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.

 

 

Warily going where angels fear to tread

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Book review: The Fear of Child Sexuality: Young People, Sex, and Agency, by Steven Angelides. University of Chicago Press, September 2019.

This is an important new book. Heretic TOC has accordingly decided to give it an in-depth review in two parts. This first part will focus on Angelides’ aims in relation to his earlier track record. The second part will consider the book’s content in more detail with a particular focus on the author’s interestingly “post-Foucauldian” view of power in sexual relationships. 

We might guess that someone called Angelides would be on the side of the angels. This family name is Greek for “son of an angel” or “descended from the angels”. Something like that. The name of the book itself, its title, tells us it is about fear, so we might find ourselves wondering whether the writer will boldly go where angels allegedly fear to tread. Portentously, too, this wordsmith’s given name is Steven, after the first Christian martyr. His more specific subject is child sexuality, a notoriously dangerous theme for any writer these days, so is this perhaps saintly scribe doomed to martyrdom, or even actively courting it?

Child sexuality: obscured, censored, but not entirely erased from public discourse.

Definitely not the latter, on the evidence so far. The good Dr Angelides, a senior academic whose PhD was in history and gender studies, is affiliated with the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health, and Society at La Trobe University and an honorary senior research fellow at Macquarie University. This much, and his listed publications, are a matter of public record, but otherwise he has kept a low profile. He isn’t big on the social media, doesn’t appear to give interviews, has no Wikipedia entry, and not much has been written about him.

Having been impressed many years ago by a couple of his papers, especially “Feminism, child sexual abuse, and the erasure of child sexuality” (2004), I was keen to read his new book when word reached me about it a few months ahead of its publication last month. So I wrote to his official university email address offering to write a review, possibly for an academic journal but certainly here at Heretic TOC. I heard nothing back. After a suitable interval I wrote again. Still silence.

I was a bit miffed. This was an unexpected snub. My recollection, admittedly somewhat foggy, was that Angelides had written quite respectfully about paedophile organisations such as PIE, which I chaired for several years. It was as though he at least acknowledged our sincerity and idealism. The impression I had was that he believed children are not only sexual but sometimes want sexual contact with an adult and are capable of consent in fact if not in law.

So why would he shun me and my interest in his book? Perhaps because he thinks I am a crap writer, of no significance? That would be mortifying but there is another explanation. Fear. Fear of guilt by association with a “convicted paedophile” like me.

History professor Joanna Bourke knows about these things. She is an expert on fear, author of a book called Fear: A Cultural History. So it is not surprising to see that Times Higher Education recently carried her review of The Fear of Child Sexuality. She wrote:

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.

Except that he doesn’t. I had just finished reading Angelides’ book when I encountered Bourke. It was fresh in my mind and I knew that, mercifully, there was nothing whatever in it that could distinctly be taken as opposing paedophilia. Just as I remembered from his earlier papers, the perspective presented in his book is entirely compatible with children, especially those on the pre-teen cusp of adolescence and beyond, being sexually active and capable of voluntary participation in an intergenerational relationship. Wonderful! Delighted to see it! It could hardly have been otherwise, actually, because it turns out the book is pretty much a “greatest hits” compilation album of this earlier work.

So where was Bourke’s utterly contrary claim coming from? Could this reputable historian have misinterpreted Angelides at some point? Or else be lying?

Well, it turns out that I cannot call her a liar but I do say loud and clear that her words performed a major deception, and it was one in which Angelides colluded. What happened, in effect, was that the pair of them came together to enact a strategy of fear. It was presumably not concocted in a conscious conspiracy between them (they may not have contacted each other or be personally acquainted) but it ends up working in the same way. There is a tactic as well as a strategy in all this that I will come to shortly. But first let’s get into this strategy business. Angelides has plenty to say on this theme, starting in his Preface. He refers to:

… the cultural and political work the mobilization of emotional vocabularies of fear, anxiety, and shame does to endlessly defer an encounter with the agentive sexual child. This, I suggest, is a “strategy” of many child sex panics — although by strategies I am thinking of those aspects of power relations that are, as Michel Foucault famously puts it, “both intentional and non-subjective.” Power relations have aims and objectives, and in this way are intentional; but they are also beyond an individual or group’s will, consciousness, or control — in that no individual or group possesses power and in that power relations have unintended and entangled aims and consequences—and so are nonsubjective. Strategies can thereby also be anonymous and unwitting (pp. xiv).

Unintended consequences. Unwitting strategies.

Precisely!

By a supreme irony, an unwitting strategy of fear has produced a wholly unintended consequence in which Bourke and Angelides accidently collude against the sexual child that both of them (to judge from Bourke’s review as a whole, as well as the book she is reviewing) would wish to support. This unwitting, accidental antagonism expresses itself through a contradiction.

To see how that has happened we must turn now from the strategy to the tactic. As we have seen, Bourke asserts that Angelides “is very clear about his ethical stance: he opposes all attempts to normalise paedophilia”. Where does he make himself “clear”? Not, as I have said, in his book, or not at least in the main text, including the Preface. No, the tactic adopted by Angelides was to hide away his “clear” ethical stance in the Acknowledgements section, positioned near the end of the book, in the most obscure place possible, between the last page of the book proper and the beginning of the Notes. I am very pleased the disclaimer appearing there is indeed obscure because to make it more prominent would be to obstruct his long-held and much more positive message, a message all us heretics will applaud, namely that intergenerational sexual relationships can be ethical. The one thing that really is clear, it seems to me, is that Angelides is so fearful – understandably – of being crucified in the media and elsewhere that he feels the disclaimer, distancing himself from paedophilia, was necessary.

