Historicizing affect, psychoanalyzing history: pedophilia and the discourse of child sexuality

Journal of Homosexuality

Angelides, Steven
Pagination79 - 109
Type of WorkEssay


Within the last two decades in Australia, Britain, and the United States, we have seen a veritable explosion of cultural panic regarding the problem of pedophilia. Scarcely a day passes without some mention in the media of predatory pedophiles or organized pedophile networks. Many social constructionist historians and sociologists have described this incitement to discourse as indicative of a moral panic.

The question that concerns me in this article is: If this incitement to discourse is
indicative of a moral panic, to what does the panic refer?

I begin by detailing,

  • first, how social constructionism requires psychoanalytic categories
    in order to understand the notion of panic, and
  • second, how a psychoanalytic reading of history might reveal important unconscious forces at work in the current pedophilia “crisis” that our culture refuses to confront.

Here, I will suggest a repressed discourse of child sexuality is writ large. I will argue that the hegemonic discourse of pedophilia is contained largely within a neurotic structure and that many of our prevailing responses to pedophilia function as a way to avoid tackling crucial issues about the reality and trauma of childhood sexuality.


The Notes are given here in a separate PDF File:


  • If the development of civilization has such a far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization – possibly the whole of  mankind – have become ‘neurotic’?
    –Sigmund Freud [*1]


Within the last two decades in the United States, Britain, and Australia, we have seen a veritable explosion of cultural panic and alarming media reportage regarding an apparent “crisis” of pedophilia.

In 1998, police in 14 countries raided the homes of about 200 suspected pedophiles, in what has been described as “one of the largest international efforts” to crack a pedophile ring. Two years later, in “name and shame” campaigns to “out” child sex offenders, two British newspapers published photographs of convicted pedophiles, which led to a number of violent vigilante attacks.

In one particularly frightening instance, a mob of 300 people were reported to have gone on a rampage outside the home of a man suspected to be a pedophile because he had worn a neck brace similar to one worn in one of the published photos. The group was mistaken.

But is the fear mistaken? Not according to the mass media, where scarcely a day passes without some mention in the press or on television news and current affairs programs of predatory pedophiles or organized pedophile networks. Nor according to many men who have decided to forego careers in primary and secondary teaching.

Australian research has indicated that one factor in the critically declining rates of men entering the teaching profession is a fear of being accused of sexual abuse or being branded a pedophile. And neither is the fear misplaced according to the Australian Federal Police and US Federal Bureau of Investigation, it would seem, who would have us believe that pedophiles are indeed “a growing threat.” [*2]

To even raise the question of an irrational fear of pedophilia is abhorrent to many. For instance, in the United States, the Missouri State Legislature voted in April 2002 to cut $100,000 from the University of Missouri’s budget, merely because Harris Mirkin, a senior academic, had published an article in 1999, arguing that there is a moral panic surrounding pedophilia and that all discussion
on the matter is unduly stifled. [*3]

  • What is happening in many western societies right now?
  • Are pedophilesreally “a growing threat”?
  • Or is the recent frenzy of pedophilia newspaper reporting a form of media sensationalism?
  • Are pedophiles, as some mediacritics contend, the latest in a series of cultural scapegoats?
  • Is the almostrabid pursuit of them akin to a crusade or witch hunt?
  • Do we livein a climate of hysteria?
  • Or are we in fact being made more aware of this thing called pedophilia as the discourse of child sexual abuse, and thusour knowledge of the problem, grows?
  • Have we been ignorant in thepast to the numbers of pedophiles in our populations and to the depthand breadth of pedophile activity?
  • Or are our criteria expanding, suchthat many more behaviors are being pulled into the definitional fields of child sexual abuse and pedophilia?
  • Are we inventing more and morepedophiles?

It is doubtless impossible to adjudicate the question of whether or not the cultural incidence of pedophilia has increased. [*4]

What it is possible to conclude at a minimum is that within the last decade in particular there has been an immensely intense cultural cathexis of the object pedophilia, and thus to borrow Foucault’s terms, a veritable incitement to discourse. [*5]

Pedophilia has become a highly explosive and emotive key cultural term. The question that concerns me in this article is: If this incitement to discourse is indicative of a moral panic, to what does the panic refer?

Social constructionism and the theory of Moral Panic

The theory of moral panic occupies a pivotal place in the sociology of collective behavior and social deviance. British sociologist Jock Young pioneered the application of the term in 1971, to refer to public concern over apparent increases in drug abuse in Britain. He suggested not only that a moral panic ensued, but also that the panic itself led to increased drug-related arrests, thereby amplifying the “deviance” under examination. [*6]

Stanley Cohen furthered this model, with his analysis of youth disturbances
between the Mods and Rockers in Britain in the 1960s. Together, Young and Cohen described moral panics as the escalating effects created by the mobilization of the media, public opinion, and various agents of social control around a perceived social problem. As Cohen put it:

  • "Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible." [*7]

The use of highly emotive terms such as “folk devils,” “scapegoats,” “delusions,” “irrational fear,” “anxiety,” and “hysteria” are common in the sociological literature when describing moral panics. [*8]

The underlying assumption of moral panic theory is that the concern at hand is inflated or unwarranted, that it is disproportionate to the actual threat posed. Under this model, it might be possible to see the apparent increase in pedophile statistics as resulting not from an actual rise in numbers of pedophiles, but rather as part of the interactive, cumulative processes by which societies construct social problems. Indeed, many authors have already applied these terms and this kind of analysis to the nascent child sexual abuse and pedophilia “crisis.” [*9]

Vern Bullough has described the pedophile as the latest scapegoat “for everything that seems to be wrong with American society and the family.” [*10]
He has also, along with many others, equated the intensity of concern about pedophilia with moral panics and hysteria. [*11]

Still, others have described the overzealous tracking of suspected pedophiles by law enforcement bodies as witch-hunts, and those subjected to such witch-hunts as “folk-devils.” [*12]

On the whole, there is agreement among moral panic theorists that the danger represented by pedophiles has been altogether exaggerated. For the most part, the concept of moral panic and its associated terms have been applied to the phenomenon of pedophilia as loose and descriptive metaphors.

