She proceeded to dance, whilst her brothers and I sat and watched, amused and, in my case, a little uncomfortable. She stuck out her bottom. She wiggled her hips. She cocked her head. She glanced at us sideways. She did everything possible to make her body curvy. There was no doubt that she was playing with her sexuality. It was as if she was practising seduction. It was as if she knows, instinctively, how to use her body for its most basic, and sacred function. As I sat, confused and concerned about the best way to react, her brothers sat with mouths gaping and the occasional, slightly uncomfortable, giggle.
“You should stop her now!” said the fearful voice in my head. What if she behaved like that in an unsafe environment? Would she attract abuse? What if a precocious child reacted to her inappropriately? What if an adult did? What if her brothers did? All these fears were in my head. And yet another, slightly louder, voice said, “Let it be. She is safe here. This is natural. She is expressing herself. She is discovering.”
So I let it be. I watched. I applauded when expected. I said how clever she was to have grown a body that could do such great things at her will. I carefully observed the reactions of her brothers. Thankfully, their attention returned to their toast after a couple of minutes. But Lily was in her element! She was fully and freely expressing herself in that moment. She was surrendering to that creative feminine spirit that desires to move, to be liberated, to be present in its own joy.
And yet still I was scared. I am scared now, even writing this! I’m scared that you, reader, will judge me. I’m scared that you will tell me it’s unsafe to allow a child free expression of fledgling sexuality. I’m scared that I will even be accused of abuse! How scared we are to openly discuss some subjects. Even the very existence of a child’s sexuality is controversial, to say the least. We are so afraid of it being abused that we prefer to deny that it exists at all. And yet I believe it does. I know it does. I have seen it, witnessed it, observed that it comes accompanied with joy and beauty, not with shame and fear.
Could it be that so many of our society’s issues around sexuality actually come from a denial of these early expressions? Had I followed that first instinct that shouted STOP! I would have effectively told Lily that this energy was shameful. That it was dangerous. That it was to be hidden and denied. In the same moment, the boys would have got the message that this energy was something to be feared, or worse still, to be conquered.
I’ve thought carefully about the reactions that were available to me in that moment. The STOP reaction would have been borne out of fear. I wanted her to stop because I was afraid that this energy could be dangerous to her. As parents, of course we must protect our children, but really there was no threat to her, dancing around the room instead of eating her breakfast! The reaction I chose – to let it be – was borne out of love. Because I love Lily unconditionally, there can be no part of her that is wrong or bad. She is as she is! And I love every bit of her. Acting out of love, I must trust that her natural processes of discovery are not only natural, but a healthy part of the journey of growing towards womanhood.
As this energy shows itself more regularly on Lily’s path towards maturity, I hope that I will have many opportunities to teach her about the innate power of her sexuality: That she will learn how to make good judgements that keep her safe but allow her free expression: That there is joy, liberation and bliss to be found in its positive use. I want to teach her that her sexuality isn’t the same as love and that, as she grows, she may feel this energy rising and confuse it for love! I want her to know that that’s fine and she is in charge of how she uses it.
But above all, I want her to know that she is wonderful: That her natural expressions of who she is are to be welcomed, not feared, and never hidden or shameful: That she is loved as she is and that all parts of her are beautiful. Just as they are.
Yes, Lily was exploring her sexual power and practicing seduction. It’s a perfectly healthy and natural behaviour.
But I can understand your fear. As a society we are not comfortable with child sexuality, and especially in girls. Female sexuality has been demonised and suppressed for 4,000 years, and although superficially it is now accepted, it is still the matter of a deep split in the social psyche. Although most people no longer expect women to remain virgins until marriage, we nevertheless maintain a double standard. The word ‘slut’ is exclusively applied to women, and there is no equivalent for men. Most women get married in virginal white – how many men wear a white tuxedo? The bride gets ‘given away’ – control of her passing from father to husband. Not to mention that the fundamental philosophy behind marriage in most religions is that sex is bad unless blessed and legalised.
These attitudes are reflected in our secular laws. When it comes to bodily functions and appetites, we have etiquettes around most of them (don’t eat with your mouth open) and a few laws (don’t poop in public) but sexual behaviour is governed by vast amounts of legislation.
What seems like weekly revelations of child sexual abuse have created a climate of fear and suspicion around children and sex. The fact that you were worried about being accused of abuse shows how toxic the situation has become. The attitude now is that children are or should be completely non-sexual until age 16 when, magically and overnight, they become sexual beings.
When a toddler first manages to clamber up a climbing frame we are delighted. We recognise his potential, applaud his skill, encourage his endeavours (while hovering protectively) and teach him how to do it safely. But we don’t discourage his behaviour on the grounds that he is not ready to start work as a mountaineer. So with Lily. She is exploring her sexual energy, which of course does not mean that she either wants or is ready for sex.
At this stage she particularly needs a father who can affirm her sexual power while holding strong and appropriate boundaries. This means responding to the seductive energy with approval while not sexualising it. The energy is meant to attract, but it is not an invitation to sexual behaviour, so any form of sexual response is inappropriate. But neither should the father succumb to the seduction. Some fathers find it impossible to say “No” to their ‘little princess’; an unhealthy situation that may well lead to her becoming a woman who uses manipulative seduction to make her way in life.
Lily needs to see approval, acceptance and admiration reflected in other eyes, with clear boundaries and without capitulation. Shortly this sexual energy will go underground and be dormant until puberty. But the type of woman she will become is being shaped right now. You’re doing a grand job!