On the Sexual Theories of Reddit
Updated: Feb 8, 2021
An ask Reddit thread recently pinged out the question: ‘What did you learn about sex at a young age that turned out to be wrong?’. People took to this topic with enthusiasm and the thread quickly got upvoted to the top. I’ve been on an anthropological excursion through this thread and would like to share my (unscientific) aggregated findings with you dear reader. Someone had to do this gruelling work and I’m not going anywhere this weekend due to an international pandemic so I’m turning my attention to the important matter of the sexual theories of children (as told by adults on Reddit).
We like to think we’ve come a long way when it comes to sex. In some way, things have moved on but in another way nothing has. Of course, socially speaking there has been movement, however, what I want to think about is not what has changed but rather what has stayed the same.
How do we learn about sex? Melanie Klein’s own child, when plainly told the facts of life denied it. He found it absurd. Perhaps the mechanics of sex and babies is just preposterous to us until we are ready to know? And there are many things that we can’t be made to know. Perhaps it’s hard to know something that we cannot yet make use of? One thing that small children are painfully aware of is just that; their smallness. And so perhaps it feels too hard to know something that feels impossible to imagine. So is the problem of knowledge, in regards to ourselves, and maybe in regards to many other things, contingent on how much we can imagine there being possible? What then are our horizons? Does the curvature of the earth represent a line or a curve, do we see it is as a limit or a drop into the unknown? We draw premature lines in the mind, dig ditches and make barricades. Of course, there is always the possibility that we do not have the mental apparatus to comprehend something. Rocket science aside (or whatever is your ceiling), I think it is reasonable to assume we can all understand the basic mechanics of a sex act. Something gets put somewhere. This is pretty much all there is to it (or is it?). Quickly we are running into the problem of what actually sex is, physically and psychically.
Let’s return to the easier problem of knowledge. So it seems reasonable in most cases to assume that the main issue in the acquisition of knowledge, particularly towards things that are pretty basic, should be assumed from a position of resistance and not a deficit. This is what analysis is: the working over of resistance to knowledge not the relaying of knowledge. Some of the below pay testament both to the growth and maturation of the human mind, our own readiness if you like, of when something can be known. Despite our apparently more open society and liberalised thoughts on sex, despite the abundance of knowledge, children still have theories. There is no amount of education that dispels certain myths. These infantile theories persist, they haven't gone away. The nature and function of the genitals, what happens between the parental couple and where do babies come from still remain central questions for children. Though in some sense these questions are answered (in a mechanical sense) for us as adults, enigmas and paradox still remain at the heart of the problem of sex. However, what is interesting is that on Reddit in 2021 we see the same infantile theories of sexuality that Freud began noting over a century ago. I am here to guide you through them.
We may have sauntered off momentarily into questions of knowledge so let me remind you again about the question posed on Reddit: ‘What did you learn about sex at a young age that turned out to be wrong?’. One of the first things interesting about this Reddit thread is how quite how many posts are not actually answering the question. There seems to be some kind of collective inference mistake. The question specifically asks whats has been ‘learnt’ which has since been found to be ‘wrong’. Though some claim a friend told them a particular theory that still leaves a question of who told this 'friend' the theory? Does this friend even exist or is this a kind reconstruction in memory? I think you’ll find the comments are actually theories that cannot have been ‘learnt’, well not in any usual sense of the word. The provenance I think we can lodge in a mixture of phantasy and reality, a synthesizing, a kind of infantile theorising.
There are also comments that veer off into posts about genitals. Perhaps some people have read the word ‘sex’ in the question to mean 'genitals' whereas others have read it to mean the 'sex act'. Something that happens between two people (at least). In a sense, people have approached the question with the bewilderment of their child self and so the thread is a rather wonderful collection of phantasy content about what is the difference between the sexes and what is sex itself. Neither of these questions are actually that simple and we tend to give up the asking as adults and settle with some kind of compromise. The prodding of these unsatisfying answers is so often demonstrated by the fury and confusion we find in public discourse on these matters.
When we explore these questions, as inevitably happens in psychoanalysis, the whole thing quickly becomes a problem. Wobbly boundaries fall apart and new ones are set up. So in a way, it makes sense that there is a flurry of confusion here, not only around phantasy, memory and the like but also around the very question. What exactly is even the question here? What is being asked? I think in a way the question has been understood as 'tell us your early thoughts on sexuality'. So let's go with that. People are only too ready to speak (write) about this (anonymously online) and (analytic) therapists are only too ready to listen (read).
So these comments encompass people’s memories or phantasies on sexuality, thoughts on their genitals or the genital difference and on how babies are made. I have compiled some of the most popular and common of these posts. But before I take you through the subdivisions I want to mention a few discussions that I haven’t included.
There were quite a few posts about very early masturbation. The comments were largely about how these people felt they were the only ones in the world to know about this activity, that it was a secret world of pleasure. There was also an interesting discussion about how the anatomical sex of a child was determined depending on whether the man or woman was on top during sex.
