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[Doc. List E8]     [Newsletter E8] 

James Kincaid

Professor in literary theory, University of California, Los Angeles

Four questions and answers

Question 1:
Are children inherently sexual beings?

I have a cousin who greets me at family reunions by remarking, year after year, on how flat my stomach is -- it isn't -- and hitting me there, hard. That's irritating. It's also irritating to question the question, but I think we're in trouble if we begin by asking whether or not children are inherently sexual beings.

The question embodies a proposition that is both self-evident and false. On the one hand, are little people the focus of the way we energize ourselves about sex in this culture? Sure. They mobilize erotically our talk, our fears, our activities, our dreamy idealism, our darkest violence -- our movie-makers, our police, and our talk-shows. Duh! On the other hand, putting the question this way is like asking whether pretty people are attractive. The "inherently" in our question gives a slam-bang, blaring and fake solidity to two very dubious terms -- "child" and "sexual," both of which are artificial, relatively recent inventions.

So far, so tedious. But what if, in our culture, "the child" and "the sexual" are not independent terms to begin with? What if we can hardly think of one without the other, if they grew up together and are, in our discourse and in our minds, inseparable? I think the modern child and modern ideas of what constitute sexual allure and even sexual activity were developed only yesterday -- in the last two centuries. I think, further, that these two new manufactures are overlapping: ponder, for instance, what our culture does with ideas of "innocence," how "innocence" gives us something to sanitize and pant after, something we can pretend to protect while exploiting it to the hilt.

"The child" helps define what we think of as "sexual," and vice versa. That's our inheritance, lousy as it may be; and we won't get rid of it by passing more three-strikes laws, stinging a few pedophiles and constructing monsters who actually see a connection between kids and sex, a connection we say (loudly-loudly) does not and cannot exist. But it is a connection forged by our culture and basic to it.

Our obsession with sexual and sexualized children is so intense we need to displace, disguise and deny it. To help us out, we have instituted a form of story-telling, a sanctimonious porn-babble designed to eroticize kids, blame it on somebody else and keep the talk going.

There's nothing "inherent" about any of this: it's not nature doing it but us. It's us keeping the cultural machinery oiled and humming. We have -- bad news for the kids -- come to depend on it.


Question 2:

Most of you seem to agree that child sexuality is natural and normal on its own, but becomes problematic in the context of our culture. Do late-twentieth-century images (e.g. Calvin Klein ads, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Barbie, etc.), books (most famously, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Forever and other books by Judy Blume), and films (Kids, the new Lolita, PG-rated movies with sex and nudity) involving child/adolescent sexuality promote or encourage kids to become sexually active before their time? Do they influence the rates of teen pregnancy and STDs, and the age at which kids lose their virginity today? Or, could it be argued that they promote positive sexual identities, comfort with one's own changing body, better gender/sexual relations and a freedom to ask questions?

Certainly we surround ourselves with images and stories of tantalizing and erotic kids. What would we do without them? To blame "the media," though, is one of the lamest and least imaginative bits of pass-the-buck scapegoating one can indulge in. The media, books, movies are not an unmoved "cause," rather a part of an ecology of desire, a complex symbiotic system that circulates in and through us.


We'd love to blame somebody else (Hollywood anyone?), but these pictures and tales amount to cultural scripts that have no single point of origin: they both answer to and direct our erotic energies. Of course these scripts are instructing kids on how to be seductive to adults, just as they are instructing adults on how to find kids sexy; but the images and pictures do not have a stable source -- not Hollywood, not TV, not the White House, not authors, not ads, not perverts. If we were to go after a source, we'd be better off looking at me and you -- especially you.

For all our self-righteous fuming, we need both these images and the indignation. After all, they give us a chance to blame somebody else and thus let ourselves off the hook; we exercise a satisfying and gratuitous righteous indignation while assuring ourselves that these images and stories will keep coming to us in a steady supply. We wouldn't have this "problem" of sexy kids if it didn't do a lot for us.

