Heretic TOC began an exploration of deep waters recently in Whither the punitive state?, which delved into some fundamental questions about the kind of society we are and how we might live better. A lively debate ensued. One contributor, Lensman, outlined a green vision of the future. As I requested, he now takes this further in the first of two guest blogs. He begins with an analysis of our present situation, especially the economic context of paedophobia*; his second piece will set us upon a Deep Green course.
Lensman tells me he is a “psychogeographer” and artist, whose work is informed by such issues as stigma, alienation and longing. He is an avid reader, music-lover, an intrepid explorer of the shabby edges of cities, friend to fungi and an all-round culture vulture. He writes the occasional short story, essay, and poem. Growing up in a political family taught him early on the value of discussion, debate and critical thinking. At the same time, a childhood spent living in, playing in and exploring wild places has nurtured a life-long interest in natural history, science and ecology.
My first inkling that not all societies were paedophobic came in my mid-teens when I read Humbert Humbert’s observation of how “Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds”. Later, as a student, I read accounts of sex-positive societies in the writings of anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, Margaret Mead and Claude Levi-Strauss, and the observations of explorers such as Captain Cook’s in Tahiti. More recently I have discovered the “Growing Up Sexually” corpus: a compendious thesaurus of the sex-lives of children in a wide variety of cultures.
From which it seems clear that whilst there have been many societies that have accepted child sexuality and child-adult sexual relationships, none of these have been capitalist.
Working out why should be a priority for the heretical community, since how can we propose a cure without some understanding of the disease? Indeed, so long as we don’t address the aetiology of paedophobia we’re tacitly conceding that the problem lies in us, not in those who fear us.
I will argue that paedophobia is an unintended consequence of a range of economic factors that occur under what, for brevity’s sake, I’ll call “Capitalism” (but which might include Industrialism, Urbanism, Consumerism, and even Industrial Communism).
However, saying that capitalism causes paedophobia is a bit like saying puberty causes pregnancy: the grain of truth in the statement is overwhelmed by the many contingencies which separate the cause from the effect. The challenge is to fill in the gaps: what exactly connects an abstraction like “capitalism” to the attitude of someone who refuses to let his daughter walk to school because of Stranger Danger?
“Attitudes” may be understood as attempts by individuals to make sense of the “givens” of their world, their culture and their personal circumstances. Living in harmony with these “givens” generally makes for an easier, more successful life. Consequently “attitudes” will tend to converge according to a population’s circumstances, culture and interests.
The following are some of the “givens” of capitalism that tend towards paedophobic attitudes.
The Nuclear Family
The nuclear family solves capitalism’s need for a mobile and flexible work force. Under consumer capitalism a wage earner may have to change job and move house three, four or five times during his working life, taking his family with him. A cheaper and easier task if that family is small.
Nuclear families tend to implant themselves into a “place” but not into a “community”. Neighbours are often barely on nodding acquaintance with each other and may change so often that efforts to socialise may seem hardly worth the trouble. The child has to adapt and form its personality in relation to only one or two people. Consequently, parents become as emotionally dependent on their children as the children are on their parents, creating very intense, exclusive relationships and a strong sense of possessiveness in the parents. The child has only “one basket” in which to put all its “emotional eggs”. A considerable burden is placed on very few relationships, especially in single-parent families, which are becoming all the more common as the nuclear family is put under more stress.
Children can’t opt out of the parent-child relationship as they can with non-familial relationships.
There is greater asymmetry in the child-parent relationship than with non-familial adults. Many paedophiles who are also parents will have experienced the different quality of relationship one shares with a child-friend and with one’s own children – the former, at its best, feels “equal”, the latter not.
A society’s predominant family structure will deeply entrench and perpetuate its conception of childhood since the family is where we learn our most fundamental concepts of kinship, love, intimacy, privacy, authority, etc.
Where have the children gone?
Over the past three or four decades children have disappeared from public spaces. Allowing one’s child to roam unsupervised is now considered to be a sign of bad parenting, and children who enjoy this freedom are demonised as “feral”. The growth of suburban housing means that children’s outdoor play now takes place in private gardens, fenced-off from the wider community.
This is understandable when one considers the extent to which cars have appropriated public space making it dangerous and unpleasant. This has led to many children only ever venturing into public space in a car, their parents trading their child’s security against an increased danger to others (the “school-run” paradox).
