Why Some Parents are Afraid of Bare-Chestedness

DC HSF 4
National Mall, Washington D.C., Fall 2015

I have spent a lot of time studying fear and anxiety, both generally and how it relates to normalizing female bare-chestedness.

I traveled to New Hamphire this week to attend the trial of the women who asked to be cited after police officers asked them to cover their breasts at a Gilford town beach.

Two witnesses testified that they were mothers and were offended on behalf of their and other children.  One said she was offended in her own right, and didn’t want her son to see breasts.

I also just watched poorly made news footage from Woodlawn Beach in Buffalo where women have apparently been going bare-chested with some regularity (according to the hyperbolic reporting) and they managed to find an offended mother who said she was totally fine with topless sunbathing, just not in front of her daughter.

And of course I have heard the same argument from mothers, in particular, on my bare-chested outings.

So without judging them, can we understand what is scaring them and try to reduce that fear?  I think so, reserving the right to be wrong and understanding that everybody is a bit different.

Let me first say that the vast majority of parents and children I have encountered have either been neutral or positive.  I can’t emphasize that enough.

With that said, I have see some panicked expressions from a couple parents. I’ve had some conversations with these parents, too.

Mothers of daughters who object to public bare-chestedness seem to express a common theme.  They often start out by saying they are offended, but upon further examination what they say is they wouldn’t want their daughters to go bare-chested. Whichever reason they cite to say they don’t want their daughters bare-chested, it eventually boils down to fear that some harm will come of it, whether it is shaming, embarrassment, pregnancy, STD, assault/rape, and so on.

There is no deeper seated fear than a parent’s fear for a child’s welfare.  Therefore I try to be very patient with this personality.  I also endeavor to honor this in my demeanor, in presenting a non-threatening but non-threatened energy.  That helps the parents who are actually concerned that bare-chested women might create some actual harm feel less like they are being attacked.

But let’s dig deeper into the mothers and fathers who fear their daughters will want to go bare-chested.  The conundrum is that the more normal it becomes, the less scary socially, the more likely it is in that parent’s mind that his or her daughter will eventually want to go bare-chested.  It’s a circle.

So let’s at least understand that some element of that fear reaction is arising because bare-chestedness is beginning to look normal.  That in itself is the scary part for some people.  There won’t be any major impediment to their daughters doing it or asking to do it.

Another component of parental fear has to do with having to converse with our children about difficult topics of inequality, flaws in our society and ourselves, and also of our sensitivities and mindsets regarding sexuality and shame.  Seeing a woman walking bare-chested, I think they fear, will trigger questions they don’t feel comfortable answering, for individual reasons, and they resent having this conversation forced on them during what is supposed to be a relaxing day at the beach or in the park.

Resentment is anger, which is fear.  Fear of what?  Loss of control.  Someone else is dictating when you have this conversation with your child. Someone else has controlled some aspect of your life.  And to some people, that is terrifying on a deep level.  Most people accept that in society and in relationships, people affect and influence each other constantly.  A minority pretend this doesn’t exist, it’s too scary, and react strongly when forced into a space in which they feel uncomfortable.

Many people feel female breasts and the female body itself are sexual.  This is a conditioned idea, one that society, those in power and the media have commercialized and sold back to us. The thing is, we just have no way of knowing what panics and fears trigger when a person is unexpectedly placed in what he or she perceives to be a sexual situation, especially if he or she perceives a child to be cast into that situation.  It could be dredging up molestations, rapes, assaults, shame, whatever.  Serious stuff.  And because they equate breasts with sex… trigger panic.

Even if the uncomfortable conversation isn’t about sex, there is still the awkward conversation about inequality.  So why does dad or brother take his shirt off at the pool or beach and mom doesn’t? What about a hot day? And why can’t I?  Because the answer is either, okay, you can take your shirt off (about which the parent feels uninformed and vulnerable-  Is it legal?  What will the other mothers say?  Will we get kicked out of the YMCA?) or no you can’t take your shirt off…because you’re a girl.

And that opens up a whole conversation about gender roles, expectations, freedoms, rights, opportunities, and inequalities.  Which asks the parent to verbally and specifically admit that this world we live in isn’t perfect, and there are things that are very much wrong with it.  Ugh.

