Turning our view of power upside down

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Heretic TOC’s two-part review of The Fear of Child Sexuality, by Steven Angelides, began last time with a focus on the author as himself a prisoner of fear.

We noted that while he clearly acknowledges children as sexual beings and is positive towards their sexual expression and agency, he is very tentative as regards the practical implications when it comes to their freedom to choose an older partner, opting to discuss it solely in relation to the more easily defensible possibilities, notably mid-teen boys in relationships with women. In Angelides’ own country, Australia, the boy in these liaisons dangereuses has traditionally been lionised as a “lucky bastard”; rather than being pitied as a victim, the young larrikin who gets to shag his own teacher – a figure of some salience on our modern sexual battleground – has been seen as a masculine success story, a legend among his mates, the subject of envy even among older males. Angelides puts a lot of good work into challenging the fierce feminist attack on this narrative, but his analysis at this point is not in an especially radical place, being applied only to narrow, particular circumstances.

His ideas can be put to more general and substantial application, however, if we dig to their roots. As we saw in part one, Angelides is held back thanks to his unwitting complicity in a Foucauldian “strategy of fear”. But there is a wider aspect of the celebrated (and execrated!) French philosopher’s work that Angelides discusses and which I can take up with more enthusiasm and positivity: this is Foucault on power.

This is complicated stuff but let’s see if we can keep it tolerably simple. Feminists have been banging on for decades with their dogmatic insistence that children are supposedly powerless in their dealings with adults, such that these older people are bound to dominate, exploit and abuse the younger ones in “unequal” sexual relations. Using Australian “scandals” in the media, Angelides very clearly demonstrates that in the (admittedly limited) cases of the teenage boys in question, a confident youth sometimes has considerably more power in practice than a young, inexperienced female teacher, both in the classroom and the bedroom.

The main thing to note about Foucault at this point is that he saw power as relational, rather than something that powerful individuals, institutions or classes possess unilaterally and impose in a top-down way on the powerless beneath them. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy usefully summarises his position in a way that hints at the potential for power flowing sideways and even upwards within society as well as downwards, no matter how formally hierarchical its arrangements may appear:

We should not try to look for the center of power, or for the individuals, institutions or classes that rule, but should rather construct a “microphysics of power” that focuses on the multitude of loci of power spread throughout a society: families, workplaces, everyday practices, and marginal institutions. One has to analyze power relations from the bottom up and not from the top down, and to study the myriad ways in which the subjects themselves are constituted in these diverse but intersecting networks.

The most obvious sorts of power, such as the power of a Henry VIII to have his wives’ heads chopped off on a whim, or the power of governments to pass laws that we must all obey, possibly on pain of losing our liberty, are of course experienced as top-down phenomena (or, in the case of tyrants’ victims, top-off!) Sometimes called sovereign, or juridical power, the unilateral imposition of force needs to be distinguished from the subtler power interactions that typify modern society – notably the power associated with knowledge, exercised through the influence of all manner of professionals and experts, whose understandings influence each other and society in ways so multifarious and complex that no one is in control. We are governed less by cunning elites pulling the strings in a deliberately conspiratorial way than by fashionable ideas such as victim feminism that seem to come out of nowhere but which reflect an awful lot of “discourse” – books, speeches, lectures, podcasts, documentaries – constructing “knowledge” about the world that may later come to be sceptically “deconstructed” by others, including Foucauldians!

The discourse of victim feminism in recent decades has all but eradicated the idea of child sexuality. As Angelides notes, the sexual child “is being reduced to (adult) sexual effect – victim – and generally disappears into debates about the corruption and sexualisation of childhood and innocence” (p. xxiii). This insistence on children’s victim status is tied to age of consent laws that deploy top-down  sovereign/juridical power in an arbitrary way to distinguish legitimate (adult-adult) relations from illegitimate (adult-child) ones. In doing so, we lose sight of the two-way power (operating sideways and bottom-up) to which Foucault drew attention when speaking of power as relational.

Angelides has an early chapter on the fear of child sexuality in which he invoked the Freudian figure of the “uncanny” or scary child. Anyone familiar with the spooky kids in The Turn of the Screw, or the possessed (especially with sexual manifestations) child of horror movies such as The Exorcist, will get the idea. A personal experience of this kind made a great impression on him. He describes how, as a teenager, he was at a dinner party hosted by friends of his parents when he was confronted by an eight-year-old girl “confiding in me and recounting in great detail, and with great delight, her sexual exploits with a thirty-year-old man”. It was an “intensely disconcerting” experience for him. “I distinctly remember fearing this child,” he said, “and feeling ashamed at being privy to her inner world.”

