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.
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.