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Tobin, J. (2001). Childhood Sexuality after Freud: The Problem of Sex in Early Childhood Education. Ann. Psychoanal., 29:179-198.

(2001). Annual of Psychoanalysis, 29:179-198

Childhood Sexuality after Freud: The Problem of Sex in Early Childhood Education

Joseph Tobin, Ph.D.

In this essay I discuss sense of three interrelated phenomena that in the past decade or so have swept through American early childhood education: (1) a “moral panic” about sexual abuse in preschools; (2) the prohibition of physical contact, both among children, and between children and their adult caretakers; and (3) the disappearance of psychoanalysis as a source of knowledge and a guide to good practice.

I sort out the causal links that tie these phenomena together. For readers who are psychoanalysts, one particular causal relation may tend to come to mind: Psychoanalysis for some reason fell from its position of influence in early childhood education, and once cut off from psychoanalytic knowledge as a source of rational thinking about sex, the field of early childhood education lost its bearings. This theory has the attractive features of being plausible, straightforward, and flattering to psychoanalysis. But I don't think it is true. Instead, drawing on Michel Foucault's “repressive hypothesis,” I argue that the relationship between a rational, liberatory discourse such as psychoanalysis and such repressive practices as firing male teachers and prohibiting affectionate touch is much more complex, wrought, and paradoxical.

Before turning at the end of this essay to a discussion of the relationship that ties the decline of psychoanalysis to the rising hysteria over sexuality in preschool settings, I must first provide evidence of the phenomena. To do so I present two kinds of evidence, drawn from two studies I have conducted. The first is a review of 72 years of early childhood education textbooks, showing a decline in the influence of Freud and a shift in the presentation of sexual curiosity from a normal feature of childhood to a symptom of abuse.

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