I think I interrupted a moment today. K was laying on his belly, rocking back and forth, hands under him in his groin area. The rest of the three- to seven-year-olds in class had already gone into choice time, playing with Legos and bubbles, but he was laying by himself. I kneeled to check in and quietly asked, “Hey K, are you ok?” He appeared intently focused. He nodded as he kept rocking intensely, his eyebrows pulled together like he was straining. I got the gist and stood up to give him the little bubble of privacy he could make for himself in a chaotic classroom.
Masturbation comes up as an almost daily topic at preschool. This surprises people who don’t regularly spend time with four- and five-year-olds, but for the young people I am lucky enough to work with, this fascination with bodies is very present. I get it. I was a body-focused kid too. My curiosity and shame partnered as I figured out what this unspoken but overwhelming focus on vaginas and penises and butts was in myself and my young classmates. Now, as a teacher, I feel a conflict, a gap, in how to support these young people in growing healthy relationships around their sexuality. All of us deserve to have fulfilling relationships with our own sexuality, and kids are no exception. All of us, including kids, deserve access to holistic, accurate, and inclusive information about our bodies and identities. Many of us, especially kids, have not been given space or information to learn about our sexuality in a way that embraces our genders, cultures, disabilities, traumas, and other pieces of ourselves that inform how we relate to sexuality.
I felt this silence intensely as a kid. I started masturbating in early elementary school. I would read and re-read steamy excerpts from middle grade fiction, feeling my body get hot and tingly. Then I would slam the book shut and hide it in the very back corner of my bookshelf, hidden behind my pile of dirty clothes. This was the same corner where I hid any brochures the doctor gave me about bodies. I wasn’t scared my parents would find them—they’d even given me some. But I felt frozen by some level of shame, and to this day I’m still confused about where it came from. The information I got about sexuality came late into middle and high school. Even in my progressive hippie community of South Minneapolis, it included no information relevant to queer sex or trans identity. The racist curriculum only showed Black and Brown kids when it came to sexually transmitted infections and drug addiction, and White kids when it talked about anything else. The first time I talked about masturbation to anyone else was in college. I was certain I was the only one who masturbated.
I can point easily to the White supremacy, transphobia, and queerphobia present in my sexual education. What often goes unnoticed is the deep ageism that denies children vital information about their bodies and sexualities. Ageism is the systemic discrimination, disempowerment, and violence targeting people based on age. For children, ageism takes its form in the systemic and interpersonal ways they are denied bodily autonomy, and choices in medical, legal, familial, economic, and educational systems. Under the guise of protecting innocence, this system is deeply shaped by White supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, ableism, and other systems of oppression and, in turn, actively shapes these other systems by providing a template of how to strip people’s autonomy.
Ageism blocks children from accessing information about consent, bodies, and healthy relationships that all of us need in order to make safe choices. Confining sexuality to secrecy creates toxic vulnerability; child sexual abuse occurs at epidemic rates, particularly impacting children who live at the intersections of marginalized identities of race, disability, class, and gender.
My body’s nobody’s body but mine!
You run your own body, let me run mine!
I introduced an adapted version of Peter Alsop’s song during our meeting at the rug. The kids signed “body” as we sang, then brainstormed other parts of our bodies that we “run.” My elbow’s nobody’s elbow but mine! The song is gleeful, celebratory, and brings a beautiful silliness to such an important message.
Kids are systemically dependent on their guardians, treated as property, as extensions of their adult. They are dependent for food, housing, medical care, transportation, education, and are denied the legal agency to make choices about these human rights. While the Declaration of the Rights of the Child is recognized internationally, the United States remains the only country that has not ratified it; within this country we lack even a basic rhetoric of children’s rights. Children impacted by intimate violence have very few options or power to resist, especially when their perpetrators are members of their close communities, which they most often are: according to child sexual assault prevention group Generation 5, over 85 percent of children know their abusers.
I love watching D and E in the very front of the group working so hard to match each word with an action. What happens when our young bodies learn from the beginning that methods of control are normal? What will it take for this song’s message to become true—to realize a world where all of us, including kids, truly run our own bodies?
If kids could choose where they live, they could take action to remove themselves from dangerous situations. If kids could make choices about schools, they could remove themselves from toxic bullying and predatory adults. If kids had access to legal pathways, they could have some real power in the face of violent adults. If kids had medical autonomy, they could make informed choices about their bodies, and the medical care that impacts their genders, their relationships to illness/wellness, and in some cases, procedures that align with their beliefs (not only their parents’). For an example, look to the recent emergence of kids seeking advice on how to get vaccinated without the consent of their anti-vaxxer parents.
I am feeling hopeful today. We wrote a letter to Congress about the theft of Mashpee Wampanoag land, and it was filled with clarity, passion, and direct calls for justice. We’ve spent the past few months learning about indigenous peoples. We’ve read Wampanoag stories, watched music videos made by indigenous youth, cooked Wampanoag recipes, and looked at pictures from the #StandWithMashpee rally at the capitol. These young humans bring incredible compassion to their work. My heart felt so soft and warm transcribing their letters to our “decision-makers.” They may be young, but they are already changemakers. They are powerful, and they remind me that we all have a responsibility to use our power to make the world more just for all of us.
I draw hope from the possibilities ageism offers politics of solidarity. Ageism is the base that all other systems of oppression grow out of. It is the only system of oppression that all people are born experiencing. If every person were to draw from personal memories of the violences they experienced as a child, what fertile ground it could create for organizing! Adults are former children; I believe that accessing these personal spaces of how we were denied power as children creates potential for mobilizing towards liberation for children, and for all of us. Remembering how autonomy over our bodies was denied to us as children can help challenge how bodily autonomy is denied to current children, to disabled people, to trans people. Our lived experiences of restrictive and intrusive discipline practices lay out the opportunity to act in solidarity with people of color targeted by harsh state surveillance. Remembering and naming our own powerful acts of resistance to reclaim our autonomy as young people could urge solidarity with the young people working right now to create systems that give children the space and freedom that is their right. A world that is just for children is a world that is just for us all.