Childhood Sexuality & Paedophilia

Gay Left A Gay Socialist Journal, Number 8, Summer 1979

Gough, Jamie
Pagination2 pp
Type of WorkEssay

This also appeared in The Age Taboo: Gay Male Sexuality, Power and Consent, editor: Daniel Tsang, Alyson Publications, 1981

Gay Left A Gay Socialist Journal, Number 8, Summer 1979

The editorial on paedophilia in Gay Left was a welcome opening up of the discussion in the left press of a previously taboo subject. However, it does not seem to me overall, to provide a good framework for the discussion. In this article, I will try to sketch an alternative.

1. The oppression of children as a revolutionary question

I think that the starting point for the discussion should be a historical materialist analysis of the social oppression of children, and of its contradictions; and the perspective that this opens up for the liberation of children.

In the peasant and early petit bourgeois family the child was put to work at the earliest possible age in order to contribute to the collective or private production that the family was engaged in, but work was carried out under the discipline and violence of the father. In the development of industrial capitalism in England, children were increasingly used in factory production, gradually coming under the direct discipline of the capitalist.

From the mid-nineteenth century, however, the gradual rise in the real wage, the exhaustion of the reserve army in the countryside, together with a certain pressure from (adult male) working class organisation, meant the removal of children from the workforce. In the latter part of the century, the slackening rate of accumulation produced a parallel decrease in the involvement of women in industrial wage labour.

This allowed the re-appearance of the form of the petit bourgeois family out of the decay into which it had fallen during a hundred years of frenzied accumulation. Backed up by an extension of schooling, this structure could meet the need of capital for a more skilled, disciplined and healthier labour force. Thus the creation of the new role for children, the creation of modern 'childhood', coincided with a qualitative intensification of the definition of women as wives and mothers.

By the late nineteenth century the productivity of labour was such that it was technically perfectly possible for the family to begin to wither away, for housework and child care to become a social task, and for the subordination of children to their parents to become obsolete. Only capitalist social relations, with their tendency to privatise responsibility, to atomise the working class, and to keep down the cost of reproducing labour power, prevented this occuring.

From now on, there was the latent possibility of children's liberation, which could therefore become a political question. The moral of this is that the oppression of children is not the result of some abstract power of adults over children deriving from their difference in age, strength or social experience, but is a limited historical phenomenon. Moreover, it is now rooted in capitalist social relations. The liberation of children is thus inseparable from the achievement of socialism.

Unfortunately, this is an aspect of the construction of socialism that has received little discussion to date. But same outlines are fairly clear. Children would not be tied, whether legally or socially, to their biological parents, and parents would no longer have the responsibility for the economic maintenance and social care of their children. Rather, this would be the responsibility of the whole community. This does not mean that children would be in nurseries 24 hours a day (as some feminist and socialist writing sometimes tends to imply).

Children could be integrated into communal households where they could develop stable relationships with a variety of adults, and where they could choose which adults they wanted to be with. This would lay the basis for attempting to progressively overcome the separation of children and youth from the major social, economic and political institutions of 'adult society'.

Thus, schooling would no longer be the confinement of children in the artificial world of abstract learning, safely away from the world that this learning is supposed to reflect. The struggle for the liberation of children would thus involve not only the moment of separation, of the autonomy of children, but also the moment of integration, of superceding the divide between adult and childhood social institutions.

The removal of the authority of adults over children, and of the special emotional relationships that children are compelled to have with their parents, together with the possibilities for greater autonomy and privacy for children, would allow enormously increased scope for children's sexuality. This is very obviously the case for sexual relations between children. The general changes already outlined imply also a completely different framework for sexual relations between children and adults.

Firstly, the involvement of children in adult society will mean that, while children cannot have the same experience as adults, they need not be systematically deprived of an understanding of adults, as at present. Relations between adults and children, including sexual ones, could then be on a much more equal basis.

Secondly, within the households or communities of which they are a part, children will have a much greater ability to shape their relationships with the adults than they presently have within the nuclear family.