On this rather superficial level, I would agree that many cultural and community responses to pedophilia certainly resemble aspects of (at least) popular understandings of each of the psychological formations such as delusional thinking, anxiety, irrational fear, panic, and hysteria. However, unaccompanied by psychological analyses, these terms tell us very little about the psychodynamics of individuals or groups. Short of some tacit moral presumption, we are left with no explanation of exactly why anxiety, panic, and hysteria emerge around the issue of pedophilia.

In my view, this reaches to the very heart of the problem with moral panic theory. Based largely on social constructionist history and sociology, moral panic theory seeks to explain the emergence of social panic responses by isolating the various social trends and changes that place stresses on populations.

For instance, in his book on moral panics in Britain, Philip Jenkins lists sociopolitical and economic factors such as demographic changes and immigration, unemployment, Thatcherism, feminism, gay liberation, and so on, as providing the basis for social unrest and anxiety. These anxieties are then publicly disseminated by the media and various interest groups, leading often to fully-fledged moral panics. [*13]

The term moral panic thus describes the end product of an array of social processes and actors taking part in the identification and regulation of a particular social problem. Although the theory of moral panics is more descriptive than it is explanatory, if we take a closer look, it is clear that there is an implicit causal chain operating: Social change > anxiety >interest group > agitation.

Priority is accorded to social and material changes; these changes generate anxiety in individuals and groups; and this anxiety stimulates interest groups to make claims to articulate and/or solve the particular problem. The media is seen as a prime agent and conduit for expressing and arousing social anxieties.

While I do not doubt that in many instances social changes and media publicity arouse anxiety, this is not an a priori or universal fact. That many sociologists, historians, and journalists use the phrase moral panic to describe what they evaluate as irrational or exaggerated responses to a social issue is itself testimony to this fact.

What remains to be determined is precisely why certain groups and individuals react with anxiety and panic and others do not. Nothing in the theory of moral panic enables us to understand the relationship between social, material and discursive change and the psychology of affect, or emotion. The reason for this is that many social constructionist theorists frequently assume, wittingly or otherwise, that individual and group psychology is the one-way effect of material and discursive conditions. [*14]

Little epistemological space is made for examining the force exerted by psychological dynamics, and the ways these shape the social and material contexts within which people are situated. The contemporary ‘crisis’ surrounding pedophilia, in my opinion, provides an instructive, indeed exemplary, case study for interrogating the theory of moral panics and for historicizing and theorizing the place of affect in social and discursive relations.

Paedophilia and Moral Panic

Unfortumately, very few sustained historical and theoretical treatments of the issue of pedophilia have been produced. Philip Jenkins’s book, Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America, is one of the few exceptions, although it deals with child molestation more generally. [*15]

Employing the concept of “moral panic,” Jenkins attempts to ground it in a constructionist historical analysis of American responses to sex crimes against children. Following the work of Stanley Cohen and Stuart Hall, Jenkins describes a moral panic as a “wave of irrational public fear,” a reaction to a person or group that is “wildly exaggerated and wrongly directed.” [*16]

The fear, in short, is altogether disproportionate to the actual threat posed. According to Jenkins, and other constructionist historians, child molestation panics of the twentieth century have occurred around the 1910s, 1940s, and 1980s.
Despite arguing that “panic responses” have been “repeatedly produced” (p. 7) throughout the last century or so, Jenkins is quick to underscore the point that this has not been the only response to child molestation.

There have been historical periods of relative complacency or indifference to the problem of child sexual abuse, such as the 1920s and 1960s. He demonstrates that panic responses can be explained by “changes in the audience to whom activists are seeking to appeal” in the context of shifting social trends:

  • the demographic balance of the population,
  • sexual revolutions and the attitudes toward sexual experimentation,
  • diseases such as HIV/AIDS,
  • feminism,
  • changes in family structure, gender roles and the workplace,
  • economic factors,
  • marriage and divorce rates,
  • increases in child care outside the home,
  • expansion of psychotherapeutic industry,
  • globalization,
  • and so on.
  • “Why has the public been so fickle in its fears?” Jenkins asks: “The lesson seems to be the one so often found in studies of social problems: that claims about danger are rather like commodities in a competitive marketplace, items that gain or lose a following depending on how well retailers strike a chord among the consumers whom they wish to attract” (216).

But exactly how and why do claims-makers “strike a chord” with particular groups of people?

Jenkins’s constructionist account has certainly enhanced our understanding of the various forces contributing to moral panics. Yet it is limited, I argue, by its prioritization of social determination and by the concept of panic itself.
That the concept of panic has clear allusions to a psychological formation – for Jenkins, it is a wildly exaggerated and irrational fear – suggests that its formulation must be situated at the nexus of the social and the psychical registers.

[Critics on Jenkin's book]

However, for all its pretensions to explaining the (psychological) concept of moral panic, Jenkins’s analysis ultimately refuses a discussion of psychical dimensions.

  • (Nor has anyone else to my knowledge yet offered an adequate account ofpsychodynamics in relation to pedophilia and child sexual abuse.)

Panic amounts to little more than a vague metaphor for identifying a set of social responses (discourses) that reflect or represent a certain state of community or cultural affairs. Without an analysis of psychodynamics, it would seem impossible to place the individual or group within this social or symbolic structure, except as its mere reflection or mouthpiece.

It would be impossible, therefore, to explain why certain interest groups are in fact able to “strike a chord” among various publics and what this chord is. Identifying changing material and sociopolitical conditions is not sufficient to answer this question, as these tell us nothing about the dynamics of human psychology. Nor is there any uniform subjective response to these phenomena; not everyone exhibits panic responses. If there were uniform responses, there would be no place for the concept of moral panic, no way of recognizing a discrepancy between actual and
perceived danger.

In continuing the economic metaphor, Jenkins implies just this when he concludes that the inexplicable vagaries of individual subjectivity are ultimately responsible for whether or not a chord has been struck.

