I have hesitated whether to publish the following essay. I started it almost two years ago and all but finished it last March. However, revisiting it I feared that it would interest few of this blog’s readers: it focuses on an abstract philosophical idea touched upon in the preface to an academic book which, under a thin disguise of impartiality, is informed with attitudes entirely unsympathetic to those held by the majority of this blog’s readers. Moreover, being written in French and as yet untranslated, it is inaccessible to all but this blog’s francophone readers.
However, ‘L’Enfant Interdit’ is challenging, informative and well-written. The proposition about the child’s existential status which this essay explores strikes me as valid and powerful, with significant practical, ethical repercussions for paedophiles.
L’Enfant Interdit (the Forbidden Child) nevertheless gets, in my opinion, many things wrong – but even its errors are interesting, not least the theory that the end of the ‘paedophile revolution’ of the 60s and 70s was precipitated by the emergence of AIDS in the gay community. I cautiously recommend the book to this blog’s francophone readers, with the warning that there is nothing positive or sympathetic to be found in it, and Verdrager’s treatment of the French hebephile author, Gabriel Matzneff, in the book’s final chapter is so vindictive and mean-spirited that it reads like an act of personal vengeance. Or maybe after having had to adopt a non-judgmental attitude towards paedophilia for the duration of the writing of this book, this chapter is an act of catharsis in which the Verdrager’s hatred of paedophiles finally finds spectacular, unrestrained expression.
So despite my doubts I shall break my recent silence, show signs of life and ‘publish and be damned‘. What follows may not be to everyone’s taste, but it will not be the first time I published something nobody wants to read, and I certainly hope that it will not be the last (to misquote Count Arthur Strong).
I first came across the idea of the child’s dual status in Francois de Singly’s preface to Pierre Verdrager’s book ‘l’Enfant Interdit‘ (The Forbidden Child). The main body of the book itself analyses why paedophilia went from being, in the 1960s, a legitimate cause advocated by radical thinkers on both the left and the right, to being the scandalous, taboo-ridden thing it is today.
Verdrager aspires to approach the history of militant paedophilia as would an ethnographer: he states that he will not judge paedophilia, or the arguments made by (what he describes as) ‘the apologists for paedophilia’, but will be a disinterested observer, gathering data, from which to elucidate narratives, histories and explanations.
He manages enough disinterestedness to probably convince the average reader, a reader aware of no other stance towards paedophilia than that of unreserved condemnation. But to my maybe-oversensitive ears his ‘impartiality’ is squeezed out through teeth so firmly gritted that one can almost hear the crepitation of shattering dentine.
It is not, however, Verdrager’s ideas that concern me in what follows, but rather those of Francois de Singly, the author of the book’s preface, and Verdrager’s colleague at Paris Descartes University’s Sociology department.
In his preface de Singly (a specialist in the sociology of childhood, education, and the family) notes that:
“To write a book on paedophilia is to risk being suspected of having a predilection for this kind of behaviour. There are subjects which adhere to you, in the eyes of others, as if to your very skin.”
This gives a clue as to the real purpose of de Singly’s preface: it does what Verdrager’s ethnographic aspirations prevent him from doing in the body of the book, namely: making it clear that all involved condemn paedophilia. The purpose of de Singly’s preface is to cover Verdrager’s ass.
And to do this de Singly does not mobilise the usual objections: that children aren’t sexual, that they can’t consent or find adults attractive, or that children are inevitably harmed by such intimacy. De Singly is no fool and knows all too well that these populist objections won’t do the job. Instead he tries to launch his assault from the idea that children have a ‘dual status’.
I find the proposition that children have a ‘dual status’ sufficiently plausible and powerful to merit closer attention. Whether it fulfils de Singly’s brief of condemning caring, consensual child-adult intimacy is another question.
In nature a young animal’s vulnerability makes it little more than ‘prey’ – something to satisfy a stronger animal’s needs. A lion has few qualms about killing and eating a young antelope, seagulls eat newly hatched turtles before they reach the safety of the sea, humans treat calves cruelly to make their cooked flesh more tasty.
This indifference is not found in the behaviour of nurturing animals (all mammals, all birds, except cuckoos, some fish, amphibians and arthropods) toward their own young.
This restraint is informed by an awareness that their offspring are at the same time like themselves, yet different: the offspring’s life has a value that equals that of the parent, or even exceeds it (some animals will risk, or even sacrifice, their own lives to ensure their offspring’s survival); at the same time the parents do not treat their offspring as they do their coevals. this is especially noticeable in solitary animals that are normally hostile to their own kind – such as the Tasmanian Devil.
This dual status lasts until the offspring grows strong and resourceful enough to fend for itself. The struggle for survival means that the nurturing parent-offspring relationship cannot be maintained for longer than necessary – though in social animals, traces of this dual status may persist long past the moment when offspring achieves independence.
Humans ascribe this dual status to their offspring: we recognise that babies, by virtue of being vulnerable, nescient and dependent, are profoundly different to adults; yet at the same time we acknowledge them as being fully human. And as with mammals and birds, children become ‘adult’ when they are capable of existing, or rather ‘thriving’, independently of their birth-family.