A third important change will result from the increasing role of men in looking after children in nurseries and 'at home'. Because of the specific role of women in the care of children, women are allowed and, within certain bounds, encouraged to have relationships with children, particularly their own, which are very physical and sexual.

(The limits of this would seem to be that where women have relation- ships with young people that are sexual in adult terms, they are regarded not so much as corrupters of youth but as neurotic.)

It is for this reason, as well as the general denial of women's sexuality, that women are very seldom considered as paedophiles or capable of having paedophile relationships. An increasing responsibility of men for child care will mean increasingly physical relationships between men and children and thus a putting into question of the distinction between men and women in this respect. It will also mean that the sexuality of women itself will no longer be denied by the very process of its compulsive focusing onto children.

The intertwined process of children's and women's liberation would therefore inevitably mean a widening of sexual relationships between adults and children. This would, in fact, seem to undermine the existence of paedophiles as a separate group of people. And this change would be inseparable from changes in the sexual identities of (adult) women and men.

2. Puberty

In the context of sexual relations, the definition of 'child' is usually now taken (at least among liberals and leftists) as being those before puberty. What marks out puberty, in the, first place, is the ability to participate in reproductive sex. While this is a biological given, the importance attached to puberty is socially constructed. The possibility of creating and rearing children, and the social relations within which this takes place, remain the core of the family structure and the central sexual-political question.

The 'problem' of puberty, presenting itself as the difference of pre- and post-pubertal sexuality, is in fact a political, not a natural one. This point is missed in the editorial. It describes puberty as "the entry into social and sexual maturity . . . Together with the sexual development of the body, it implies a growing awareness of the social world ... "

This definition slides blandly from biology to the social. On this basis, a natural gulf between child and adult sexuality is constructed, one that in itself makes paedophile relationships "invalid":

"The criteria exist for recognising the validity of relationships when there is some approximation of meaning ... We are inclined to believe that this does not usually happen before puberty."

This is a central argument of the editorial, but the criterion of "validity" (oppressiveness?) seems to me arbitrary and in fact absurd. It is certainly the case that asexual relationship between an adult and a child will have a different, socially defined meaning within the life of each. As we have already seen, this meaning is likely to be very different under socialism; but it will still be there. But there is also a systematically different meaning in, for example, sexual relations between adult men and women, and in non-sexual relations between adults and children. Are these, too, "invalid"?

A more substantial problem is that of the degree of understanding of the meaning of the relationship for the other. We have already seen how society mystifies paedophile relations for both adults and children. The understanding in each case will vary enormously, depending on the individuals. But this is in any case not a firm foundation on which to legislate, either literally or morally.

3. Consent

The real problem is not one of puberty, or of meanings, but of power to coerce. Here again, the editorial takes a rather naturalistic view:

" 'Consent' has different meanings for children and adults."

In the sense that children express consent in different ways, and have different social opportunities to consent, this is true. For instance, in some situations children will be afraid to express disapproval of what adults do; in others they will express disapproval directly where an adult would be embarrassed to do so, or be unable to conceal their feelings. But what appears to be meant is that our (adult) conception of consenting simply does not apply to children.

I think that this is simply the conventional view, which is at the centre of the oppression of children, that children do not and cannot know their own minds.

The point here is not at all to understate the social power of adults to manipulate children. But precisely because that power is social, it has cracks in it. Only the most oppressed children are really unable to show to adults their consent for or against things that they do with those adults, whether sexual or not. Children can, and even now do, seek out and find things that correspond partially to their needs.

There are sexual relationships between adults and children to which the children manifestly consent, for instance where they go to great lengths to continue the relationship, or where they have actually intiated it. In concrete instances, the question of consent cannot be judged a priori. All forms of social power contain contradictions; if they did not, there would not only be no possibility of revolution, there would be no possibility of even thinking of one's own oppression.

