Not long ago I took part in one of the conversations you’re not supposed to have. It turned on whether Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, really desired underage girls. The usual arguments came out: Nabokov was a master of personae, and Humbert Humbert a game to him. Kinbote, analogous narrator of Pale Fire, didn’t make you think Nabokov loved boys. The late novels were Nabokov’s allegories of the seductions of aestheticism, which transfigures the forbidden into the beautiful; or moral paintings of our acceptance of crime, when crime is presented alluringly. So love of the wrong object becomes a metaphor for art, ethics, personality, and so forth.
I was reluctant to say that I felt these explanations were inadequate and even in bad faith. The trouble with Lolita is plainly its ability to describe what a sexual 12-year-old looks like. What her dress is like when it brushes her knees, what her toes are like with painted nails, how the color sits on the plump bow of her lips — the phrase for this is that it is “too real”; that’s the scandal. It continues to be the scandal fifty years after publication, and it will be a scandal whenever any adult acknowledges the capacity to upend his vision and see a child, protected larval stage of the organism, as a sexual object. The girl is still a child, only now she is a sex child. Yet this makes me feel Nabokov was not a pedophile, but something he is not credited with being — a social critic.
You, too, see it, or should. The trend of these fifty years has been to make us see sexual youth where it doesn’t exist, and ignore it as it does. Adults project the sex of children in lust, or examine children sexually with magnifying glasses to make sure they don’t appeal to us. But these lenses became burning glasses. The hips of Betty Grable melted and disappeared. The breasts of Marilyn Monroe ran off and were replaced with silicone. The geography of fashion created new erogenous zones — pelvic midriff, rear cleavage — for dieters starving off their secondary sex characteristics, and for young teens, in the convergence of the exerciser and the pubescent child. The waif and the pixie became ideal. Mama and daughter look the same again before the bedroom mirror — not dressed up in Mama’s pearls and heels, this time, but in children’s wear. The dream belongs to 16, or to those who can starve themselves to 16.
The critic Philip Fisher used to note that Lolita, tightly plotted as it is, repeats one scene twice. Humbert spies a lit window far opposite. Because he longs to see a nymphet, he sees one. The wave of arousal returns, its tide dampening him up to his knees. As he nears the climax, the form is refocused as an adult woman or man. Disgusting! But this is a simple inversion of a characteristic experience of our time. A man will see a distant form, in low-cut top and low-slung jeans, and think he is on the trail of eroticism; draw near, and identify a child. Revolting! The defenses against it continue the problem. The more a whole nation inspects the sex characteristics of children to make sure it is not becoming aroused by childishness, and slyly hunts around to make sure its most untrustworthy members are not being so aroused, the more it risks creating a sexual fascination with the child. However you gaze, to accept the fantasy, or to assure yourself you see nothing, you join in an abomination.
We live in the afternoon of the sex children; Nabokov just saw the dawn.
Now children from junior high to high school to college live in the most perfect sex environment devised by contemporary society—or so adults believe. Now they are inmates in great sex colonies where they wheel in circles holding hands with their pants down. Henry Darger, emblematic artist of our time with his girl armies, made for our sensibilities what Gauguin’s Tahitian beauties were to the French 19th-century bourgeoisie—repositories of true, voluptuous, savage, inner nature.
Yet in public we want to believe that children are not prepared for sex as we are, do not understand it, and have a special, fragile, glassy truth inside them that will be endangered by premature use—as if the pearls of highest value for us, our chase after sex, our truth of “sexuality,” should not also be the treasure for them.
It took the whole history of postwar American culture to make the sex child. It required a merging of old prurient fantasies, dating from the Victorians and Progressives, with the actual sexual liberation of children after mid-century. You needed the expansion of the commercial market for children—selling to kids with sex as everything is sold with sex. You needed the bad faith of Madison Avenue advertisers and Seventh Avenue fashion writers. You needed the sinister prudery of Orange County evangelicalism and the paraliterature of child sex that arises in antipedophilia crusades (Treacherous Love; It Happened to Nancy)—erotica purveyed to middle-school libraries. You needed the internet.
Victorian child-loving is only loosely the background for our current preoccupation with the pedophile and the sexual child. With Lewis Carroll and Alice, John Ruskin and Rose La Touche, the fantastic young bride and her gauzy innocence, we know we are in the realm of adult prurience. It is child sexual liberation that transforms the current moment. We can no longer say it is only fantasy that exists about the sex lives of children. Or, rather—maybe this is the better way to say it—children have been insistently invited into our fantasy, too, and when they grow up they’ll furnish the adult continuity of this same madness.
