So this post is supposed to be about the institution of childhood as a separate section of society, and in particular the idea of special protection for children, from exploitation and from risks, and so forth. I’ll admit I’m not at all certain of myself here. I’m going to try to articulate the anti-childhood position, but I’m still wondering if it’s correct. In fact, this has been a very difficult post to write. I keep getting the urge to back away from what Firestone is saying and scream ‘please don’t arrest me!’ The strength of the emotional resistance is immense – but then Firestone would probably say that’s the evidence that we’re getting near to something important.
The pro-childhood position is something like this: many things require consent, and are otherwise a violation. But children lack the maturity required to give meaningful consent, and so doing such things (sex, work, sex work, cosmetic surgery, living alone, etc.) is necessarily a violation of their rights to integrity and safety.
Now part of this is, whether it’s admitted out loud or not, based on the recognition that our society makes people do horrible things, but nevertheless balks at the idea of making children do them. For example, if someone mentions ‘child labour’, we naturally have images of vast, overheated, poorly-ventilated factories with dangerous machinery and mind-numbing tasks, whether in Victorian Britain or modern India. And of course we then want to avoid children doing such things. But hey – it’s not that great that adults do those things either. Children who got sent down the coal mines were not being oppressed as children, they were being oppressed as working class people, equally with their parents. Similarly, part of the horror at child prostitution or child pornography is, I think, a feeling of unease about prostitution and pornography themselves, made more intense by the fact that children are involved. After all, getting a naive 15-year-old into prostitution isn’t all that different from getting a naive 19-year-old into prostitution.
So the first anti-childhood point to make is that childhood takes a dichotomising approach to consent, and a personalising one. That is, it first insists on a binary distinction between ‘totally unable to consent’ and ‘totally able to consent’, and then insists that if meaningful consent is in a certain case impossible, this should be seen as a consequence of an internal feature of one of the people involved, not a circumstantial or relational feature. The direct consequence of this dichotomising is the absurdity of age of consent laws, whereby a 15-year-old is necessarily violated by an action that is not at all problematic two days later after their 16th birthday.
To extend this point, we might argue against childhood that waiting for 16 years is a poor substituting for properly raising people to understand and give consent. That is – by having these laws that ‘protect’ children, we encourage and enable ourselves to raise them in a way that trains them not to be mature, and then when the time limit has expired, we set them loose upon the world ill-prepared.
What I mean is – how many times a day will the average child have its misgivings and desires dismissed, or simply not bother to articulate them, knowing they will be? “I don’t want to eat that”, “I don’t want to go there”, “I don’t want this person to ruffle my hair or pick me up”, “I don’t like this place”. “Nonsense, don’t be silly.” Especially given the amount of passivity that schooling is likely to engender, one might suggest that this is not the best way to teach children to make mature decisions.
Similarly, the idea of childhood as a separate sphere of life, with its own clothes, activities, places, times, etc. – doesn’t this seem like an ideal way to hold children back from learning how the real world works, learning how to navigate it? Especially in relation to things like sex – though in Western Europe this battle has largely been won, let us not forget that it was a difficult battle to force sex education into schools, and to varying extents still is a battle in many other countries. This is precisely because it was considered that the childhood world does not include sex, any sex – which served precisely to make young people who did, at whatever age, have sex, do it in ignorance and confusion.
If one were feeling radical, one might even suggest that childhood is specifically designed so as not to build the capacity to consent, because our society prefers people not to have that capacity, but to believe they do. The conservative forces in society have an interest in being able to blame people for their choices – in particular, to argue against attempts to redress the inequalities that both produce and flow from those choices. The flipside of the child who cannot consent to anything is the adult who must ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’.
Anyway, so that’s perhaps the first key argument: childhood functions to undermine people’s maturity and rationality, and in doing so actually renders them more vulnerable to exploitation when they reach the magical age of 16, 18, or whatever. It actually helps to create the vulnerability that it then justifies itself with, just as imperialism helps to create the local conflicts that then justify its interventions.
Related to this is a further argument, more specifically about sex. The argument is this: our society does not have a proper culture of consent. The mystifying and obscuring idea of a dichotomy between those inherently unable to consent and those inherently able to serves to support this faulty culture. It is considered ‘unromantic’ and ‘awkward’ to straightforwardly talk about what you do and don’t want to do with someone. Instead, people communicate through signals and cues – looks, smiles, clothing, euphemisms. A boy struggles to decipher what a (quite possibly ambivalent) girl’s cues are telling him – she’s wearing revealing clothes, and she was dancing with him, and now they’re back at her room but she just seems to want to listen to music. Is he going to get laid or not? But he can’t ask. Instead he tries to kiss her. She either turns away to say ‘no I don’t want to kiss you or have sex with you’, or she kisses him, which either means ‘I want to kiss you’ or ‘I want to have sex with you’, depending on what he wants to interpret it as. And then if she decides that she doesn’t want to have sex, he may get angry: she led him on!
And we end up with people feeling that ‘owe’ or ‘are owed’ sex, people feeling unwilling but not being able to say so (because ‘no’ means ‘yes’), and the Sugababes singing idiotic songs about how they have to ‘drop hints’ and ‘wait patiently’ for slow-witted men who they want to sleep with but refuse to inform of this. The best example of a rigourous culture of consent that I know of is in BDSM.
It’s also worth pointing out that one result of the systematic exclusion of sexuality from childhood is that all sexual activities tend to be covert and secret, which makes it harder to distinguish abusive or non-consensual ones from others.