I have aggregated the most common and popular posts. My clustering breaks down as:
Sexual Eating Phantasies
Sexual Pissing Phantasies
Denial of Genitals
There were also many posts from people who thought that sex was the act of two people (quite literally) sleeping next to each other. In some way, I would put this under a broad heading of total denial of sexuality or possibly denial of the genitals. I wonder here if this theory is actually a kind of defensive phantasy, a thought to stop a more disturbing thought. There were also lots of posts from women (I assume) about their alarm at seeing the size of a penis and a few discussions thereafter on the thread concerning worries about fitting it inside them. This, some said, led to ideas about kissing being the extent of sexuality. This obviously opens a question of what penis and who’s penis they are seeing as a child. I wonder if there is also something here about kissing as a kind of displacement for childish horror at the other’s genitals or as a defensive phantasy that covers an even deeper worry.
In his Three Essays on Sexuality Freud problematizes the idea of 'normal' heterosexuality and among other things amusingly notes kissing as kind of common perversion. A quite simple, common, and ordinary one, a non-exotic perversion if you like. Eating and love are some of our first experiences. The taking of food and nourishment is the first active process at the breast, we find a confection of love and desire through feeding. Is kissing perhaps then a kind of mutual feeding phantasy? If so this leads to a fairly reasonable childish equation of sex being about feeding and eating. So let’s begin there with….
Here we find some pretty straight forward confusion about how a baby grows and concerns about what is taking place inside the body in order to make a baby.
There seems to be something here about semen as a kind of nourishment that makes sense with the confusion of ingestion, digestion, food and sex. We can also head, as it were, from the stomach to the anus. Here is a theory that a baby is made in the stomach and exits the anus like a poo. I am reminded Freud's theory that there is an unconscious equation of penis/baby/faeces as all the same. With this in mind, these theories point towards the equation of faeces = child. That the child is conceived in some kind of eating exchange but that it is then generated in the stomach and is created in the same way as faeces.
‘Faeces, penis and child area all three solid bodies: they all three, by forcible entry of expulsion stimulate a membranous passes I.e. The rectum and the vagina… Infantile inquiry into sexual matters can only lead to the confusion that the child comes down the same route as the faecal mass…’ (Freud, 1916)
This also runs in tandem with a child’s early consideration that poo = gift, there is perhaps a crude understanding of the gift-giving nature of sex as looked at in this food exchange. This then leads to the creation of faeces which allows the idea of transference from faeces to child as a thing that is created in a similar fashion. French sociologist Marcel Mauss wrote a book on gift-giving as a central tenet of society. Perhaps one way we can think of this is as if his theory is one level removed from its derivation. In other words, yes gift-giving is central to our species but not in the way that he thinks: rather our whole replication as a species is predicated on the giving of sexual gifts if you will. The gift of the baby is a phantasy that we see abundant as a displaced social phenomenon and here on Reddit. Gift-giving derives from this phantasy of babies as gifts. Though it simplifies it too much, we can on one level see gift-giving in adult life as a place holder, a re symbolising of the sexual theories of children.
Theories of Genital Mutilations
These seem to be kind of castration phantasies the sort that Freud spent a good of time thinking about. The one about thumbtacks sounds like a quite scary kind of castrating mother. As does the one about the loss of a limb in sex which I read as a phantasy of losing one’s penis inside another person which speaks to a whole host of other phantasies.
Much of the very violent phantasies and infantile sexual theories were explored by Melanie Klein. She went further back whereas Freud spoke to the infant in the adult, Klein spoke to the baby in the child. So much of this content operates on a deeper layer (though sadism and sex abound in adults) but I wonder if the more violent sadistic sexual couple phantasy is more active and conscious in the more disturbed. It is after all a phantasy we have to traverse towards a more loving sexual relation. That isn’t to say a more fragmented and disturbed parental sexual couple or more orally aggressive phantasies don’t lie deeply in our psyche’s but I would have been surprised to see that kind of content even on Reddit. Perhaps also for some people admitting this kind of thing (even anonymously) is too much. These thoughts or behaviours are not so readily conscious of course. However, I do count the oral or eating phantasies as violent or sadistic assumptions of sexual contact. Orality is the most ancient of activities after all.
Next up I found an abundance of pissing phantasies:
In his 1908 paper 'On The Sexual Theories of Children' Freud noted that the most common theory he found amongst children about how sex took place is that one person ‘urinate before the other’ and then the slightly more advanced version that ‘the man urinates into the woman’s chamber.’ Reddit provided an enormous bounty of pissing theories of sex. In a way, the theorising of pissing as a means of reproduction makes a good deal of sense as does the eating of something. A child takes an interest in what leaves its body as well as what goes in it and, for a young boy the penis, with its regular pissing function and excitable dimensions would inevitably give a few hints. After all the penis is a seeking and inquiring organ. In popular language, we refer to it as 'third leg' as if another limb to walk or lead with, some call it a 'third eye' as if to see or to seek. The penis does have creative qualities but this of course can lead to it’s overvaluation. Perhaps this overvaluation, I am here referring to so called 'phallocentrism', might also be to do with it’s very visible quality whereas the female reproductive system is more hidden the penis protrudes, it demands attention.
