Pre­sumed in­no­cent

From ac­knowl­edged re­al­ity to hid­den taboo, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of young peo­ple’s sex­u­al­ity in art and cul­ture has a long and dif­fi­cult his­tory. There are many per­spec­tives but no easy con­clu­sions

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - WORDS BY GEMMA TIP­TON

The dif­fi­cult his­tory of ado­les­cent sex­u­al­ity

Ionce be­lieved there was some­thing time­less about great works of art. Or, rather, I had al­ways be­lieved the works of art and cul­ture I love to be time­less. Clearly I’ve been wrong. Time mat­ters. Lis­ten­ing to favourite mu­sic and watch­ing films that meant a lot to me in the past is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly un­com­fort­able.

There’s the ro­man­ti­cised sex­ual abuse, which many, it’s hard to be­lieve now, once took to­tally for granted. While they may not fall into the “great art” cat­e­gory, the early James Bond films were def­i­nitely defin­ing. Take Goldfin­ger (1964) and Thun­der­ball (1965), in which Sean Con­nery’s Bond es­sen­tially rapes women, who quickly come to ap­pear to love it after all. Watch­ing 1982’s Blade Run­ner re­cently, I squirmed un­com­fort­ably as heart­throb Har­ri­son Ford’s Rick Deckard ap­peared to my more mod­ern eyes, trans­formed as a sleazy creep when he pins Sean Young’s Rachel against the wall, punches the door and throws her against a win­dow as she tries to leave. “Say ‘kiss me’,” he in­sists. Like Bond’s in­ter­change­able women, her char­ac­ter breathily suc­cumbs.

So what are we to do? Ban them, as The Or­pheum Theatre in Ten­nessee did, last year, with Gone With The Wind (this time on the grounds of racial in­sen­si­tiv­ity)? Ob­vi­ously we don’t want racism to be cel­e­brated, but films such as th­ese be­come use­ful cul­tural arte­facts, re­mind­ing us of chang­ing at­ti­tudes. Rather than sweep­ing them un­der the cul­tural car­pet, it’s use­ful to be re­minded, from time to time, of where our own com­pli­cated and fre­quently con­tra­dicted at­ti­tudes have emerged from.

Adding con­text through con­ver­sa­tion can be use­ful, but ban­ning feeds into that Or­wellian no­tion that if we shut down a con­ver­sa­tion en­tirely, what we have re­moved from the air­waves, or pub, din­ner and café ta­bles, will sim­ply cease to ex­ist. The op­po­site is true. We can dis­al­low ac­tions, but ban­ning thoughts and feel­ings adds a layer of shame, while also giv­ing the nec­es­sary shade for twisted ver­sions to grow.

Things be­come even more loaded when it comes to at­ti­tudes to, and rep­re­sen­ta­tions of, ado­les­cent sex­u­al­ity. To get this straight at the out­set: I do not for one nanosec­ond con­done the ac­tions of peo­ple like Matthew Ho­ran, the 26-year-old Dubliner who was jailed for seven-and-a-half years last month for co­erc­ing young girls to send him sex­u­ally graphic pic­tures. How­ever, the ev­i­dence of art, mu­sic, drama and lit­er­a­ture demon­strates that chil­dren and adolescents have been viewed as sex­ual be­ings for cen­turies.


Go back in time, and dis­cover that Juliet in Shake­speare’s Romeo and Juliet is just 13. In the orig­i­nal source for the 1597 play, The Trag­i­call

His­to­rye of Romeus and Juliet, a poem by Arthur Brooke, Juliet is 16, but in Shake­speare’s ver­sion, Juliet’s fa­ther says “she hath not seen the change of fourteen years.” Paris, who has his eye on Juliet and, pre­sum­ably, the Ca­pulet wealth (as she is an only child) points out that “Younger than she are happy mothers made”.

Shake­speare’s goal was to em­pha­sise the in­no­cence of his lovers, rather than to write a play cel­e­brat­ing statu­tory rape. So what has changed? The most sig­nif­i­cant an­swer is life ex­pectancy. In the 1600s and 1700s, life

ex­pectancy at birth hov­ered be­tween 30 and 40. Con­se­quently, the idea of adult­hood was ap­plied at an ear­lier age. You can see this shift in the chang­ing ages of sex­ual con­sent. In 1275, the age of con­sent was set at 12 in Eng­land. In 1875, it was raised to 13, and to 16 in 1885. Par­al­lel to this, life ex­pectancy in Eng­land had risen to 55 by 1850.

