Fear. There are few taboos as powerful as those relating to child sexuality. Freud might have legitimised theoretical speculation about the libidinal development of children, but any suggestion that children or adolescents might assert sexual agency elicits fear – if not outright panic – in most adults. Even scholarly analyses of the sexuality of young people risk accusations of championing paedophilia.
It is therefore very brave of Steven Angelides, an academic at La Trobe University in Australia, to tackle the topic. He is very clear about his ethical stance: he opposes all attempts to normalise paedophilia. He is also not primarily interested in the eroticisation of children in advertising and the mass media: that story has already been told by scholars such as James Kincaid in Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting (1998). Rather, he is mainly concerned with the sexual agency of teenagers themselves: they are not always passive recipients of the adult sexualised gaze, he observes, but can “look back”.
Angelides wants readers to start having serious discussions about the harms that can result from denying the complex sexual desires of young people. He contends that the refusal to openly discuss the issue leaves us incapable of addressing urgent social problems, including child sexual abuse, inadequate and ineffective sex education, sexting and moral panics – such as those surrounding teacher-pupil relationships.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Angelides argues, the conflation of homosexuality and child sexual abuse was incredibly harmful. Although the vast majority of paedophiles are heterosexual men, sex panics centred on homosexual men accused of attempting to “seduce” children into adopting a gay lifestyle. In the infamous words of Anita Bryant (founder of the Save Our Children campaign): “Homosexuals can’t reproduce, so they have to recruit.”
The book is particularly enlightening because Angelides is primarily interested in the dramatic shifts in the responses of adults to child sexuality over the 20th and 21st centuries. This historical approach is important. After all, connections that were being made in the 1970s between movements focusing on child emancipation and those devoted to sexual liberation are almost unthinkable today. Such changing attitudes are largely due to the concerns of feminists, who shifted the focus from issues of sexuality to those of power and domination. Angelides wishes that some of them had gone further – children are not inexorably positioned outside of power relations. He wants to empower teenagers, encouraging them to be responsible, and to acknowledge an age-appropriate agency in their relationships (sexual and not) with other people. Indeed, he maintains, “the depreciation of sexual subjectivity and denial of agency and power of nonvictim participants” in sexual relations is “potentially psychologically detrimental” to young people.
It is unfortunate that Angelides pays insufficient attention to specificities within the category of “childhood”: too often, readers are presented with an abstract “child”, when he is actually referring to an adolescent, middle-class, white male. But this is a minor irritation in an otherwise clearly argued, sensible yet provocative book.
Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of many books, including Rape: A History from the 1860s to the Present (2007).
The Fear of Child Sexuality: Young People, Sex, and Agency
By Steven Angelides
University of Chicago Press
272pp, £68.00 and £24.00
ISBN 9780226648460 and 9780226648637
Published 22 August 2019