Exploring Childhood Sexuality

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Reader’s Question

I have been diagnosed with social anxiety and major depression, and I’ve done everything positive to fight this, but I feel it’s related to my childhood. I don’t want to get into details, but I believe I was 3-5 years old when I saw my sister pleasuring herself on the floor (rubbing her genitals on the floor), and I picked up the habit. Ever since then, my brain has felt like it was chemically imbalanced after these incidents. Is there a correlation between childhood masturbation and mental illness?

Psychologist’s Reply

Sexuality itself is a value-free experience; it’s only human beings who assign morality to it. Our bodies are designed to feel good when touched in certain ways, and children are no exception. Many people prefer to believe that children are not sexual, but they are wrong. Children’s bodies do not have the capability to reproduce until they hit adolescence, but they can still feel pleasure (as your sister figured out). So no, there is no correlation between masturbation and mental illness.

Where we run into problems with sexuality is when societal dictates get out of hand (e.g., making people feel guilty or dirty for doing natural activities) and/or when other people use sex for power and other forms of abuse. Without knowing much about your situation, I cannot say for sure but if your sister’s masturbation and your own caused you that much distress, it could be that it was the result of things happening to you that weren’t so innocent. Children who have been sexually abused sometimes behave in a highly sexual manner that is uncharacteristic for their age. They also tend to have a lot of difficulties equating sex with pleasure, because they learned early to associate it with some kind of pain (emotional, physical or both). Thus, if both you and your sister were being abused, or if you knew that she was being abused, seeing her being sexual and doing it yourself could have caused a severe distress reaction because of the associations it unleashed. The main thing here, though, is that masturbation in and of itself does not cause mental illness.

You mentioned that you are doing everything positive to fight your depression and anxiety. I hope this includes counseling. If you believe that the roots of your illness are in your childhood, then this is something for you and your counselor to explore. Just please make certain that your counselor is someone who is trained in both sexuality and trauma.

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