Is it necessary to say that the majority of the sex children we see and desire are not legally children? The representatives of the sex child in our entertainment culture are often 18 to 21—legal adults. The root of their significance is that their sexual value points backward, to the status of the child, and not forward to the adult. So there is Britney, famous at the age of 18 for a grind video to “Oops, I Did It Again” (I’m not that innocent), and Paris, 19 years old in her amateur porn DVD (1 Night in Paris); alumnae of the Mickey Mouse Club like Christina—licking her lips at 20 on the Rolling Stone cover, miniskirt pulled open above the headline “Guess What Christina Wants”; and Lindsay, veteran of Disney children’s films, whose breast size, extreme dieting, and accidental self-exposures on the red carpet are the stuff of Entertainment Tonight. It’s important that these are not adult “stars” in the way of Nicole Kidman or Julia Roberts; not called beautiful, rarely featured in adult films. Instead they furnish the core of entertainment news to two distinct audiences: children 9 to 14, who enjoy their music and films on these works’ own terms, and adults who regard them—well, as what?1
Oddly, those of us who face these questions now have been sex children ourselves; we come after the great divide. You would think we’d remember. Our sex was handed to us, liberated, when we appeared in the world. We managed to feel like rebels with all the other 12-year-olds, deluded, but not to be blamed for that. A great tween gang of sexual ruffians, trolling the basement TV for scrambled porn, tangling on couches, coming up for air in clouds of musk, shirts on backward; what did we learn? Having lived in the phantasm evidently does not diminish the phantasm. One still looks at those kids enviously; that is one of the mysteries to be solved. It is as if crossing the divide to adulthood entailed a great self-blinding in the act of seeing what is not, precisely, there; and forgetting what one oneself experienced. If we turn to the sex children as avidly as anyone, it must be because they are doing something for us, too, as participants in this society and as individuals. And the supplement will not be found in their childhood at all, but in the overall system of adult life.
The lure of a permanent childhood in America partly comes from the overwhelming feeling that one hasn’t yet achieved one’s true youth, because true youth would be defined by freedom so total that no one can attain it. Presumably even the spring-break kids, rutting, tanning, boozing with abandon, know there is a more perfect spring break beyond the horizon. Without a powerful aspiration to become adult, without some separate value that downplays childhood for sharper freedoms in age and maturity, the feeling of dissatisfaction can proceed indefinitely, in the midst of marriage, child rearing, retirement, unto death.
The college years—of all times—stand out as the apex of sex childhood. Even if college is routinized and undemanding, it is still inevitably residential, and therefore the place to perfect one’s life as a sex child. You move away from home into a setting where you are with other children—strangers all. You must be patient for four years just to get a degree. So there can be little to do but fornicate. Certainly from the wider culture, of MTV and rumor, you know four years is all you will get. The semester provides an interruption between institutionalized sex jubilees: spring break, or just the weekends. The frat-house party assumes a gothic significance, not only for prurient adults but for the collegians themselves who report, on Monday, their decadence.
As a college student today, you always know what things could be like. The “Girls Gone Wild” cameras show a world where at this very moment someone is spontaneously lifting her shirt for a logoed hat. You might think the whole thing was a put-on except that everyone seems so earnest. The most earnest write sex columns (“Sex and the Elm City”) in which the elite and joyless of Yale aspire to be like the déclassé and uninhibited of Florida State. The new full-scale campus sex magazines (e.g., Boston University’s Boink  and Harvard’s H Bomb ) seek truth in naked self-photography and accounts of sex with strangers as if each incident were God’s revelation on Sinai. The lesson each time is that sleeping with strangers or being photographed naked lets the authors know themselves better. Many of these institutions are driven by women. Perhaps they, even more than young men, feel an urgency to know themselves while they can—since America curses them with a premonition of disappointment: when flesh sags, freedom will wane.
From college to high school, high school to junior high, the age of sex childhood recedes and descends. “The Sexual Revolution Hits Junior High,” says my newspaper, reporting as news what is not new. Twice a year Newsweek and Time vaunt the New Virginity. No one believes in the New Virginity. According to polls of those who stick with it, their abstinence is fortified with large measures of fellatio. Eighty percent of people have intercourse in their teens, says the Center for Disease Control. (Why the Center for Disease Control keeps records of sexual normalcy, unsmilingly pathologized as an “epidemic,” is its own question.) My newspaper tells me that menstruation starts for girls today at 11, or as early as 9. No one knows why.
Yet the early reality of sex childhood is its restrictive practical dimension. It exists only in the context of the large institutions that dominate children’s lives, the schools. In these prisonlike closed worlds of finite numbers of children, with no visible status but the wealth they bring in from outside (worn as clothes) and the dominance they can achieve in the activities of schooldays (friend making, gossiping, academic and athletic success), sex has a different meaning than in adult licentiousness or collegiate glory. Sex appeal is demanded long before sex, and when sex arrives, it appears within ordinary romantic relationships. New sexual acts are only substitutes for any earlier generation’s acts, as you’d expect. Where petting was, there shall fellatio be.