  • “The products themselves [e.g., child protection], although they may be packaged with greater or less sophistication, remain fairly constant,” he says, “their success in gaining market share depends on the composition and tastes of the consumers, which change over time” (216; emphasis added).

Jenkins is thus unable to account for the effect of shifting social and historical conditions on individuals, or the mobilization and intensity of subjective responses to child molestation, or the ways these responses shape, and are shaped by, various discourses and social practices.

Individual subjects instead emerge in Jenkins’s history as rather two-dimensional figures, which are interpellated and spat out, in rather crude structuralist-like terms, by social discourses. Remaining unexplained is the dynamic two-way relationship between the interlocking structures of psyche and society.
As Tim Dean argues, these two structures are mutually informing, even though “never directly or homologously.” [*17]

Neither can assume the position of first cause, and nor can one be seen as a mirror image of the other. The question of how individual subjects affect discourse, how discourse affects subjectivity, and why within this dynamic certain subjects take up particular (dis)positions is pivotal to any account of moral panic; especially, it might be said, when sex is at issue. [*18]

[Near sociological explnation, psychological explanation is needed.]

There is an abundance of insightful historical material and analysis in Jenkins’s book upon which to draw and to which I am indebted. What I would like to do is not jettison this constructionist research, but supplement it by exploring the dynamic interface between the social and the psychic conditioning discourses of pedophilia. Worth noting here is how the impressive archive of constructionist scholarship on sexuality has been unmistakably indifferent or ambivalent, if not often resistant or overtly hostile, to psychoanalytic categories. [*19]

I, too, have shared all of these responses, not least because of psychoanalysis’s apparent universalism and heteronormativity. I have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the pictures emanating from many historicist accounts however.

The omission of the psychic dimension flattens out both the subject and history, leaving each devoid of affect (feelings and emotions) – the very things denoting psychic events such as hysteria and panic. [*20]

Other vital subjective elements such as ideals, values, fantasies, and desires are also discounted, as Mark Bracher points out, as are the

  • “interpellative forces . . . of discourse that cannot be reduced to a function of representation.” [*21]

This is an impoverished notion of history and sociology that begins with the “death of the author” but that ends with the annihilation of the subject. It is a form of historical sociology that might also be seen as the effect of a mighty act of repression. For repression, as both Freud and Lacan describe it, is the process whereby thought and affect are detached, the thought being that which is repressed or pushed out of consciousness.  [*22]

Like a host of other scholars, I cannot disregard, and indeed find much of value in, psychoanalytic theory, particularly in view of the intensity of affect aroused by the issues of sexuality and pedophilia. Here I would have to agree with Dean’s suggestion that the volatility of an issue is often indicative of “its proximity to something psychically fundamental.” [*23]

The appeal to psychological terms such as hysteria, panic, and irrational fear to describe the responses to pedophilia is doubtless suggestive of a deeper, unconscious level of psychosocial functioning.
I  would certainly argue that, at present, these terms capture much of the sentiment of dominant cultural responses to the phenomenon of pedophilia.
However, when sociopsychic terminology is employed only descriptively or metaphorically without the aid of psychoanalytic categories, a vast gulf is opened up between the social and the psychical realms. The two are detached, and the psychic is effectively erased from the social.

An analysis of their inevitable inter-implication is thus foreclosed. One of the reasons for this is that “irrational,” or perhaps nonrational, psychical responses, cannot adequately be examined by a rationalist analysis at the level of conscious thought or representation.

I have spent much of the past four years researching the entire archive of social science, psychiatric, criminological, and popular media literature on the subject of pedophilia. In that time, it has become evident that, in addition to ostensible concerns, something rather profound, albeit largely unrecognized, is animating the contemporary “crisis,” and that a constructionist analysis of changing social trends and moral panics is insufficient by itself to explain it.

In order to understand the relationship between changing social trends and anxiety, it is necessary to analyze how anxiety is working at the level of the individual and the group. The unmistakably high level of affect or emotion associated with almost any pedophilia discussion, in my view, clearly points to the work of powerful unconscious forces.
What I would like to do now is foreground this accent on the sociopsychic, but give it a more precise psychoanalytic inflection.
I will be suggesting that not until we are able to grapple with history at the level of subjectivity will we be able to understand the history of the present.

Revisiting neurosus and childhood sexuality

  • Why it is that responses to pedophilia that are anything but disparaging so often provoke such intensely emotional and often extremely violent reactions?
  • Why does the very mention of pedophilia evoke such fear, anxiety, and panic among so many people?
  • And what unconscious forces might be at work?

I suggest that one way the dominant panic response to pedophilia might be usefully rethought is through the psychoanalytic concept of neurosis. I propose that the discursive field of pedophilia is contained largely within a neurotic structure and that many of the prevailing cultural responses to this phenomenon are neurotic.

In what follows, I do not claim to have unearthed some buried psychosocial truth for each and every individual, and I do not speak with the empirical weight of clinical psychoanalysis. Nor do I regard psychoanalysis as the only useful paradigm for approaching these questions, although in my opinion, it goes further than any of the other social sciences in penetrating the dynamics of sexuality and the unconscious.

My aim is merely to stimulate discussion and debate, and to resuscitate and reformulate what I think are some useful psychoanalytic concepts that are being increasingly disregarded in recent years when examining subjectivity and sexuality. [*24]

I firmly believe that the social sciences and humanities must foster a truly interdisciplinary practice, and to this end I offer an historicist and poststructuralist engagement with Freudian theory and some of its post-Freudian reformulations as a potentially productive and important interdisciplinary exchange, and one which has yet to be staged in the quest to apprehend the cultural phenomenon of pedophilia. [*25]

I do not argue that all concern about pedophilia is misplaced and neurotic, only that the way in which this concern is often articulated reveals much more than surface representations would indicate. Along with very real and legitimate anxieties about child safety and protection are also deeper, unconscious dynamics that our culture remains unwilling to confront.
Here, I suggest, the figure of child sexuality is writ large.

