wait to that one first partner that turns it on and activates our sexuality for us. The fact is we don’t need a partner to activate our sexuality; it exists in us all by itself.
Me: Many people are completely unaware of the fact that babies are sexual, in a way, from before they are both even. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Logan: One of the amazing things is male fetuses get erections in utero, they have been known to touch and rub and basically masturbate in utero. It is also known for female fetuses to masturbate and rub the area around their clitorises, and even, according to images and ultrasounds, look like their bodies are convulsing and then relaxing as if they were having an orgasm.
Me: So, fetuses are having some sort of sexual experiences and even orgasm in utero. And that certainly doesn’t end after they’re born, kids will touch themselves and masturbate from the moment they figure out how to manipulate their hands. At what age should kids start having sexual education lessons?
Logan: For me sex ed always begins at birth. From the time we talk to children about their body, the names we give their body parts, when we talk about different types of families, when we talk about how babies are made, when we tell kids that it’s ok for them to dress like princesses or truck drivers, that’s all part of teaching sexuality. So, I think it’s ongoing, but it certainly should be from the time they emerge out of the body.
Me: Now, childhood sexuality is not sexual the same way it’s sexual to us. Even though it feels good, it doesn’t have the same meaning. It’s often a kind of exploration and curiosity, right?
Logan: It’s not a surprise that kids are curious about their bodies; their bodies are new to them. They have new sensations and touches, there is something very empowering about knowing your body can do something and feel a certain way. So yes, children are sexual in a sense that they may masturbate and explore their bodies, but they don’t see it as deliberate and consciously sexual, through the lens that an adult would see it. And that’s what makes childhood sexuality so complicated to talk about, because we as adults see it through our lens; we don’t remember what it was like when we were young.
Me: [reading a Periscope viewer comment] “Kids notice things feel good just like it feels good to scratch an itch.” Yes, exactly!
Logan: Just like it feels good when you’ve been holding your urine and you have to go to the bathroom and then go.
Me: Beth’s [a Periscope viewer] daughter is 7 and she said, “I’ve gotten reprimanded for teaching my daughter about her body at a young age. How do you deal with those things?”
Logan: Beth, that is so unfortunate because you were doing your daughter such a huge amazing positive service. By teaching her to feel good about her body, that her body parts have names and they have the power and capacity to have pleasure on their own. There is nothing better than that for a child. Far better to have that, than to grow up feeling guilt or shame about your body, or expecting a partner to magically turn you on. I’ve said this time and time again; I wake up every day to deconstruct the sexual doubled standards. I want girls and boys both to know that there are things they are entitled to, a world that is free from expectations, free from guilt, shame, and judgment.
Me: Chris [a Periscope viewer] said, “I get what you’re saying about kids can be princesses and truck drivers, but aren’t we forcing a sexual identity on them by doing that?”
Logan: I think we should allow children to express themselves as they see fit. If I have a son who’s wearing my heels and playing with my makeup, the likelihood is it’s because we live in a world where there is a rainbow of things available to girls and it’s not a surprise that boys want to play with the rainbow because they’ve never seen it before, we never give it to them. When you go to a children’s clothing store, it’s pink on one side and blue on the other with maybe yellow in the middle. I don’t think we’re putting an identity on anyone, I think it’s about giving our children the freedom to see a range of roles. The fact of the matter is, wanting to wear a crown doesn’t make you anything and wanting to play with a truck doesn’t make you anything either. It’s just where you are in that given moment and what you want to do. I grew up with lots of dolls and a sister. I had friends who were three boys in a house, and there was nothing that I loved more than playing with their matchbox cars because I didn’t have them. It was fun to play with something different and to just experiment. Does it mean anything? No. Could it? Maybe, but there are no rules.
Me: Some of the women [on Periscope] are saying, “My son wants to play with my purse or makeup because they see me painting my face.” Another viewer says, “I’m a nanny for a three year old and she is already masturbating.”
Logan: It’s absolutely common. Masturbation is not limited to young boys; girls masturbate too. It’s really important that we treat it the same exact way. There are some amazing families who treat female masturbation in daughters as no big deal; they’re exploring their bodies.
Me: Can you tell us the story you just told in class about the dad?
Logan: I had a father once come up and tell me in a parent meeting how he walked in on his 7-yr-old daughter masturbating against her bedpost when he was trying to tell her it was time for dinner. The daughter tells him there’s a point of a “feel good moment,” which to me seems like she’s describing having an orgasm, and if he could just wait til she finished. He closed the door and said ‘ok, just don’t be too long, we’re all ready for dinner’. One of the things the father said to me was that he never wants his daughter to feel bad about her body or have to rely on someone else for pleasure. He doesn’t want her to lose the ability to feel pleasure and the comfort of her body. And the truth is, if she knows it now, she is so well equipped for the future. Because, she knows that her body has the capacity to do this. As a father, if you understand this and don’t make a big deal of it, it’s wonderful. Fathers can be amazing role models for daughters. The stereotype of the “over protective dad,” I think, is getting old.
Me: What is the issue that should be addressed first in sex education, say in kindergarten?