There are also major changes in the nature of Play: the explosion of screen-based home entertainment, and a children’s leisure industry that is usually indoors and highly supervised.
The nuclear family’s tendency to miniaturise and sequester resources has impacted on communal resources such as village water pumps, traditionally, and more recently libraries, markets, laundrettes, cinemas, concerts, playing fields, public transport, etc.
As children (and adults) have disappeared from public spaces so has the fear of public spaces increased – adults are now as afraid of interacting with unknown children as children are of unknown adults.
Probably the most significant factor is the exclusion of children from the workplace. Pre-industrial families expected children to contribute their labour to the family finances, and it was often necessary for children as young as six to work in the same factories as their parents to make ends meet. Child-labour has more or less disappeared from the West.
Schools are a major factor in removing children from the community. School reflects wider society in that all its child-adult interactions are defined by the adult’s role, providing little opportunity for intense, free, emotional, engagement with the child, this now being the exclusive preserve of the nuclear family (it could be argued that teachers, when in loco parentis, are subject to the same incest taboo as applies to biological parents).
Capitalism’s demand for a highly educated workforce, based on rapid technological changes, the growing workplace requirement for interpersonal and communication skills and the reduced number of unskilled jobs (due to outsourcing to poorer countries), has led to a prolongation of education. The UK has seen a ten-fold increase in participation in higher education between 1950 and 2000.
Given that one of the criteria of “adulthood” is “entry into the world of work”, this contributes to a prolongation of the concept of childhood (could the current panic about “campus rape” and “enhanced consent” be a sign of the infantilisation of this age-group? That society feels, deep down, that the current age of consent is too low?)
With increasing affluence there’s been both a steady increase in the size of homes and a decrease in the size of the family. This has largely put an end to communal sleeping. Till recently children would share a bedroom, and sometimes a bed, into late childhood. All but the wealthiest families would sleep communally. This was one of the causes of the moral panic surrounding slum housing in 19th century Britain: reformers realised that such sleeping arrangements carried with them a high risk of “premature sexualisation”.
The Innocent Child archetype
The above factors create a situation where the only intense relationships children can have with adults are with their parents (and other adults to whom the incest taboo applies, such as grandparents, uncles, older siblings etc).
The de-sexualisation of children is essential if the incest taboo is not to disrupt the nuclear family. The intimacy of parenthood combined with the authority, control and exclusivity parents hold over pre-adolescent children means that if children were to be understood as sexual it would create too many desires, conflicts, jealousies, anxieties, etc. for the family to function. The pressure cooker that is already the nuclear family would explode.
As there are no outlets for children’s sexuality other than with parents or siblings it is better that such sexuality be discouraged and repressed. Likewise, teenagers’ sexuality only becomes tolerated once they have the social skills and independence to take that sexuality outside the orbit of the home.
There are, of course, a child’s peers. Inter-child sexuality has been grudgingly tolerated in capitalist societies during periods of enlightenment, though usually defused by labelling it as “play” or “curiosity” rather than “desire” or “pleasure”. However consumer capitalism seems to be withdrawing even that tolerance.
The question is whether a paradigm which conceives of the child as actively sexual can work in the closed, emotionally intense context of the nuclear family, especially a child who, for the first six or seven years of its life, is not quite old enough to have entirely internalised sexual shame. The Innocent Child archetype protects the family, not the child.
It may also be that parents subconsciously fear their child’s reciprocal and exclusive love may be diverted towards someone who, not restricted by the incest taboo, is able to offer a kind of love forbidden the parents. A fear maybe that finds its most potent embodiment in “the paedophile”.
The Consumer Child
It’s no coincidence that virulent paedophobia emerged in the UK in the late 70s and 80s – a period when, under Thatcherism, a paradigm shift occurred in the way capitalism understood itself: the UK became a “property-owning democracy” and “citizens” were replaced by “consumers”. Manufacturing industries were symbolically defeated and emasculated, having already lost a great deal of their importance through increased outsourcing of work to poorer countries and importation of manufactured goods.
In the previous decade capitalism had seemed in crisis: the essential needs of the family (food, clothing, housing) were being met by a smaller and smaller proportion of the family’s income and the necessity of the “work and spend” paradigm was increasingly called into question – most notably by the counter-cultural movements of the 60s. (Statistics for the USA show that in 1901 80% of an average family’s income was spent on food, housing and clothing; by 2003 only 49%.)