I want to begin this discussion of neurosis with a standard Freudian reading. In classical psychoanalytic terms, anxiety is the “nodal point” of neurosis, and repression the ego’s primary defense against it. [*26]

When disturbing or forbidden ideas threaten to emerge into consciousness, anxiety acts as the danger signal to the ego. The ego attempts to defend itself against these intrusive thoughts, and employs the defense mechanism of repression. [*27]

When an individual is unable to mount a successful defense against the forbidden thoughts, symptoms develop. As conflict solutions, neurotic symptoms are both signs of and substitutes for unconscious desires; they are a return of the repressed.

Elements of the discourse of pedophilia are, in my view, indicative of neurotic symptomatology.

They have both manifest and latent meaning. One of the benefits of employing a psychoanalytic understanding of neurosis is that it accounts not only for pathological processes. That which we call “normal” is also subsumed within the neurotic structure. As Freud points out,

  • “If you take up a theoretical point of view and disregard the matter of quantity, you may quite well say that we are all ill – that is neurotic – since the preconditions for the formation of symptoms can also be observed in normal people.” [*28]

This enables me to locate both the so-called justifiable and the seemingly irrational responses to pedophilia within the same (psycho)analytic framework. I should point out that in drawing on elements of classical psychoanalysis, I will not be conforming to a strict Freudian model.

Although I will be employing some key Freudian insights with regard to neurosis and infantile sexuality, these will be recast through the post-Freudian theories of Jean Laplanche and discursive psychology.

If our responses to pedophilia are neurotic, to what does the anxiety about pedophilia refer, and what has been repressed?

Again, classical psychoanalysis provides us with some useful resources with which to begin tackling these questions. Classical psychoanalysis understands childhood sexuality, and more specifically, childhood sexual conflict, to be the root cause of neurosis.[*29]

What anxiety is signaling is an earlier (childhood) event that entailed the threat of danger, the basis of which is a traumatic moment

  • “when the ego meets with an excessively great libidinal demand.” [*30]
    What “a person is afraid of in neurotic anxiety . . . is evidently his own libido” (p. 116). Thus, Freud concludes, “the commonest cause of anxiety neurosis is unconsummated [libidinal] excitation”(p. 114-15).

Despite the influence of Freudian theory, one of the prevailing phantasies of most contemporary western cultures is that childhood is, or ought to be, a developmental space free from sexuality.

Adults, so the narrative goes, are those who have crossed over into sexuality. Of course, parents today are often among the first people to acknowledge the erotic strivings of children. However, they also often consider this as a kind of “innocent” experimentation or exploration.

The transition from childhood through adolescence to adulthood is thought to proceed via linear stages of sexual maturation. Children are thus routinely viewed as asexual, latent, or proto-sexual beings, awaiting adolescent pubertal development before the emergence of supposedly “mature” or “real” adult genital sexuality. [*31]

Such a linear, developmental narrative makes the subject of child sexuality an especially controversial one. I want to argue,

  • first, that infantile sexuality is a reality that must be substantively acknowledged, in order to argue,
  • second, that it is the traumatic origins of infantile sexuality [*32] that is at the heart of our neurosis about pedophilia.

Espousing a concept of infantile sexuality is certainly not new. Various sociological, psychoanalytic, anthropological, and legal discourses have acknowledged this fact for a good part of the twentieth century.

However, as I have argued elsewhere, with the advent of the feminist discourse of child sexual abuse in the 1980s, there has been a monumental historical shift inwhich there has been a steady repudiation of any substantive concept or discourse of child sexuality. [*33]

The notion of childhood sexual innocence became paramount in the 1980s, in large part through the confluence of feminist anti-rape and anti-pornography movements and the New Right backlash against the sexual excesses of the sexual and gay revolutions.

The child sexual abuse movement drew directly from the language and rhetoric of feminist anti-rape and anti-pornography movements. Feminist critiques worked hard to expose the widespread problem of incest in the patriarchal family, and they were vigorous in contesting legal definitions of abuse that ignored or downplayed non-penetrative sexual acts.

A new approach to abuse emerged, which, as Jenkins reveals, made it

  • “a matter of subjective definition and eroded distinctions between violent or incestuous assaultsand acts like exhibitionism.” [*34]

Feminists were also concerned to challenge notions that women and children subjected to rape and sexual abuse were somehow complicit in the crime (by “asking for it” or fabricating charges), or that child prostitutes and children in child pornography could willingly consent to commercial sex. Concepts of the innocent, blameless, and unconsenting “victim” and the “survivor” of rape and sexual abuse became key cultural terms. [*35]

In earlier decades, it was easy to find representations of child sexuality and of sexually “seductive” and “flirtatious” children in a range of sociological, psychological, and legal discourses. [*36]

Indeed, these ideas were commonplace in all earlier decades of the century, even during the height of the sex crime panics in the 1910s and 1940s. [*37]

As late as the mid-1970s, psychiatric theories continued to cite evidence that young children are capable of seduction, and commonly do so.
In canvassing psychiatric literature in his 1974 Guide to Psychiatry, Myre Sim found it

  • “surprising” how “little promiscuous children are affected by their experiences [of sex with adults], and how most settle down to become demure housewives. It is of interest that Henriques lists two categories – the unaffected and the guilty – and that seems to put the matter in a nutshell.” [*38]

Or consider this quotation from a 1970 sex education text, The Facts of

  • "There is the incontrovertible fact, very hard for some of us to accept, that in certain cases it is not the man who inaugurates the trouble. The novel Lolita . . . describes what may well happen. A girl of twelve or so, is already endowed with a good deal of sexual desire and also can take pride in her “conquests.” Perhaps, in all innocence, she is the temptress and not the man." [*39]

From the Victorian period until the 1980s, children have been represented simultaneously as sexual and innocent. [*40]

However, from the mid-1980s to the present day, the idea that children can sexually seduce adults or that they are able truly to consent to sex with an adult is pretty much abhorrent. This is in large part due to important and rigorous feminist critiques of simplistic notions of “seductive” and “flirtatious” children and their reinterpretation of power relations between adults and children.

In noway do I wish to imply that we should return to pre-1980s notions of sexually seductive and flirtatious children. I am merely registering the fact that, however problematic, the use of such concepts nonetheless served as an articulation of a signifier of child sexuality, and that along with the rejection of the notions of child seductiveness and flirtatiousness has been a rejection of almost any notion of child sexuality.

