Why does reading about sex make 11-year-old Hal feel uncomfortable? Hal’s father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, speculates that the Oedipus complex may be playing a part.
For some time now I have realised that Hal is rather coy when it comes to sex. I had a very clear glimpse of this recently when he was reading a cartoon in a Sunday paper. The cartoon in question was lampooning New Year’s resolutions and showed the sliding determination of a metropolitan thirty-something. The first panel was headed ‘Drinking’ with the thirty-something declaring ‘I shall give up alcohol completely’, which then morphed into ‘I’ll only drink at weekends’, and thereafter descended via several steps to the ultimate ‘I’ll drink a bottle of wine a day but no more’.
The other three panels traced a similarly ironic route on smoking, sex and work, but what was fascinating to me was Hal’s attitude to the one on sex. He read out loud the drinking panel and then the smoking one but when it came to panel three his response was ‘hmmm… ‘Sex’…don’t think that one’s for me. Move on.’ And move on he did, obviously not wanting to go anywhere near reading about sex.
Jo and I have noticed this embarrassment at other times. There was an occasion when Hal got a bit flustered during a car journey when we were talking about how women got pregnant and he clearly applied what was being said to his own appearance in the world (his actual comment ‘Oh my’, being typical of a touchingly dated vocabulary that he seems to drop into when he expresses his embarrassment about sex). More recently Hal became so uncomfortable watching a movie that included sex scenes with a group of his friends that he left the group and came down to hang out with the adults.
So what is all this about? To some extent it seems to be of a piece with a general embarrassment about body stuff that has been growing for several years. I can’t put my finger on exactly when it happened, but for some time now Hal has been embarrassed about being naked in front of us. Gone are the innocent days of chatting to him while he has a bath, replaced by very strict prohibitions on going anywhere near the bathroom if he is in it and undressed.
Pretty much every small child in western cultures undergoes this kind of evolution I think. Somewhere between the ages of six and eight you start to think of your body as private, and your body being seen by someone older (being seen in the changing room at school is OK it seems) as shameful and embarrassing. This body embarrassment might be part of why sex induces such deep blushes in Hal, but is it all there is to it? Why does Hal react so strongly when some of his friends seem much less troubled by things sexual?
Psychoanalysts would see Hal’s behaviour in terms of the Oedipus complex, one of the central ideas within Freud’s thinking. Freud’s idea was that a male child unconsciously wants to have his mother to himself and to oust his father. Accepting that this isn’t going to happen, Freud argued, is one of life’s great developmental watersheds and leads on to the boy accepting his role as child and starting to want to be like Dad at some point in the future. Looked at in these terms, Hal’s not wanting to go anywhere near sex would be seen as a way of protecting himself from a type of unbearable knowledge – that Mum and Dad have a relationship that excludes him, with sex being the badge of that awful exclusion. An analyst would probably argue that Hal is having a particularly tough time negotiating the mental journey of oedipal acceptance in a way that some of his friends aren’t.
Does the Freudian argument hold water? The answer if course if that we can’t know for sure. Unconscious stuff is, by its very nature, unknowable and when, recently, I asked Hal what it was about sex that made him feel uncomfortable his answer was an awkward, ‘dunno’. But it may help in understanding that peculiarly shameful, difficult, leave-well-alone set of feelings that Hal seems to have about this area. At some stage, no doubt, Hal’s mind will swing round to finding sex extremely interesting. But for the time being it seems likely that we have a boy who is very keen to remain a boy, on our hands.