It will simply never be the case that children can treat sex with the free-floating fantasy and brutality that adults can, because we adults are atomized in our dealings with others as children in school are not. If I do something rotten on a blind date, I never need to see the only witness again. A child does something rotten, and his date is sitting next to him in homeroom. The adult world sends down its sexual norms, which cannot blossom in a closed institution (though alarmists say they originate there), but which the children tuck away to fulfill just as soon as they can. Children are the beneficiaries of a culture that declares in all its television, jokes, talk, and advertising that if sex isn’t the most significant thing in existence, it is the one element never missing from any activity that is fun. They are watchers, silent, with open eyes, and they grow in the blue light.
So much for the decadent reality of childhood.
But adults then look back from exile and see wrongly, thinking the children are free because we’ve hemmed them in with images of a transitory future freedom. Never mind that we ourselves led carnal lives that would make old men weep. Those lives hardly counted: inevitably we were caught in actual human relationships with particular people, in a matrix of leaden rules and personal ties. Envy of one’s sexual successors is now a recurrent feature of our portion of modernity. Philip Larkin:
When I see a couple of kids,
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
. . . everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life . . .
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds.
Larkin’s solace in the poem was high windows and the icy blue; in real life, an enormous collection of pornography.
The dirty magazines and their supposedly legitimate counterparts in fact play a significant role in the system of sex childhood. In Larkin’s life, the poetry of longing went hand in hand with the fulfillments of porn, and all of us share in this interchange at a more banal level. The colloquialisms “men’s magazines” and “women’s magazines” generally seem to name two very different sets of publications. “Women’s magazines” are instructional—how to display oneself, how to serve men, and nowadays (maybe always) how to steal sexual and emotional pleasure from men, outwitting them, while getting erotic and affective satisfactions, too, in the preparations for your self-display. “Men’s magazines,” for their part, are pornographic—how to look at women, how to fantasize about women, how to enjoy and dominate, and what one becomes while fantasizing this domination. The two genres are distinct, but continuous.
The women’s advice and fashion magazines, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Elle, Vogue, hold a permanent mandate for an erotic youthfulness, though not literal sexual youth. They provide shortcuts to staying young for old and young alike: how to keep your skin young, how to keep your muscles young, how to keep your ideas young, how to feel perpetually young, how to siphon vitality from elsewhere to be “young” even if you’re not, literally, young, and how to use your youth if you are. You learn early what you’ll lose late, and get accustomed to denying the aging that you might never have minded as much without this help.
Men’s magazines fix readers’ desires in the range of women’s shapes and bodies and modes of seduction and subordination—fragmenting the market by body part and sex act and level of explicitness, but also by age. Pornography has a special investment in youth. The college girl is a central feature of Playboy in its “Girls of the Big Ten” pictorials; Hustler has a relentless Barely Legal franchise in magazines and videos, aped by Just 18 and Finally Legal and all the bargain titles behind the convenience-store counter. In the demimonde of the internet, an even more central category of all online pornography is “teen.” Of course it is profoundly illegal in the United States to photograph anyone under 18 sexually; in what is called 2257 compliance, producers of pornography must keep public legal records proving that every model is 18 or older. Technically, therefore, there are only two ages, 18 and 19, at which “teen” models can be actual teens. Nor do the models ever seem to be sexually immature; child pornography doesn’t seem to be what the sites are for. Rather, putative teen models are made situationally immature—portrayed with symbols of the student life, the classroom, the cheerleading squad, the college dorm, the family home, the babysitting, the first job; not the husband, not the child, not the real estate brokerage or boardroom or bank office, never adult life.2
Thus a society that finds it illegal to exploit anyone beneath the age of legal majority is at the same time interested in the simulation of youth—often by people who are sexually mature but still only on the cusp of adulthood. And in its legitimate publications, as in its vice, it encourages a more general, socially compulsory female urgency to provision youth across the life span, and a male rush to take it.
Though the young person has never been old, the old person once was young. When you look up the age ladder, you look at strangers; when you look down the age ladder, you are always looking at versions of yourself. As an adult, it depends entirely on your conception of yourself whether those fantastic younger incarnations will seem long left behind or all-too-continuous with who you are now. And this conception of yourself depends, in turn, on the culture’s attitudes to adulthood and childhood, age and youth. This is where the trouble arises. For in a culture to which sex furnishes the first true experiences, it makes a kind of sense to return to the ages at which sex was first used to pursue experience and one was supposedly in a privileged position to find it. Now we begin to talk, not about our sex per se, but about a fundamental change in our notion of freedom, and what our lives are a competition for.3
We must begin to talk directly about the change that was well begun in Nabokov’s day and is well advanced in ours, the transformation that created the world in which we are both freed and enslaved. That was sexual liberation.