Parenting is difficult.  I try very hard to remember this when confronted by an angry mother.  She is afraid.  And she is not afraid ultimately of her daughter seeing breasts- it has little to nothing to do with me or any other bare-chested woman.  She is afraid of her daughter showing her breasts, because to that mother the world is a scary, dangerous place (perhaps real, perhaps perceived) and anything her daughter does to lower her guard or draw attention could make her a target.

This is sad to me, because the power of rape culture seats in parents as well, who teach the next generation.  If you take your top off, you might get raped, and in a way, it might be your fault.  We as a society place the onus upon girls to take measures to prevent bad things from happening to them and to prevent the perpetrators of the bad things from doing them by not inviting them to.  A parent doesn’t have to say those words.  It communicates anyway.

I think in time, as in other cultures, when parents have seen enough bare-chested women not getting assaulted, shamed or attacked, that fear response will lessen.  How can it not?  I can’t imagine parents of the 1960’s felt comfortable about their daughters suddenly wearing two piece bathing suits or short skirts.  Nor the families on the beaches in the late 1930’s when men first started going bare-chested. Now these things seem completely normal, as if it were always so.

Few people want to stick out from the herd.  Lions attack isolated wildebeests.  Being first with something is by definition leaving the herd.  The first time a parent sees a bare-chested female she or he may feel isolated, triggering a panic.  Am I the first parent to deal with this?  I’ve never seen this before.  But with time, as they see more and more parents negotiate bare-chestedness, the fear will lessen.

As far as parents of sons, I feel like parents of 11-13 year old boys have shown the strongest reaction, and I think maybe that is a fear of that child growing into an adult, fear at the passage of time, fear about the dangers of male adolescence, drugs, sex, trauma, pregnancy, disease, and general derailment.

These parents are living under the misconception that their little boy is pure, that they have successfully kept sex from impinging on their child’s innocent child mind.  Reminding them that most kids have seen some form of pornography by the age of 7 and are actively talking about sex (poorly and irresponsibly) around that same age does not reduce the panic of these parents.  It only makes it worse, but that’s not a bare-chested woman’s fault that the parent has not made room for those important conversations with the child yet.  Fault or no fault, it’s important to understand the source of the fear so we can reduce it.

Truth is, children barely care about seeing a bare-chested woman. They are curious, little more.  Kids react the way their parents tell them to react.  Think of a child who scrapes a knee and immediately looks up at his mother to see if he is hurt or not.  The mother who stays calm keeps the kid calm.  The mother who throws her hands to her face and exclaims will see a child react the same way.

This article could be a book.  There are so many sources of parental fear.  I think the important thing is to at least honor the fear without submitting to it.  This is the only way we can reduce it and  then have a conversation about bare-chestedness which should reduce it further and might even erase it.  Panicked brains cannot hear reason.  Cannot happen.  Surviving the lion attack is all that matters.

So bare-chested pioneers out there, please pre-plan your reaction to and conversation with a panicking mother or father, keeping in mind that yelling at them will only make it worse.  In the end, that would really be making it worse for their children, not yourself. Nor should you back down.  Be neither threatened nor threatening.  That requires inner strength and confidence.  Do the work before you go out and it will translate.  Negative interactions don’t happen often, at least to me, but they do happen and my blog is about sharing my experiences so other women will be prepared and comfortable.

The parents I have been most impressed with were the ones who allowed their child time to process (is my knee really hurt, or am I just scared), stayed calmer than the child to model that behavior, and not only allowed their child to ask questions but also answered them openly and with reason and not fear.  I have heard  several parents use questions about female bare-chestedness to discuss equality and potential and independence and body pride.  The conversation can go toward fear.  It can move away from fear.  It’s a choice, and a choice that we can help sway to one side or the other.

I think the fear of parental fear is the last hurdle to normalizing female bare-chestedness.  Politicians and police worry about angry parents making their lives difficult.

Since this topic is so pivotal, I would like to gather our collective wisdom to reduce parental misconceptions and fear.  I would love to host a respectful conversation from all sides on this topic in the comment section.

