Troubling theories about childhood innocence

Carolyn Moynihan
15 June 2010
Reproduced with Permission

Let's get one thing straight: are we against the sexualization of children or are we not? If we -- adult, mainstream society -- are against it, we had better start explaining to ourselves why there are people employed in public institutions who say openly that they do not believe in the sexual innocence of children and want to expose it as a myth.

If we are not against it, we had better start asking why, exactly, we are outraged at clerics, teachers and boy scout leaders who sexually interfere with children. Is it simply that they went too far along a legitimate path -- the path of awakening children to sexuality from their earliest years and teaching them ways to express it?

That early intervention in the sexual lives of children is not merely legitimate but the right and proper thing to do is the idea behind a bunch of articles in the latest issue of the Australasian Journal of Early Childhood Education.

These articles, written by people who are forming early childhood teachers, are dedicated to the proposition that children younger than five already know about sex and are sexual "agents". They say that tiny tots are actively "constructing" gender identities, but that their knowledge and gender options are limited by an exclusively heterosexual environment. To come straight to the point: little children are learning only to be heterosexual, not homosexual, and this is unjust.

A daycare centre experiment

In a paper on this theme, "Kiss and tell: Gendered narratives and childhood sexuality", Mindy Blaise, a senior lecturer in the faculty of education at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, describes how she tested this theory on some three- and four-year-old children in an Australian childcare centre.

It is worth looking at this is some detail to understand her method.

Using a popular picture book aimed at 6- to 10-year-old children (Clarice Bean, That's me by Lauren Child) Blaise focuses on a page where Clarice's older sister Marcie is sitting on her bed reading a fashion magazine. The researcher points and reads out to the children (4 girls and 3 boys) thought bubbles saying: Do boys give you the dreamy eye? Are you a flirt? Have you ever kissed a boy?

Blaise addresses the questions directly to the children and records their answers as they talk over one another. The children giggle and some look at each other, but mostly they say, "No", and things like, "Only when you grow up", "Only when you are married." One girl says she has kissed a boy, another says she has friends who kiss each other.

Apparently three- and four-year-olds do say such things. In any case Blaise concludes that the tots have "an understanding of sexuality" as something "scary yet exciting" but only within "the heterosexual matrix" ("only when you are married").

The girls appear somewhat more precocious in their engagement with "kissing" than the boys. But the little boys' interest increases when, on another day, the children are given cameras to photograph dolls brought in by Blaise, or other things they think girls or boys might like. They are asked to take pictures of the dolls they think are "cool", "sexy" or "pretty".

The boys' interest zeroes in on (not dolls, for goodness sake!) a Spiderman backpack one of them snapped and which they regard as "cool". Why?

Well, kids can be very obliging, and they reward Blaise's efforts by talking about how pretty Spiderman's girlfriend is -- her hair, her dress, the fact that she sings, the way she walks (one of them demonstrates). A girl helpfully adds that Mary Jane Watson wears make-up when she goes out and is beautiful.

Finally, there are the "kissing crocodiles" - a photo of two identical toy crocs with their jaws touching. By now the children have really got the hang of this experiment and they talk freely about the kissing crocs being "sexy" and "cool" -- "because they are going to be married" a girl helpfully adds, while another points out that "one is a boy and one is a girl".

Oh dear. Once again we see that "the possibility of imagining same-sex desire has been closed off."

From all this we are meant to be persuaded that "children are neither ignorant nor nave about sexuality" and "are in the process of creating their own theories about sexuality" based, however, solely on heterosexual norms. Our duty is clear, says Blaise:

"If so, then we have a responsibility to engage with children differently about their sexual knowledge. Opening up, rather than always closing down, spaces in the curriculum for children's gender and sexual knowledge to be heard, valued and considered is one definite way to begin this work."