We even invent problems to exercise ourselves over: stranger abductions and "international child pornography rings" are notorious and never-fail sources for stories we batten on. In our own Question #2 is embedded another of these noxious energizers: this suggestion of increased teen pregnancy. Nonsense. Teens are getting pregnant at about the same rate they have all century long; we simply can't keep ourselves from shifting attention from real systemic problems (the way teens are treated) to, at best, symptoms (pregnancy). We rage about sexual abuse of children, a comparatively minor issue, and ignore the fact that children are, in horrifying numbers, beaten, ignored, abandoned and denied food and hope. This way we can babble on in our sneaky self-titillating way, keep our voyeuristic distance, and make sure nothing is done about the real problems coming down on kids.


Question 3:

Do you think work like that of photographers Sally Mann, Jock Sturges and/or David Hamilton   is positive, innocuous or pernicious in its effect on the viewer? Do you think the photos were intended to be sexual or is this perception something our oversexed culture brings to them? (Please feel free to incorporate your reaction to Noelle Oxenhandler's essay, "Nole Me Tangere,"   in your answer.)

Works of art -- even works of non-art -- do not and cannot dictate the way they are read or viewed. They are subject to interpretive codes and practices current in the culture, codes and practices works of art neither control nor contain. These photographs are, in themselves, neither pernicious nor positive, innocuous nor poisonous, beautiful nor repellent. The way we respond to them, what we say they mean and do, says everything about us and the way we have been taught to look; it says nothing about the works. This is true always, but it is most obviously true when we are most anxious to take our response and put it "into" (i.e. blame it on) the work: if we feel queasy, the work is sick; if we feel exalted, the work is fine; if we feel aroused, the work is pornographic (or purchased, depending on our politics); if we can't make heads or tails of it, the work is muddled.

This is true even of our discourse. Naomi Wolf finds herself feeling -- well, however it is she feels, she takes that feeling and socks it onto what others have said, mounts her stilts, then exits.

It's all in how one sees or reads, and one sees or reads largely according to the complex and subtle instructions absorbed from one's culture. But, there are, even within these instructions, a wide range of possibilities; and we are not compelled to read anything mimetically, pornographically, hysterically.

Take, for instance, Sally Mann's Popsicle Drips (1985), a photograph of her son Emmett, seen from the neck down only, body in a sinuous arch, penis prominent, speckled with what the title tells us are harmless stains but which some have figured look like blood. There are, following Wallace Stevens, at least thirteen ways of looking at that photo:

1. As a formalist study in lines and geometric patterning;

2. As a technical approach to lighting aesthetics;

3. As an in-jokey and technically reflexive play with cutting and highlighting;

4. As a commentary on Edward Weston's famous '20s photograph of his son (also a nude without a head);

5. As a commentary on traditional nudes-in-art, both paying homage to and mocking this tradition;

6. As a pornographic work;

7. As a comment on and critique of pornography;

8. As a tribute to her son's ease, freedom, larky-spiritedness;

9. As a beheading/castration of the hated male;

10. As a joke on penis-envy (lo, it's nothing but a melting popsicle!);

11. As revenge on male objectification of women's bodies (take that! no head!);

12. As a joke on male fears and fantasies of castrating women;

13. As a tone poem, bringing forth idyllic music and poetry . . .

And, if I knew anything about photography, I could go on. But you see the point. The furor over these artists points to a condition in our culture: our addiction to working ourselves up, exciting ourselves in every sense, and then saying, "The photos made me do it!" It's we that are the problem, not the pictures.