Liberation implies freedom to do what you have already been doing or have meant to do. It unbars what is native to you, free in cost and freely your possession, and removes the iron weight of social interdiction. Even in the great phase of full human liberation which extended from the 1960s to the present day, however, what has passed as liberation has often been liberalization. (Marcuse used this distinction.) Liberalization makes for a free traffic in goods formerly regulated and interdicted, creating markets in what you already possess for free. It has a way of making your possessions no longer native to you at the very moment that they’re freed for your enjoyment. Ultimately you no longer know how to possess them, correctly, unless you are following new rules which emerge to dominate the traffic in these goods.
In sexual liberation, major achievements included the end of shame and illegality in sex outside of marriage (throughout the 20th century); the disentangling of sex from reproduction (completed with the introduction of the oral contraceptive pill in 1960); the feminist reorganization of intercourse around the female orgasm and female pleasure (closer to 1970); and the beginning of a destigmatization of same-sex sexuality (1970 to the present). The underlying notion in all these reforms was to remove social penalties from what people were doing anyway.
But a test of liberation, as distinct from liberalization, must be whether you have also been freed to be free from sex, too—to ignore it, or to be asexual, without consequent social opprobrium or imputation of deficiency. If truly liberated, you should engage in sex or not as you please, and have it be a matter of indifference to you; you should recognize your own sex, or not, whenever and however you please. We ought to see social categories of asexuals who are free to have no sex just as others are free to have endless spectacular sex, and not feel for them either suspicion or pity. One of the cruel betrayals of sexual liberation, in liberalization, was the illusion that a person can only be free if he holds sex as all-important and exposes it endlessly to others—providing it, proving it, enjoying it.
This was a new kind of unfreedom. In hindsight, the betrayal of sexual liberation was a mistake the liberators seemed fated to make. Because moralists had said for so many centuries, “Sex must be controlled because it is so powerful and important,” sexual liberators were seduced into saying, in opposition, “Sex must be liberated because it is so powerful and important.” But in fact a better liberation would have occurred if reformers had freed sex not by its centrality to life, but by its triviality. They could have said: “Sex is a biological function—and for that reason no grounds to persecute anyone. It is truthless—you must not bring force to bear on people for the basic, biological, and private; you may not persecute them on grounds so accidental. You must leave them alone, neither forcing them to deny their sex nor to bring it into the light.”
This misformulation of liberation only became as damaging as it did because another force turned out to have great use for the idea that sex is the bearer of the richest experiences: commerce. The field of sex was initially very difficult to liberate against a set of rival norms which had structured it for centuries: priority of the family, religious prohibitions, restraint of biology. Once liberation reached a point of adequate success, however, sex was unconscionably easy to “liberate” further, as commerce discovered it had a new means of entry into private life and threw its weight behind the new values. What in fact was occurring was liberalization by forces of commercial transaction, as they entered to expand and coordinate the new field of exchange. Left-wing ideas of free love, the nonsinfulness of the body, women’s equality of dignity, intelligence, and capability, had been hard-pressed to find adequate standing before—and they are still in trouble, constantly worn away. Whereas incitement to sex, ubiquitous sexual display, sinfulness redefined as the unconditioned, unexercised, and unaroused body, and a new shamefulness for anyone who manifests a nonsexuality or, worst of all, willful sexlessness—that was easy.
Opposition to this is not only supposed to be old-fashioned but also joyless and Puritanical—in fact, ugly. Sex talk is so much a part of daily glamour and the assurance of being a progressive person that one hates to renounce it; but one has to see that in general it is commercial sex talk that’s reactionary, and opposition that’s progressive. Liberalization has succeeded in hanging an aesthetic ugliness upon all discussions of liberation, except the purely ornamental celebrations of “the Woodstock generation” one sees on TV. Original liberators are ogres in the aesthetic symbolism of liberalization. They don’t shave their legs! They’re content to be fat! They have no fun. To say that a bodily impulse is something all of us have, and no regimentation or expertise or purchases can make one have it any more, is to become filthy and disgusting. It is to be nonproductive waste in an economy of markets, something nonsalable. It is not the repression of sex that opposes liberation (just as Foucault alerted us), but “inciting” sex as we know it—whatever puts sex into motion, draws it into publicity, apart from the legitimate relations between the private (the place of bodily safety) and the public (the sphere of equality).
The question remains why liberalization turned back to gorge itself on youth.
How should a system convince people that they do not possess their sex properly? Teach them that in their possession it is shapeless and unconditioned. Only once it has been modified, layered with experts, honeycombed with norms, overlaid with pictorial representations and sold back to them, can it fulfill itself as what its possessors “always wanted.” Breasts starved away by dieting will be reacquired in breast implant surgery—to attain the original free good, once destroyed, now recreated unnaturally.