In the era of ar­ranged dy­nas­tic mar­riages among the aris­toc­ra­cies of Europe, even younger chil­dren were also sex­u­alised. Boys were cel­e­brated for their po­ten­tial po­tency, and girls for their fe­cun­dity, in both mar­riage por­traits and be­trothals that took place as young as two and three years of age. The mar­riage of Prince Arthur, el­der brother to Henry VIII, to Cather­ine of Aragon, was agreed be­tween their par­ents when he was two, and she was three. Cen­turies later, Ly­dia Ben­net in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is 15 when she be­gins her flir­ta­tion with Ge­orge Wick­ham, and her mother is thrilled when the out­come is re­solved (thanks to the machi­na­tions of Mr Darcy) “This is de­light­ful in­deed! She will be mar­ried! […] Mar­ried at six­teen!”

Artis­tic in­fat­u­a­tion

All this came to mind on learn­ing about the re­cent pe­ti­tion pre­sented to New York’s Met Mu­seum, which re­quested that the 1938 paint­ing Thérèse Dream­ing by Balthus be re­moved, or re­con­tex­tu­alised with a panel say­ing “Some view­ers find this piece of­fen­sive or dis­turb­ing, given Balthus’ artis­tic in­fat­u­a­tion with young girls.” The paint­ing shows a girl, aged 12 or 13 sit­ting on a chair. Her red skirt has rid­den up her legs, ex­pos­ing a pair of child­ish white knick­ers. So what, ex­actly, is the prob­lem here? Is it that we don’t want to ac­knowl­edge that an ado­les­cent girl may be at the cusp of be­com­ing a sex­ual be­ing; or is it that we don’t like to see an older man notic­ing it too, re­gard­less of his in­tent?

The cul­tural shift in the 19th cen­tury that saw changes in the age of con­sent is par­al­leled by a con­tem­po­rary shift driven by third wave fem­i­nism and move­ments such as Me Too. For some this is seen as tak­ing away the fi­nal ex­cuses of those who prac­tice sex­ism and abuse, and makes plain how prob­lem­atic the adult male gaze is. The lack of space for nu­ance how­ever, risks de­mon­is­ing it en­tirely.

Now that we are all liv­ing longer, the idea of adult­hood has been de­layed, but cen­turies of phys­i­cal and hor­monal ma­tu­rity in adolescents hasn’t nec­es­sar­ily caught up with our so­cial mores. The trou­ble is, so­ci­ety doesn’t quite know how to deal with this. The ques­tion shouldn’t be whether chil­dren are sex­ual, but how adults re­spond to that.

In Ire­land, the age of con­sent is 17. New laws on sex­ual of­fences, en­acted in March 2017, are ac­tu­ally re­mark­ably sen­si­ble on the sub­ject of ado­les­cent sex­ual at­trac­tion.

“Of­fences con­cern­ing sex­ual acts with un­der age chil­dren have also been re­stated and strength­ened in this Act. How­ever, the Act also recog­nises the re­al­ity of un­der age, con­sen­sual, peer re­la­tion­ships through the in­tro­duc­tion of a ‘prox­im­ity of age’ de­fence. Un­der this pro­vi­sion, a per­son charged with an of­fence of en­gag­ing in a sex­ual act with a per­son be­tween the ages of 15 and 17 years can rely on a de­fence where the act is con­sen­sual, non-ex­ploita­tive and the age dif­fer­ence is no more than two years.”

Here, it’s clear that “con­sent” means con­sent, and con­sent can­not be freely and fully given when there’s an im­bal­ance of power, in­tel­lect or age. Grow­ing up, most peo­ple find them­selves at­tracted to peo­ple their own age. Con­sider how dif­fi­cult it must be if that bal­ance changes, and an asym­met­ri­cally creeps in. Once again, this is not to con­done pae­dophilia, which is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent pathol­ogy.


The video for Bruce Spring­steen’s 1985 I’m on

Fire tells an up­town-girl-style story of un­re­quited love but, taken alone, the lyrics that ap­pear at the top of this ar­ti­cle seem to pro­pose an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive. Then there’s Jerry Fuller’s 1968 song Young Girl, per­formed by Gary Puck­ett & The Union Gap. “Young girl, get out of my mind / My love for you is way out of line / Bet­ter run girl / You’re much too young girl…” Here, the singer is shocked to dis­cover the age of the girl he has his eye on, and is keen to do the right thing. “Be­neath your per­fume and your make-up / You’re just a baby in dis­guise / And though you know that it’s wrong to be / Alone with me / That come on look is in your eyes.” But did Young Girl sell mil­lions be­cause of its catchy tune, or be­cause, while it clearly ap­peals to a par­tic­u­lar fan­tasy, it also touches on some­thing that runs deep in hu­man na­ture? Sim­i­larly, The Po­lice’s Don’t Stand So Close

To Me (1980) deals with an older man be­ing trou­bled by his feel­ings for a much younger girl: “Young teacher, the sub­ject / Of school­girl fan­tasy / She wants him so badly / Knows what she wants to be.” Tellingly, it is much harder to find songs in which fe­male singers are both­ered by their at­trac­tion to older men. Sex­ual in­no­cence has been, for the most part, gen­dered. I re­mem­ber ab­sorb­ing the idea in school that “boys are born know­ing”, although in both

Young Girl and Don’t Stand So Close To Me, the girls are the agents, the men un­will­ing dupes of their sex­ual wiles.