This little girl had unsettled not just his idea of childhood innocence but even “my own sense of self as an adolescent”. In other words, she had blown his socks off, producing such a powerful effect that he would later write about it in ways that have already been felt in the academic world, at least, around the globe. Not bad for a supposedly powerless kid! Not bad, either, as an example of bottom-up relational power in action.

Victim feminism’s focus on children, notably through the 1970s work of Florence Rush and later David Finkelhor, was produced against a background in which feminism in general sought to create relations of greater equality between men and women. In seeking an end to “patriarchal” male dominance, most feminists (apart from radical lesbians who wanted nothing to do with men) entirely reasonably wanted a society in which women received equal pay for equal work and men were not allowed to beat their wives for disobedience. Where some of them have lost their way has been in their doctrinaire insistence on promoting even undesirable forms of equality. Are poor black women, then, only to be allowed to have poor black husbands as partners because a relationship with a rich white man would be unequal and “inevitably” exploitative? This would be the logical outcome of identity politics, which is now all but ubiquitous and which has its roots in the racial and gender politics of victimhood.

Where adult-adult contacts are concerned, at least, thoughtful feminists have taken on board Foucault’s insight that power is relational. But they fail to apply this model to child-adult relations, especially with regard to sexuality. Instead they crudely seek to impose sovereign/juridical top-down power through the age of consent laws.

Angelides understands and elaborates on this. He takes issue with feminists who say that power ceases to be a factor in relations of equality. He says he cannot agree with this, adding:

…my disagreement issues…from a post-Foucauldian, nonjuridical conceptualization of power which assumes that where there is a power relationship between two people – and not a state of bondage or pure force – power is exercised and not possessed…Dominance and submission are not fixed positions determined by the presence or absence of power.” (p.56)

He seems to have been referring here at least in part to the work of the British psychologist Wendy Hollway, to which he turns some fifty-odd pages later, where he speaks of “the post-Foucauldian reworking of relational power as an intrinsically intersubjective phenomenon animated by the dynamics of recognition”. This “dynamics of recognition” turns out to mean, basically, people’s emotional effect on each other e.g. someone might feel personally empowered by being recognised as competent at their work. Under this model, he says, “power is not to be conceived as a substance or entity that an individual possesses, wields, and controls, as Foucault argued. Instead… power is always only a relational phenomenon referring to struggles to control the giving and receiving of recognition.” (pp.110-111).

Hollway is a new name to me and I have only a sketchy idea as to what is meant by the “dynamics of recognition”. The concept sounds promising although I suspect it might turn into the blind alley that is identity politics. Angelides also mentions the sociologist Norbert Elias (1897-1990), who outlived Foucault (1926-1984) but who was born long before him. His intellectual output was such that he might be considered pre-Foucauldian, although he came to fame – or at least to recognition as a towering figure in his field – late in life, at around the same time as Foucault’s books began to appear, from the 1960s onwards.

Angelides mentions Elias only very briefly, in the context of his ideas about the power of shame as a sexually inhibiting factor. I learned much more about him from The Cambridge Handbook of Sexual Development: Childhood and Adolescence, which I reviewed recently for Sexuality & Culture (see separate item below). There was one quote from his work that struck a chord with me:

In so far as we are more dependent on others than they are on us, more directed by others than they are by us, they have power over us, whether we have become dependent on them by their use of naked force or by our need to be loved, our need for money, healing, status, a career or simply for excitement” (Cambridge Handbook, p.40).

Now compare the Elias line with what Angelides says when he proposes that children are far from being universally positioned outside of power. On the contrary, he says:

…no non-physically forcible sexual relations (adult-adult or adult-child) and no parent-child relations can be disarticulated from power. Children exercise power in myriad and subtle ways in their relationships with parents and adults” (Angelides, pp.54-55).

Note that Elias refers to being subjected to the power of “naked force” but he then draws attention to a range of other factors, such as love, and excitement, that can put us under the spell of another person – the magic power, as it were, of really wanting to be in their company and esteemed by them. Now consider one final passage, by another author:

…power, in paedophilic as in other relationships, doesn’t necessarily reside with the elder party. It depends on the circumstances, especially on which partner needs the other most. One might even propose, as a law of human nature, that power in a relationship resides with the party that needs the relationship less.