How to convince them that what appears plentiful and free—even those goods which in fact are universally distributed—is scarce? Extend the reach of these new norms that cannot be met without outside intervention. Youth becomes a primary norm in the competition for sex. The surprise in this is not that youth would be desirable—it has always had its charm—but that you would think youth ought to be competitively ineffective, since it is universally distributed at the start of life. Yet youth is naturally evanescent, in fact vanishing every single day that one lives. It can be made the fundamental experience of a vanishing commodity, the ur-experience of obsolescence. Plus, it was everyone’s universal possession at one time; and so artful means to keep it seem justified by a “natural” outcome, what you already were; and youth can be requalified physically as an aspect of memory, for every single consumer, in minutiae of appearance that you alone know (looking at yourself every day in a mirror, you alone know the history of your face and body) even while other people don’t. We still pretend we are most interested in beauty, and it covers our interest in youth. Beauty is too much someone else’s good luck; we accept that it is unequally distributed. Youth is more effective precisely because it is something all of us are always losing.
From the desire to repossess what has been lost (or was never truly taken advantage of) comes, in the end, the ceaseless extension of competition. It is easily encouraged. It doesn’t require anything nefarious or self-conscious, certainly not top-down control, though it’s sometimes convenient to speak of the process metaphorically as a field of control. All it requires is a culture in which instruments of commentary and talk (news, talk shows, advice magazines) are accompanied and paid for by advertisers of aesthetic and aestheticizable products—everything from skin-cream to Viagra to cars. This is supremely prosaic; but this is it. Once people can be convinced that they need to remain young for others to desire them, and that there are so many instrumentalities with which they can remain young; once they can be encouraged to suspect that youth is a particularly real and justifiable criterion for desire, then the competition will accelerate by the interchange of all these talkers: the professional commentators and product vendors and the needy audiences and ordinary people. Norms will not be set in advance, but are created constantly between the doubting individual and the knowing culture; or between the suddenly inventive individual and the “adaptive” and trend-spotting culture; a dialectic ultimately reproduced inside individuals who doubt (“I’m growing old”) but seek know-how (“I’ll be young”)—in the channeling of desire in the bedroom, in conversation, in the marketplace.
For our object lessons and examples, it becomes advantageous for those searching for sexually desirable youthfulness to follow the trail to those who actually have youth. Thus young people in all forms of representation—advertising, celebrity-following, advice literature, day-to-day talk and myth—augment the competitive system of youth whether or not they are the “target market” of any particular campaign.
And yet the young are off-limits sexually, by law and morality and, more visibly, because of institutions that instruct and protect them. An adult simply will not get his or her hands on a college student—in large part because that student is in a closed institution. Professors have increasingly learned to stay away from students by threat of firing and public shaming. An adult should never wind up in sexual contact with a high school student unless conscience is gone and jail holds no fear; but neither will he run into many of them. The real-world disastrous exceptions of abuse, as we well know, come from those inside the institutions which instruct and protect the child: teachers, priests, babysitters, and, far and away most frequently, parents and family members. This criminal subset has an ambiguous relation to the wider fascination. For society as a whole, gazing at those youths who are sexually mature but restricted from the market institutionally or legally, sex children become that most perfect of grounds for competition, a fantastic commodity unattainable in its pure form.
Hence the final double bind of social preoccupation with the sex children in a commercial society regimented by a vain pursuit of absolute freedom. On one side, the young become fascinating because they have in its most complete form the youth which we demand for ourselves, for our own competitive advantage. They are the biologically superrich whose assets we wish to burgle because we feel they don’t know the treasures they keep; they stand accidentally at the peak of the competitive pyramid. Desire for sex childhood is thus a completion of the competitive system. On the other side, the sex child as an individual is the only figure in this order who is thought to be free from competition; who holds sex as still a natural good, undiminished, a capability, purely potential—not something ever scarcer and jeopardized by our unattractiveness and our aging. For sex children, sex remains a new experience of freedom and truth that retains its promise to shape a better self. The kids are not innocent of carnality but they are innocent of competition. Desire for sex childhood thus becomes a wish for freedom from the system. The sex child can be a utopia personified, even as she props up the brutal dystopia to which her youth furnishes the competitive principle.
As I attempted the first draft of this essay, the news was filled with reports about a 22-year-old North Dakota college student, Dru Sjodin, who was abducted and murdered as she left her retail job at Victoria’s Secret. Police arrested a 50-year-old “Level Three sex offender” who had been identified in the mall parking lot though he lived thirty miles away in Minnesota. The man had Sjodin’s blood in his car; police couldn’t find the girl. But the news kept showing a college glamour picture, comparing her to other abducted youths, and dwelling on her workplace with its lingerie.