So how did Bourke come to notice this “clear” statement, hidden away among lengthy tributes to the author’s colleagues and friends that would be of little interest to the general reader? My guess is that the publishers, the University of Chicago Press, sent a memo drawing attention to it along with every review copy they sent out. That would have done the trick. So, it looks as though there was probably corporate collusion too.

But we do not need to subscribe to this little bit of conspiracy theory on my part to see that fear is massively at work. Angelides gives us plenty of grounds for seeing why it would be in play. He tells us:

Publishing variously on the historical emergence of the modern pedophile, on child sexual abuse, on queer theory, and on child and adolescent sexuality, has done me no favors in some respects. In a way that gets to the very heart of this book’s fundamental concerns about child sex panics, my work across these areas has sometimes been maliciously misrepresented by people who are opposed to almost any examination of young people’s sexualities and who have a range of political axes to grind… Merely writing on these topics has been enough for some people unwilling to properly read my work to presume falsely that I am an apologist for pedophilia. Nothing could be further from the truth. From my very early involvement in the emergence of queer theory in Australia, I am on the published record denouncing any attempt to normalise pedophilia by way of transgressive queer theories (pp. 179-80).

As someone who knows what it feels like to be maliciously misrepresented of course I sympathise with all writers who find themselves on the wrong end of such abuse. However, I have been able to find only a couple of articles, published online, that attack him and his work – as already indicated, he has managed to maintain quite a low profile, perhaps because queer theory in general tends to hide itself in a fog of dense academic language that few can penetrate – and to my mind these seem to give a reasonably accurate account of his ideas. Hostile, yes, but nothing like as distorted and downright false as many of the allegations levelled at those of us who put our views out there in more straightforward activist terms.

Coming back to the contradiction I mentioned, it is this. Angelides says children may be capable of ethically acceptable participation in an intergenerational sexual relationship; Bourke is less committed but describes his book as well argued and sensible. Yet almost in the same breath, as it were, both of them badmouth paedophilia. So they arrive at the strange position of willing the end but denying the means. For how are children going to find themselves in intergenerational relationships unless they are allowed to have adults who are sexually attracted to them (i.e. paedophiles) as their older partners? Or are they supposed to confine their interest to “normal” adults who might turn to them temporarily as an inferior substitute when a physically mature partner is not available? Doesn’t make much sense to me. Indeed, some might see it as a recipe for encouraging casual exploitation by the older person.

Fortunately, a clear explanation of this contradiction is available, at least as regards Bourke’s thinking, which gives us a good steer when we come to the subtler line taken by Angelides. She writes:

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.

She is saying, in other words, that he is mainly talking about teenagers, not little kids; and the ones he highlights as capable of consent are also likely to be relatively confident and empowered, based not just on their personal maturity but thanks to their privileged class, race, and gender as well. So why doesn’t Angelides, who is plainly worried about being misrepresented and unjustly attacked, give himself an easier ride? Why didn’t he call his book The Fear of Teenage Sexuality, which would have been far less controversial?

I find his official explanation utterly unconvincing. He says he uses the word child because that is what the law does, adding that “Retaining a legalistic definition of the child even when referring to those between ages fifteen and seventeen is also a deliberately provocative reminder of the ambiguities and contradictions faced by young people in Western societies” (p. xxvii). But it is a pointless provocation unless you have a further agenda.

What it comes down to, I think, is that he is alert, like Bourke, to a range of socially significant intersecting dimensions (class, race and gender, as well as age), some combinations of which seem to him to make likelier candidates for ethical relationships than others. He makes no positive case, for instance, for men’s sexual involvement with young girls, but focuses at considerable length on sexual relationships between schoolboys in their mid-teens and their female teachers – contacts not only manifestly desired and enjoyed by the boys but also in which they exercised significant power and control. Another combination he apparently sees as viable is that of adolescent boys and men, the type of connection that was so explicitly the focus of that most famous of all paedophile organisations, NAMBLA, an acronym with “man-boy love” embedded into it. The membership of such organisations, including Britain’s PIE (Paedophile Information Exchange) and Australia’s PSG (Pedophile Support Group), tended mainly towards an interest in consensual relationships between older pre-teen, or early teen, boys and men. Angelides writes:

…insisting on a distinction between paedophilia and child sexual abuse was precisely the ongoing concern of groups like NAMBLA, PIE and the PSG. At the heart of this distinction were questions of consensual sex and the sexual agency of young people in intergenerational encounters (p. 80).

Quite so. And, to the extent that these consensual relations potentially relate to pre-teen kids, Angelides finds himself cheer-leading for children’s sexual agency, not just that of teenagers. He can still just about viably argue, though, that he is not defending paedophilic contacts but hebephilic ones. As he says in relation to PSG, “many group members did themselves no favor by misnaming their category as pedophile” (p. 84).

Either way, there is no escaping the fact that this truly is scarily controversial terrain that could easily set off a witch-hunt against the author – and not just at Halloween as today happens to be: the witch-hunters never stop!

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