Thou Shalt Not: Childhood and Sexuality

A couple of weeks ago, I was catching up with an old friend for drinks and the topic of sexuality and children came up. My friend is a parent, a lesbian in a same-sex marriage. They have twin boys, both just entering their teenage years. My friend also happens to be a lawyer. She is concerned with living a transparently legal life.

She has a very real dilemma on her hands: she is fully aware that her boys want to access porn on the internet but she is terminally scared that in accessing it, they will inadvertently come across illegal porn which contains either underage sex or sex acts with non-consenting adults.  She’s also worried about the rise in under-aged sexting. In a recent study, 20% of high-school students admitted to sending ‘sexts’ and over 40% admitted receiving them. 1  Considering this study was carried out in 2010, and based on self-reporting, my guess is the incidence is higher.

It doesn’t scare her to think of her son sending a picture of his erect penis to someone. It scares her to think that he could be charged with distributing child pornography and end up as a registered sex-offender. 2  Similarly, although being quite a militant feminist and not a huge fan of porn herself, she acknowledges that her teenaged boys are going to access porn if there is any possible way for them to do so. She’s just scared to death that they might inadvertently access the ‘wrong’ porn and bring a host of FBI agents to their front door.  3 I thought about it for a while and then said… well, one way to ensure they don’t see illegal porn is to buy them an account at a large, regulated online porn outlet.  She looked at me with horror. But there’s the truth of it – the only way to ensure they didn’t access illegal material was to provide them with legal stuff. There is something fundamentally disgusting about feeling, for legal reasons, you should have to have to intrude on your kid’s sexuality in such a concrete way.

There is an insidious hypocrisy at work in our society. We allow vendors to sell almost every product and service under the sun using blatantly sexual semiotics, and it is impossible to shield our children from this commoditization of sex.  4 Yet we uncompromisingly refuse to acknowledge that kids under the age of permission have sexual urges and will explore them and may use the framework they are constantly exposed to, that  of a free-market economy,  to do it.  In an effort to keep our children safe from pedophiles, we have made it very likely that they will end up indulging in criminal behaviour.

If your teenager has access to the Internet, you cannot net-nanny them to death. If they’ve got access to a phone with a camera, you cannot control everything they take a picture of and send. It is an untenable situation.

I think perhaps some broadening of the view is in order. Let’s start with crawling out of our own little cultural milieu and look at global Age of Consent (AOC).  It ranges from 12 (In Angola, Columbia, Niger and Peru, for instance) to 21 in Bahrain. There are outliers like Saudi Arabia and Brunei where all sex outside of marriage is illegal but there is no lower limit on how young marriage can happen. There was recently a court case in Saudi Arabia to try to annul a marriage between an 8-year-old girl and a 55-year-old man – which failed. 5

But before you get all parochial and start talking about ‘savages’ let me point out that the AOC in Japan is 13.  It’s not a country full of psychos. They just don’t criminalize their kids for being sexual. In fact, the average age of first sexual intercourse in Japan is 19.4. Two years higher than Ireland, where the legal Age of Consent is 17.  6

We say we make these laws to protect children from adult predators, but if you consider the relatively low incidence of child-sexual predation versus the pretty common15-year-old dates a 17-year-old scenario, things start to look a little crazy.

And for those of you who have fantasies about how things were so much better in the past, I’d remind you that historically, the AOC was lower almost everywhere.  From Ancient Greece until the 19th Century, throughout most of Europe, the AOC was puberty: between ten and twelve.  7 Our understanding of what childhood is has changed.  In the middle ages, parents weren’t angsting over their 14-year-old daughter having a baby. They were scared to death that she’d die while giving birth, or catching the plague.  8

There is very little hard statistical evidence that children are becoming sexual younger. Partly because admitting to premarital sex used to be – and still is in many countries – a socially stigmatizing act. Partly because we haven’t been keeping records for very long. But there is a lot of evidence that we’ve become more and more preoccupied with it. And I’d go one step further. Taking Foucault’s ideas that a heightened interest in the regulation, medicalization and classification of sex pushes the topic to the fore in a society, I’d venture that our obsession with regulating the sexual experiences of our children has little to do with our children and a lot to do with our sexual obsessions as adults. 9 There is nothing inherently sexual about the image of a naked child. It is the eye of the beholder, the intention of the gaze that renders the image obscene. It is our inability to limit our own boundaries as adults that is at issue here. Not a child’s sexuality. And it seems we are more willing to interfere, quash, and regulate our children’s sexual development than we are to address issues of how we have come to see other human beings as commodities for our pleasure, of individual and personal responsibility, of self-limitation and boundary setting.

Why is it that a push to get our kids to use condoms gets so much less media attention (except when it attracts social criticism on the basis that it’s promoting teen sex) than busting a ring of child pornography consumers? Why isn’t our interest in keeping them alive and healthy greater than our focus on pedophilia?

I am not discounting the very real damage that inappropriate sexual relations between children and adults can do to the psyche in our time and our current social environment. I’m simply asking you to consider context; the global population wasn’t crazy before 1900, the whole of Japan is not damaged and psychotic.  It is often the context in which a sexual experience happens that contributes most significantly to how the person experiencing it emerges from it.