At the time, I thought: We can expect this to keep happening as long as sex with the sex children is our society’s most treasured, fantasized consumer good. There was something inevitable about a murderer going to the mall to abduct a sex child—though under the circumstances it seemed terrible to say so. The whole tragedy was too depressing. So I stopped writing.
During the second attempt, I reached the clinical literature on child molestation. Some of it is tolerable. This includes the accounts of abused children who enter therapy and meet child psychologists who then record their cures in a whole hopeful literature on the side of healing. What is mostly intolerable, on the other hand, is the literature about child molesters. There are valuable contributions to criminology and psychology on the library shelves, which outline the problems of pedophilia and sexual abuse and molestation, often with in-depth interviews. I couldn’t read very much of them. Sorry as I felt for these men, it seemed clear to me they should be destroyed. But this was really insane, and went against my other beliefs. So I began to consider: What is the meaning of abomination today, in a nonreligious age? It must be that there are points of cultural juncture at which phenomena are produced that, though explicable, are indefensible in the terms of any of the structures which produce or analyze them. You don’t want to appeal to trauma, rehabilitation, socialization, or biological inclination. You can’t just run away from the phenomena, and yet they can’t be brought into the other terms of social analysis without an unacceptable derangement of values. This explains the impasse in which the annihilative impulse takes hold. So I stopped a second time.
In an increasingly dark mood, I came to the darkest way to frame the enigma of the sex children. A fraction of young people are extraordinarily highly valued, emulated, desired, examined, broadcast, lusted after, attended to in our society. These legal ex-children are attended to specifically as repositories of fresh sexuality, not, say, of intellect or even beauty. As their age goes up to 17, 18, and 19, the culture very quickly awards them its summit of sexual value. Yet as their age goes down from some indefinite point, to 16, 15, 14, and so on, the sexual appeal of childhood quickly reaches our culture’s zone of absolute evil. Worse than the murderer, worse than the adult rapist of adults, and even worse than the person who physically and emotionally abuses children, is the person who sexually tampers with a child in any degree—who can then never be reintegrated into society except as a sex offender—or is simply the author of monstrous thoughts, a cyberstalker netted in police stings in chatrooms, or found downloading underage images to his hard drive. This is the “pedophile” whether or not he acts. Since the two zones—maximum value of sex, and maximum evil for sex—are right next to each other, shouldn’t we wonder if there’s some structural relation in society between our supergood and absolute evil?
The most direct explanation is that we may be witnessing two disparate systems as they come into conflict at just one point. System A would be the sexual valuation of youth, spurred by the liberalization of sex and its attachment to youth in a competitive economy. System B would be adult morality, the moral impulse to shield beings who need protection from sexual tampering and attention—because of the cruel nonreciprocity inflicted on a young child who doesn’t yet have sexual desire (in true pedophilia, molestation of those beneath pubescence); the equally cruel coercion of those old enough to desire but not to have an adult’s power to consent or to see how their actions will look to a future self (molestation of adolescents); and the deep betrayal, in all acts of sexual abuse, of the order of society and of its future, in something like a society-level version of the taboo on incest. Now, System A (sexual value, commerce) possesses a major flaw in its tendency to drive sexual attention down the age scale relentlessly—even to those legal children who hold sex in its newest and most inaccessible form. System B would fight this tendency, trying to provide necessary restraints; but perhaps it becomes most destructively punitive just where it refuses to disavow System A entirely. By otherwise accepting the sexual value of youthfulness, in other words—with such threatening possible side effects—morality would have to narrow itself vengefully upon the single point of visible contradiction, and overpunish whomever pursues too much youth, or does so too literally.
What’s really striking to anyone who watches the news is of course the intensity of punitive violence where the two systems clash. From the point of view of morality, the overpunishment of the pedophile and the sex offender (barred from living anonymously, unrehabilitable, hounded from town to town unable to return to society) makes perfect sense, because of the extreme moral reprehensibility of abusing a child—combined with a dubious contemporary doctrine that desires can never be rehabilitated. It would also make sense, however, if we feared that the ruthlessness of this interdiction of pedophilia helped rationalize or reinforce the interests which confer extreme sexual value on youth just a bit up the ladder. One fears our cultural preoccupation with pedophilia is not really about valuing childhood but about overvaluing child sex. It would be as if the culture understood it must be so ruthless to stop tampering with real children, just because it is working so hard to keep afloat the extreme commercial valuation of youth and its concrete manifestations in the slightly older sex child. Does the culture react so vehemently at just this point because were the screen of morality to collapse, the real situation would have to be confessed—the child’s extreme uninterest in adults; the child’s sexual “liberation” as a sub-effect of our own false liberation; the brutalization of life at all levels by sexual incitement?
