Adolescence is governed by an overload of hormones coursing through the body. While it preys on the brain, one portion of the complex identity surfaces, which is unlikely to fundamentally change, but will be refined, over adulthood: Sexual identity.
By middle school, most children have learned from their parents or peers from where babies come, even if the details are quite fuzzy. They recognize the changes in their bodies as the harbinger of adulthood. Urges are new, not well-controlled and often embarrassing.
From birth, children are inundated with images and objects which help them identify with their gender. Parents dress nurseries in specific colors and buy specific toys which are traditionally segregated between boys and girls.
Once school begins, children are often segregated for activities between boys and girls. Whether the activities are adversarial or merely socially accepted as gender specific, children recognize the differences between the genders.
Sexual identity is the exercise of identifying oneself as a member of a specific gender.
Psychobabble & Science
Two schools of thought present about sexual identity in young children. Sigmund Freud theorizes sexual identity begins in infancy based on sexual attraction to parents. John Money countered Freud theorizing sexual identity begins between ages five and ten and is devoid of sexual attraction to parents, but instead, is based on attraction to peers.
Regardless of societal repugnance over the thought of a boy child being sexually attracted to his mother, Freud’s model is constructed as a matter of convenient experience: Mother is the first woman to which Boy is exposed. Without the social shame and stigma attached to incest, Boy is merely attracted to the first woman with whom he comes in contact and to whom he becomes attached.
Edvard Westermarck observed the fact people living in close contact with one another (during the first six years of one person’s life) become desensitized to one another in terms of sexual attraction. After many studies in communal environments, the Westermarck Effect theory holds. The largest example is siblings who are raised into adulthood separately who find a sexual attraction to the sibling at the first meeting, but the feelings of attraction dissipate.
Both theories hold up to the theory sexual attraction is based on compatible DNA. We seek out mates who will be genetically compatible to produce offspring with the highest chance of survival and preferred genetic traits. Our families have the closest genetic match.
The chemical links to both romantic love and maternal love are evidenced in many brain scan studies. The centers of the brain which govern reward are affected by oxytocin and vasopressin. Both types of love deactivate the portions of the brain associated with critical assessment of others’ intentions and emotions (social judgment) and negative emotions, which explains why love forgives, exhilarates and motivates.
Since children identify with members of their social groups, when they play with children engaging in their favorite activities, they will observe the other children as same gender or opposite gender (exotic).
Daryl Bern’s theory of Exotic Becomes Erotic states the child in the gender-conforming (same sex) activity will feel differently about children of the opposite sex (exotic) than about same-gender peers, and the difference will cause a physiological response (erotic). The inverse is when a child is non-gender-conforming (preferring activities primarily of the opposite sex) and feels differently about (attraction to) members of the same gender.
The physiological responses are both visible and invisible. Physical sexual arousal is evident. The brain chemistry is not open to the naked eye, but its effects are. Children often lack the filters necessary to make attraction less evident and engage in telling behaviors:
- Eye contact, direct and tangential
- Taunting or aggressively ignoring
- Changes in voice pitch and volume
- Laughing inappropriately
Peers strengthen and participate in these behaviors, often acting as intermediaries, and in some cases agitants. Some peers are not so kind. They will tease the child for blushing or other physical manifestations of arousal.
With or without peer intervention, the sexual identity is concreted with the attraction to another. In some children, it takes longer than others. By the end of middle school, most children have experienced their first puppy love. Adults discount it because they know the attraction is merely physical (and chemical).
Children’s inexperience in making romantic attachment causes the feeling to be fleeting, but the brain chemistry is a memory which will last a lifetime.
(c) Ann Marie Dwyer
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When was your first crush? Do you remember what it felt like to be in love the first time? Have you felt a similar feeling in adulthood?
Tonight’s Talk Tuesday topic will be Attraction. Think about your answers from the survey. We will be discussing the evolution of attraction from the first attractants to those which breed longevity. Look for the post at 1900 EDT (GMT -5). The discussion will begin at 2000. If you cannot stay until 2000, leave your comments before you go and check back to see what others have had to say.