Ok, so this is all driving around without too much direction. I think something that is perhaps worth discussing is that consent doesn’t need to be instiutionally recognised in a dichotomous or a personalised way. For example:
Given that people’s feelings fluctuate all the time, there could be ‘cooling-off’ periods like some countries require for euthanasia: consent must be explicitly registered over an extended period – whether that’s an hour or a day or a month. We might say that a 16-year-old can have sex on a whim, a 15-year-old only after a day of consistently wanting to, to avoid ‘spur of the moment’ mistakes, a 14-year-old might require a week, a 13-year-old a month, etc. This provides a gradual change in place of a dichotomy. This would of course imply some level of oversight, someone to register the consent with, which would in turn.
Similarly, given that meaningful consent becomes more difficult in the presence of power imbalances, why not define ‘statutory rape’ in terms of age difference instead of absolute age – i.e. say that a 10-year-old can legally have sex with another 10-year-old but not with a 25-year-old. That would be a relational rather than personalised way to deal with consent. And I’m sure it’s not beyond the capacities of mathematicians to devise a function so that around some age (say 16) the ‘maximum age gap’ became effectively infinite.
But I feel rather like I’m beating about the bush. The real issue is what sex is. Much as our culture refuses to come out and admit it, there is a large and widespread undercurrent of more-or-less unconscious feeling that regards sex as an act of violent possession by men against women, a ‘conquest’. It’s an act of violent possession that women are expected to enjoy because feminity is felt to ultimately involve masochism and objecthood.
This isn’t to say that sex is always like that – obviously it’s not, obviously the basic reality (such as the fact that sex involves vulnerability and opennes for men) can assert itself against this social construction (which is after all not the only such construction – there are contrary messages about female agency and sexual equality floating around trying to cover it up), and so can the conscious intentions of the people involved. But at the same time, that attitude to some extent determines reality, and to some extent makes sex have that ‘conquest’ character. Hence double standards, hence rape as something overwhelmingly done by men, hence what a huge amount of porn is like, etc. I’m not sure if I have the energy to justify this position so I may just assume that my readers are largely fairly feminist and on board with this.
Now here’s the thing. It’s obvious that this aggressive character of sex makes child sexual autonomy less feasible, because it means that sexuality is, far more than it need be, something that we need to be protected from. The idea of marriage as the exclusive site of sex has the same effect, and indeed for the same reason – marriage, especially with an age difference (and we all know which gender tends to be the older, which the younger) has an inherently possessive nature, setting people up to ‘expect’ to have sex. Child sexual autonomy is the opposite of child marriage. Just saying.
BUT it also works the other way, at least according to Shulamith Firestone. Her argument, which I’ll admit I had never considered before, is that much of this aggressive character of sexuality exists because of the incest taboo. The child initially loves its mother (or whatever other caregiver) and tries to express this in as many ways as it can. But it soon learns that some ways are not allowed – some forms of touching are ‘sexual’ and thus must be separated out from the other forms. This leaves the child (especially the male child) with the feeling that sex is not appropriate to people you love. Hence there must be two types of people – people you love, and people you fuck. Culturally astute readers may already be thinking ‘madonna-whore’ complex – either a woman is ‘pure’ and asexual and thus deserving of respect, or she is sexual and therefore unworthy, even disgusting.
Just consider a recent pronouncement by Paris Hilton: “If you give it up to a guy he won’t respect you.” Think about that for a moment. Forget about the risk of sex without love – if you have sex with someone, that will stop them from loving you. This leaves people with two completely opposed forms of affection: everyting sexual, and everything else.
In theory then, if there were no incest taboo, no separation of sex from affection, then there would be no such thing as a ‘sexual relationship’ – there might be friendships that mainly involved sex, just as there are now friendships that mainly involve RPGs, but there wouldn’t be this idea that the typical person will at any one time have one sexual relationship and many other completely non-sexual relationships. When you really like someone (love someone) you spend time with them, play games with them, hug them, collaborate with them musically, and have sex with them. Certainly no such foolish categories as ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’.
Firestone doesn’t think that children should be made sexually autonomous simply so that they can have the same aggressive, degrading, semi-abusive sex that adults have. Rather, she wants to totally transform the way we see sex, and believes that child sexual autonomy is the key way to do so. Rather a chicken-and-egg problem really.
By the way, this also should be borne in mind when reading 60s and 70s texts about ‘sexual repression’ and ‘sexual liberation’. They do not simply mean ‘have lots of sex’. They mean something far harder, in fact for an individual probably impossible: make sex simply one more form of affection. Firestone herself is repeatedly scathing about ‘sexual liberation’ that amounts to lefty men pressuring lefty women to sleep with them because its ‘revolutionary’.
Anyway, to relate this back to the issue of consent at the beginning. If a child can’t consent to have sex, it also can’t consent to abstain from sex. The justification for excluding sex from childhood must then be something like: the consequences of having sex and it being a bad idea are worse than the consequences of abstaining from sex for 16 years and it being a bad idea. Now, if we consider something like a hug or a kiss, the same logic wouldn’t apply – it’s clearly not worse to have a bad hug than it is to go 16 years without a hug (of course, Firestone would point out that we don’t give children ‘hug autonomy’, because often they get touched and fondled by relatives or whoever when they don’t want to, and are called ‘rude’ if they reject it).
The whole argument against child sexual autonomy then relies on a bad sexual experience being worse than a bad hug experience, and being worse than 16 years without any sex. That in turn, the argument might go, depends on how we socially construct sex – what meanings it has. Does a bad sexual experience mean you’ve “given yourself away”? A bad hug certainly doesn’t. Does a bad sexual experience ‘defile you’? Ultimately, Shulamith Firestone is arguing, we only think it ‘defiles you’ because we think that even a ‘good’ sexual experience is, at bottom, to some extent, a defilement, an aggressive action. And we only think that because we have excluded sexual experiences from childhood.
I’ve run out of steam to say things. Hopefully the idea of child sexual autonomy, and child autonomy in general, seems more reasonable and more interesting than it did before you read this.