Any idea who this writer was? Ring any bells? Full marks if you knew, or guessed, that it was me, in Paedophilia: The Radical Case, 1980 (p.173). This “law” was explicitly limited to de facto consensual relationships, hence no “naked force” or other coercion. I was writing from my own direct personal experience rather than from contemplation of Elias or Foucault, or any later theorists such as Angelides or Hollway. Elias was not on my radar at all in those days. Admittedly, I had just read Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol. 1, hot off the presses as a new title in 1979, and even discussed it personally with sociologist and historian Jeffrey Weeks. But I was not impressed by the fashionable Frenchman’s obscure, abominably written ramblings. I have warmed to him since, after reading a fair chunk of his other work, but my writing on power back then owed nothing to his influence or anyone else’s so far as I am aware. The chapter in question, Chapter 9 on “Power and Equality”, was the most original aspect of The Radical Case and probably the best.

Who was listening though? And who will now take much notice of Angelides? Some of his work has been intellectually influential (there have been over 220 citations of his paper “Feminism, child sexual abuse, and the erasure of child sexuality” on Google Scholar, an exceptional score) but it is already clear that his new book has not set the publishing world on fire, nor the reviewers or the public. Put it this way: in the Amazon Best Sellers Rank, as I write, it is not in the top 100, or the top 1000, or even the top million. It languishes at position number 3,100,263!

But, hey, let’s not judge a book by its popularity. The Fear of Child Sexuality does at least explore and clarify issues of importance to us heretics. I do not regret the time I spent reading it.

 

SUFFRAGE LITTLE CHILDREN

Jesus said “suffer little children to come unto me”. He did not say extend the suffrage to children. But as we find ourselves coming up to a general election in the UK in less than two weeks from now we might want to ponder whether votes for kids would be a good idea. They could hardly get us into a bigger mess than the country is in at the moment, torn apart as we are over Brexit.

Oddly enough this idea has just been proposed not from the radical fringes of politics but by Polly Mackenzie, who served as director of policy to deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, from 2010-2015. In an article for the rather good online journal UnHerd, she points out out that the age of criminal responsibility in England is 10, and says:

How can we argue that a 10-year-old has the judgement required to understand the law and the consequences of breaking it – and then argue that a 10-year-old doesn’t have the judgement required to understand democracy or the consequences of voting? If you have to follow the law, you should have a role in making it.

 

CAMBRIDGE HANDBOOK

As briefly mentioned above, another book review of mine was published recently. This was an extensive (over 4,000 words) critique of The Cambridge Handbook of Sexual Development: Childhood and Adolescence, a huge (600+ pages) multi-author academic tome from Cambridge University Press. The article is in Sexuality & Culture. As will be seen at the journal’s official link, which has the Abstract, publishers Springer Nature are charging £34.74 for the privilege of reading the full text, which pro rata would work out at around a princely £1,000 for a book of average length. Not that I will see so much as a penny from any sales as the traditional academic publishing model involves scholars surrendering their commercial interest. Happily, though, free full-text access is available here.

As many be imagined, it was very gratifying to a “paedophilia apologist” such as myself to be afforded a prestigious platform on which to pontificate about, of all things, childhood sexual development. Perhaps S&C were assuming that only paedos have sufficient direct knowledge of the subject to be able to write with authority on the matter! However that may be, I can report that a couple of professors have already responded: one found my review “very interesting”; another sent a PDF of her latest paper, saying she thought her work would interest me – it did!

 

INCREDIBLE AND FALSE

The hot news this morning is that former MP Harvey Proctor is to get a £900,000 pay-out from the police in London after being subject to false accusations of brutality, rape and murder against children.

This is the latest fall-out from the Met police’s Operation Midland investigation, which disastrously chose to believe lurid, bizarre and utterly incredible allegations made by fantasist Carl Beech, who claimed boys were raped and tortured in the 1970s and 80s by members of a VIP paedophile ring involving leading figures in politics and government. Even more astonishing, and incredibly stupid, was that a senior officer – supported from the very top of the force – went public with the declaration that Beech’s fabrications were “credible and true”. Beech is now serving an 18-year prison sentence for perverting the course of justice and fraud.