4. The state and the law

But what of the use by adults, this side of socialism, of their power to coerce children? Does this not require an age of consent in the law at least until that time?

First, it is necessary to point out how little the law does to protect children from harrassment. For instance, by far the most common form of sexual coercion of children is of a girl by her father. But the girl is effectively prevented even from going to the police not only by the fear of and moral blackmail from the father, but because the result would simply be for her to be taken into care, that is, imprisoned.

In fact, the law not only does not protect, it exacerbates the problem. There is, of course, a whole battery of legislation that effectively makes children and young people the prisoner and possession of their parents. But the law of the age of consent plays a particularly important role within this. First it implies that children do not have any 'real' sexuality (and conversely, that only reproductive sexuality is 'the real thing').

But children's sexuality is not simply non-existent — it is also dangerous! The law implies that children are not really capable of consenting in an area where their strongest feelings are involved, and by extension, in all areas which are of greatest importance to the child itself.

Secondly, the 1885 legislation was seen at the time as being a way of emphasising the importance of male protection to women: girls would be protected from men, especially at work, up to the age of 16, when they would require the 'protection' of a husband. This moral still has force today.

Thirdly, the law prevents people under the age of consent from obtaining contraception and abortion, since they could only want these things for illegal acts.

Fourthly, the law mystifies sex to children. 'Sex education', even at its best, does not, and cannot at the moment, tell children anything about their own sexuality. What it tells them about adult sexuality is totally abstract, since if this were portrayed concretely it would imply a real exposure of children to it, a sort of paedophilia-in-thought.

All this actually makes it much harder to a child to discuss a sexual relationship with an adult that it may have or have had, because it is dealing with something which has been rendered mysterious and which seems to be a cause for shame. This, of course, increases the possibility of exploitation.

Finally, the actual application of the law terrorises children. The police use all the powers at their command to extort 'confessions'; and the court proceedings teach the children that they have been involved in something dirty, whether or not that was their estimation at the time.

The law, and the court cases that the press goes to such lengths to dramatise, are thus a very important part of the way in which children's continued subordination is ensured.

It is therefore nonsensical to argue on the one hand for measures to liberate children, and on the other to support their continued 'protection' by the law of the age of consent. What is necessary at the level of the law is a prohibition of assault of demonstrable coercion.

We should be clear, however, what the limitations of such a change in the law would be if not accompanied by the wider social process of the liberation of children discussed earlier. Only a complete change in the social position of children can effectively prevent their sexual coercion by adults.

The solution of the editorial here is hopelessly inadequate and liberal: it proposes

"providing the maximum social means of protecting the child. In this situation the responsibility of paedophiles would have a major part to play" (my emphasis).

Moreover, under the present form of the state, it is guaranteed that in the actual application of the law nothing would change. In cases where the child has consented, the police, judiciary, and in many cases the parents would do everything to ensure that the 'child molester' was convicted.

The state apparatus would still be dominated by a class that had an interest in the perpetuation of children's oppression. The editorial, however, argues that an age of consent of 14 might

"be enforced outside of criminal law (?) in special children's courts which would deal with all sorts of children's rights outside the bureaucratic disaster of present legal interventions in this area."

The problem, though, is not bureaucracy but the class nature of the state. Once again, the question of child sexuality points to the need for a socialist revolution.

This is not at all to say, though, that a campaign against the age of consent law is not important. A campaign led by young people themselves would be a very sharp way of challenging the whole reactionary ideology that surrounds child sexuality. It is never too soon to start to do this!

5. Conclusion

I have argued that it is vital to see this issue in its class context, to see its place in the contradictory structures of society as a whole and its relation to the power of the ruling class. Seen in this way, it is evident that the questions of child sexuality and paedophilia cannot be solved except by a massive social and political struggle. This is in the first place the struggle of young people themselves, whose rebellion has made child sexuality a political issue.

The oppression of children and young people, and in a secondary way that of paedophiles, is a cruel oppression, and the struggle against it cannot be 'managed' or postponed.