One further step into the darkness has to complete the critique. The most pitiful and recondite form of pedophilia is sexual attachment to children below the age of sexual maturity—true pedophilia, which seems so utterly unmotivated, a matter of strict pathology. But a certain amount of the permanent persistence of child molesting as a phenomenon must not come from a fixed psychic category but from the misdirecting of sexual impulse to young people who temporarily fill a place of temptation or fascination—especially in desire for teens who are sexually mature, but whom an adult may still do a profound wrong by addressing sexually. It seems likely that an incessant overvaluing of the sex of the young will train some people toward wrong objects. This should swell the numbers of the class of incipient or intermittent wrongdoers who might no longer see a bright line between right and wrong—because social discourse has made that beam wobble, then scintillate, attract, and confuse.
If this is so, such immoral attention is not just a matter of a “loosening” of morality, but the combination of liberalization (not liberation) with a blinkered form of cultural interdiction. The pedophilic sensibility of the culture is strengthened. Thus we may produce the obsession we claim to resent; the new pedophile would become a product of our system of values.
One rehabilitative solution would be to try to extinguish the worship of youth. Childhood is precisely the period when you can’t do what you like. You are unformed and dumb. It is the time of first experiences; but first experiences can be read either as engravings from which all further iterations are struck and decline in clarity, or as defective and insufficient premonitions of a reality that will only develop in adulthood. We know the beauty of the young, which it is traditional to admire—their unlined features, their unworn flesh—but we also can know that the beauty of children is the beauty of another, merely incipient form of life, and nothing to emulate. One view of the young body is as an ideal. The other is as an unpressed blank.
A second solution would be the trivialization of sex altogether. This is much harder, because every aspect of the culture is so much against it, counterliberators and prudes included. Aldous Huxley warned of a world in which we’d arrange sexual intercourse as we make dates for coffee, with the same politeness and obligation. That now seems like an impossibly beautiful idyll. At least coffee dates share out assets pacifically. You meet for coffee with people you don’t really want to see, and people who don’t want to see you agree to meet you, and yet everyone manages to get something out of it. If only sex could be like coffee! But sex has not proved adaptable to this and probably never will, despite the recent overcoming of a heretofore limiting condition—the inability to control physical arousal at will. The new pharmacopoeia of tumescence drugs will soon give way, according to reports of current clinical trials, to libido drugs that act directly on the brain rather than the vascular system—and for both men and women. I’m still not optimistic they will produce a revolution in etiquette.
The reason it seems a sex of pure politeness and equal access does not work is that the constant preparation to imagine any and every other person as a sexual object (something our culture already encourages) proves to be ruthlessly egocentric and antisocial, making every other living body a tool for self-pleasure or gain. At times I wonder if we are witnessing a sexualization of the life process itself, in which all pleasure is canalized into the sexual, and the function of warm, living flesh in any form is to allow us access to autoerotism through the circuit of an other. This is echoed at the intellectual level in the discourse of “self-discovery.” The real underlying question of sexual encounter today may not be “What is he like in bed?” (heard often enough, and said without shame) but “What am I like in bed?” (never spoken). That is to say, at the deepest level, one says: “Whom do I discover myself to be in sex?”—so that sex becomes the special province of self-discovery.
Meanwhile the more traditional way of trivializing sex, by subordinating it to overwhelming romantic love, has diminished as an option as the focus on self-discovery has increasingly devitalized full romantic love. Self-discovery puts a reflecting wall between the self and attention to the other, so that all energy supposedly exerted in fascination, attraction, and love just bounces back, even when it appears to go out as love for the other. When self-discovery is combined with the notion of a continually new or renewed self, and this newness is associated with literal or metaphorical youth—well, then you simply have a segment of the affluent first world at the present moment.
This means the trivialization of sex and the denigration of youth will have to start with an act of willful revaluation. It will require preferring the values of adulthood: intellect over enthusiasm, autonomy over adventure, elegance over vitality, sophistication over innocence—and, perhaps, a pursuit of the confirmation or repetition of experience rather than experiences of novelty.
The trivialization of sex and the denigration of childhood can still be put on the agenda of a humane civilization. However, I think it’s basically too late for us. Perhaps I simply mean that I know it is too late for me. If you kick at these things, you are kicking at the heart of certain systems; if you deny yourself the lure of sex, for example, or the superiority of youth, you feel you will perish from starvation. But if I can’t save myself or my children, probably, I still might help my grandchildren. The only hope would be, wherever possible, to deny ourselves in our fatuousness and build a barricade, penning us inside, quarantining this epoch which we must learn to name and disparage.