 

 

An open letter to Frank Furedi

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Many heretics, including myself, have been impressed by the online magazine Spiked on account of its vociferous support for free speech, distaste for state oppression, and its robust backing of civil rights, including for paedophiles.

So when one of its leading contributors, sociologist Frank Furedi, recently joined the media chorus of those attacking paedophilia, the virulent hostility of his diatribe came as a shocking disappointment. The context was an article, “What PIE and the NSPCC have in common”, which was fine up to a point. Its central theme was actually a rather interesting argument in defence of parents against the concept of “children’s rights”. Bizarrely – but, as I say, to interesting effect, Furedi presented the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) back in the 1970s and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) as improbable ideological allies. Both organisations, he said, claimed to speak on behalf of children but neither was as benignly disposed or as well placed to secure their best interests as parents.

My reaction was to fire off a counterblast. I submitted an article to Spiked that focused on defending children’s rights – not the right to be protected from various ills, real or imaginary, which is the NSPCC’s stock in trade, but the right to exercise real autonomy and to experience real freedom. Editor Brendan O’Neill emailed me on 25 March to say he was travelling in Europe and Australia and “I will be in touch very soon, I promise”. That sounded, well, promising, but over two weeks have passed since then and despite me sending a reminder I haven’t heard from him again.

So I have decided to answer Furedi here instead, in what amounts to an open letter. The text is a slightly edited version of my original draft article for Spiked.

WHY CHILDREN REALLY DO NEED RIGHTS

As a champion of parents over the years against “experts”, and the insolent intrusions of a busybody state, Frank Furedi is to be admired. He is right to castigate the NSPCC, too, for going far beyond its legitimate brief.

But when he says children are not moral agents, and on that basis attacks the concept of children’s rights, he is just plain wrong. Children become moral agents during childhood, not at its end; and even before that stage they may have non-trivial wishes and interests that require independent representation through robust rights-based action. Proper rights, that is: rights to real liberty of personal choice, not just protection from harm.

To begin with moral agency, has Furedi never heard of Gillick competence? In 1986 the House of Lords rightly accepted that “the authority of parents to make decisions for their minor children is not absolute, but diminishes with the child’s evolving maturity”. The highest court in the land in the case of Gillick v. West Norfolk & Wisbech Area Health Authority ruled that those under 16 could consent to medical treatment as long as they had sufficient understanding and intelligence to appreciate what was proposed and to express their own wishes. The context was the child’s right to advice on contraception for sexually active youngsters, a right which, were it more widely known and supported through sex education, would do more to bring down Britain’s high rate of teenage pregnancy than ineffectual attempts to suppress youthful sexuality.

For present purposes, though, the salient feature of the Gillick ruling is not the sexual aspect but rather the judgement’s recognition of an important reality: adult competences do not suddenly begin at an arbitrary age of majority; they grow over time. Good parents know this and allow their children to “spread their wings” as they grow older, and even take off: they understand that the occasional crash landing is a possibility and can be a valuable learning experience. It is all part of an apprenticeship in life.

Like Furedi, I believe that in general no one is better placed than parents to make judgements as to what their own children are ready for; no one knows them so well, nor will anyone else be more strongly disposed to secure their best interests. I have never been hostile to parents, either when I was Chair of the much traduced Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) long ago, or since. At the risk of setting off a fresh spate of tabloid excitement, I can honestly say some of my best friends have been parents.

That does not mean, though, that I would defend particular family structures to the last ditch, especially the all-too-explosive nuclear family, forged in relatively recent historical times not out of high purpose and dignity – an Englishman’s home is his castle, and all that – but from the grim necessity for a mobile labour force, detached from wider family and community, as the Industrial Revolution took hold.

Indeed, the tensions inside the nuclear family, and its frequent breakdown, constitute a fair proportion of the need for children to have rights. Parents do not all have their children’s best interests at heart. Step-parents, especially, who now make up such a substantial proportion of the whole, have much to answer for. The “wicked” step-parent is no myth. Frequently they resent their newly acquired brood; their hatred may even be murderous. Stepchildren are 60 times more likely to be killed than genetically related offspring [Daly & Wilson, 1994]. Not that this lets biological parents off the hook: taking parents as a whole, the latest figures show they kill on average over one child per fortnight in the UK, often in the context of a relationship breaking up, when one of the adult partners (usually a father) murders his children to spite his former partner [Office for National Statistics, 2013].