Effectively, as De Singly states, this means that:
“the child, insofar as it is a child, has the right to be protected; the child, insofar as it is a person, has the right to be treated as a person.”
Or: children are not small adults, but they have equal value to adults.
Different societies express the child’s dual status in different ways. At one end of a continuum one could place the ancient Spartans, who exposed their newborns on hill-sides in order to cull the weak; at the other end one might place western consumer society, in which (arguably) adulthood is never properly achieved.
In simple societies children become adult younger. This is because the knowledge and skills required for a child to assume their adult role can be mastered sooner, and the passage from childhood to adulthood is clearer and generally marked by rites of passage. Also the conditions of survival may be harsher – a prolonged childhood is a luxury born of safety, wealth, and leisure.
In more complex societies, achieving independence requires a more extensive and more abstract knowledge – hence prolonged ‘schooling’. Young people are also faced with several non-synchronised rites of passage: puberty, passing the driving test, graduation, getting one’s first wage, losing one’s virginity, attaining the legal drinking age, the various age of criminal responsibility and the age of sexual consent, the minimum school-leaving age, and the age when one can join the army, … this jumble of rites of passage means that there is no clear point at which a ‘child’ becomes an ‘adult’. Hence the prolonged transitional phase that is embodied in the ‘teenager’.
Ethics and dual status
Dual status makes ‘the child’ into a difficult, complex, contradictory ethical entity. It deprives us of our two simplest ethical algorithms: the denial of ethical status, and the golden rule. The child is not like a stone, or a mosquito, or a battery hen – an entity that makes few or no ethical demands on the world. Nor is the child a mirror of ourselves. This means that the Golden Rule – do to others as you would have them do to you – can’t be relied on for resolving ethical challenges.
Child abuse happens when adults ignore the child’s dual status.
When we ascribe to them our own desires, functions and needs we treat children as small adults. This leads to soul-destroying child labour, child marriage, child soldiers and to sexual interactions inappropriate to the child’s needs, desires or level of development.
On the other hand, considering the child as an entity that makes few or no ethical demands is to prioritise your own interests (or the interests of other interested parties, such as the family, the community or a god) above those of the child. This leads to infanticide, mutilation, indoctrination and emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
The child’s Dual Status, having deprived us of the easy algorithms for resolving ethical dilemmas, obliges us to be empirical, to struggle with observations, experience, data, facts and reason – to weigh things up and reflect. In short the child’s dual status obliges us to focus entirely on the child, rather than on ourselves (or other interested parties).
The Child Forbidden – De Singly’s Objection
In his preface De Singly tries to use the child’s dual status to ethically condemn consensual child-adult intimacy. In what follows I try to summarise his argument, using his own (translated) words as much as possible. De Singly starts off by stating that in the 1970s:
the ‘apologists for paedophilia’ asserted
“that children have as much of a capacity to say ‘yes’ as do adults in the context of a sexual relationship”.
and were promoting
“a version of unchecked power” which “entailed an equal diminution of the power of the parents.”
He considers that this failed to
“take into account the fact that in all of society there are power imbalances, and therefore ‘liberation’ does not suffice to guarantee the condition of free expression.”
“if the parents and adults impose upon the children by privilege of their dominance, how justify the fact that other adults [i.e. paedophiles] can be their liberators, without this also being an imposition?”
De Singly elaborates on this by making a parallel between the war against paedophilia and
“the introduction, in 1992 […] of the concept of sexual harassment, defined back then as ‘the fact of harassing someone by using orders, menaces or constraints, with the goal of obtaining sexual favours, by someone abusing the authority conferred by their office”
He goes on to give the example of a business in which a low-status employee (such as a cleaner) and a high-status person (the Managing Director) engage in a sexual relationship. The power imbalance between them means that the low-status person can not be considered as having full power over herself. Any claims she makes that she consented to the relationship can’t be considered as sufficient to exclude the possibility that the MD employed his authority to bring about the relationship. Further evidence of the cleaner’s consent must be furnished to dispel suspicions.
“a young girl who has the power to say ‘yes’ to a sexual relationship with a young man, or a young girl, of the same age, loses this capacity if her partner is an adult, and all the more so if this partner is an authority figure.” (would de Singly also argue that her capacity to refuse consent is likewise nullified?)
He makes a further parallel between the pleas of the partisans of paedophilia and
“those who advocate economic liberalism, similarly unrestrained i.e. without state intervention. If the state is a central figure of repression it is also an instrument that can serve to regulate freedom in order that those endowed with the most power don’t abuse it in interactions across social class and age.”
Society’s construction of ‘paedophilia’, with all its taboos, stigma and assumptions of criminality is, for de Singly:
“a wall within which children today dispose of a little more power. This place of play, of the self-fulfillment, has undoubtedly expanded, but on one condition: that they play among themselves and that adults are there as ‘arbiters’ not as ‘playmates’ […] the history of emancipation in the West rests on the intervention of “separations/” – secularism, with its separation of church and state, is an example. Each wall gives birth to a new freedom.
