ask dr-robert

ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman

Dear Dr Saltzman,

After having visited your website, I thought that you could help me by

answering these questions:

When is child sexual experimentation just

not normal?

What is the age limit for childhood sexual contact to be qualified as


Whenever we talk about childhood incest the first thing that comes to

mind is abuse, isn't childhood incest the same as normal childhood

sexual experimentation?

I just want to add a third one. I am very much curious to know why you

are offering this kind of service for free?


ask dr-robert

Hello, James--

Childhood sexual experimentation between two children of roughly similar ages is normal. Most children have had sexual contact with other children at times during childhood, and this is an expected part of child development. In keeping with their judgmental and largely negative understanding of human sexuality, religious fundamentalists, prudes, hypocrites, and other purveyors of "morality" often try to demonize any kind of sexuality other than straight intercourse between legally married partners. These sex-hating, sex-fearing types frequently attempt to portray childhood sexuality as something wicked, claiming that a child's interest in sex, or that child's experimenting sexually with others is somehow perverse or abnormal, but this is simply mistaken. A child's interest is sex is entirely normal, and, in fact, is genetically programmed in the human brain.

ask dr-robert

There is no age limit, about which you asked, because curiosity about sex and sexual experimentation at any age are normal features of human life. This does not mean that sexual acting out between children, and particularly between siblings, should be condoned, allowed, or encouraged, but only that most instances of it would best be seen and understood as a kind of developmental play, very different indeed from adult sexuality. Certainly projecting onto the child the adult fears, adult superstitions, adult disappointments, and adult religious biases towards behaviors which arise innocently, and in response to powerful, often stormy processes of physical and intellectual maturation is unfair to the child--a mark of unskillful parenting.

ask dr-robert

The prohibition of incest is a legal matter and also a cultural taboo, but obviously incest is both desired and experienced by many, because if it were not, there would be no need for such strong taboos against it. By the way, incest usually refers only to actual sexual intercourse. Other forms of sexual contact between close relatives is not technically incest, and in some cultures even is quite normal. For example, according to psychologist Gregory Bateson, in traditional Balinese families, mothers routinely stroke the penises of their young sons, and such behavior is considered no more incestuous than breast-feeding. Ordinary sexual experimentation between children within the same family is definitely not incest.

ask dr-robert

When incest or any other sexual contact takes place between an adult and a child, that constitutes, by definition, child abuse. In fact, physical contact is not even a criterion for child sexual abuse, since such things as talking sexually to a child, showing the child pornography, exposing ones sex organs to a child, and other such sexualizing of a relationship with a child may also qualify as abuse. But sexual contact between two children of roughly similar ages and intellectual capacities does not, and cannot, by definition, constitute child abuse.

Emotional incest is another form of child abuse. This involves a parent relating to a child as a substitute for an adult partner. That child may become emotionally bonded to the parent in ways which discourage the normal process of maturing and leaving home. Such emotional incest usually occurs before any actual physical parent-child incest. For example, a man who is not close with his wife may use his daughter as an emotional substitute, and this may or may not eventuate in actual father-daughter incest. But even without any actual physical sexual contact, the consequences to the child may involve a lifetime of relationship difficulties. This kind of post-abuse emotional aftermath comes up frequently in my therapy practice, and sometimes is complicated by the now-adult child having felt special or especially loved by the adult (most often, but not always, a father of a daughter) while the emotional incest was taking place. Psychologist Martyn Carruthers maintains that such emotional incest is a socially accepted form of child abuse in many countries. In other words, in many cultural milieux such invasion of a child's emotional space is considered normal, but that does not mean that it is healthy. This is an important distinction which you should apply in thinking further about your questions.

ask dr-robert

The foregoing observations about abuse, incest, and children's sexual experimentation are generalities, and, like all generalities, may not properly address a particular specific case. I assume that you have written to me because you are concerned about some specific behavior of yours or of someone else's. If you do have a particular concern about particular behavior, you should speak with a psychologist for advice about your precise concerns.

ask dr-robert

Now, James, I find your question about why I would share freely my knowledge, understanding, and point of view a bit strange. Not everything has to be about money. I reply to the questions sent to me--as many as my schedule allows--as a form of community service, and the community I am serving happens to be the citizenry of planetary cyberspace.

ask dr-robert

I charge substantial fees for much of my private therapy work, both consultations in my office and telephone conferences, but would not think of asking anyone to pay such a fee just for submitting a question to which I might reply on my website.

Be well.

ask dr-robert


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