It is an ugly reality, so grim we cannot bear to face it; which is probably why these horrible cases tend to be dismissed in a paragraph or two in the media and described as a domestic “tragedy”, rather than in the more floridly anathematising terms (“evil”, “vile”, etc.) reserved for even the most mild and non-coerced paedophilic encounters. I recall one case somewhere in the West Country a couple of decades ago in which the father impaled the decapitated heads of his three children on spikes, leaving them for his ex to see. Even that spectacularly ghastly case disappeared from the news after a day or two. The vanishingly rare murder of a child in a sexual context, by contrast, is kept alive for a decade or more, such is the public’s need to project its own darkest feelings onto a monstrous Other.

Of course, the criminal law applies in the case of murder. Children do not need any rights in this regard beyond the human right to life. But there are many circumstances in which distinct rights for children would help enormously, both as regards invoking Gillick competence and, for children who are not yet competent to assert their own just claims, rights which can nevertheless be enforced in law on their behalf. These rights should take account of their wishes, not just their (adult defined) “best interests”. This, too, already has some standing in law. The 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child acknowledged the right of children to be heard. This principle was incorporated into the Children Act of the same year, which said that while the children’s welfare should be paramount, courts should take into account “the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned”.

This formulation was far too wishy washy: wishes can be heard, but may still be ignored. The move towards a more effective measure is inhibited by confusion. The law will be deficient as long as we remain in thrall to the classic, albeit weak, argument that rights imply responsibilities, and that young children, before they become Gillick competent, cannot have truly enforceable rights because they are incapable of discharging the responsibilities that go with them. But as philosophers, including, most famously, John Rawls, have acknowledged, this is misconceived. As human rights lawyer Paul Sieghart put it:

In all legal theory and practice, rights and duties are symmetrical. It is a popular fallacy to believe that this symmetry applies within the same individual: that if I have a right, I must also have a correlative duty. This is not so: if I have a right, someone else must have a correlative duty; if I have a duty, someone else must have a corresponding right [Sieghert, 1985].

Children “in care”, may have significant rights claims against a range of professionals who act in loco parentis as teachers, etc. Having said that, the family is the most obvious locus of children’s claims, just as Furedi asserts. This is because, famously, most abuse, whether in terms of outright neglect and cruelty, or unwanted sexual attention, takes place in the home. This is a robustly quantified reality, not a feminist myth: in the most authoritative study to date, regression analysis indicates that dysfunctional family background is nine times as predictive of adult psychological harm as “child sexual abuse” (CSA) [Rind et al., 1998]. Had it been possible to separate non-coercive so-called CSA in the figures from coercive molestation and rape, the ratio would probably have risen dramatically, to infinity, because CSA thus defined would emerge as, on average, not psychologically harmful at all.

As for what distinct children’s rights might be needed, probably the most compelling cases are those concerning the right of children (1) to make medical decisions on their own behalf, especially when the issue of life and death is engaged; (2) to decide on their own custody in the event of parental separation and divorce; (3) to “divorce parents in the event of incompatibility. In all three areas considerable progress has been made in this century: we are not talking about a dead 1970s concept.

In the United States, for instance, it is relatively routine now for older children to have access to the law and to divorce a parent in the event of serious incompatibility, as for instance in the case of a gay teenager subjected to constant disparagement by a disappointed and unsympathetic father. It happens. It’s serious. These kids die by their own hand way disproportionately to their peers when they cannot find a supportive environment. As for medical decisions, doctors are moving towards the view that even quite young children can make rational and (given professional advice) informed decisions in difficult cases, such as whether or not to accept dangerous kill-or-cure surgery, or whether they wish to accept therapy inevitably committing themselves to years of pain and distress. And who could doubt that parents who are Jehovah’s Witnesses act against their children’s best interests when they refuse to sanction blood transfusions for a child in an emergency? This cries out for a child’s right, if they wish, to override their parents’ views.

The case for children’s sexual rights is a more complex matter, so I’ll close with a brief response to Furedi’s flaying of PIE’s “self-interested” stance. I look forward to him now denouncing his own self-interested lack of credibility: he campaigns for the rights of parents rather than children. Well, he would, wouldn’t he: he’s a parent!