As adolescent psychiatrist Lynn Ponton points out, although there is a good deal of “noise” surrounding childhood and sexuality, there is little, if any, open and direct discussion and intra-cultural debate on the issue. [*41]

Of course, children are often described as pre- or proto- or latent sexual beings, and it is commonplace to recognize forms of childhood sensual eroticism.

However, I argue that such representations are typically reduced to a form of childhood exploration that is seen to be distinct from, and to precede the onset of, “real” adult sexuality. Childhood and adulthood are thus disconnected by sexuality, rather than bound together by it, and the (psychoanalytic) concept of childhood sexuality as inextricably informing adult sexuality is repudiated. It is in this way that I amarguing that the dominant post-1980s figuration of children is one of innocence without sexuality, in a way different from earlier decades of the twentieth century. [*42]

This is also reflected in the shift to a more identity-based construction of sexuality in the latter part of the twentieth century, a construction within which children
are generally excluded. [*43]

Child sexuality has thus been repudiated, or, as I will argue shortly, intra-psychically and dialogically repressed.
Ours has become a culture of denial and silence with regard to child sexuality. This is in stark contrast to the “polymorphous incitement to discourse” on matters of adult sex. [*44]

As much as Foucault strove to debunk the repressive hypothesis and psychoanalytic notions of repression, I suggest that any notion of a polymorphous incitement to discourse is dependent upon forms of discursive repression. [*45]

The time has come to reopen dialogue on the topic of repression and childhood sexuality. [*46]

That psychoanalysis is possibly the only discourse of the human sciences to have consistently and rigorously demanded a signifier for child sexuality – not to mention formulated coherent theories of repression – makes it an essential starting point for any analysis of human intersubjective relations, particularly so in the case of
pedophilia. [*47]

Psychoanalysis and the universal trauma of childhood sexuality

Infantile, or, childhood sexuality is arguably the core tenet of classical psychoanalysis. While there are divergent models for understanding the intricacies of its development, one of which I will outline shortly, I consider the simple existence of childhood sexuality to be a grounding axiom.

By this I mean,

  • firstly, that human sexuality is prefigured by the intense physical and emotional relations between parents and children, and
  • secondly, that these relations are not simply erotic but also psychologically enduring.

As Melanie Klein describes it:

  • “Because our mother first satisfied all our self-preservative needs and sensual desires and gave us security, the part she plays in our minds is a lasting one, although the various ways in which this influence is effected and the forms it takes may not be at all obvious in later life.” [*48]

What Klein is referring to is the idea that, though not determinative, such parent-child relations at the very least inflect all subsequent sexual object-choices.

Freud, of course, pioneered this idea a century ago, and it was revolutionary for his time. As he famously put it, “a child’s first object-choice is an incestuous one.” [*49] In other words, a specific form of incestuous desire underpins parent-child relations.

  • “There can be no doubt,” he stated in Three Essays, “that every object-choice whatever is based, though less closely, on these prototypes [of the mother or father].” [*50]

However, psychoanalysis has focused primarily on this incestuous desire from the perspective of the child. I wish to extend this, and by incorporating the perspective of the parent, suggest that a specific form of pedophilic desire also structures this parent-child relationship.

Jean Laplanche’s general theory of primal seduction and the enigmatic signifier is useful here. [*51] In his rewriting of Freudian theory, Laplanche holds that “seduction is not primarily a fantasy but a ‘real’ situation.” [*52]

Although this is not to be confused, he points out, with “an event-based realism” (p. 663), namely, the thesis of actual seduction that Freud abandoned and that many feminists have reclaimed. Rather, seduction is conceived of as a universal or

  • “primal situation . . . in which” a new-born child, an infant in the etymological sense of the word (in-fans: speechless), is faced with the adult world.” [*53\

This universal situation involves the child’s inevitable confrontation with the other, which Laplanche calls a “communication situation.” [*54] The child is “addressed” by the other in this confrontation with the adult world, which is a mode of communication where the (m)other transmits messages to the child through her caring, nourishing, and stimulating of the child.

As the (m)other is a sexual being that cares for her child with her whole personality, this mode of address and communication intrinsically entails the transmission of elements of the (m)other’s unconscious sexuality to the child. “So even the slightest gesture for the infant will carry something enigmatic,” Laplanche suggests. [*55]

He describes this as “the intrusion of the adult sexual universe” into the child’s world, whereby sexuality is “implanted in the child from the parental universe: from its structures, meanings, and fantasies.” [*56]

In turn, the child is invited, enticed, and incited to respond to the mother’s communication. The child, in other words, is seduced by the mother, and thus by her sexuality. [*57] This communication or message to the child is what Laplanche refers to as the “enigmatic signifier” or the compromised message. It is a very different conceptualization of seduction than either the feminist or classical psychoanalytic notions. And it is enigmatic and compromised primarily for two reasons.

  • First, there is a clear asymmetry between child and adult and child and adult psychic universes, such that the child is unable to understand and integrate the questions and enigmas of the adult world.
  • Second, the messages communicated to the child embody elements of the parent’s unconscious. It is in this way that the compromised message, the enigma, “is in itself a seduction and its mechanisms are unconscious.”  [*58]
  • Furthermore, this “implantation of an erotic message in the infant which he or she does not understand” is, as Laplanche stresses, also not symmetrical. “It is not an interaction. It is a one-way action.”

Importantly, he goes on to qualify and elaborate this statement:

  • "It is only one-way on the sexual level. I do not deny the interaction on the self-preservation level: in feeding the infant, for example, one feeds and the other is fed, hence there is an interaction. But when the feeding message relays the sexual, it is one-way, if follows one direction from the feeder to the fed. From the beginning, one is active and other is passive. But very quickly, the little human tries to turn this passivity into activity, that is, to make something of this message from the other. Still, there is a dissymmetry.

