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Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture.

In recent years, our society has been obsessed with what appears to be a growing incidence of child sexual abuse by adults. The allegations against Woody Allen and Michael Jackson are just the latest in a long line of child-sex scandals that have permeated the national media in recent years. In his book Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture, James R. Kincaid tries to find a historical explanation for our current cultural preoccupation with child sexual abuse. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, Kincaid argues that our society has constructed the image of the pedophile in order to reinforce our own sense of normalcy. Like Foucault, Kincaid argues that power relations within society create "otherness"--in this case pedophilia--in order "to increase its separation from the home of normality and to make that home all the more alluring and substantial".

The ironic aspect of this attitude, claims Kincaid, is that lurid stories of child-adult sex actually permit so-called "normal" adults to engage in sexual fantasies about children without having to act on those desires. "By creating gothic melodramas, monster stories of child-molesting and playing them out periodically," says Kincaid, "we provide not just titillation but assurances of righteousness". According to Kincaid, this perverse interest in child sexual abuse is unfortunate, for it is just as damaging to children as the actions of pedophiles themselves:

Such frenzied denunciations of the villains, such easy expressions of outrage, such simple-minded analyses of the problem of child-molesting as we love to repeat serve not simply to flatter us but to bring before us once again the same story of desire that is itself desirable, allowing us to construct, watch, enjoy the erotic child without taking any responsibility for our actions. This, one might say, is the sort of pornography that really ought to be banned.

In short, claims Kincaid, the telling and re-telling of stories about sexual perverts and their child victims has turned us into a nation of ersatz pedophiles, who delight in the flurry of gossip on child sexual abuse in the mass media.

In order to explain the origins of this situation, Kincaid looks at the history childhood over the past 200 years. Drawing on the work of Phillippe Aries, Kincaid argues that the "invention" of childhood centered around defining children as distinctly different and "other" from adults. For Kincaid, the key line of demarcation between children and adults was sexuality. Children, says Kincaid, were supposed to be sexually innocent beings, and devoid of all adult sexual feelings and desires. Thus, in Kincaid's opinion, not only was childhood socially constructed, but "often constructed sexually".

To illustrate this point, Kincaid examines the discourse behind various "child protection" reforms such as compulsory schooling, age of consent laws, and anti-cruelty societies that appeared during the nineteenth-century. According to Kincaid, these institutions helped to construct the modern conception of childhood by preserving children's sexual innocence and purity. Yet, claims Kincaid, these reforms also inadvertently "eroticized" the child by describing childhood largely in sexual terms. Kincaid portrays nineteenth-century discourse on childhood sexuality as a kind of "strip tease" in which "the body of the child, protected by these means from internal and external agencies of sexuality . . . finds itself exposed by the same means". The end result of this "eroticization" process, argues Kincaid, is our present-day preoccupation with child sex abuse.

Although Kincaid provides some compelling insights into modern day perceptions about childhood and sexuality, his thesis is undercut by some serious methodological flaws. The most glaring shortcoming of the book is Kincaid's use of sources. Kincaid bases his historical argument solely on discourse found in popular child-rearing manuals, psychological literature, novels, and other published sources. At no point does Kincaid offer any sort of documentary evidence such as letters, diaries, or personal testimonies that might illuminate what child-adult relationships might actually have been like. Kincaid dismisses this type of criticism by claiming that "what the child is matters less than what we think it is and just why we think that way". Yet, as Jay Mechling demonstrates in his classic essay "Advice to Historians on Advice to Mothers" (Journal of Social History, 9/1 |1975~: 44-63), advice literature is hardly a good measure of the beliefs and values of a particular culture, much less an indication of actual childrearing practices.

Kincaid is more successful when dealing with contemporary views about child-adult relationships. The book's finest chapter is an analysis of the McMartin preschool scandal, in which seven teachers were charged with over 200 counts of child molestation in a suburban Manhattan Beach, California child care center. Kincaid focuses on media portrayal of the main defendant in the case, Raymond Buckley, to illustrate how our culture has socially constructed the pedophile as someone who is physically and psychologically "other". According to Kincaid, the recent deluge of child abuse scandals is the result of power relationships within our society that unfairly stigmatize deviant individuals as pedophiles while overlooking sexual and physical abuse of children in their own homes. Thus, says Kincaid, the "real criminal is not the pedophile but the prescribed attitude to pedophilia".

By focusing on discourse and power relationships that "victimize" pedophiles, however, Kincaid tends to downplay the serious power imbalance between the child and his or her abuser. Although Kincaid is correct to point out that most pedophiles are not the stereotypical dirty old man in a tattered raincoat, he naively assumes that pedophilia does not involve an abuse of power by adults, and that most children are not harmed by sexual relationships with adults. Kincaid bases this claim solely on a Dutch survey of 25 boys who claimed to have benefited from their experience with pedophiles. This leads Kincaid to the bizarre conclusion that if Americans simply lighten up about child-loving, and cease worrying about protecting children from supposedly imaginary foes, then the scourge of pedophilia will soon disappear.

In short, Kincaid's reliance on discourse leads him to make some highly questionable claims about child-loving both past and present. Popular novels and advice literature give us only a limited view of Victorian life and thought, a fact that Kincaid never stops to consider. Similarly, the fact that present-day child sex scandals are loaded with cultural stereotypes and misconceptions should not lead us to forget that pedophilia really does exist, and that children are victimized by adults, not just by discourse about abuse. By downplaying the reality behind the pedophile image and reducing everything to social construction, Kincaid simply perpetuates the endless dialogue about child sexual abuse, without offering any useful way out of the cycle.

Heather Munro Prescott Central Connecticut State University
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Prescott, Heather Munro
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
Words:1100
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