Your Body Belongs to You
By Cornelia Spelman. Illustrated by Teri Weidner
(Albert Whitman & Co., Morton Grove, Ill., 1997).
The author’s main goal, as expressed by the title and in the introduction, is to teach that children should “…learn that being touched is their own choice, not another’s; that ‘their bodies belong to them’.” That’s an admirable goal, if somewhat radical. Traditionally parents and other adults have treated children’s bodies as if they belong to us (mommy, daddy, etc.). Idealistically, children should be treated as autonomous individuals with their own rights, their own interests and their own desires.
But the text in this book doesn’t wait long before contradicting the title and introductory note by promoting the idea that we don’t want children to choose to be touched; we want them to choose to not be touched! “Some parts on your body should never be touched by other people…” That’s not the way to empower children to make their own choices. It’s a sneaky way to impose our preferences about what they should choose.
In the case of very young children, to whom this book is directed, autonomous choice isn’t an appropriate goal because children need to be protected from serious injury. Although experience is often the best teacher, children tend to make a lot of mistakes, so we don’t want to give them the opportunity to injure themselves.
The confusion begins when people assume that sexual contact (even sex play with peers) is usually seriously harmful, and hence there’s an urgent need to protect children from any kind of sex. (Curiously, the book doesn’t mention self-masturbation. Does that imply that it’s acceptable or unthinkable? There should be some advice about appropriate hygiene.) But guess what? There is some evidence that sexual experience during childhood isn’t usually seriously harmful.
The American Psychological Association published a study that found most adults who had sexual experience during childhood did not feel they were seriously injured by it. Another study published by doctors at Columbia University Children’s Hospital (actually a meta-analysis of many studies) found that children were more harmed by the prudish attitudes and hysterical reactions of their parents than by the child’s sexual experience itself.
Considering that evidence, responsible parents should think twice before terrorizing kids about “bad touch” or interrogating them after a casual report of sex play. Parents and other adults should be considered blameworthy if they worsen the effects of sexual experience or frighten children by exaggerating the dangers.
This short book isn’t a substitute for comprehensive and balanced touch education. Amelia Auckett’s book on baby and child massage recommends including the child’s genital area in the massage. That’s a view worth considering if you’re tempted to steer a child’s choices about wanting to be touched or not. If we take the main idea of this book seriously, that your body belongs to you, then we should cultivate the child’s ability to make free and informed choices, not steer them to choose what we want them to choose.
This little booklet also makes the claim that your “private parts” are those parts covered by a bathing suit, accompanied by an illustration of a little girl wearing a bathing suit that comes up to her shoulder! This book is not recommended.