This comes from the fact that the active one has more “knowledge,” more unconscious fantasies than the passive infant. The adult has more, because he or she has an unconscious." [*59]

The enigmatic signifier (of adult desire) is first inscribed in the infant’s bodily, or, erotogenic zones. [*60]

In a second phase, because the child cannot fully or successfully integrate the excessive libidinal excitation, or, unintelligible erotic messages from the parent, this enigmatic signifier undergoes a primal repression. [*61]

The repressed, residual elements thereafter ensure a permanent conflictual relationship with the ego, producing a subjective core of irreducible otherness. The child is thus split unto him or herself, and sexuality is ever after inflected by an enigmatic otherness.

This universal theory of primal seduction and the enigmatic signifier is therefore the foundational structure for the constitution of the primordial unconscious, and thus sexuality, in the child. [*62]

As the flipside to the psychoanalytic notion of incestuous desire, then, I see the scene of primal seduction described by Laplanche as involving a form of pedophilic desire. Indeed, pedophilic desire precedes and produces incestuous desire. Although pedophilic desire is not the same as the desire of an adult to sexually abuse a child, as Freud pointed out, this primordial scenario nevertheless involves a form of adult sexual desire for the child. As he reminds us in Three Essays, the mother regards
her child

  • “with feelings that are derived from her own sexual life: she strokes him, kisses him, rocks him and quite clearly treats him as a substitute for a complete sexual object.” [*63]

Childhood sexuality is thus constituted through the production – and as we will see shortly, also through the simultaneous prohibition – of both incestuous and pedophilic desire.

We live in an era in which child abuse, especially child sexual abuse, is deemed the ultimate evil. One of the regrettable corollaries, or perhaps consequences, of this is the widespread belief that almost any form of childhood psychological conflict and trauma can, and should, be eradicated. [*64] Childhood is increasingly represented as a period of blissful innocence that is, or at least ought to be, free of conflict and trauma.

Childhood psychological conflicts and traumas are often seen as signs of bad parenting, of child maltreatment. Most psychoanalysts have resisted such optimistic views of human development. Instead, multiple psychological conflicts and traumas are considered an inevitable aspect of child development, especially so in the case of sexuality. [*65]

Psychoanalysis has cogently demonstrated, for a century now, that the emerging sexuality of a child is experienced as inevitably traumatic. To continue my discussion of parental seduction, while mysteriously enticing, the inexplicable desire or sexuality of the (m)other – the enigmatic signifier – is also traumatic, as it overtaxes the infant’s immature psychical apparatus. The (m)other’s sexualized messages are thereby experienced by the child as both attractive and threatening. In addition to this, there is that second momentous sexual trauma that goes by the name of the Oedipus complex. [*66]

The experience and exploration of these erotic relations between parents and children – or between children and children for that matter – have strict cultural limits (incest taboo). The child becomes sexualized through parent-child interactions, but the child’s emergent sexuality must not be realized or played out with one’s parents.

The child must confront the fact that s/he is not the sole bearer of his or her parent’s affections but that s/he must compete with others for them. Not only must s/he then redirect any sexual desires away from the parents, s/he must strictly circumscribe the expression of almost all signs of overt sexual desire. As psychoanalysis has stressed, both the loss of parents as love objects and the severe circumscription of child sexual expression are two of the more significant and formative traumas
in a child’s development. [*67]

The trauma of childhood sexuality – or what I call the simultaneous production and prohibition of incestuous and pedophilic desire (and thus of sexual desire in general) – frustrates and enrages the child intensely, and these emotional events in turn produce profound grief, guilt, and shame for both the child and the parent. [*68]

The problem is that our culture demands that any eroticized parent-child emotions and any overt childhood sexual desire remain unexpressed. We simply do not have a language to speak childhood sexuality, let alone a language to articulate the erotic bond between children and parents. [*69]

These topics are taboo. We are not even expected to talk about them, let alone admit to having such desires. But without a language to work through these prohibited desires, the grief, guilt, and shame they engender remain unresolved. And this only intensifies the original trauma of infantile sexuality.

How do we then deal with these highly intense and inarticulable incestuous and pedophilic desires? The answer, which might in these post-Foucauldian, post-repressive hypothesis times appear somewhat outdated, is, I suggest, repression. [*70]

Repression and collective neurosis

According to psychoanalysis, at the level of individual psychology we rely on repression to ward off prohibited desires. As Anna Freud reminds us with regard to neurosis, “repression is not only the most efficacious, it is also the most dangerous, mechanism.” [*71]

Any reminder of the original conflict easily reactivates the repressed material, which has been pushing relentlessly throughout our entire life toward release. In other words, the intra-psychically repressed elements of childhood sexuality remain in permanent conflict with the ego, attracting metonymically associated ideas that are similarly discordant with the ego or super-ego, such as pedophilia. These metonyms act as dangerous reminders of the original sexual conflict. As intra-psychic repression is not a singular event but a permanent process, ever more expenditures of psychic energy are required to keep the repressed material at bay. [*72]

If successful in its struggle for release – and it should be kept in mind that neurosis is the norm rather then the exception – the repressed returns in the form of neurotic symptoms. As unfashionable as it may be to employ aspects of classical psychoanalysis, I argue that pedophilia stirs up reminders of the traumatic origins of sexuality (return of the repressed) and that the irrational social response to the threat pedophilia is seen to pose is in part an attempt to avoid confronting the production and prohibition of incestuous and pedophilic desires. In this way, the category of the pedophile might, in part, be seen as a convenient scapegoat that acts as a poison container for the restaging and projection of traumas. [*73]

Social hysteria about pedophilia might also, in part, be seen as an attempt to express the very incestuous and pedophilic desires that are prohibited, as well as the displaced articulation of the erotics of childhood sexuality.

However, the classical psychoanalytic emphasis on intra-psychic dynamics is insufficient in explaining the relationship between psyche and society. An intra-psychic reading of repression presumes a prior cultural prohibition, or rather, an interactive theory of the discursive repression of child sexuality. In order to elaborate this relationship, I draw on the work of discursive psychologists, who have provided useful tools for rethinking repression and situating it at the intersection of the individual and society.