 

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45 thoughts on “Why Some Parents are Afraid of Bare-Chestedness

    1. Hi Jim: Just to share my thoughts to this same question as we have been discussing on Twitter, I feel that religious belief in and of itself is not dangerous or negative. I have a lot of ardent supporters who identify as devout Christian and Jewish. They believe in equality, body pride and civility. I see the common denominator between people who react with anger is their fear. Something in the appearance of a bare-chested woman (in this example, insert whatever trigger they are reacting to) has triggered a deep fear. With religious fear, I feel like some people join religions or religious organizations because they feel most secure in a pack, a herd. I am not speaking of all religious people. Many, many religious people are there out of sincere desire to understand the universe and aspire to be good people, strong people. But there is an subgroup of religious people that find security in the uniformity of thought around them, if we all see things the same way, we must be right. Which is of course a fallacy, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is they feel safe. So here comes someone acting in a way that their collective code has said is wrong, that will lead to isolation and damnation, and it triggers panic because it plucks the string of doubt within them. I always think, if they REALLY believed in this God they worship, if they REALLY believed in Heaven, they would behave much differently. They would be relaxed and free and at peace, because they would know deep down they were protected and headed for eternal salvation. But they DON’T know this. And when anyone steps out of line, it triggers that panic. It’s eternal salvation on the line! In their minds. So I agree with you that some people object on what they call religious grounds, but that’s stopping short of a true understanding of what is happening inside them. I also think it’s not useful to group all religious people together, which you didn’t do, but some have done here before. It’s just that anomalies are scary to some people. To many people. People doing their own thing, making their own decisions, who are hard to control, they challenge the security blanket of uniform thought. The people exhibiting religious rage don’t care about my salvation. They care about theirs, and their children’s. And their anger is just betraying their doubt, their fear that there is no God, no Heaven, and that chaos is a possibility. It’s heavy stuff. It’s heavy for me to BE that trigger. But I believe in what I’m doing and for that reason, I have tried very hard to show these people compassion instead of just more anger reflecting back at them. I am upsetting them at a very deep level. I know that before I start. But I also know that I am not dangerous to them. They just perceive me to be so. So patiently, walk after walk, I hope to change the way people see female bodies, by connecting non-threatening behavior with bare-chestedness. I hope other women will feel empowered to do the same, but that is not my call. It’s theirs. I can only protect the space, as other women and men made the space for me.

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      1. Very much on point, Ginger. I would only add that this fear of difference that you and I have observed in many Christians (I can’t speak about other religions since I identify as Christian) comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s nature. There is no reason for it, as the heart of Christianity is to accept God’s love for us all. “God IS love.” But you are right that we do not change mindsets by threatening or acting “offended.” Rather, to respond with empathy and compassion disarms much of the fear/anger directed at us.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. wow, you are such a terrific thinker and so great at expressing your thoughts. I have had these thoughts for many years but with your story above and the reply about religious people, you have just put it all into great and easy to understand format. I am a man, and really excited about finding myself in nudism and totally support bare chested women as form of libration, life style, truth, equality, and all the wonderful reasons it should be. Thanks for taking the time to write such wonderful things.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. When a man wears shorts and sandals in FL. It is ok. Put on long pants and still wear the sandals and he is a “hippie or Jesus freak”. Bare chested or Bare bottomed should not be unlawful. It s society’s warped conditioning that Nudity = sex. I have a sticker on my truck that says “Clean up your mind so I can be naked

      Liked by 5 people

    3. I suspect that religious belief is rarely a reason. People may think it is a religious belief, but they generally think a lot of things are religious when they actually are only cultural.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I believe there is a WordPress blog specifically by and for Christian naturists. From what I remember they regard their religion and naturism as not only compatible but mutually supportive. I don’t know of any Muslim equivalent though.

