Building on from the position of those such as Philippe Ariès, James Kincaid recognizes that the modern notion of 'childhood' is a social construction. In his texts Child-Loving and Erotic Innocence, he argues that our modern child is an "erotically-appealing blank", and that this erotic child is manufactured – in the sense that we produce it in our cultural factories, i.e. those that 'make meanings' for us. They tell us what "the child" is, and also what "the erotic" is. For the last two hundred years or so, they have confused us, have failed to distinguish the two categories, have allowed them dangerously to overlap. And the result of all that is public spectacles of child eroticism, an eroticism that can be flaunted and also screened, exploited and denied, enjoyed and cast off, made central and made criminal.
The erotic child
Kincaid asserts that this new thing, the post-romantic 'child', has been deployed as a political and philosophical agent, a weapon used to assault substance and substitute in its place a set of negative inversions: 'innocence', 'purity', and 'emptiness'. The construction of the modern 'child' is in this sense largely an evacuation: childhood in our culture has come to be largely a coordinate set of have nots: the child is that which does not have. Its liberty, however much prized, is a negative attribute, as is its 'innocence' and 'purity'.
Moreover, throughout the nineteenth century, notions of 'innocence' and 'purity' became more and more firmly attached to what was characterized as sexually desirable, 'innocence' in particular becoming a fulcrum for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries' ambiguous construction of 'sexuality' and sexual behavior. The instructions we receive on what to regard as sexually arousing tell us to look for (and often create) this emptiness, to discover the erotic in that which is most susceptible to inscription, the blank page. On that page we can write what we like, write it and then long for it, love it, have it. Children are defined, and longed for, according to what they do not have.
Filmmakers, talk-show hosts, journalists, police, psychologists, and 'concerned parents' all have a stake in propagating the image of the sexual child through the same endlessly repeated and repeatable gothic narrative of protection and redemption that allows us to disavow our own sexual investment.
Thus the major point and dilemma is that we are instructed to crave that which is forbidden, a crisis we face by not facing it, by becoming hysterical, and by writing a kind of pious pornography, a self-righteous doublespeak that demands both lavish public spectacle and constant guilt-denying projections onto scapegoats. "Child-molesting" becomes the virus that nourishes us, that empty point of ignorance about which we are most knowing. It is the semiotic shorthand that explains everything, that tells us to look no further.
Our favorite public entertainment has therefore become staged dramas of 'child-molesting', masked as exercises in justice. The media here is not so much a source as a friendly satellite, bouncing back to us the story of child molesting we often hear, tell ourselves and find so satisfying that we love even the echoes. The idea of fear-provoking rumors is not to erase the anxiety but to execute it, since it is the anxiety itself that is doing so much for us.
Killing the bad guy delivers us too – enabling us to enter guilt free into the child's eroticism. Having demonstrated our righteousness by taking such an active part in expelling monstrous evil, we can proceed with an easy heart. Drive a stake through the heart of the pedophile and bourgeois America will be safe, along with our illusions about childhood, the family, sexuality, and our own rectitude.
- "Such frenzied denunciations of the villains, such easy expressions of outrage, such simple-minded analyses of the problem of child-molesting as we love to repeat serve not simply to flatter us but to bring before us once again the same story of desire that is itself desirable, allowing us to construct, watch, enjoy the erotic child without taking any responsibility for our actions."
We reject this monstrous activity with such automatic indignation that the indignation comes to seem almost like pleasure. We have constructed the crisis of 'child sexual abuse' as a demonic trap, a tale of terror from which there is no escape. Though we've created hundreds of public and private agencies, and spent millions, located more pedophiles, jailed them faster and longer, castrated them, tracked them – where are we? Still with a 'rising epidemic'. We've plotted the mystery story precisely so that it can have no solution and no ending.
Backlash and counter-backlash
Kincaid recognizes that things have not remained static, that the image of 'childhood innocence' and the story of 'the pedophile' encounter fluxes, for example with the doubt that has been cast at times on 'satanic rituals', or the rise and fall in popularity of 'recovered memory' cases. These back and forwards movements in the discourse may be described as 'backlash' and 'counter-backlash' stories.
However, these movements all enter into a symbiotic relationship with 'the problem' to keep the talk going by slightly re-jiggling the terms; a way of maintaining the same structure of titillating talk and effective self-protection. In fact, these new twists are so intriguing they demand even more talk, serving the same old needs. The charges and counter-charges merely change and adapt to one another and, more important, the 'problem' changes shape to accommodate the ever-more complex dynamic relations. Hence what looks like violent disagreement in fact seems more like sweet concord. In whatever ways the stories are made more complicated, they remain gothic melodrama, filled with self-protective name-calling. The game stays as it was; the primary discourse remains intact.
For Kincaid, the question to be studied and discussed is: why is our culture so fixated on 'sex with children' and how might we deal with that fixation?
Kincaid suggests that the 'child-molesting problem' is married to the way we think about 'the child-molesting problem'. He urges that we resist the most compelling ritual gesture of all: acknowledging that, "of course, sexual child abuse does exist, and exists on a very large scale". We need not deny this, we just do not want to begin the discussion in the territory left to us once we offer that disclaimer. This disclaimer is a vital part of the discourse that eroticizes the child and keeps us blind to what we are doing. It forces the discussion into channels of diagnosis and cure, mandates certain assumptions about what is and is not important, allows us to see some things and blinds us to others. It traps us into offering one more set of tips on how to determine whether or not child molesting "happened".
We need to fly past the net of beginning with the acknowledgment that 'molestation happens'. That we are compelled to say that 'molestation happens' is an insistence that it must. Where would we be without it? Its material presence is guaranteed by our usual stories, stories of displacement and denial, stories that act to keep alive the images that guarantee the 'molesting' itself, or at least our belief in it.
Kincaid's conclusion is that we must snub the narrative authority and change the stories, begin tell ourselves new stories. This requires being 'scandalous', and being scandalous means being willing to take on big-time opprobrium (which "takes big shoulders, and many of them"). The only way to rewrite the script is first to jar loose the present one, to drain its power by drawing it into the trap that scandal can set and then spring.
Kincaid suggests that alternative genres would be mixed, modulated; abandoning, for instance, stark essentialist notions of sexuality and sexual behavior in favor of the idea of a range of erotic feelings even within and toward children. Such scandalous narratives might see more calmly the way children and eroticism have been constructed for us, and might help us decide that the problems involved in facing these things are much smaller than those that come down on us when we evade them. "We might find that, all along, we have been afraid of the wrong things. We might even find stories that are not fueled by fear."
One problem that remains largely unaddressed by Kincaid's important and insightful analyses is the question of how to make these new narratives sufficiently persuasive to enable the existing dominant discourse to be replaced. He suggests that we enjoy the predicaments we have concocted, that they satisfy our needs for titillation, self-righteousness and absolution from guilt. If so, then what incentive does our culture have to change this? Kincaid – paradoxically, we suggest – indicates that people are basically "well-meaning" and that "deep down [the CSA story] wants to do right by the child". He fails to offer any cause for this naïve optimism. Nonetheless, it remains the case that the creation of new narratives is crucial – and, whether or not our culture is ready or willing to hear them, we must continue to construct and vociferously proclaim them.
- Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992)
- Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting (Duke University Press, 1998)