Dear Dr. Saltzman--
I'm not sure how old I was when this happened. . . .
At the most, I was 13, but l could have been younger.
Under the guise of "wrestling" with a younger relative I rubbed my
genitals on him. A similar thing happened with an even younger relative.
I never touched their genitals or undressed them, this was as far as it
went, and it never happened outside these two instances (nor have I ever
felt any inclination towards doing anything like this).
Both times other people were in the room, it was very inconspicuous.
I have a very sensitive conscience and I want to live a happy life and do
good things, but this has started eating at me after reading a book about
someone with a dark secret.
Is it healthy for me to keep this secret? How do I get past this and put it
behind me once and for all?
[name withheld], 22 years old, New York
Dear [name withheld]--
This kind of question, I am sorry to say, comes up often, both in my psychotherapy practice as well as in ask the psychologist letters addressed to my website. That so many adults feel guilty about the sexuality they experienced during childhood is a sad commentary on the ignorance and religious superstition which seems to rule this planet. In fact, I have replied recently to a very similar question from a man who is still guilt-ridden because, as a child, he wanted to look at a young girl's vagina, and will quote part of my reply to him here:
"As I have written elsewhere, the sexual instinct in human beings is extremely strong. Having evolved over eons of time, the overwhelming power of this instinct is why the human race has continued up to the present time, and why, barring some kind of technological catastrophe, it will continue endlessly into future generations. To look at this another way, all of us now alive are the descendents of just those ancestors who among their peers had the strongest desires to be sexual, the "horniest" ones, that is. The ones with weaker sexual drives would not have produced as many offspring, and so any tendencies for weaker sexual drives, or weaker interest in sex, would gradually have died out, leaving the horniest to inhabit the Earth.
"In other words, those of us alive today are the descendents of very horny people, and so we are very horny people, and there is nothing wrong in this. Our horniness is just nature, just normal, just the way we are. When I say "horny," I mean that we humans are fascinated by sex. We are curious about bodies, both our own and those of others, and we are strongly driven to express this curiosity in every possible way. . . .
"Unfortunately, religious indoctrination has produced a sense of guilt about human sexuality which discourages children from expressing their curiosity as openly as would be optimal for their personal and social development, and so often children are forced to go about satisfying their normal, hormonally driven curiosity in hidden and secret ways, such as happened to you."
Now, as this applies to you, [name withheld], you did nothing wrong at all in wanting to be stimulated by rubbing your penis on another person. Experiences such as yours are a normal part of how a child matures sexually into an adult--learns how to deal with the extremely powerful human sexual drive, that is--and should not be a source of guilt at all. It is sad to read how much you have suffered--how much guilt and shame you carry with you--all due to the foolish superstition that something is wrong with sex and with our powerful desires, beginning in childhood, not adulthood, to experience it.
Since this is primarily a religious idea--"God" wants sex to be kept under strict control, and those who fail to follow the rules are sinners--I blame doctrinal religion entirely for your suffering, which is why I say that religion should not be respected at all. I repeat: religion should not be respected at all, because those who demand that their religious beliefs be "respected" are using the word "respect" in a funny way. What they really mean is not criticized, not examined, given a free pass, neither questioned as to truth or lack of truth, nor as to effects upon the children who will have those beliefs forced upon them before they are old enough to judge for themselves.
In my view, what the religious believers are really asking for is not "respect," at all, but that the rest of us totally abandon our human intelligence, and allow them, unchallenged by knowledge and reason, to foist their superstitions upon their children (who will soon be part of adult society), upon our governments, upon our schools and other institutions [shame on you, George Bush!], and upon our valuable and hard-won scientific understanding. Kowtowing to this religious bunkum does not indicate respect, but stupidity! And your suffering is the outcome of that stupidity.
Why should anyone respect or leave unquestioned a world-view (Christianity, Islam) which claims that something is wrong with each of us from the very day of our birth simply because nature endowed us, like all the higher animals, with a powerful, life-sustaining sexuality? Why should any of us believe that anyone can tell us on "God's" authority how we should live? Why should anyone "respect" a system of thought which makes "sinners" out of normal children who simply respond in a natural way to the innate sexual drives which are the very basis of human survival?
How sad that the very real, powerful, and universal human desire to find depth of meaning in life--to find something sacred, that is--should be hijacked by this errant god-nonsense which the priests, imams, rabbis, and their ilk simplemindedly tell us we should believe, on no evidence whatsoever, as if it were beyond question. And who made those pompous people the experts on truth anyway? In my experience, the search for meaning only really begins when all that superstition comes to an end and each of us learns to think for himself or herself.
Now you wrote that, "I never touched their genitals or undressed them, this was as far as it
went, and it never happened outside these two instances," but I am saying that even if you had undressed them or touched their genitals, or did even more than that, you still would have done nothing wrong at all. Sexual experimentation is a normal and necessary part of growing up, and it is only religious superstition which tries to make humans believe that children should not be sexual, and that adults should be sexual only subject to certain very strict boundaries: only married, no same sex partner, no masturbation, etc. If you get the flavor of this, [name withheld], you will understand that you have done nothing wrong in rubbing your genitals on another child in the course of childhood play, and enjoying the feeling. In fact, the wrong that was done was done to you by the superstitious and absurd culture which teaches children that they are guilty for being human at all, for having, that is, the ordinary, normal, powerful desire for sexual expression, and for experimenting with ways to experience it.
To answer your very good questions: You already have told me (and all the visitors to this site) your "dark secret," and I have reassured you, I hope, that there is nothing dark about it--that what you did was just normal, just part of life in a mammalian body. Perhaps that will be sufficient. If it is not sufficient, if you cannot, just by reading my words, drop your guilt, I suggest that you speak with a psychologist who can help you to understand more specifically that you have nothing to be guilty about. In any case, please try to understand that your "dark secret" is one shared in one way or another by most of us humans who, sadly, have been raised in a superstitious, ignorant culture, which demands that we feel guilty for breaking the "rules" of an imaginary "God," invented in times of no science, no understanding of the physical world and its underlying structure, and complete ignorance of both our evolutionary history and the place of human beings in the vast spectrum of life on earth.
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