And, back to Naomi Wolf, ditto: she's her own problem, I believe. She first proclaims herself a free-speech feminist and then draws all sorts of limits to the allowable, limits to which she appends self-flattering terms, abusing some of the rest of us (me, I hope, among them) in the process with thin-lipped talk about decency and exploitation. I guess she figures that naming herself a free-speech feminist makes her one. Having done so, she can proceed to the claptrap rhetoric of all censors: "I believe in the First Amendment, but really now . . ." The logic is familiar and odiferous. I can proclaim myself a champion of particle physics and start slinging judgments around, hash-like. But that doesn't mean I understand or can speak for particle physics. If what we are saying is upsetting, or if the photographs are upsetting, one should look for the cause of the disturbance on the inside. Why are you making of it what you are making? Why do you want to see the photographs that way? What's the pay-off? What's driving you? Those are the interesting questions. I am not interested in why Naomi Wolf responds as she does; I am very interested in why our culture shrieks in unison at these photographs and then blames the images not just for eliciting but for somehow containing that shriek

Question 4:

In the course of this discussion many of you have pointed out the rhetorical inadequacy of vague notions like artistic intention, media influence and child sexuality. At the same time some of you have identified general problems that presumably can be solved -- Naomi, in her valediction, noted the need to protect children's privacy; Judith Levine decried the predominance of sexist, ageist, violent images in the media; Michael Medved suggested that our popular culture seems perversely determined to rob its young of all shreds of innocence. Let's put semantics aside for this final question and enumerate the more specific modifications you would make to the way sex is presented in the public and private sectors, if you could change things as you wished, to make this country a better child-rearing environment ( . . . realizing, of course, that child-rearing is not the only purpose of our culture).


Okay. "Stop drawing fine distinctions," our questioners say: "Stop the yammer, the ac-yak, the evasive action, the dodge into abstractions -- and get to the point!" I am willing to get to the point. Always am -- just ask anybody. I thought, though, that the point was the child and its body, the way we formulate them, the way we look at and are stirred by them.

Apparently not.

Apparently we are to talk about "the way sex is presented" with an eye toward changing things so as to produce better citizens for the future, scouring out "a better child-rearing environment."

Oh my.

Sex isn't "presented"; it circulates. It isn't crafted by somebody else, and it's not an object that's displayed. It's not Keats's Urn. It's more like everyone's perfume or communal smog. We produce it, all of us; it isn't foisted on us.

So, babble about how we would change things encourages us to imagine that all this is done by somebody else, that our culture is split into the healthy and the ghastly and thank God I am one of the former and haven't the slightest idea what motivates those freaks who find kids alluring and things weren't like this when I was a boy and let's just pass some more get-tough laws.

I don't think it's a question, you see, of "presenting sex," an after-the-fact social gesture that will take care of itself. Hell with that. Let's deal with what is closer to home, the eroticizing of children. It's our favorite unacknowledged pastime.

What can we do? That's a fair question. And, bearing in mind that we're told to be pithy, I'll be so pithy I'll just list things, like an accountant of the arousing.

1. Acknowledge that the cultural "problems" we have are those we want, that we construct "problems" in the form they are in because they do something for us -- you and me.

2. Acknowledge that it's not somebody else "presenting" sex; directions on what to regard as sexual and what to do about it come as a river we are all swimming in and generating.

3. Stop treating our culture as if it were a Gothic novel, packed with only the Virtuous and the Demonic.

4. Stop pretending we can solve "the problem" by rounding up enough pedophile monsters and caging or killing them.

5. Stop titillating ourselves with endless talk of kids and sex, displacing all of it onto Others at the same time. At least be honest.

6. Focus on real problems kids have: emotional and physical mistreatment, neglect, inadequate nutrition, housing, education, love, hope.

7. Stop countenancing/encouraging hitting any kid for any reason.

8. Leave them alone. If we stop thinking of kids as extensions of ourselves, or as "victims," we might allow them some substance and independence.

9. Tell ourselves the truth: in our culture kids and the erotic are overlapping categories and we cannot help but find kids erotic, which is not so bad, considering that we find lots of things erotic without attacking them. Most of us do not, for example, hump the legs of guests at parties.

10. Change our paradigm: power is only a word; safety is not a worthy Utopia; we can find finer things to do than "protecting."


I'm really sorry this is ending. I have had great fun, will miss you all, and really cannot understand why Nerve does not let us just maunder on in perpetuity. I know I have ever so many opinions, on all sorts of subjects. You too, I'll bet. Goodbye -- for now.


[Doc. List E8]    [Newsletter E8]

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