What­ever about the fan­tasies, roles of in­no­cence are harm­ful to chil­dren who don’t con­form. US artist Mike Kel­ley, whose work fre­quently ex­plores child­hood sex­u­al­ity, of­ten through the use of stuffed an­i­mals, de­scribed the prob­lem in an in­ter­view in the LA Times : “I grew up feel­ing ab­nor­mal be­cause I was born into the wrong en­vi­ron­ment and it took me a long time to dis­cover I was a nor­mal per­son. […] I felt like I was in­sane be­cause I lived in a world that pur­ported to be ‘nor­mal’ and I just couldn’t do it.”

He goes on to say that he be­lieves peo­ple fo­cus on the teenage aes­thetic in his work “be­cause for some rea­son the cul­ture’s taken an in­ter­est in ado­les­cence right now. I’m in­ter­ested in it be­cause it’s the time when the child strug­gles to take on the role of the adult…”.

Put that way, it’s ob­vi­ous; but we still want to deny sex­u­al­ity in that ex­plo­ration. Echo­ing Kel­ley, Emma Renold’s book Girls, Boys, and

Ju­nior Sex­u­al­i­ties, (Psy­chol­ogy Press, 2005), dis­cusses how ro­man­ti­cised ideas of the wholly sex­u­ally in­no­cent child “stig­ma­tise and ex­clude those who do not con­form […] so that any child who sex­u­ally re­sponds, or is sex­u­ally knowl­edge­able is stained as ‘dam­aged goods’,” she writes. “Such is the de­nial of chil­dren’s sex­ual aware­ness, that any child’s early in­ter­est in sex can be in­ter­preted as a warn­ing sign that the child has been sex­u­ally abused.”

It is re­dun­dant to ap­ply stan­dards of the present to the past, but it is equally so to try to pro­tect some­thing that doesn’t ex­ist. “There seems to be wide­spread be­lief that chil­dren do not know or should not know any­thing about sex­u­al­ity,” Renold writes. “Moral pan­ics and pub­lic con­cern that chil­dren are not in­no­cent enough hinges pri­mar­ily upon is­sues of ‘early sex­ual mat­u­ra­tion’,” which give rise to the co­nun­drum of ed­u­ca­tion and how best to pro­tect chil­dren: do you teach too much too soon, or too lit­tle too late?

And what about th­ese trou­bling sto­ries, films and songs? Should they be banned? Does art or lit­er­a­ture that ad­dresses deep is­sues within so­ci­ety pro­vide mod­els for de­viancy, nor­mal­is­ing abuse; or do they of­fer spa­ces for con­ver­sa­tion about the com­plex­i­ties, im­per­fec­tions and messi­ness of hu­man life?

The philoso­pher Michel Fou­cault of­fers the idea of the ‘Hetero­topia’, a space which is the mir­ror im­age of Utopia’s im­pos­si­ble per­fec­tion. Fou­cault’s ‘Hetero­topias’ are the spa­ces in which be­hav­iours out­side the norms of so­ci­ety can take place, so that so­ci­ety can con­tinue undis­turbed. He in­cludes prisons, the hon­ey­moon, ceme­ter­ies, asy­lums and old peo­ple’s homes. To th­ese I would add the realms of art: the gallery, the cin­ema, the novel and the stage. The ev­i­dence of the thoughts, feel­ings and de­sires of so­ci­ety since the be­gin­ning of time is to be found therein.

‘‘ Fou­cault’s ‘Hetero­topias’ are the spa­ces in which be­hav­iours out­side the norms of so­ci­ety can take place, so that so­ci­ety can con­tinue undis­turbed. He in­cludes prisons, the hon­ey­moon, ceme­ter­ies, asy­lums and old peo­ple’s homes. To th­ese I would add the realms of art: the gallery, the cin­ema, the novel and the stage

Hey lit­tle girl, is your daddy home Did he go away and leave you all alone I got a bad de­sire, I’m on fire


Left: Sue Lyon as Lolita in a poster for Stan­ley Kubrick’s 1962 adap­ta­tion of Nabokov’s con­tro­ver­sial novel. Above: Leonard Whit­ing and Olivia Hussey in Franco Zef­firelli’s Romeo

and Juliet (1968). Whit­ing was 17 at the time, and Hussey was 16,

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