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5 min

Moral proscriptions harm our children

Paedophile panic prevents sex-positive education

Credit: (Illustration by Daryl Vocat)

The story goes something like this. Young teenagers need to be protected from predatory adults and haven’t yet developed the know-how to repel their sexual advances, nor are they able to properly assess the risks of engaging in sexual activity.

Bill C-22, the legislation introduced by the federal government in June 2006 that would have raised the age of consent to 16 from 14, is no longer looming. It died on the order paper when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced an end to the 39th session of Parliament. But you can bet that it, or something very much like it, will be put forward again under the rubric of protecting the children.

Apart from the immediately obvious contention that young teenagers are being cast as a group without knowledge of their own sexual desires, the world is painted in stark colours where vulnerable kids are falling into the clutches of predatory adults. It’s an inaccurate picture and one that disproportionately affects queer people, young and old, and endangers continued efforts to combat inequalities.

Today a whole range of activities is being caught in the enlarging net of legal and medical definitions of what constitutes paedophilia. These policing practices are aided by an increasing spate of punitive sex offender legislation. Adult gay/bisexual men are far more likely to be labelled paedophiles for consensual activities with teenagers than their heterosexual counterparts. These activities are far removed from the legal and psychiatric definitions of paedophilia, but this does not prevent police forces and the media from calling it such.

Critical perspectives on this topic are few and far between. Those who have called attention to the panic surrounding children’s sexuality have often been accused of being apologists or covert paedophiles themselves.

I’ve had conversations with several veteran gay activists who have pointed to a sea change in the way younger queers negotiate their sexual experiences. Sexual practices before Stonewall admitted a greater mixing of young and older queers with less emphasis on labelling a continuum of practices along an axis of age. Since all homosexual activity was considered illegal, sinful and unhealthy, there was less focus on the obsessive categorization of victims and perpetrators. Authorities operated on the assumption that young queers were participating from their own pathological desire just like their adult counterparts and acted accordingly.

Yet other, more private stories do circulate. These vital stories of divergent sexual behaviour remain within the memories of many queer adults. Perhaps you harbour some of your own memories. I, for one, have heard many such stories of adults relating their own consensual experiences when they were children or young teens with older sexual partners.

These stories remain sidelined, are deemed unimportant and perhaps even dangerous. But why? Shouldn’t these stories be part of valuable resources in understanding and attending to the complexity and diversity of young people’s lives? Yet they remain untellable and unheard in the public arena and they mark a powerful absence of queer childhood in our culture.

Part of the answer lies in the incredible amount of energy that has been expended creating and promoting a sexual monster of gothic proportions and a highly regulated conception of the child in danger. Hardly a day passes when we are not exposed to such events as missing and abducted children, child abuse, child pornography and these curious warnings to parents to be “on the lookout” for paedophiles in the community.

So the stranger in the street, the man with the candy, the hockey coach, the teacher and queer people who work with children all become suspect fodder for greasing the mighty wheels of the child protection machine. In so doing we have created a state of affairs which militantly polices the social spaces between young people and nonfamilial adults.

This has a particular salience for those who organize their erotic lives differently from the heterosexual mainstream. Heterosexual families have largely escaped the worst of this covert social control because of the aura of social benediction bestowed upon traditional heterosexual families. That aura provides undue privilege and deflects the problem of child abuse elsewhere.

We are probably witnessing one of the last great cultural and moral paroxysms about sexuality, a cultural response of projection, denial and fear over the perception of a declining conservative moral order in desperate need of retrenching absolutist moral values. Absolutist conceptions of children and the family are what serve this purpose, reinvigorating a strident poisonous stream in Canadian and especially US politics that threatens to batten down the doors against queer civil rights. The strict values surrounding the use and meaning of human sexuality, coupled with an investment in the child as a mythologized creature of innocence and purity all depend upon rejecting children’s subjectivities and a refusal to see the childhood and family structure as a social, historical and political construction.

In the shadow of this great baroque cultural drama of paedophilia stands a much more pervasive but mundane reality: our culture’s tendency to inflict a lot of pain on our children, at times for no more reason than to uphold social norms, in order to avoid upsetting the apple-cart. This all-pervasive drive toward normalcy in a world of childrearing heavily laden with moral proscriptions is harming our children, perhaps more subtly than less common acts of sexual exploitation or physical abuse, but with comparable effects.

Thus the paedophile springs into existence in its fully formed role. He is a complex amalgam of our projection, revulsion, denial, hypocrisy, fear and fascination. To refuse to investigate the abstractions that the paedophile panic exerts is to allow our enemies to wrest control of the field from us and to console ourselves that it is all in the best interests of the children.

What falls away is the ability for us as queers to aspire to a substantive, critical sex-positive education that allows young people to discuss the actual realities of their lives and have them honoured. This will be nothing less than the ability for young people to be able to tell new stories or rewrite old ones that don’t serve their needs or jibe with their own experiences. A vast range of children’s sexual thinking, feelings, desires and practices are left unexamined and children are left to figure out on their own the realities of erotic expression, gender and power in our culture. With a revitalized education program that explores sexuality and involves the participation and perspectives of the young, other stories can emerge that will better account for the diversity of young people’s experiences. This will necessarily entail ending our monolithic perspective to the child.

Freud wrote 100 years ago that children are not innocent of sexuality but they have been compelled to repress their sexuality. A century later there is still virtually no space in our culture for children and youth to be truly engaged when they discuss sexuality and the erotic in all its complexity unless it is to disclose abuse. Young people’s emotional responses, behaviour and range of competencies differ markedly from place to place and from time to time. The concept and lived reality of children in our culture is malleable and diverse.

Sex educator, feminist and investigative journalist, Judith Levine, writes in her 2002 book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, “Projecting sexual menace onto a cardboard monster and pouring money and energy into vanquishing him distracts adults from teaching children the subtle skills of loving with both trust and discrimination."

None of this is to say that there aren’t real victims of child abuse or adults with poor impulse control, poor judgment or cruel intentions that lead to the abuse of power. But in assessing the vast terrain of the phenomena of children and sexuality, of families and human sexual diversity, our culture uses telescopic lenses to focus on paedophilia while remaining blind to other real harms.

If our gaze is focused entirely on the few huge boulders blighting our landscape our solutions to the complex problem of how our society organizes the social and sexual lives of young people becomes one giant bulldozer, one giant motion of destruction and elimination with all the official fanfare that always accompanies such grand actions. The cost of maintaining the official story of the innocent child will become increasingly dire and its effects disproportionately levered onto queers.