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  1. When I was 12 some nice people knocked at our door and offered us Bible studies in the convenience of our own home. Six months later I was a religious zealot able to quote scriptures like a sword. At 13 I entered high school. In the locker room I discovered the shower bay filled with the swim team all showering naked together. So, the swim team was not to be my choice. I chose cross country as my sport of choice instead. Lo and behold, after running ten miles in the hot September sun, I didn’t care about anything anymore except peeling that salt stained pair of shorts from my body. Let me tell you, I staggered naked into that shower pit with a dozen other boys, no hesitation!
    As for the eventual loss of my religion, that’s a different story but suffice it to say that No lightning bolts hit my head.
    I say all this as a backdrop to my main point: you are so perfectly on the right track. You take the time to listen to others. And in that, you possess the key. So many times in my life, I have faced contentious people (whether it be at work or at the beach or in a parking lot) and I have found that if I just hear them out (provided they don’t filibuster the afternoon), they begin to change. They calm down. They feel ‘finally heard’ on an issue that, perhaps, has been building inside them for too long already.
    If there is one thing I would suggest, it would be to recommend that these challengers at least exercise freedom in the home. Home should be safe, right? Let the kids recognize home as that sanctuary which it should be.
    I’m finishing raising my sixth kid. Most are grown up now. Each and every one of my kids has made their own choices regarding identity, religion or lack thereof, and countless other growing phases. I’ve survived it and they have too. No great casualties have resulted from letting my kids explore options while in the home. The parents need to allow their kids to ask questions and discover their own answers, and be applauded for it.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you for this well considered comment. Facilitated mediation relies on this principle you emphasize, by using reflective listening techniques. I can’t think of the term of art right now but the idea is that if a person is repeating herself it is because she feels unheard, psychologically. And until the brain feels it has been heard it cannot progress past its current state. Mediators have made an art of proving they have heard a person and removing that road block so a conversation can continue. If a mediation participant said, “I’m so pissed off at him for eating my sandwich. He thinks he can do whatever he wants to my stuff,” a mediator might respond, “I heard you say that you felt upset and hurt when you discovered he had eaten your sandwich. Is that right? It sounds like boundaries and respect are things you would like to discuss.” And this magic happens where the participant’s brain goes, “I’ve been heard! At last!” And the conversation gets unstuck. It works. I’ve watched it. You don’t have to be a trained mediator though. All you have to do is be calm enough to listen, really listen. Don’t get me wrong. I push back. I had a cop in DC stop me on a sidewalk once and tell me he had a shit morning and he wasn’t in the mood for any games. I listened to him speculate that I was mentally unsound for about two minutes, asked the police officer next to him if I was free to go, he confirmed I was, and I walked away mid sentence. (It was beautiful, actually. I just clipped his sentence in half.). So I don’t want to sound like I’m out here listening placidly while people hurl abuse. No. But even with people who hurl abuse, I try to only respond with as much energy as it requires to neutralize the attack. Over reacting is a fear response too. Oh God, this mom is going to call me a whore. I’m going to call her a bad mother first. I’m going to tell her she’s raising her kids to hate women. That’s worse. You’ve made an enemy for life. So much better to choke that down and let the angry mom have her say, ask her if she is finished and see if she will actually talk quietly. It’s worked every time but once for me.

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      1. It’s worked most times (but once or twice) for me too. Yeah. One guy only aruged for sake of provoking a fist fight, to which I did not (do not) give in. Opted to leave.

        Thank you for giving me the terminology: facilitated mediation, reflective listening.

        I have some friends who have that knee-jerk reaction you mention; risking making that enemy for life instead of neutralizing the attack. Some of it is simply ‘personality types.’ I have to assess, and quickly, what a person’s personality type is. And that can only come by experience.

        Thank you for posting your experiences and acquired wisdom online.

        Once a person finally interacts with someone who listens, yeah. They will, hopefully, learn that same skill and use it with others.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think what you’re doing is tremendous in terms of normalising female bare-chestedness (or at least trying), responding calmly to people who verbally attack you, and to comments on your blog. I was interested by the language you are using on here in terms of the techniques you employed on the streets and wondered whether you trained as a counsellor or psychotherapist.

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    1. Thank you. I will take this as a strong compliment. I am not a counselor or psychotherapist. I do pride myself on being able to listen though, truly listen. It’s so hard to hear anything when the inside of your own head is buzzing with anxiety, fear, panic, anger, or just general noise. So I’ve spent a lot of time cultivating the ability to stay quiet-minded. This predates my bare-chested walking. It just so happens that this topic provides a density of experiences upon which to apply my practice. In a way I do feel like I’ve earned a college degree in the psychology of fear in the last two years, to tell the truth, I just earned it with experience and conversation. So it is encouraging to know that what I do naturally may be backed by science somewhere. Makes sense, if a thing is valid, and the science studying it is valid, science should prove the thing to be valid. And experience should prove the science valid. Thank you again.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was meant as a compliment, so I’m glad it was taken as one. The explanation about how you are feeling when challenged sounds perfectly reasonable because you are challenging the orthodoxy, particularly in the form of three or four police officers at a time, so maintaining a calm demeanour must be incredibly difficult.

