When I was about five years old, my parents and I visited my dad’s extended family in Houston. For a family portrait, my distant cousin Jack, a beautiful dark-chocolate stunner with a bright smile, hoisted me on his shoulders for the photo. I remember feeling…something. Looking back, I understand that it was an early form of sexual arousal. But at the time, I didn’t have a name for it. I just knew being in that position on his neck gave me tingles and butterflies in my stomach. I leaned over and put both my hands around his neck and smiled for the camera.
Then, before the picture could be taken, Jack’s mother, an elderly woman, grabbed me by my arms and snatched me off his shoulders. She stood me up and brought her face just inches away from mine. She looked angry and disgusted.
“Don’t you ever open your legs on some man’s shoulders,” she snapped. “Keep your legs shut, I don’t care if it’s family or not.”
Her words stayed with me. But I remember being confused. What was wrong with sitting on a man’s shoulders? I had to juxtapose that warning with the fact that I’d felt a warm, tingling sensation in my body I couldn’t name. What did I take away from that? The tingle was directly related to men—and I had better keep it in check.
Fast-forward 20 years, and I’ve done enough research to know that sexual arousal in young children is completely normal.
But sometimes what you learn is not easy to impart on your own children. When my daughter Lauren was about five, I took her to a family birthday party. After I hadn’t seen her run by for a few minutes, I went to check on her. In my brother’s family room, she was sitting on the lap of a teenaged cousin, watching a movie. She had her arms casually around his neck and her head on his chest. The image struck me as completely inappropriate.
So what did I do? I snatched her off his lap and brought her into the kitchen with me. “Why’d you do that?” Lauren asked. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I wanted to kick myself. I’d now passed on the same mixed signals I’d picked up in Houston all those years ago. I knew better, and I had been given a teachable moment to discuss it with Lauren.
But in the moment, all I could think about was what my mother (who was also at the party) would have said if she saw Lauren sitting on her teenage cousin’s lap. The consensus I grew up with has always been that type of closeness is an invitation to being molested or a step toward being labeled fast or worse yet, loose.
After the incident at my brother’s house, (which Lauren thankfully has no memory of), I made a conscious effort to break the chains in my thinking. As Lauren grew older and began to talk about boys she had crushes on, I remained open-minded and respected her as a human with biological and emotional feelings that were normal even if she was pre-pubescent.
A few days ago, I checked in with Lauren, now a first-year student in college, to see if she had any thoughts on when she began to develop feelings for the opposite sex and if I (or society in general) had saddled her with the same hang-ups I carried around for years.
When did you first start to have any kinds of sexual urges?
I don’t know about purely sexual urges, but I definitely liked boys by first or second grade. I had older cousins who were going through puberty, and I heard them talk about things I probably shouldn’t have heard. So I connected what they were talking about to my own feelings. I had a curiosity about this Thing I couldn’t name.
I remember when you were no more than five, you had a serious crush on a boy we’ll call Paulo. You talked about him all the time. I like Paulo. Paulo is my Valentine. Paulo is so handsome. Your dad and I were like, what is up with her and Paulo?!
I don’t remember Paulo at all, just the stories you guys tell me. I remember my first intense crush being Donnie. I was 8 years old and I just thought he was the cutest thing.
We knew how you felt about him too. You talked about him a lot.
I remember I wanted to hold his hand. I think I wanted to kiss him too but I don’t know for sure if I would have.
Did you feel like wanting to kiss him was wrong? Or did you understand that it was normal to feel that way?
I felt both. I don’t know why. But I felt it was something I shouldn’t do but that kids did it anyway. I think it was supposed to be a secretive thing.
So when did you feel like sexual urges were something you wanted to act on? Or at least curious about acting on….
By fifth grade, I wanted to French kiss someone, although I didn’t. By seventh grade, I learned about masturbation and I read up on it and was thinking about trying it out.
You actually read up about masturbation? Like, researched it?
Yeah. I even brought it up to my friends, like, are you guys doing this? And my friends were like, ew Lauren, gross!
I definitely didn’t do any research on that topic. I just somehow figured it out.
Yeah, I did some homework.
I had a computer with no parental controls.
Hold on, Lauren. Let me go put parental controls on your little sister’s iPad.
Yeah, you should probably do that.
So, speaking of your little sister, she’s 8. How would you feel if you knew she was having sexual urges and was exploring herself in that way?
Even though I experienced it and I understand it—I’d probably still feel uncomfortable. My friends made me feel like I was moving too fast to even think about masturbation—and that was in seventh grade.
So I carried around a little feeling of being an outsider. Before talking to my friends, I’d thought being curious about sexuality was the same as being curious about getting your period or getting breasts, which all my friends talked about. But somehow I got the message from my friends that being curious about sex was gross.
How do you suggest I handle the topic of masturbation and sexual urges with your sister? I hate the fact that it still makes me uncomfortable.
I really don’t know. Talking about it with her would make me uncomfortable too.
Devin Anderson is a writer and author from New Jersey. She’s written professionally since 1998 and currently works as a full-time freelance writer for various outlets. She’s also written five books, three non-fiction and two novels. The name Devin Anderson is a pseudonym. The writer is changing her name to protect the innocent, the guilty—and her mom.
Illustration by Jim Cooke