In forging fruitful links between psychoanalysis and forms of poststructuralist discourse theory, Michael Billig argues that it would be wrong to understand repression as simply an internal psychical phenomenon, and that there is no “sharp distinction between internal mental life and external social life” (p. 56). [*74] His point is that we cast away or repel distressing thoughts in a similar manner to which we evade disturbing topics of conversation. According to Billig, therefore, the very tools essential for repression are contained in discourse and the broader skills of language use (p. 46). [*75]

  • “What is customarily said may also routinely create the unsaid, and, thus, may provide ways for accomplishing repression . . . language, or rather dialogue, provides the means of repression” (p. 67).

This is the idea of discursive, or, dialogic repression. [*76]

Discourse and language-use provide historically specific symbolic frameworks and normative ground rules for what can and should be said or left unsaid. Repression is thus not simply an intra-psychic but an “interpsychic” and relational process, whereby subjective identifications and investments are made possible by intersubjective dialogue and discursive subject positions. [*77]

A discursive psychoanalysis is uniquely positioned to explore the inextricable relationship between the individual and the social, or, between individual subjective investments/identifications and social discourses. Despite its apparent emphasis on a depth psychology of the individual, as an analytic paradigm psychoanalysis has always been preoccupied with highlighting the irreducible and mutually constituting nature of the individual and society.

The founding psychoanalytic concepts such as the unconscious, fantasy, superego, ego ideal, and repression, among others, demonstrate clearly the processes by which social formations are internalized by, and indeed constitutive of, the individual subject. In other words, one is an individual subject only to the extent that s/he is a social subject.

Freud was quick to point this out in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, arguing that “from the very first individual psychology . . . is at the same time social psychology as well.” [*78] As he went on to note, this is because:

  • "Each individual is a component part of numerous groups, he is bound by ties of identification in many directions, and he has built up his ego ideal upon the most various models. Each individual therefore has a share in numerous group minds–those of his race, of his class, of his creed, of his nationality, etc." (p. 161)

Such a radical blurring of the lines between the individual and the social opens up a space, in my view, for understanding certain cultural formations as types of collective or discursive neurosis. As we have seen, Freud stressed that neuroses most often emerge out of a clash between forbidden unconscious wishes and unsuccessful repressions, or, defenses. [*79]

Such defensive efforts, moreover, represent the mediating function between desire and the external world. Because unconscious wishes are routinely forbidden by discursive prohibitions and because individual identifications and ego ideals have been internalized from discourse, it is easy to see how there might thus be a “convergence of individual ‘ego-ideals,’” as Laplanche and Pontalis put it, and thus, I suggest, a convergence of neurosis. [*80] That is to say, through discourse and discursive subject positions, neuroses might very well emerge both as individual
and social, or, collective phenomena. [*81]

On this discursive psychoanalytic model identification, projection, and repression are largely inseparable. Almost any psychic identification or any acceptable and normative identity claim requires deviant behaviors, desires, or identities to be expelled, or rather repressed, from its terms. The act of disidentification (“I am not this”) thus has as its condition of possibility a simultaneous identification (“I am that”), and vice versa.

This means that each and every speech act or identity claim inevitably entails a simultaneous introjection and repression within the self and a defensive projection onto others: “I am heterosexual/I am not homosexual,” - “We are Christian/We are not Muslim.” [*82]

Even though an utterance or speech act may not seem on the surface to entail a conscious or deliberate process of disidentification, at the levels of language and the unconscious, these two processes are indissociable. The “said” and the “unsaid,” the avowed and the disavowed, go hand in hand.

It is for this reason that I prefer to specify this process with the term dis/identification. To take an over-simplified example more pertinent to this discussion, the socially constructed value and power conferred to the subject position of the “ideal parent” provides particular kinds of identificatory desire for a mother or father.

In a cultural and historical context in which adult-child eroticism is strictly taboo, a mother’s or father’s identification as a parent is likely to be made possible by concomitant disidentifications: not pedophile, not child sex abuser, not sexually desirous of children. Normative desires and beliefs are introjected and inappropriate desires and beliefs are projected.

This process of dis/identification thus depends upon interpsychic – that is, both intra-psychic and dialogic – repressions. With this notion of dialogic repression, a different picture of the unconscious emerges, and it is one in which, again, there is no easy distinction between psyche and society, or unconscious intra-psychic processes and collective discourses.

Neither is there a one-way correspondence between discourse and subjectivity, or a timeless concept of the unconscious. Individual investments and identifications (desire) cannot merely be reduced to the various subject positions made possible by discourse. Instead, individual investments and identifications in particular discursive positionings must be seen as the complicated and interactive effect of personal history (intersubjective relationships) and power-knowledge relations in a given society. [*83] The point I wish to underscore is that interpsychic repression
is an inevitable function of this process.

I argue that the cultural prohibition, or, dialogic repression of child sexuality since the 1980s encourages, above and beyond the first major intra-psychic repression (of infantile sexual trauma), further unnecessary and harmful repressions.Without a language to express childhood sexuality, we deny human beings the capacity to symbolize the erotic and traumatic child-adult encounter, and it is this capacity to symbolize experience that is essential for coping with desire, loss, guilt, shame, and grief.

Furthermore, in psychoanalytic terms, the more extreme the repression, the more intense is the neurotic symptomatology. This might well explain many of the exaggerated emotional responses to pedophilia. Although inextricable from individual subjectivity, as I have just argued, we can also see an intensified neurosis at work at the level of cultural representation.

The dialogic repression of child sexuality has, in my view, resulted in issues of child sexuality being endlessly distorted into, metonymically displaced onto, and substituted by, a range of other issues. This is because the action of repression or silencing is not a singular event but a dialogic and intersubjective process.

In order to repress or silence a subject, it is also necessary simultaneously to avow or articulate something in its place. The more we dialogically repress, silence or deny child sexuality, the more steadfastly do we express, avow or affirm other issues, such as those pertaining to adult sexuality and other normative (“nonsexual”) aspects of childhood.

