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Gail Hawkes: The sensual child

Written by Andrew Shaw, gaynewsnetwork.com.au, 19 July 2010 

Gail Hawkes is senior lecturer in sociology at the University of New England, NSW, and she's coming to Melbourne to hold a forum about a topic that always manages to raise an eyebrow: child sexuality. She spoke with Andrew Shaw.

Gail, how do people react when you tell them you research child sexuality?

It's never neutral. I'd say it's more likely to be the case that there's a slight intake of breath. Others say very faintly, "Oh that's interesting". Or they might say 'I can't stand the way girls are dressed these days.' It's not a neutral reaction, it's either discomfort or people have an opinion. Very rarely people will say, 'What an interesting topic, why do you do that?'

What does the subtitle of your forum, theorising the sexual child in modernity mean?

We were first interested in questions like young women's sexuality and why does child sexuality cause such anxiety among people, the idea of a sexual child being a sign, really, of [the child's] corruption. We decided that we didn't know who had said what in the past about the sexual child so we looked back to the mid-eighteenth century to see how various people thought and spoke about the sexual child, whether or not it was recognised to be sexual; whether it was harmful or normal or natural. We wanted to find a theory of the sexual child that went beyond that knee-jerk reaction that it's wrong or it's a sign of corruption. 

What did you find?

We found that concerns about the child's body, rather than its sexuality, began in the 18th century, more or less in parallel with the way children came to be distinguished from adults socially. Before the 18th century they were much more likely to be viewed as small adults, they're dressed like small adults, they're exposed to the same type of experiences. There was no world of children, I suppose.

Gradually there was recognition by philosophers of the time that children were actually these extraordinary little creatures who could be trained to learn certain things. They were seen as a blank slate if you like and what they did and who taught them and what they were allowed to do was really important in terms of their becoming proper adults.

In the 19th century the child touching itself came to be seen as the most dangerous thing: the treatment of child masturbation was the major message in the 19th century. The child's body was seen as something that could be easily corrupted - and through the body, the mind.

We have an age of consent in Victoria of 16 years. What does that "line' represent?

It is an arbitrary line based on age, and we tend to think of age as this fixed, immutable progression point, especially in childhood; that you get to a certain age and you automatically become something else. Now we know that the body's physical development has changed in a relatively short time, in my lifetime - the onset of menstruation has dropped by a couple of years. I guess the age of consent is about the mental development and the extent to which the young person is deemed to be capable of reasonable thought.

Isn't there a balance of power in a sexual relationship that a child cannot understand?

Some of those concerns are completely justifiable if they involve an imbalance of power or coercion between adult and child. In this book we haven't addressed the issue of child sex abuse or coercive sexual interchange between adult and child. What we were more interested in were what aspects of the sexual child were distinguishable from our adult definition of sexuality, which is a completely contested term anyway. We should be saying "sexualities'.

What we wanted to look at was the evidence they found for a specific sort of childhood sexual sensibility, if you like. So the children themselves are aware of their bodies as things that would give them pleasure and they're also aware of a level of emotional engagement with other children and sometimes with adults that in a broader sense could be understood to be part of sexuality, but it's the sort of affective side, the emotion side.

Why do you describe attitudes to sex and childhood as a 'present day panic'?

It's more of a knee-jerk reaction, that there is something fundamentally wrong about a child - an underage child - in some way constructing itself or experiencing itself as having a sexual sensibility, being aware of its sensuality.

You're not suggesting that a child's sexuality is on a par with an adult's?

No, not at all. That's why I made the point about 'sexuality' being a complex term that's quite difficult to define. There's a whole range of things that come under 'sexuality' - there's gender, bodies, fantasies, it goes on and on. That's why we use the term sexual sensibility, because to me that encompasses the whole person.

The gay men have in the past been lumped in with paedophiles by some. Have you come across any of those associations?

Yes, but because it's not politically correct to make those sorts of direct associations any more I think people continue to make them in their minds. Some people will associate homosexuality with paedophilia, the people who have never thought about it and have inbuilt prejudices. We've had gay and straight males say to us, just as well you're both women because we couldn't do this [research].

The thing that's often said about [very young girls dressing sexually] is that if you dress a girl like an older girl it's going to attract paedophiles, when in fact the very thing that those who desire young children want is for those children to look like young children, not like adults.

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