Sensuality and sexuality across the divide of shame

Sammy, at 3 months, and his mother have established a comfortable feeding rhythm. As he sucks, his little fist against her breast slowly opens and his small fingers stroke her soft skin. Experiencing the pleasurable tactile sensations, she looks down lovingly at him as they jointly enjoy the sensuality. She thinks “Sammy is a loving boy. He loves me.”

Now, move ahead to Sammy at 3 Vi years old. Seeing his sad and angry look, his mother allows him to climb up next to her as she breastfeeds his baby sister. Calming from his initial fussing at exclusion, Sammy begins to look with fascination at the sucking baby and his mother’s breast. Sammy starts to reach for her breast, and his mother rebukes him: “No. No. Sammy you mustn’t.” She thinks Sammy has become a naughty boy. His inter-est/excitement inhibited, Sammy looks downcast and crushed before he begins to protest again.

In both of the observations, Sammy is drawn to the sensual pleasure of touching his mother’s breast. In the first instance, his touch is welcomed by a mirroring glance from his mother, who is pleased and happy to share their rising pleasurable exchange. I suggest it is as if she were saying to him: “Sammy you are a sensual little boy, and I am a sensual woman, and together we can enjoy sensuality without shame or maybe with just the tiniest hint of embarrassment on my part.” In the second observation, a similar interest in pleasure is no longer responded to with pleasurable acceptance and sharing. As with most experiences, the motives are complex. Sammy’s initial fuss is anger and envy at his mother shutting out and replacing him with his sister, and his mother tries to respond by offering him inclusion. The central component of the experience is Sammy’s hand reaching to touch his mother’s breast. The motivation behind his gesture includes wanting to have what his sister has, but mainly, I believe, he is reactivating a somatic memory and an underlying affect tone of a pleasurable sensual experience generalized from repeated experiences before his weaning.

So, what has changed? Probably outside of her awareness, Sammy’s mother is influenced by two different value systems prescribed by her culture. One evaluation concludes the young baby’s touching, exploring, and fondling are innocent of intentions regarded as naughty, dirty, or even perverse. Innocent intentions to arouse pleasurable body-mind experiences -intentions I refer to as sensual - are not regarded by Sammy’s mother as threats to excite her or Sammy. She does not attribute to herself or Sammy an intrusion of lustful desire into their personal Garden of Eden.

Sammy’s mother uses a different value system to evaluate the actions and intentions of the 3 1/2-year-old, who she sees as wanting to play with her breast, demarcated at this point as a sexual body part. Collateral annoyance at Sammy for interfering with the ongoing feeding may have accentuated her irritability but is not central to her message: “You may not fondle my breast.” More precisely, the message was:

Curb your excitement, curb that kind of action and the arousal it aims for and will generate. Your intention, if not impeded, will lead to actions and excitement that are shameful. You, and we, will have crossed the line that divides what is “innocent,” acceptable, containable, affectionate sensuality from what is unacceptable, dangerously arousing, lustful, sexuality.

Once shamed, Sammy casts his eyes down, his posture slumps, and his lips turn down at the sides. He does not remain long in the shame state but moves into an irritable sulk. Climbing off the chair that holds his mother and sister, he begins to throw his toys. This brings on another, now angry, admonition from mother for him to stop. ‘‘Bad boy” now combines sexual badness (actually a gentle movement of his arm to fondle the breast) with angry destructive badness (the more violent movement of his arms throwing his toys). In Sammy’s lived experience, the relatively straightforward, “innocent,” sensually motivated gesture is converted, first, into a mildly conflictual “naughty” sexual desire through mother’s shaming restraint; and, second, through the subsequent temper protest and mother’s intensified shaming prohibition, into a conflict over willfulness. Sammy is at risk for forming an identity as a sulky, willful child with an underlying affect tone of irritability and grumpiness.

To summarize, sensuality involves a pleasurable body sensation that can be shared with another who looks on (mirrors) the activity benignly as participant or witness. Sensuality may also involve a pleasurable body sensation when alone, accompanied by an afterimage or fantasy of a mirroring other implicitly conveying approval. Sensuality originates in infancy as body-generated experiences that can be elaborated in imagination, fantasies, and dream imagery into mini-narratives. Throughout life, imagination, fantasy, and dream imagery can activate or intensify bodygenerated sensual experiences associated with an underlying affect tone of a pleasant glow.

Sexuality involves a pleasurable body sensation that, when sought by a child, often is interrupted by a prohibiting response. For a developing child or adolescent, sexuality is a “package” that combines a desire based on memory of a prior pleasurable sensation or an immediate body sensation urge (itch) and an authority who, rather than mirror, share, and comfortably regulate the flow of the urge, prohibits its fulfillment. The child or adolescent may see him or herself as a sensual/sexual who follows the rules and stays out of trouble, or flirts with the edges, testing how much he or she can get away with before shame hits, or who adds episodes of defiant rebellion - enjoying not only the exciting sexual doing but the powerful feeling of being unrestrained.

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