Hence, the media obsession not just with pedophilia, but with a generalized disappearance of childhood narrative in which anything from the Internet to child murderers to youth drug-taking to faulty parenting to the earlier arrival of female puberty is seen to be threatening children and blurring the boundaries between child- and adulthood. I consider these symptomatic of collective neurosis.
Scratch the surface and it is not difficult to see the dreaded “child
sexuality” as punctuating these representations.


Historians too frequently assume the discourses of psychoanalysis and historicism to be diametrically opposed adversaries. Disciplinary adversaries they may be, but diametrically opposed they are not.

Whether or not acknowledged by historians, what both psychoanalysis and historicism have in common are theories of subjectivity.

  • Psychoanalysis relies upon historically specific social relations to elucidate inter-subjective dynamics, and
  • historicism relies on a theory of the human subject to elucidate social and historical determination.

In short, psychoanalysis and historicism depend on one another for their own disciplinary and methodological identities.

In this article, I have attempted to think psychoanalysis and historicism together, as neither discourse is alone sufficient to explain the current pedophilia panic. I have argued that the primal trauma of childhood sexuality and its intra-psychic repression are at the heart of our neurotic responses to pedophilia.

My argument is that the intra-psychic repression of infantile sexuality (desire, loss, rage, guilt, shame, and grief) is reactivated by pedophilia, because the signifier of pedophilia is situated in such close proximity, associatively and metonymically, to the repressed elements of childhood sexuality. Pedophilia, in other words, is the closest reminder we have of the trauma of childhood sexuality.

According to my model, however, this would also be the case of child molestation in the earlier panics of the twentieth century. That is, in the 1910s and 1940s, the signifier of child molestation would also act as a reminder of the trauma of childhood sexuality.

However, what is different now, and this is the second part of my argument, is the interaction between individual and discursive meanings of child sexuality. Although this childhood trauma and a degree of neurosis are inevitable psychologically, it is the peculiar configuration of post-1980 sociohistorical and political conditions that interact with this individual subjective phenomenon to produce heightened anxiety and mass pathological neuroses.

Among a range of sociohistorical and political conditions, what distinguishes the post-1980 historical milieu, in particular, is the absence, prohibition, and dialogic repression of any signifier of child sexuality. Intra-psychically childhood sexuality is writ large, yet discursively or dialogically child sexuality is disavowed.

As I argue elsewhere, in stark contrast to the pre-1980 coexistence of competing notions of childhood – as sexual and innocen t– the post-1980s have been characterized by a conscientious effort to resolve this contradiction. In this way, the dominant post-1980s figuration of children is one of innocence without sexuality, in a way different from earlier decades of the twentieth century. [*84]

What this means is that the intra-psychic repression of childhood sexuality is redoubled by the cultural, or, dialogic repression of child sexuality. Child sexual molestation, the dominant signifier of which is now pedophilia, has had heightened emotional significance in the last twenty years precisely because of this erasure of child sexuality and intensification of (dialogic) repression.

Pedophilia stands as symbolic of both a return of the intra-psychically repressed and a return of the dialogically repressed. Heightened panic and cultural neurosis can therefore be seen as an effect of the ever-increasing efforts demanded to sustain the intra-psychic and dialogic repression of child sexuality.

Of course, coincident with the feminist erasure of child sexuality has been the feminist exposure of the fact that it is primarily fathers, male relatives, and male family friends who perpetrate child sexual abuse. We thus have a contradictory scenario whereby,

  • on the one hand male sexual desire for children has been pathologized, yet
  • on the other it has been shown by feminists to be congruent with the construction of normative male sexuality.

This contradictory dynamic – made possible by the erasure of child sexuality – has contributed to a profound crisis of masculinity. In turn this crisis of masculinity has contributed to an intensification of cultural panic and neurosis, as ever-increasing efforts are demanded to reassert normative masculinities free of the stain of pedophilia. The endless projections of normative masculine desires onto the scapegoated deviant masculinities such as the “pedophile” and the “homosexual”
are indicative of this.

What this means is that the sites of pedophilia and child sexuality have become saturated, more than ever before in the twentieth century, with repressed desire, anger, guilt, shame, and grief. [*85]

It is thus not so much that changing social trends and shifting discourses cause pedophilia anxiety, as moral panic theorists propose – although these changes certainly contribute to its intensity – but rather that changing social trends and shifting discourses are dredging up and reactivating more deep-seated and unconscious anxieties about child sexuality and adult sexual desire for children,
the expression of which is not just emotionally distressing, but also highly
circumscribed in most western cultures.

In other words, anxiety is rigorously attached to the signifier of pedophilia and not created anew by it.

Adults are subjected in ever more stringent ways and for a good deal longer to the individual and dialogic repression of the signifier of child sexuality. However, adults are also situated very differently than children in relation to sexuality, repression, and pedophilia. As adults, the signifier of pedophilia compels us, consciously or unconsciously, to identify simultaneously as adults and children. That is, we are compelled to identify with ourselves as children (or with our child selves) and as ourselves with children.

In conjunction with the dialogic repression of child sexuality, this dual identification means that the neurotic panic over pedophilia is an adult phenomenon. Such panic is usually rationalized away not just as an acceptable response but, indeed, as the proper response befitting anyone concerned with child protection. Often, however, panic responses and the rhetoric of “child protection” function less as a way of protecting children from the world of adult knowledge, experience, and deviance, than as a way of protecting adults from the more deep-seated anxieties about childhood sexuality we are loathe to revisit.

Above and beyond genuine fears of child abuse, I submit that pedophilia also activates adult memory traces of:

  • our own incestuous desires as children;
  • our own desires for children;
  • our role in awakening the sexuality of children;
  • our complicity in the cultural sexualization of children (thus the undermining our conscious investment in child protection); and
  • our part in the denial of a signifier, or, discourse of child sexuality. [*86]

In an era when child sexuality is so thoroughly repudiated and parenting subject to such microscopic examination, I can only conclude that this return of the repressed is even more disturbing for adult parents. My concerns are therefore not so much about a culture of pedophiles and the risks they pose for children as they are about the ways in which we are producing a culture of neurotic parents and the damaging effects they have on children. [*87]
Steven Angelides