A first today for Heretic TOC: a guest blog by a woman. Known to us simply as “A”, she was introduced here recently in New quests sparked by fading old charts as the contributor of several excellent comments on earlier blogs. I gather she is a linguistics specialist. This piece was offered as a comment in response to The only problem is problematisation itself but is the right length for a blog and eminently suitable for one.  

Cases in which young children are punished for their sexuality always put me in mind of the Kissing Case of 1958 in North Carolina.

It is clear that the old Victorian ‘high ideal of womanhood’ has been transferred more or less wholesale onto children. Women were then seen as morally better than men, but weak and in need of protection by men, who bravely shoulder the burdens of the world for their sake; children are now seen as morally better than adults, but weak and in need of protection by adults, who bravely shoulder the burdens of the world for their sake. Women were then and children are now seen as pure, innocent, sexless beings in danger from the supposed sexual rapaciousness of men – these days, only a certain subset of men: paedophiles. Women were then seen as essentially the property of men, and children are still seen as the property of their parents.

A good example of this close parallel between the two sets of attitudes is the Sherlock Holmes story The Illustrious Client. The “fiend” Baron Gruner is in sexual pursuit of a “lovely, innocent” young woman, who has fallen for his deceitful charms, though “How a beastman could have laid his vile paws upon such a being of the beyond I cannot imagine.” Gruner is a serial seducer who has arranged murders to prevent his activities from being exposed. He turns out to keep a scrapbook of the young women he has seduced: “I tell you, Mr. Holmes, this man collects women, and takes a pride in his collection, as some men collect moths or butterflies. He had it all in that book. Snapshot photographs, names, details, everything about them. It was a beastly book – a book no man, even if he had come from the gutter, could have put together. But it was Adelbert Gruner’s book all the same. ‘Souls I have ruined.’ He could have put that on the outside if he had been so minded.” Then up turns Kitty Winter, whom he seduced and “ruined”, a young woman “worn with sin and sorrow”. She bitterly hates Gruner, and throws vitriol into his face to ruin his looks. Dr Watson reflects: “I could have wept over the ruin had I not remembered very clearly the vile life which had led up to so hideous a change.” Holmes says, “The wages of sin, Watson – the wages of sin! Sooner or later it will always come. God knows, there was sin enough.”

Change the young woman to a child of either sex and it could be an episode of CSI or Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. It’s all there: the paedophile who is bestial, subhuman, beyond redemption or sympathy, but “devilishly cunning”, who is willing to murder to conceal his crimes, and who keeps a scrapbook of his conquests, of the children whose lives he has ruined. Except on TV the paedophile would likely end up not disfigured but dead, murdered by some vengeful victim or victim’s parent, while the cops, like Holmes and Watson, reflected soberly that he had had it coming. Even the talk about sin and souls is familiar: talk of sin has fallen out of fashion in many circles, but talk of children’s souls being murdered by sexual abuse is still common enough, as is talk of ‘purity’– infringing sex as “a fate worse than death”.

The major difference as far as I can tell is that most men are attracted to women, so even in Victorian England there had to be some women available for them to get their premarital and extramarital jollies with: women who didn’t count, such as prostitutes, music-hall singers, and just plain working-class women in sore need of money who could consequently be persuaded to’ go with’ gentlemen (though, to be fair, I am sure that some genuine love affairs and some mutually happy casual sex did occur even in this generally exploitative context). If you were a middle- or upper-class man, it was OK to pinch your overworked servant girl’s backside, so long as your wife remained the angel in the home. But most men, and an even larger majority of women, are not attracted to children, so there are no children whom it is OK to touch sexually: they are all off-limits.

Major difference two is that, whatever the official ideology may have said, it was women who bore the stigma of sex outside marriage: a woman who fell pregnant this way was often vilified while the man equally responsible for the pregnancy went about his life just as before. Bearing this in mind, it is fascinating to watch the short film Boys Beware, a Strange Man scare piece dating from 1961, which can be seen on Youtube. Pubertal Jimmy has sex with a man – and Jimmy gets into legal trouble too, ending up released on probation! Feminism has changed that. Women and children are the sexual victims of men, so the party line goes, and as victims they are guiltless, unimpeachable, strong in overcoming their abuse; they have no share in the abuser’s sin.

In the American South until, after all, quite recently, the ideology of female purity combined with that of racism to cause many, many murders, including that of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, who was guilty not of rape nor of anything near it but, at worst – accounts differ – of a bit of mildly obnoxious adolescent sexual braggadocio. Women were sexually pure and they were also the property of men; the races lived separately; black people were inferior to white people. Hence, a black woman was the property of her male relatives, who were also black, which meant that stealing their property by having sex, consensual or otherwise, with her was OK. For a white man to have sex with another white man’s property or a black man to have sex with another black man’s might have produced anger and a punch-up, but it was not likely to end in a lynching. But for a black man to have sex with a white man’s property was completely intolerable. (The women-as-property ideology was and is also a major cause of the bad reaction to women taking up with men socially ‘beneath them’.) Loathing of the idea of black man-white woman sex was mixed up with a morbid fascination which produced tales of black men’s sexual prowess and insatiability and of their large genitals. This too is familiar: in the Sherlock Holmes story we find a mixture of horror and titillation at the idea of “a woman who has to submit to be caressed by bloody hands and lecherous lips”, and these days there is much nonsense about how a paedophile can do incalculable damage if left alone with a child even for a few minutes (wow, superpowers).

Of course, racism was and is not unique to the American South. Paul Scott’s novel The Jewel in the Crown deals with the taboo on sex between Indian men and white women under the British Raj, and the destruction it wreaks on the lives of a white woman and Indian man who love one another.

These days, it is very common for men to announce that they would murder anybody who touched their child or younger sibling sexually, and occasionally the threat is carried out. But our society’s current sexual demon is not easily recognisable. Skin colour is immediately noticeable, and often, so is social class – from accent, clothes, occupation, etc. But paedophiles cannot be spotted on the street, and the consequence is that suspicion is liable to fall on any man spending time around any child. Furthermore, what makes a paedophile a paedophile is something internal, his (or occasionally her) sexual desires, rather than something external. This may account for some of the thought-crime/mind-control aspects of the current witchhunt.