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Playing with babies
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I've read that in some cultures it's normal for parents and caregivers to perform sexual acts on babies and toddlers in order to calm them down and help them sleep. Cultures to which this disturbing practice has been attributed include those of Japan, Albania, the Philippines, Mongolia, Thailand, Bali, native Hawaiians, some native American tribes, parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, Australian aboriginals, and New Guineans. Does this really happen? - Matt, UK

Not to go all Bill Clinton on you, but we need to define what we mean by "performing a sexual act." For now let's just say that, based strictly on appearances, some cultures tolerate stuff that in the U.S. would get you branded as a pervert. Examples:

• In 2006 a Cambodian immigrant living in the Las Vegas area was charged with sexual assault for allegedly performing fellatio on her six-year-old son. The woman's attorney said what she'd actually done was kiss the kid's penis, once, when he was four or five. A spokesperson for the Cambodian Association of America said that while this kind of thing wasn't widespread in Cambodia, some rural folk went in for it as an expression of love or respect.

• En route to being elected U.S. senator, Jim Webb was lambasted for a passage in his novel Lost Soldiers in which a Thai man picks up his naked young son and puts his penis in his mouth. Webb responded that he had witnessed such a greeting in a Bangkok slum.

• Ethnographers report that mothers and caregivers in rural New Guinea fondle the genitals of infants and toddlers of both sexes. In the case of boys this supposedly aids the growth of the penis. It's often done in public and is a source of great amusement.

• The Telegu-speaking people of central India dote on the penises of boys up through age six, which they hold, rub, and kiss. (Girls escape with minor same-sex touching.) A greeting involves an adult grabbing a boy's arm with one hand and his penis with the other.

• A 1946 report claimed that among lower-class Japanese families, parents or nursemaids would play with the genitals of children to help them fall asleep.

I didn't make an exhaustive search and so don't know to what extent such things occur in Latin America, Europe, Australia, or elsewhere. However, it appears that:

• Fooling with kids' privates appears to be a fairly widespread practice in Asia at least, particularly among people toward the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. The reports are too numerous and credible for them all to be dismissed as the ravings of hysterical Westerners.
• The acts we're talking about are sexual in the sense that those doing the fondling are aware of the sexual implications of what they're up to.

• That said, from what I can see, the boundaries of permissible behavior appear to be reasonably well defined. For example, ethnographers in New Guinea say elderly women in rural cultures warn young mothers to cover their breasts before fondling their sons lest anyone get the wrong idea.

• Lurid tales do surface. Reports of mother-son incest were faddish in Japanese magazines in the 1980s, playing off the unflattering Japanese stereotype of the mother obsessed with getting her son into a top school, suggesting some "education mamas" would violate the ultimate taboo to help their boys stay relaxed and focused on studying.

A few Westerners have taken these urban legends at face value. Lloyd deMause, founder of Journal of Psychohistory, cites the Japanese mother-son stories as prime evidence of what he calls "the universality of incest." It's pretty clear, however, that incest inspires as much revulsion in Japan as anywhere else.

A less excitable take on things is that Asian societies just aren't as hung up about matters of the flesh. In Japan, mixed-sex naked public bathing was common until the postwar occupation, and some families bathe together now if they have a big enough tub. Infantile sex play was once considered harmless in many parts of Asia and among the less westernized element still is.

Nonetheless, so far as I can determine, Asian societies have always drawn a bright line between fooling around with babies and toddlers and having sex with your kids. If Westerners can't fathom that elementary distinction, well, whose problem is that?