Monday April 22 2013

Children are sexual beings like any normal adult

By Muniini K. Mulera

Dear Tingasiga:

I do not know the particulars of the six Primary Three girls who were recently expelled from Gayaza Junior School because of what sounds like normal sexual exploration. Yet there is no doubt that a terrible injustice has been done to completely innocent children.

According to the New Vision, a Kampala English daily, the pupils were expelled because they were “engaging in sexual acts with other students.” The story did not elaborate on the nature of the “sexual acts,” although it is a fair guess that these eight-year-old kids were most likely engaging in self-exploration, mutual exploration or masturbation. However, even if there were other underlying factors, expelling these tiny children from school was not just wrong. It was plainly cruel and completely unjustifiable. It would be similar to beating and/or expelling a child from school because she was left-handed.

The expulsion of these kids was a classic clash between yesterday’s cultural mind-set and modern realities of normal human biology and development. Not that childhood masturbation and other sexual exploratory engagements are new phenomena. They have been perfectly normal pursuits since the arrival of homo sapiens on this planet. We just have a better understanding of them.

Excellent ultrasound studies on pregnant women have shown male fetuses engaging in masturbatory activities. To be sure, genital exploration begins in infancy, with interest first peaking during the second year of life. Pediatricians see many masturbating infants brought in by parents who are fearful that their little ones have seizures. Yes, the masturbatory experiences of infants and toddlers often go all the way, with the little ones ascending Mount Everest, followed by sweat-drenched resolution of the experience in a diminuendo that leaves them exhausted. The second peak of interest in one’s own genitals and those of others occurs around four to five years, with frequent sexual exploration that can terrify the uninformed parent. It is completely normal.

Beyond six-years of age, children learn that it is socially unacceptable to explore their “little friends” in public. The struggle continues, of course, but it is what I call the guerrilla phase because the sexual interest goes underground. This age group will hide in various nooks and crannies, such as school bathrooms, to do their thing.

Things get even hotter in the teen years, their raging hormones a trigger for masturbation and other sexual explorations. Data from the United States show that by the early teens, about 36 per cent of boys engage in masturbation three to four times a month, with 10 per cent doing so every day.

There is no reason to think that Ugandan and other African children are less sexually explorative than their European or North American counterparts. Of course myths about the consequences of masturbation continue to frighten parents and teachers all over the world. Here in Canada, one hears claims that masturbation can lead to blindness, sterility, pimples, warts, sex-mania, promiscuity, sexual deviance, homosexuality and insanity.

We hear from Uganda that masturbation is a vice that is passed on from child to child, or from television and other visual media and such. I have read comments on New Vision Online claiming that these masturbating kids have been taught these things by foreigners or by their minders. These are Victorian myths that have no basis in science. Sexual interest and exploration, including masturbation, are natural phenomena that one does not learn from others. These are old behaviours that were as common in the “good old days” of our blissful ignorance as they are today. The Internet has nothing to do with it.

Unfortunately, these falsehoods inform the decisions of school authorities and parents who criminalise normal behaviour. The lives of little children are destroyed because of our pathological fear of sex and normal sexual behaviour, now labelled vices by our happily ignorant moral police and those whose distorted religious views are at war with normal human physiology. Shaming, punishing, expelling and other hysterical reactions to these children will only lead to potential sexual problems.

Masturbation is not a sin. Never been. There is certainly no mention of it in the Bible. But let us assume, for discussion’s sake, that these little Gayaza girls were indulging in inappropriate behaviours. Should their lives have been ruined through expulsion? The answer is a firm “no”. Rehabilitation must always supersede cruel punishment.

So if Ms Margaret Kibuuka, the Gayaza Junior headmistress, has an opportunity to rectify this terrible error.
First, she should reinstate the expelled little girls back into their class.

Second, she should invite pediatricians or other experts in childhood behaviour and development to assess the situation in her school, and to provide appropriate advice and counselling to the children (if necessary) and to the teachers and parents. The teachers need to be empowered with knowledge about normal behaviour.

Third, she should work with experts to teach children about their own sexuality, this being the perfect age to prepare them for the inevitable pursuits of healthy, morally upright adults. This may be one of those cases where the intervention of the Minister of Education, or even the president of Uganda himself may be warranted. These kids do not have time to lose.