Seriously, Frank, this essentially ad hominem way of shutting us up is a cheap shot, and unworthy of you. It makes you look like the politicians and judges who have been in such a hurry lately to publicly renounce their previous support for the basic civil rights of paedophiles: with their careers under immediate threat they appear to have panicked. One reason this has happened in such a big way, incidentally, is the failure of Liberty to defend liberty. The former National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) did a better job. Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill is to be congratulated for his staunch and principled recent defence of the NCCL’s former affiliation with PIE.

Daly, M & Wilson, M; “Some differential attributes of lethal assaults on small children by stepfathers versus genetic fathers”, Ethology & Sociobiology, Vol 15(4), Jul 1994, 207-217.

Office for National Statistics (2013); Focus on: violent crime and sexual offences, 2011/12 http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_298904.pdf

Rind, B, Tromovitch P Bauserman R (1998); “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples”. Psychological Bulletin 124 (1): 22–53.

Sieghert, P; The Lawful Rights of Mankind, OUP, 1985, p.94

What’s healthy about the selfie

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Back in August, in Cameron’s crusade and the ‘sexting’ generation, Heretic TOC noted the British prime minister’s triple-pronged attack on internet pornography, inevitably underpinned by the supposed need to protect “innocent” children from exposure to it, as though they had no independent interest of their own – a point deeply undermined, it may be recalled, by an NSPCC report showing that sexting now plays a big part in children’s lives.

Sexting, indeed, is clearly exciting a lot of grown-ups, too, or rather inciting them to a discursive frenzy, not all of it expressing the dominant moral panic narrative. One fascinating departure from the mainstream appeared in the September issue of the sociological journal Sexualities, by Brian Simpson, a specialist in children and the law who has a particular interest in the regulation of cyberspace and social media. In his article, “Challenging childhood, challenging children: Children’s rights and sexting” Simpson does something deeply unfashionable: he doesn’t merely mention children’s rights in the title, he actually takes the concept seriously.

His 10,000-word piece examines all the usual rhetoric, whether centred on the need to protect children from cyberbullying, concerns over sexuality being essentially private, and anxiety that the young are getting out of control – with its unspoken fear that self-interested patriarchal control over female bodies (girls’ virginity and reproduction) is under threat. He also considers the part that legal interventions against sexting have played, citing American cases in which youngsters have been taken to court, under laws supposedly passed to prevent harm coming to them. The effect, ironically, has been to see them punished by being condemned as pornographers and placed on a sex offender register, giving them a criminal record likely to blight their lives for decades. In order to “save” them, the courts thus harm them, deeply and lastingly.

What the mainstream discourse constantly fails to do, says Simpson, even in formal studies, whether quantitative (how much sexting is going on) or qualitative (what sexting actually entails), is to examine values. It is just assumed that sexting is bad, and focuses the debate on how to suppress it – an aim which generally extends to all other manifestations of youthful sexuality too. Where he takes the debate forward is not only through invoking children’s rights, a concept which peaked in public debate as long ago as the late 1970s, but also in identifying the new technology of the internet age, especially the camera phone, as transformative. Young people as media makers inhabit a techno-culture, “a world where camera phones are well embedded within everyday life and are used to constitute identity”, says Simpson, citing with his own emphasis words from another recent study (Chalfen 2013). So as part of this scene the selfie, it seems, including the sexy selfie, has a role in generating self itself.

Bollocks? Maybe. Or tits. But at the very least there is food for thought here.

Simpson, as a legal expert, understands the importance of children’s rights – although their development and enforcement have been painfully slow – but also sees children, especially teenagers, creating interesting new realities through their sexting conduct. While it is commonplace now, he says, to state that the internet has blurred the public–private divide, “one could say that sexting is making us have a discussion about the boundaries of what is public and what is private. In other words the act of sexting has a social benefit in that it pushes our boundaries.”

Social benefit? Wow! That looks radical. I think he could be right when we consider how the concept of personal privacy in recent years has been used in order to push naked bodies out of public space, with the effect of making mere nudity seem toxically dangerous and obscene. It can hardly have escaped the attention of most heretics here, certainly not the male ones in Britain, that in the interests of privacy more and more gents’ public toilets are fitted these days with dividers that prevent any view of the “member” at the next urinal. Not that I am interested in the musclemen’s mighty monsters in the changing rooms and “conveniences” at my gym club, although convivial joshing with complete strangers in the pub loos (“Hello, mate, they tell me this is where all the big nobs hang out!”) used to be one of the pleasanter minor civilities of life here. Now the blokes tend to be nervous about being thought gay, or looked at by someone who might be: adults now often choose to pee in the WC rather than at a urinal, as well as boys who surely do so following “safety” instruction.  Likewise the formerly communal showers in sports clubs now tend to have individual cubicles, and schools do likewise. The message for kids, of course, is that they must not show their bodies to others or be seen by anyone else, whether staff members or classmates: what is ostensibly done to protect their privacy serves mainly to intensify sexual taboos. Perhaps the present teenage sexting generation will come to see all this covering and hiding as a neurotic absurdity.