We have, very recently, made children’s sexuality taboo.  No erotica publisher  I know of will accept a sexually explicit, completely consensual coming of age story that doesn’t require the protagonist to be (laughably) over the age of 18.  And yet, I would guess, almost everyone reading this post had his or her sexual awakening at a significantly younger age. The average age of first sexual intercourse for most people in the UK and the US is between 16 and 17.   10  And, just in case you’re interested, it’s 15 in South Korea. I started masturbating at the age of 10. I had my first sexual experience with another person at the age of 13 and divested myself of my virginity at the age of 16.  If I were to write an honest, explicit sexual autobiography there is no creditable erotica publisher who would publish it. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?

We are all participating in this hypocrisy, perpetuating a narrative that bears no relation to reality. This kind of cognitive disconnect is exactly the sort of thing that really does damage the psyche.  As a society, we are displaying hysterical reactions to a completely natural phenomenon.  That’s usually a massive clue that, psychologically, we are in the process of desperately repressing something else. 11 Moreover, despite the fact that there has been very little documented increase in danger to children (Victorian London was a far more dangerous place for them), the crusade against child porn has led to some very disturbing prosecutions of perfectly innocent and absolutely unsexual behaviour. 12. Finally, Amy Adler makes the very compelling argument that our current obsession with child pornography may be causing more child sexual abuse by presenting it as the ultimate taboo. 13

If we cared about our children as much as we say we do, we’d afford them the latitude and the privacy that every sexual being deserves. We’d be proactive in educating them about the very real dangers of STDs and early pregnancy. We’d encourage them to see sexual partners as whole human beings instead modeling every interaction we have on a free-market system.  But most of all, we’d be teaching them that pleasure is not dangerous. It’s the crap we surround it with that causes the problems.

Then we’d butt the fuck out.

Notes:

  1. Strassberg, D., McKinnon, R., Sustaíta, M., & Rullo, J. (2013). Sexting by High School Students: An Exploratory and Descriptive Study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(1), 15–21. doi:10.1007/s10508-012-9969-8
  2. Richards, R. D., & Calvert, C. (2009). When sex and cell phones collide: Inside the prosecution of a teen sexting case. Hastings Comm. & Ent. LJ, 32, 1
  3. Hartjen, C. A., & Priyadarsini, S. (2012). Child Pornography and Pedophelia. In The Global Victimization of Children (pp. 185-231). Springer US.
  4. Beasley, R., & Danesi, M. (2002). Persuasive signs: The semiotics of advertising (Vol. 4). Walter de Gruyter.
  5. Wikipedia, Age of Consent, Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Consent. Accessed 18-11-2013
  6. Face of Global Sex report, 2005 – 2009, SSL International plc, Cambridge. Retrieved from http://chartsbin.com/view/xxj. Accessed 18-11-2013
  7. Waites, M. (2005). The age of consent: young people, sexuality, and citizenship. Palgrave Macmillan.
  8. Heywood, C. (2012). A history of childhood. Polity.
  9. Hall, S. (2001). Foucault: Power, knowledge and discourse. Discourse theory and practice: A reader, 72.
  10. The Kinsey Institute (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.iub.edu/~kinsey/resources/FAQ.html. Accessed 18-11-2013.
  11. Breuer, J., & Freud, S. (2009). Studies on hysteria. Basic Books.
  12. Hamilton, M. (2011). Child Pornography Crusade and Its Net-Widening Effect, The. Cardozo L. Rev., 33, 1679.
  13. Adler, A. (2001). The perverse law of child pornography. Columbia Law Review, 209-273. Accessed online at http://susiebright.blogs.com/Adler_ThePerverseLawofChildPornography.pdf 18-11-2013

3 Thoughts on “Thou Shalt Not: Childhood and Sexuality

  1. korhomme on November 18, 2013 at 3:56 pm said:

    1. Today’s (18 Nov 2013) media are reporting that Google and Microsoft are to block queries which could lead to child porn sites. I understood that it was adults who searched for them, not teenagers.

    2. There was the suggestion here in the UK in the last few days that there should be a debate about lowering the AoC to 15, and using it to draw a line in the sand. All political leaders knee jerked, saying that this wasn’t going to happen, neither a debate nor any change in the AoC. Clearly, the Victorian myths about ‘childhood’, ‘innocence’ and the ‘white slave trade’ are now regarded as being factual.

    3. I might guess that any under 16 coming of age novel would have to be so anodyne as to be ridiculous.

  2. The challenge is that children exist in this weird twilight zone of semi-personhood. When they are obligated and conditioned to obey, and most of the adults they interact with are presumed authority figures that muddies consent. So we stigmatize adults sexually interacting with teenagers and ban outright people attempting sexual contact with children.

    Indeed while some of the preventing kids from getting porn is good old puritanical behaviour- the flip side is that giving kids pornographic materials is classic “grooming” behaviour. So while kids are going to find stuff, I see *some* of the logic behind blanket bans.

    • So… to prevent the rather small number of people who might groom kids, we put in place laws that criminalize most kids? Wow. great logic.

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