        What you are doing is important not just for the inequality of bare-chestedness in public, but as part of a greater movement involving pay, working conditions, education, clothing, ‘acceptable’ behaviour, aspirations and positions of power across all society (both public and private sector). Keep on doing what you’re doing, and the best of luck to you!

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        1. Thank you. My primary motivation for walking bare-chested was and remains that I love the feeling of freedom it gives me. I enjoy it so much that I wanted other women to be able to experience it if they wished and that’s when I started to really see the institutional barriers. This never was about baring breasts, per se. It is absolutely, as you say, about equality and body pride and anti-shame and ceilings and potentials. That’s what makes the act so scary to some people! It’s incredibly empowering, to do something you have been told you shouldn’t do, whatever it is. It could be voting, getting a job, going to college, getting a driver’s license. Breaking through a personal barrier is a life-affirming act. So many women feel shame about our bodies. Imagine the collective positive energy if en masse, women began to shed their shame. It would be breathtaking.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. Breast shame is learned in childhood, so it’s no surprise that some people claim kids need to be “protected” from witnessing breast pride. Rather than let children see a variety of models and then let the kids themselves choose which models to emulate, most kids are presented with only one model: breast shame.

    Body shame is a part of religious tradition that encourages people to focus on the spirit rather than the body, hence children (especially girls) are mentally castrated through anti-sex education or simply sexual neglect.

    There is also a huge industry that profits from the sale of bras and other clothing. In Europe top-free bathing suits are available up to size/age 10. But advertising attempts to sell parents as many products as possible.

    I agree with you that friendly confrontation is a good way to draw attention to these unspoken issues, the hidden agenda behind so-called public decency.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So, if any advice comes from ” religious tradition” or better yet, the actual text and revelation of God as written through his prophets, it must be discarded??

      Any “religious” writing that tells us that there is a moral law created by our creator, and, one that commands us to flee any type of sexual impurity or deviation from the Creators principles, should be disregarded I immediately??

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  4. Reblogged this on clothes free life and commented:
    One of the reasons I appreciate Gingerbread’s approach is that she takes care to consider the impact of various actions and responses whenever concerns from others arise. This is important in life, generally. So often I see at my jobs, in my relationships, or even just walking around in my city where no one makes space for others and they will run you over in a heartbeat, that flying into reaction and fighting does not usually lead to anything useful.

    Changing the focus from the need to be “right” and, instead, thinking about how folks are conditioned and how past experiences might shape attitudes opens up the possibility of tackling issues at the core.

    This does not mean that we fold. Gingerbread stands her ground regarding female bare-chestedness. However, the way in which she listens and converses with people comes from a place that is not about “I’m right, you’re wrong. I’m good, you’re bad. You’re evil, I’m not.”

    Take a look at her piece and join the conversation in the comments on her post.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Another wonderful discussion! I came to your page as a resource to share with some parents discussing school ‘dress code’ and the implications for young women wearing short skirts. The same arguments are used to restrict what the female students wear. It is time we educated men and boys about ‘normalising bodies’ and respecting women as human beings rather than human bodies.

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    1. Yeah, I can get myself pretty worked up about school dress code policies. I ran afoul of my high school’s dress code policy my junior year for wearing a tank top under a hoodie! I was distracting the boys, apparently, by showing a bit of my shoulders, so said the administrator who sent me home to change. Isn’t it a beautiful thought that we might start teaching boys to control themselves instead of girls to be ashamed of themselves?