I have no idea whether Simpson has such issues in mind, but in relation to the defiantly let-it-all-hang-out growth of teen sexting in the teeth of adults’ cover-up culture, he continues:

Children have developed within this exhibitionistic culture…Albury and Crawford found some young people who actually described their sexting in…positive terms as part of their intimate relationships. In this sense sexting is a truly subversive activity that not only recasts sexual citizenship and identity but also reinforces new paradigms of transparency and openness.

Many young people report sexting as part of flirting, seeking affirmation, testing their attractiveness and so on, which is all about establishing their identity. While this does not mean such use of technology is [not] fraught with risks and sits within a context of gender expectations in society, there is also the importance of the child’s right to have an identity, express her or himself and to play.  Such rights are all contained within, for example, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Of course, as with sexting generally, the right to play is often romanticised and articulated in terms of the innocence of the child in the playground. But this right also connects with risk taking, the pushing of boundaries and identity formation. The Charter for Children’s Play, for example, provides in its introduction that: “Play allows children to experience and encounter boundaries, learning to assess and manage risk in their lives; both physical and social”.

Now this really is radical, hinting as it does that real children, i.e. those who have yet to reach their teens, children who play, should be allowed to manage at least a limited amount of risk in their lives instead of being swaddled in a stifling cocoon of eternal infancy.

Law reform to decriminalise consensual sexting between children has been discussed, Simpson says. But reform going any further, if it were to challenge the view that sexting is inherently inappropriate, would undermine adult authority more generally over children, across the range of health and welfare issues that affect them. Actually, he says such law reform will undermine adult authority, not would, as though this is more than just a pipe dream. His present post is with the University of New England, Australia, where he is an associate professor. Perhaps the Australian scene gives him expectations for imminent change that I do not detect in Britain or elsewhere. If so, let’s hope he is right.

In the meantime, I will close by drawing heretics’ attention to what has actually happened to children’s rights in Britain in the decades since the burgeoning of the modern concept around forty years ago. To be brief: not much. There is a wonderful timeline on the development of young people’s rights in the UK on Wikipedia. It is an impressively enormous compilation, starting in the Middle Ages, with more and more entries for each century, the short 21st century already getting almost as many entries as the entire 20th, as though things are getting better and better at an accelerating rate. If only! It is a woefully misleading impression, made worse because the plethora of entries disguises the fact that many of them are not about children’s rights at all: mostly they comprise a riotous mishmash of child welfare and protection issues, rather than rights that can be exercised by children themselves. The latter are the only true rights: rights enforceable by children in ways that are capable, when necessary, of overriding adult authority, even that of parents.

Looking through this long list across the entries for the last forty years, I see one truly great leap forward, in 1985, and two considerably more limited triumphs. The great leap was the establishment of Gillick competence, which I had occasion to mention last month in The heinous crime of truth-telling. The timeline entry puts it thus: the Gillick ruling “lays down that the authority of parents to make decisions for their minor children is not absolute, but diminishes with the child’s evolving maturity; except in situations that are regulated otherwise by statute, the right to make a decision on any particular matter concerning the child shifts from the parent to the child when the child reaches sufficient maturity to be capable of making up his or her own mind on the matter requiring decision.”

As for the two lesser gains, these were the Summerhill judgement (2000), and a ruling on biometric information (2012). I’ll leave you to look them up on the timeline, where you can also browse at your leisure and ponder the vast children’s rights work that remains to be done.

 

Albury,  K.  &  Crawford,  K.,  Sexting,  consent  and  young  people’s  ethics:  Beyond Megan’s Story. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 26(3): 463–473 (2012)

Chalfen R., ‘It’s only a picture’: Sexting, ‘smutty’ snapshots and felony charges. Visual Studies 24(3): 258–268 (2013)

Simpson, B., Challenging childhood, challenging children: Children’s rights and sexting, Sexualities 16(5/6) 690–709 (2013)

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