Freud noted ‘the child is long before puberty a being capable of mature love, lacking only the ability of reproduction.’ It’s not the capacity for strong emotion, of which loving and sexual feelings are some, it is that but rather the paucity of its equipment to take part in sexual exploits. Winnicott once said that children are dressed up with nowhere to go. The smallness’s for the child not only are quite awful given their powerlessness towards want and desire but also give rise to the confusion of sexual activity above. That peeing in some way is the activity makes some sense. In a way, these theories aren’t that far off. After all, a child isn’t simply an innocent but rather somebody quite new to life and these theories are based on experiences of their genital equipment which are a bit limited. For a boy weeing in a girl seems a reasonable assumption though interestingly there is something of crossover with one of my other clusters and that is the cluster of the denial of the genitals of the other.
Denial of The Genitals
Popular comment section this. Some wonderfully colourful theories here and lots of assumptions that there is only one sex. One lasting criticism levelled at Freud was his phallocentrism, something of an overly signified place of the penis as biological bedrock for development. Perhaps he got caught up in a phallic binary, an infantile sexual theory he had observed but not himself traversed? Of course, the existence of the penis is not everything but neither is it nothing. Not only is it remarkable how much over signification is placed upon it but also there the other extreme: of how little significance is given to it. I am referring largely to unconscious processes here but both of these two positions are found barely shrouded in everyday life.
Gregorio Kohon points out that we do not have to end up in a cul-de-sac of biological essentialism to note that the anatomical difference of the sexes can have a profound and traumatic effect on the subject. Adults have stories of stalks delivering babies, of them found in baskets to help soothe their own anxieties about revealing the truth to a child about the differences of the sexes and of sexuality. Perhaps because the adults worry that to know of difference is to know of another who may have something we do not. In the binary logic of the phallus this could mean to have something better, superior. This is the adult anxiety of the passage the child must take of learning about the difference of the sexes, one of exclusion. A problem that we cannot escape.
For Freud, it is that all children assume the existence of the penis and then stand in relation to this. Reddit attests to a picture where all have assumed the utter ubiquity of their own genital whether it be penis or vagina. To know of difference is to know what one isn't. We cannot be it all, something must be given up. This is to relinquish omnipotence, a 'metophorisation' of Freudian castration. It is to face loss, a self that cannot be all. For Freud our psychic position is impossibly harmonious; we are divided. Sex and sexuality traumatic and uncertain.
'...because human subjectivity cannot ultimately exist outside a division into one of the two sexes, then it is castration that finally comes to symbolise this split...' Juliet Mitchell
In Freud’s famously cynical essay about the efficacy of psychoanalysis he wonders about the limits of analysis as well as the effects of trying to dispel a child’s theory of sex and sexuality:
‘…we have a similar experience when we enlighten children on matters of sex. I am far from maintaining that this is a harmful or unnecessary thing to do, but it is clear that the prophylactic effect of this liberal measure has been vastly over-estimated. After such enlightenment the children know something that they did not know before but they make no use of the new knowledge imparted to them. We come to the conclusion that they are by no means ready to sacrifice those sexual theories which may be said to be a natural growth and which they have constructed in harmony with and in dependence on their undeveloped libidinal organization—theories about the part played by the stork, about the nature of sexual intercourse and about the way in which children are born.’ (Freud, 1937)
Here he points to the depth of our resistance to knowing, to traversing our phantasies. Freud and analysts after him are left finally to marvel at the thoroughness of our own resistance and denial. It says something of the paradox of the analytic treatment, it works not by telling you anything you don't know but by pulling apart your knowing. How much knowledge of one's unknowns cannot be known before treatment is underway.
Let me remind you of the question on Reddit again: ‘What did you learn about sex at a young age that turned out to be wrong?’ It's interesting that these ‘wrong’ theories are still remembered. How many mistaken things do we remember? Why are these ancient theories remembered and not others? How many beliefs that we once held still remain believed? How many of these (and other) theories are still muddled or held to be true deep in people’s psyche? How many distortions remain lodged in ourselves?
How easy is it to really lose a belief? Why is it that despite it being over one hundred years since Freud noted children's sexual theories, we still see the same theories here on Reddit today? The childhood problem of the sexual is not something easily traversed or shrugged off whether it is in our own development or culturally and sociologically. We wear beliefs as a patch over crevices in our own knowledge and perhaps behind the memory of these memories lies a residue of these infantile beliefs in us all. A foggy childish haze of eating, pissing, flattened sexual difference, babies as poo, penis as baby and all the rest.