"Concerns about children’s sexuality: what they reveal about adults’ concepts of childhood"
in: The Plymouth Student Educator, 2011, 3 (1), 66-75
"This essay aims to show that the adult concept of childhood innocence is central to the debate and fears which surround children’s sexuality. Adults feel the need to protect and to preserve the notion of childhood innocence because it is suggested that the loss of innocence is synonymous with the loss of childhood (Postman, 1994). Ideas about childhood and about sexuality are socially constructed and the influences of time and culture have an impact on the understandings of children’s sexuality (Montgomery, 2009). These fluctuating interpretations have revolved and continue mostly to revolve around exposure and acceptability, because of the adult ideal of the sexually innocent child. This essay will aim to show this by discussing the Victorian reaction to the masturbating child and the furore that derived from Freud’s theory of innate sexuality. The current concerns about the eroticization and sexualisation of children, especially girls, will also be addressed and these examples will be shown as fears because they threaten the adult view of the sexually pure and asexual child, which Montgomery (2009) suggests is at the heart of the Western construction of childhood."(66)
"Adults use a variety of methods of protection in an attempt to preserve the nature of childhood innocence, by keeping secrets and shielding children from information the child’s state of purity can be maintained (Postman, 1994). Jackson (1982) suggests that sexuality in the child threatens and challenges our understanding of what the child is, so 21 century society acts to suppress and deny children’s sexuality until an appropriate time in development.
The distinction between life stages and sexuality is grounded in a biological interpretation. Muller (2006) suggests that since the 18th Century the prepubescent body has been considered to be unknowing of sexual desires and urges, these are thought to only appear at about the age of 14, when the child is biologically understood to be ready. This emergence in the mind and the body marks the division between childhood and adolescence and suggests that childhood is a time of unknowing and innocence, whereas adolescence is a stage of curiosity and experimentation which leads to the sexual maturity of adulthood. This cultural understanding still remains prevalent today and maintains sexuality as the preserve of adulthood and sexual innocence as a characteristic of childhood (Kehily and Montgomery, 2009; Corteen and Scraton, 2003). These understandings make it socially acceptable for traits of sexuality to be associated with the adolescent and the adult, but not with the child and therefore culture acts to shape, modify and regulate behaviours and responses to physical instincts." [mijn nadruk] (67)
"If current cultural understandings regard children to be in a state of sexual dormancy, this creates a notion of asexuality and this idea has its roots in the romantic conception that was born following the Enlightenment, in the 1760s. Higonnet (2002) suggests that this was a time of denial about the sexuality of children."(68)
"The powerful notion of the child being sexually innocent and unaware continued into the Victorian era where the adult ideal was not so concerned with asexuality, rather the idea of unawakened sexuality (Cox, 1996). However this idea was contradicted by the acts of the masturbating child.(...) This act of sexuality offered a suggestion that the child maybe sinful. Sexual experimentation was viewed as an abnormality and acute attempts were made to halt such practises. Sexuality in childhood became highly forbidden and contested, surveillance increased and adults were encouraged to supervise their children to protect and guard them against their masturbating tendencies (Gittins, 1998; Hill and Tisdall, 1997; Cox, 1996)."(68)
"This puritan view still has implications today in the understanding of children’s sexuality and could explain why adults feel the need to control and survey children’s sexual knowledge and exposure, for fear of the child being led into temptation."(69)
"Adult information is threatening the purity of the unknowing and ignorant child and society is panicking that this is causing a breakdown in children’s morality (Plynott and Logue, 1993). Postman (1994) suggests that, due to the deregulation of television, children are now witnessing matters of a sexual and violent nature, the lines between adulthood and childhood are becoming blurred and children are learning about the desirability and availability of sex. This medium is giving the impression that sex is applicable to all. As a result the traits of freedom and innocence, associated with childhood, are being lost because children are growing up too fast."(70)
"Popular culture is presenting a threat of exploitation and eroticization, as is advertising and the media who are objectifying young girls, claims Walkerdine (1997). According to Cox (1996) this is because of the potency of the young girls’ innocence and it is this which is fuelling contemporary fears to mostly revolve around the female child. Feminists fear these gendered messages that are being sent, suggesting they represent the way society views women and this is constructing girls’ sexuality through the fantasy of the adult male (Purvis and Ward, 2006; Walkerdine, 1997)."(70)
"Yet in some locations child beauty pageants remain popular and encouraged community events. Critics suggest these displays exploit children for parental fulfilment and say more about the search for identity in the adults than in the child (Giroux, 1998, cited in Darbyshire, 2007; Higonnet, 2002). The notion that parents would dress their children and encourage them to behave in such ways could contradict common understandings about the role of parents in teaching appropriateness and morality with regard to sexuality (Meyer, 2007)."(71)
"There is however an argument about children being valued as a source of income for families and a culturally and radically different understanding about sexuality can exist. Montgomery’s (2001, in Montgomery, 2009) research with parents in a study in Thailand indicated that these adults did not believe prostitution was having a damaging long term effect on their children; they viewed their young children’s bodies as investments. This example highlights the fact that childhood is a concept understood by adults and what childhood is expected to entail is formulated by the adult population who live alongside the children."(71-72)
"However by today’s standards Carroll’s images are viewed as suspicious and inescapably erotic and Carroll himself could be judged as having perverse paedophiliac tendencies, although at the time the parents of the children photographed did not find any fault (Kehily and Montgomery, 2009). This modern reaction is related to the fear of the sexual abuse of children, which is present and conscious in contemporary society and interwoven in current notions about children’s sexuality (Kehily and Montgomery, 2009). For example fears have developed about the appropriateness of touch in childhood settings, although noted as beneficial (Field, 2003) adults are withholding from touching children for fear of the misinterpretation that their touch is either violent or sexual (Stronach and Piper, 2008). According to Piper et al., (2006) common sense has become blurred by moral panics, due to this discourse becoming fed by the fear of the potential paedophile, the trust has gone and sexual assumptions are too quickly drawn."(72)
"Government legislation, rules and regulations that exist regarding the safeguarding of children are attempts to protect the innocent who are assumed to be vulnerable, weak and unable to defend themselves (Meyer, 2007). However viewing children in this way does not necessarily protect them. It could be argued that protecting children’s innocence could create ignorance in the child, which itself could act as a risk and a danger (Jenks, 2005; Higonnet, 2002; Aries, 1962). Erricker (2003) agrees and suggests that the protection of innocence is the promotion of ignorance. Although senses of morality may guide adults to feel they are doing the correct thing, acts of concealment can deny children the opportunity to think for themselves and critically reflect on their enculturation (Erricker, 2003). Wyness (2000) contemplates the idea of adults attempting to protect children by maintaining a state of blissful ignorance and uses the debate over sex education as an example. Wyness (2000) proposes that, rather than the lack of knowledge that is associated with the unknowing of innocence, knowledge can be empowering to the child. If the child is informed this can act as protection in potentially threatening and abusive situations and children can develop self-agency which may offer some protection."(72)