Logan: I think, for me, learning accurate terms of body parts is important. So, for everyone knowing that females have a vulva (the external parts of the female genitals are called a vulva, the vagina is the inside) and that boys have penises and testicles. Having a real language – a no-big-deal language – for your body is important. From a health perspective, it’s essential to have this information so you know how to identify what is baseline and normal for your body. This way, you can identify if there is something unusual for your body. You’ll know at some point how to talk about your needs and pleasure so you can communicate with a doctor and so that you can identify between good touch and bad touch. There is a gender equity issue when we talk about knowing names of body parts. Even if a boy calls his penis “Spike,” he still knows that a penis is called a penis. For so many girls and women, they don’t know that they actually have a vulva and that the vulva is made up of the labia, the mons, the clitoris and the clitoral hood. Think about what that means; that we need silly terms for our body, we need more palatable terms, because the ones that we have aren’t good enough. It really sets us up on this road where we are taught not to feel good about our bodies. I think we’d be better off if we could take ownership of them, call our parts by what they are, and feel really good about them.
Me: Until what age can kids see you naked?
Logan: Kids have never been scarred by nudity. If someone is comfortable being naked around their kids and the kids are fine, then I think it’s not a big deal. Your kids will let you know loud and clear if they do not want to see you naked anymore, and then that will kind of change the rules in your house. Also, whatever your rules are, it’s about not creating guilt or shame about bodies. If you’re someone who is not comfortable being naked, then make sure you close the door, set some rules to teach respect in your house about knocking. This way, instead of covering yourself us saying, “Oh my God, get out!” because kids will read that as there’s something wrong with the body and not that it’s an issue of privacy. I don’t think there’s one age. I have no problem being naked at home. Sometimes it’s a matter of function. If you’re comfortable being naked around kids, great! If you’re not, just don’t impose that feeling and insecurity on your kids.
Me: What if your daughters are 5 and 6, and they’re playing with your son or their cousin or neighboring kids and exploring each other’s body. What do you do?
Logan: Part of being a child is that you’re not just going to be curious about your body; you’re going to be curious about someone else’s body. So yes, they will play doctor, nurse, house, and couple; it’s part of typical sexual development. Playing doctor in itself isn’t bad; it’s all in how you respond to it. You can say something like, “Look, it’s totally fine what you are doing and it’s normal to be curious. If you have questions please ask me.” Or say, “It’s totally normal to do that but I’m not sure that our rules for play are the same as your friend’s parent’s rules for play.” It’s all in the delivery. You never want to make kids feel badly for what they’re doing. Should you walk in on your kids playing doctor or some version of it, know that’s a typical part of development.
Me: So do not freak out or punish them?
Logan: No, no! No freaking out, no punishment. You may be freaking out inside, but take a deep breath and know it’s not a surprise that they’re playing. They’re curious, and they want to know does this person have the same parts as me? And if they don’t, do they look different? What do they look like? Are they the same color? There are all these questions that we as grown ups have, it’s not a surprise that kids have them too.
Me: Someone on Periscope is saying, “When I played doctor in my house my family had an intervention for me that made me recede back. So I didn’t express my sexuality anymore.” That’s so sad.
Logan: Look, I don’t think it comes from a bad place. I think that we have so many people, even in the media, telling parents the myriad of ways they can screw up their kids like, “Do this! Don’t do this!” Sometimes people just don´t know what to do. Because they panic, they sort of lash out and don’t think about what it is they are doing. Goals of conversations like these are to get people to sit back, take a breath, don’t panic, and know everyone is curious. We all have bodies. That’s why kids want to touch us. If you have a small child, they want to feel your breasts, they want to see how you look like, and they want to see how you put a tampon in. They’re curious and it doesn’t mean anything, it’s that they are human beings and they want to figure out how to engage with the world.
Me: A Periscope viewer said, “I feel like kids are much more sexualized today because of the media.” You actually gave poignant examples of this in class using Strawberry Shortcake, and made an interesting distinction about kids being sexy and sexual. Can we talk about that?
Logan: Yeah, it does seem that there is hypersexualization of children going on in the media. The example I gave in class was, if you look at Strawberry Shortcake when I was a child, she looked like a muffin. She and her friends were made to look like baked goods – that was the whole purpose ofStrawberry Shortcake. Today they are taller and thinner; their clothes are super fashion forward, no silly hats, with sexy little bodies, no stockings, and or no striped tights. So yeah, there’s definitely a different look to kids, and kids’ products. But it’s really important that kids know that those are not their only options in life. I always tell my kids, I show them the old characters and the new characters. I ask them to think about why they’ve been changed, what it means, teaching them how to be critical about the world around them. I don’t ban anything in my house, but I do think everything is worth having a conversation. The other thing is that this word “sexy” is a grownup word. For me children cannot be sexy. Sexy is a word that describes maybe beauty, but in a way that’s related to a body, form, shape and an expression that kids are not part of.
Logan: Right. This story started because when my daughter was 2 years old at the playground, someone said she was sexy. I had WOW moment, “Wow! Time out. No, a 2 year old cannot be sexy.” And she was like, “I just meant she was cute,” and my response to that is it’s not the same word. And it’s not. Sexy isn’t a bad word. It’s just not a word that applies to kids.
Me: Last question from our Periscope viewer, “What’s your cut-off for one being a child and an adult? I feel 18 isn’t accurate?”
Logan: It may not be. We’re calling it now emerging adulthood. I struggle with the idea that we have rules, that there are ages and things that are “appropriate,” and when there are cut-offs. Everyone experiences life differently. It takes a long time to become an adult and to feel independent. Believe me, at my age I sometimes feel like, “Oh my God, I’m an adult. I have to be responsible.” So I don’t think there is a cut-off. I think that age is not a determinant of whether or not you make a good decision about sex, romantic behaviors, or relationships. There are teenagers that can make really beautiful smart thoughtful decisions about sex and adults that do a really shitty job at it. It’s not all about age; I think it’s about a holistic look at a person and the world that they live in.