How children are innocent

But, before anyone goes any further with this "work" already begun -- Heather Has Two Mommies has been around for 20 years, after all, and last year UNESCO issued a model sex-ed curriculum in which five year olds would be taught about the pleasures of masturbation -- what about a more obvious explanation of the children's behaviour?

How about this: children are constantly learning about sexuality from the behaviour they see, from what their parents tell them, from the media; but until puberty this knowledge is incidental and "from the outside". They can parrot words like "sexy" and ape sexually expressive behaviour; they can display awareness that sex is a private and sensitive topic subject. But none of this knowledge comes from a sense of themselves as sexual agents, as Blaise and her colleagues in queer theory allege, because they simply are not sexual agents. They do not have the physical, psychological or emotional maturity to act in a consciously sexual way.

Young children are therefore naturally innocent of sexual desires and experience. Mainstream child development theory sees play involving bodily exploration as just that: exploration, not sexual expression. In fact, overt sexual behaviour in young children is often a sign they have been sexually abused.

Disrupting the natural development of sexual awareness by deliberately feeding more advanced knowledge to youngsters -- teenage talk about flirting and kissing; questions about what is "sexy" -- sexualises them and is thus a form of sexual abuse; it also prepares the way for physical abuse should the occasion arise.

'Troubling innocence'

All this is flatly denied by Blaise and co.

Nicola Surtees and Alexandra C Gunn, in a paper cryptically entitled "(Re)marking heteronormativity: Resisting practices in early childhood education contexts", assert that the mounting public concern about the sexualization of children is a mere moral panic which serves to repress other "sexualities".

"Nuclear family discourses, discourses of sexualities as dangerous and risky, and discourses of childhood innocence and developmentalism" all have to be "exposed", they say, as tools of injustice against homosexual persons.

A third paper by Affrica Taylor -- "Troubling childhood innocence: Reframing the debate over the media sexualisation of children" -- develops the attack on childhood innocence further, calling it an "erotic fantasy" by which adults try to protect themselves from their ambivalent "desire for children". With this concept she turns all adults into latent paedophiles and the campaign against the media sexualization of children into a mere defence mechanism.

Part of the trouble an ordinary mortal runs into with these papers is decoding their dense, post-structuralist academic jargon, but, in the following bit of Taylor's text there seems to be the makings of an argument for paedophilia -- if not an argument straight out:

"An engagement with the critical tools of performativity and projection also shifts the focus away from simplistic assumptions about children's nascent sexuality towards the web of relations within which children's and adults' desires and sexualities are inter-subjectively constituted… The recognition of such complexity and of the mutual enmeshment of adults' and children's desires and sexualities represents a significant step in constructive engagement."

And a bit later:

"The safe option is to uphold rather than trouble childhood innocence. However, if Walkerdine (2001) is correct in asserting that protectionism serves adults' interests rather than children's interests, it is not necessarily the most ethical option. It is particularly incumbent upon educators of young children to burst the bubble-wrap shield by joining in the efforts of many childhood studies and scholars to trouble innocence."

If a priest had written that stuff he would have wound up on the front page of the New York Times under a heading with "paedophile" in it. But because a handful of lesbian academics wrote it reaction seems to have been limited to some Australian media -- and not the main outlets, either.

That cannot be because it is insignificant news; as we know from the past few months, anything to do with the "troubling" of childhood sexual innocence is front-page headlines material. People hate that sort of thing.

A possible explanation is that the articles in question are concerned with homosexuality and its mainstreaming in society -- a cause which the media generally espouse and which it would "trouble" them to criticise.

So here we have a really absurd situation. On the one hand, clerics and others being jailed for treating children as sexual agents and destroying their innocence. On the other, academics training childcare teachers to believe that childhood innocence is a myth and that they must actively shape the sexual awareness of their little charges.

To be sure, the gals at the universities of Monash, Canberra and Canterbury (New Zealand) are not advocating physical intimacy with little children, but it is difficult to see how their theories would exclude it. It would be interesting to see them tested in a court of law.