It is for this reason that partisans of the paedophile cause are wrong: the protection of the child that is written into the limitations of its capacity to consent do not primarily reflect parental oppression, but have as their function the guarantee that personal expression, including sexuality, will not be hijacked to the benefit of adults who could profit from this situation.“
objections to de Singly’s objection
If one accepts that children often need to be protected from bad choices they might make if they were free, then the next step is to determine criteria for a ‘bad choice’.
De Singly singles out child-adult intimacy as the worst of ‘bad choices’. Is his justification for this a logical consequence of dual status, or has he arbitrarily grafted dual status onto the prejudices of the dominant culture?
De Singly’s criterion appears to be ‘a relationship which involves an imbalance of authority’. But this criterion is seriously undermined by the very examples he uses.
Take his example of the managing director and the cleaner.
Is de Singly claiming that a relationship between an MD and a cleaner must necessarily come about through the MD abusing his power? I think it would hardly be credible for him to claim this – after all, many happy relationships and marriages have been known to occur between bosses and their secretaries.
Nothing in what de Singly writes excludes (or even addresses) the possibility that a relationship can come about between adults and children without resort to the use of authority on the adult’s part. In such a case would de Singly be justified in characterising child’s sexuality as having been ‘hijacked to the benefit of the adult’? Surely not.
De Singly’s example also draws attention to the humanising effect of interaction. Individuals who work (or play) together can rapidly pass from being mere embodiments of their roles to becoming known by their self-hood and personality. What might be, on first encounter, just a ‘child’ or an ‘adult’, after hours of interaction, becomes ‘Matilda’ and ‘Uncle John’ – people defined by their quirks, their personalities, their vulnerabilities and, above all, defined by the nature of the relationship evolving between them. In a healthy interaction closeness and intimacy dissolve authority.
De Singly also ignores the fact that every socially approved interaction a child can have with an adult (parent, teacher, social-worker…) involves exactly the kinds of power imbalance he is so wary of.
De Singly’s objection comes on a sliding scale of authority – a teacher, a parent or imam does indeed wield a great deal of authority. But what about a stranger, a neighbour or family friend? Adults in such roles bring little authority or status to an interaction with a child, and indeed these relationships are the only relationships with adults in which the child has the power to end the interaction or relationship if he/she so chooses.
Undoubtedly some adults do use their status or authority to coerce or manipulate a child into ‘consenting’ to sexual activity. But, should a right be withheld because of the danger that the right might be abused?
De Singly might have had more to work with if he’d conceded that child-adult intimate relationships aren’t necessarily the result of abuses of authority, and focused instead on the difficulties of determining whether a relationship has come about with or without an abuse of authority on the adult’s part (see ‘Consent’ Without ‘The Age of Consent’).
A more profound flaw in de Singly’s objection is that he simply gets paedophilia wrong. He assumes that paedophiles want to treat children as small adults – an assumption he could not have maintained if he’d taken the slightest interest in the subjective experience of paedophiles.
His misunderstandings come from treating ‘the paedophile’ as a blank screen onto which he can project the polemics of provocative, radical thinkers of the 1960s – many who were not themselves paedophiles – and his own teleophilic sexuality, with its focus on conquest, penetration and orgasm.
One of his errors is that he writes as if paedophiles were mainly attracted to children’s physique and appearance. We are, of course, but our attraction is essentially to the quiddity of children, to their whole nature – we love ‘children’, not ‘children’s bodies’. To impose adult forms of desire on them is to violate the very thing we love most in a child. A few interviews with paedophiles speaking candidly would have cleared up this basic misunderstanding.
As to the comparison he makes between those advocating paedophilia and “those who advocate economic liberalism”: I can think of few societies where children are less free than in contemporary consumer societies, nor have children ever been less able to construct their own independent culture (think of how much of children’s time, activity and culture is conceived, controlled and supervised by adults).
De Singly, in what is akin to a cardsharper’s sleight of hand, gives the impression of having successfully damned all child-adult intimacy.
But what he has done is give grounds for condemning those forms of child-adult intimacy that merit condemnation, whilst, at the same time, diverting attention from the possibility that child-adult relationships could come about and be maintained other than by an abuse of authority.
Indeed, for him to do so would have been to draw onto himself exactly those suspicions which his preface was meant to deflect from his colleague, Pierre Verdrager.
Few contemporary radical paedophile would argue that relationships that came about through abuse of authority should be legitimate. If de Singly’s goal is to condemn all child-adult intimacy he can’t do this by only condemning its worst manifestations. He can only do this if he addresses child-adult intimacy in its best, most ethically conducted manifestations.
But De Singly has condemned the only form of ‘paedophilia’ the popular narrative is aware of – therefore, to minds formed by the popular narrative, he has successfully condemned all forms of paedophilia.
The only reason he could get away with this stratagem is that he knew that the huge majority of his readers would have no wish to be made aware of the possibility that intimate child-adult relationships could be conducted consensually and honourably; he knew that his readers would be as eager as himself to see all forms of paedophilia summarily condemned and would not subject the reasons for his condemnation to too rigorous an evaluation.