Oh, what a tangled web we weave

“I was playing in the local park when I was a little girl, probably about 5 or 6 years old. An old wino was in the park, and when I got close to him I saw he’d got his willy out and was masturbating, not that I knew what that meant at the time. I thought this was funny. The man didn’t really take much notice of me, or of my giggling. To me this was not really any different from any of the other hundreds of things I was seeing for the first time. I went home and told my mum about the funny man, and what he was doing. All hell broke loose. Suddenly something which was funny became something wrong, and very scary. The police were called. I was dragged off to the park to identify the man. I was confused, and couldn’t understand why everyone was so angry. I was much more damaged by the aftermath than I’d been by the incident. I learnt that there are some things that you shouldn’t tell people about if you want to stay safe.”

So ran the story a friend of mine told me several years ago. This was before our even more heightened sensitivity to children, sex, abuse and the like over the last 20 years or so. My friend’s experience might well have been even more troubling had it happened today. One can imagine the plethora of professionals that would nowadays be marshalled in such a case. Just in case you are in any doubt, I am not suggesting that masturbating alcoholics in public parks within sight of little girls are something to be encouraged, nor that a different child might not have reacted with the amused curiosity that my friend did, and might instead have been troubled and scared. But I am saying that our reaction to children and sex, and the “professionalisation” of our response, are problematic in themselves, and maybe more so than the incidents they purport to protect children from.

On the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning a father recounted the terrible consequences of his 12-year old son’s “inappropriate sexual activity” with an 8-year old girl. Once again, let me make it clear that 12-year olds fumbling in the knickers of 8-year olds is not something that we should be entirely sanguine about, or treat as purely matter-of-fact. But just as in my friend’s case, the consequences that this father described seemed as if they were at least as damaging, and probably very much more so, than the incident which sparked it all off. They were certainly longer lasting for the young boy concerned, who clearly had no idea what forces he was unleashing.

What’s happening here? I firmly believe that our society is totally fucked up about sex. We are a mass of contradictions. On the one hand we have sexualised almost everything that moves, from selling perfume to shifting newspapers devoid of any actual news. On the other, we are more censorious about sex than ever before, and nowhere more so than when it comes to our kids. But even there, the contradictions are manifold and extreme. We have almost pre-pubescent models; we sell bras to little girls who have nothing to put in them; we have make-up for 6-year olds; and at the same time children who are fascinated – as they always have been – with each others’ bodies are no longer exploring the world, but abusing each other. Adults comforting young children who’ve fallen over in the street had better have been through an enhanced CRB check before they offer to “rub it better”. This is madness.

We’ve arrived in a place where simultaneously sex has permeated every pore of our society, and yet where our guilt about it has reached alpine proportions. We want to sex-up our children, and yet pretend that children are pristine asexual beings cocooned in a sentimental innocence. I think that this is wonderfully and ironically captured by the weasel words we use to describe those things that lie at the heart of our dissembling and self-deception about sex, and especially about sex and children. The boy whose father spoke so eloquently on the radio this morning was accused of “inappropriate” sexual activity. What the hell is that? What would be the “appropriate” sexual activity in such circumstances? Is a child fumbling in the knickers of another child “sexual activity” at all? I’m not at all sure that it is. Words like projection come to mind.

We’re weaving this tangled web because we’ve practised to deceive. To deceive ourselves about children. To deceive ourselves about sex. To deceive ourselves about the sexualised society that we’ve created. And above all, to deceive ourselves that we now have a modern, open, and mature attitude to sex. We do not.

5 thoughts on “Oh, what a tangled web we weave

  1. You’re quite right about UK and American attitudes on sex in general and sex and children in particular.
    The French generally have a much healthier attitude about sex: it’s considered a normal part of life, so no sniggering or cringing or over-reaction required.

  2. I agree with Nora’s remarks. I am appalled by the US ritual of dressing small girls wearing makeup in “glamour” clothes and putting them on display in a series of child beauty pageants. I hate to think of the future psychological problems such forced behaviour might create. My niece has a baby less than a year old and recently was lamenting on Facebook that the child was too young to enter such pageants!

  3. I remember playing ‘doctors and nurses’ with children who lived nearby, we were all pre-pubescent and our games went no further than looking. My sisters and I dressed up in bras and wore ill-applied make-up as part of dressing-up games at home. I don’t think that any of this caused any of us any harm, but I wonder where one draws the line?
    As a parent I have been horrified by the clothes and cosmetics up some little girls wore to school on non-uniform days, and am very aware of the damage done to friends who were abused as children. Where does my childhood play turn into something damaging? How do we decide exactly how much freedom we can give our children before they are irreversibly harmed?

    • Anonymous mother :

      Where does my childhood play turn into something damaging? How do we decide exactly how much freedom we can give our children before they are irreversibly harmed?

      I think a large part of the problem in trying to think about harm in this context is that we focus on the wrong source. Because we have these contradictory and unhealthy attitudes towards sex we think that the harm we are trying to avoid comes from the sexual bit, when in fact I think it comes from the power relationships within which the activity takes place. Thus in the example from your own life that you shared, harm would only result if in some way or another you were coerced into acts that you didn’t want to participate in. I don’t necessarily mean physical coercion, but social pressure, or bullying of one kind or another. I think it’s the coercion bit that’s harmful, not the “sexual” bit. So it’s precisely not freedom that leads to harm, it’s freedom’s opposite. I think that asking “exactly how much freedom we can give our children before they are irreversibly harmed?” is to ask the wrong question. Instead we should be asking how we can teach our children to know their own minds; how they can learn to resist pressure, and recognise when they are being pressurised in the first place. The key issue in the 12yr-old boy and 8yr-old girl example in my post is actually nothing to do with “sexual activity” and everything to do with whether the little girl was coerced in the broadest sense. If the answer to that question is “Yes”, then harm is likely to have been done: if the answer is “No”, I doubt very much whether any harm was done.

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