Let the future, at least, know that we were fools. Make our era distinct and closed so that the future can see something to move beyond. Record our testament, that this was a juvenile phase in liberation which must give way to a spiritual adulthood! Turn back to adults; see in the wrinkles at the side of the eye that catch the cobalt, the lines of laughter in the face, the prolific flesh, those subtle clothes of adulthood, the desire-inspiring repositories of wisdom and experience. Know that what we wish to be nourished upon is age and accomplishment, not emptiness and newness. Then, in sophisticated and depraved sexuality, rather than youth’s innocence and the fake blush of truth, let our remaining impulses run in the sex of the old for the old—until they run out. Make a model for a better era. Once more, my moderns—in a superior decadence, in adult darkness rather than juvenile light—rise to the occasion! One effort more if you wish to be called liberators.
The entertainment does not seem to be only for adult men. It’s a difficult question whether there is strict symmetry by gender, so that boys should also become sex objects for adult women, and adult male fashion regress to youth. In the private realm, school teachers keep being revealed as molesters when they get pregnant by their seventh-graders; so that is one kind of appeal. And in the popular culture, “Abercrombie & Fitch” names a certain iconography of high school musclebound male toplessness, teen depilation and wrestling as signs of eros—an eroticism drawn from gay men’s pleasure in the college boy and teen, repurposed for heterosexuality. But it does seem the popular culture is still just testing the waters to find the extent of adult women’s desire. This is the meaning of the aphasic silences, for example, around Demi’s Ashton and Gabi’s lawn-boy lover on Desperate Housewives. The logic of our society should ultimately even out private fantasies between the genders. But perhaps because there is always so great a capacity for fantasy and pleasure in self-display—not just in pursuit of one’s opposite number—for now adult women’s investment in the sex children, at least in public, remains largely oriented to youthful girls. ↩
Feminist critiques of pornography rooted in an idea of male violence and revenge against the threat of women’s liberation might have predicted a different outcome in our age of equality: wider representations of the literal humiliation or subordination of adult women in power. What they did not anticipate was a turn to sexualized youth. Though the two lines of critique are not at all incompatible (i.e., youth still may be a way of denying adult equality), one sees now that feminist critiques of youth and aging are proving to be more significant historically than the MacKinnon-Dworkin line of pornography criticism. ↩
I want to acknowledge two popular lines of thought that insist on the attraction to sexually mature children as natural not social, contravening my account. One is the commonsense historical argument that until recently sexually mature children of the middle teen years were adults, because human beings used to marry in their teens. Natasha, the dream of Russian womanhood in War and Peace, one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, set in that century’s early years, is 14 when she becomes the object of her first suitors’ attention—and admirable suitors too: hussars in the Czar’s army, and a count. Her girlishness is treated matter-of-factly by those who are drawn to it as an appealing aspect of her personality, and it is considered realistically by her parents, who are concerned she may be too immature yet to leave home and run a household. In the United States, as the historian Philip Jenkins has summarized, the standard age of sexual consent was 10 years old until the 1890s, when it was raised to 16 or 18 depending on the state.
The other argument is one occasionally offered explicitly, but much more often implicitly, in the field of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology explains behavioral dispositions in modern human beings by the optimal strategies for passing on genes, through patterns hardwired into our brains by our evolutionary past and the continuing reproductive demands of the present. “Youth is a critical cue,” writes evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss in the standard book on the subject of sex, “since women’s reproductive value declines steadily with increasing age after twenty. By the age of forty, a woman’s reproductive capacity is low, and by fifty it is close to zero” (The Evolution of Desire). The desire for children from the moment of visible pubescence (say, 12 today) to the maximum age before reproductive decline (age 20) may therefore be the best means for passing on genes. This inclination would be set beneath the level of consciousness, as men’s desire is targeted to females who are fertile, healthy, and poised for the longest period of childbearing possible before the decline sets in. On evolutionary-biological presuppositions, it ought to be the case that human males today and yesterday, and in every society, should be maximally attracted to newly postpubescent girls unless it be determined statistically that there is some ramping-up of reproductive success in the years after menarche—in which case, certainly, no later than 14 or 15.
Neither the historical nor the biological argument seems to meet the problem of the sex child as we now know it, because I think neither captures our current experience of desire, in which the sex children come in only secondarily, through some kind of mediation of fancy; in our real lives adults feel the sexual appeal of other adults. Unless sexual desire is wholly unconscious, not plastic and social, and the social level entirely a screen or delusion—a very complex delusion to cover biological determinism—then with the sex children it’s my sense that we are dealing primarily with the sexual appeal of youth rather than the actual determinative sexual attractiveness of youths. It would be something like a desire for the sex child’s incipience, the child’s taste of first majority before the rules clamp down: youth as eternal becoming, in eternal novelty of experience. Apart from such fancies, the appeal of sexually mature children seems to me particularly weak, not strong. But I understand that introspection is not science and I am aware this may not satisfy partisans of the “natural” views. ↩