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  6. I just found your blog today, and am so encouraged by it. One of the most memorable events of my childhood was the day that I (a girl who loved nothing more than running around in ragged jeans and nothing else) was told I had to start wearing a shirt. My (male) best friend at the time endured no such conversation or restrictions. I was about 9, I think, and it was the very first moment I had the conscious understanding that I was subject to very different rules than the boys, and it enraged and confused me. As one commenter said above, the body- and breast-shaming starts so early, and runs deeply. Before we even really know what sex is, we’re told that our bodies are inherently sexual, no matter the context, and that our ever-present sexuality is a fulminating danger. I think many children aren’t even aware of a gendered reality until they’re informed of the societal expectations and binary distinctions that go with the gender (and by extension sexual role) to which they’ve been assigned. Thank you so much for your beautiful, powerful, articulate, and kind words and actions here on this site, and your work for equality in the world. I’m going to get back to binge-reading now…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for your courage in broaching the topic of instilling breast shame in childhood. This is the root of the problem. I’ve a done a photo-documentary about puberty that focuses on a flat-chested little girl who grows into a young woman forced to cover her budding breast. I’m also creating a foundation for research and education about instilling of breast shame in little girls. (Note from Gingerbread: I removed a reference to a commercial product from this comment.)

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      1. In reply to the above comment from sexhysteria, I make this comment. I am certainly for creating an equal and safe space for girls to feel their bodies are just as healthy and acceptable as boys’ are. That is unassailable to me. I have a self-imposed policy regarding comments to this blog that I am applying to this comment. When I started this blog I promised myself to post every non-commercial, non-spam, non-threatening comment that came my way, and to host respectful conversations about those comments. When I contacted this commenter to explain that I didn’t want to post a commercial link in his comment, he and I began a conversation about consent and the perception of harm that I have found, frankly, to be quite troubling. He pointed out to me that I had invited a broad conversation on the topic of bare-chestedness and children and that I had held his comment in moderation for nearly a month, which he felt violated my invitation, so in honor of that and my own policy I post his comment here minus his plug for his commercial product, which he says was not his main reason for making the comment anyway. I also told him I would reiterate my belief that consent must be a foundational value for determining behavior, and that consent must exist before any type of physical contact, especially sexual contact. The commenter contends on his blog and in personal correspondence that children who report sex abuse can be retrained to understand their abuse in ways that change their understanding of the sexual contact, and that would help them understand that sexual contact with an adult is not necessarily traumatic. He does make valid points about the importance of destigmatizing sexuality, especially for girls and women, but then he uses that contention to argue for the merits of adults having sexual contact with children, in a nurturing way. When I responded that we do not trust children to vote, drive, care for themselves autonomously or make decisions about their medical care, meaning we do not feel that children can consent, he responded by telling me that it was less important to talk about consent than about the “definition of harm” and challenged me for “changing the subject.” So I post his comment, and because his comment is a portal to what I believe is an argument that children can be trained out of feeling that sexual contact is abuse, and that if a child agrees to sexual contact with an adult that constitutes sufficient consent, I post this categorical rejection of his position. Removing the shame from the female body and female sexuality is vital, but consent before physical contact must be honored without meaningful exception, and must be established by a lucid, competent person before physical or sexual contact is made. Contact without consent is assault or rape. Contact after revoked consent is assault or rape. If children cannot legally consent to dropping out of school or going without a flu shot, there is no possible mechanism to claim they can consent to sexual contact with an adult or with someone with perceived power over them.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Ms. Covington, thanks for posting my comment above, finally. But some brief clarification is in order. The book I mentioned in my original comment is not-for-profit. I don’t consider that a “commercial product.”

          Also, you say that I argue “for the merits of adults having sexual contact with children, in a nurturing way.” That’s news to me. If you would be so kind as to quote my exact words and the exact place I ever said such a thing, I would sincerely appreciate the enlightenment.

          I suspect what often happens today is that whenever anybody says the words “child” and “sex” in the same sentence, the mass hysteria over abuse takes over and people begin making assumptions about sinister motives and secret meanings “between the lines,” and then confuse what they fear with what they actually saw. That’s why sexual hysteria is my priority.

          I apologize if I wasn’t clear enough before, but I have specifically and explicitly disavowed pedophilia, adult-child sex, etc. repeatedly in my blog, including in a recent post I linked to in our email conversation.

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  7. Wonderful post – thank you!
    The one thing that seemed out-of-place is your term “bare-chested warriors”. That might engender a variety of fears all by itself. Perhaps “bare-chested pioneers” or the like would be more helpful.

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