Capitalism’s dependence on growth meant that it had to employ some motivation other than “necessity” for keeping us working and spending. Consumerism achieves this by getting us to work as much for the satisfaction of fabricated “wants” as “needs”.
Children are first of all consumers through the intermediary of their parents. But children will also become the consumers of tomorrow and so must be educated into the right mind-set. This process starts early – and is probably most visible in how, early in the 19th century, Christmas changed from being a festival of communal feasting to one centred round the buying and giving of gifts. Can anyone who has witnessed the frenzied avidity of children in the run-up to Christmas doubt its effectiveness as a teacher of consumer values?
Our culture, dense with marketing, advertising, product placement and countless other strategies, creates a paradigm in which activities connected with consumption are labelled as “cool”, whilst low-consumption, community or nature-based activities (twitching, train-spotting, reading, nature study, scouting, etc.) are labelled as “nerdy”, “sad” or “uncool”. A child learns that fulfilment comes from what one owns, not from one’s relationships with others and the world.
And the most potent marketing tool is, of course, sex. Commercial popular culture, like the tobacco industry, whilst paying lip-service to age-limits in the targeting of its products, knows that the game is won by those who “catch them early”.
It may seem odd for a paedophile to appear to be criticising the sexualisation of children. Well, I’d argue that consumer sexualisation is a distortion of child sexuality: targeting especially little girls and teaching them that they are attractive in proportion to how much they spend on, or have done to, themselves.
The Toddlers-in-Tiaras child is a telling archetype of this – a child who has adopted the most extreme sexual paraphernalia of womanhood. This archetype is in conflict with the more established Innocent Child archetype outlined in the previous section, the conflict mitigated by it being a sexuality of display and disguise, which demands spectators rather than participants.
(Compare this to another archetype: the Wild Child – Huckleberry Finn, Pippi Longstocking, the children in Sally Mann’s Immediate Family – whose identities come from their relationships to others and to nature, whose nails are more likely to be broken than manicured, whose clothes, if worn at all, are torn and dirty from falling out of trees and playing in the mud.)
This conflict between the Innocent Child archetype and the need to access new markets and educate new consumers seems inherent within consumer capitalism and creates a perception amongst parents that their children are being “sexualised” against their (the parents’) will by forces beyond their control (popular culture, television, internet, fashion and pornography). Such fears, rather than being directed against something as nebulous as an “economic system” (an economic system that most adults are otherwise happy with and culturally embedded in) are perhaps more easily projected onto paedophiles.
At the start of this essay I suggested that, for the heretical community, working out why paedophilia is so feared and reviled must be the first step towards finding a stratagem which might lead to an improvement in our situation, and that of children.
My hypothesis has been that a society’s acceptance of child sexuality is a function of (1) how well integrated its children are within a wide-ranging communal life; and (2) what proportion of adult-child emotional relationships involve adults covered by the incest taboo. Paedophobia is a result of societies where children are effectively isolated in relationships that thrive only if those children are considered as asexual.
A non-systematic perusal of the Growing up Sexually corpus seems to confirm the general drift of this hypothesis, whilst supplying enough counter-examples to undermine any hopes of it being a complete explanation. Undoubtedly, culture has a part to play: have contemporary Tahitians preserved anything of the sex-positive attitudes that Captain Cook witnessed? If not, were they lost because of the imposition of Western values or because of the economic and structural changes colonisation brought with it? Such questions arise at every turn.
But I hope the explanation I have outlined represents a start, or at least indicates the kind of questions we should be asking.
If all the above factors do amount to an explanation for paedophobic attitudes in the West, if paedophobia is deeply embedded in the most fundamental structures of our society, then the question becomes “what next?” Does a fundamental restructuring of society have to take place before things improve?
I suspect that the solution already exists amongst the political options available in the West, (though, understandably, the pro-child-sexuality aspect of it is one that has been suppressed in recent decades). That solution is, I believe, to be found in the Deep Green vision of society and economics.
* Lensman and I are both uneasy about this term. It implies that those who have a problem with paedophilia are not right in the head. This may actually be true to the extent that fear of paedophilia is indeed irrational; but, like comparable forms of pathologising (“homophobia”, “Islamophobia”), it runs the risk of dismissing people’s views without addressing their arguments; it may amount merely to name-calling against those who disagree with us. The word is used here and in Lensman’s article really just as a convenient shorthand for “hyper-hostile anti-paedophilia”, an attitude fostered by a set of social and economic conditions rather than an individual’s mental illness.