by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Wondering as I do about socially gendered responses to expressions of childhood sexuality, I find myself drawn to the idea of The Other, that old, constant scapegoat. The Other is an amorphous entity that disquiets because of its familiarity covered over with a veneer of foreignness. The Other conveniently directs our attention away from our own perfectly human issues of contention and casts them unfairly onto a foil that reminds us of ourselves under the guise of our discomfort with someone else.
As men are socially deemed “normal,” I think that women and children are perfect representations of The Other. As said Berta Bornstein in the 1948 article “Emotional barriers in the understanding and treatment of children,” “Children frighten us by their unpredictability, their highly charged emotions… and by their closeness to the unconscious… although it has rarely been admitted, children throughout the ages have been considered a threat by their parents and by society in general.” To clarify, I do not mean to suggest that female-bodied adults may be described this way, but that society clumps them in the same category, effectively creating in the cultural conscience the construct of the infantilized female who, alongside the naturally infantile infant, both pose a “threat” to our generalized sense of “adulthood” which is represented by a particularly repressed idea of maleness.
However, this unease around children–especially children of the opposite sex in a world that generally sees gender as a binary and gender-meddling as inappropriate–can be seen as an inverted unease concerning oneself, and the unconscious fear of the Oedipal crime, which may make itself known in “unnecessary brutalities in training and discipline, for the alleged purpose of changing children into human beings.”
To a misogynistic or misanthropic adult (which are basically the same), all children seem non-normative in that nothing they do conforms to a particularly stringent superego’s enjoinders to be quiet, disciplined, sexless. Holdover ideas of Victorian sexlessness pervasively inform our cultural sense of sex. The societal message is still that sex is bad and specifically women and children are “untainted” by this badness unless they are tainted, in which case, they are bad. But of course, all people are sexual and all people were children. This fretful, cultural finger-wagging only serves to make obvious the finger-wagger’s own discomfort with sexuality. Sexuality, after all, has vastly different meanings and significances to different people. Sexuality in children is equivalent to the body. Early erogenous zones include the nose, eyes, skin; sexuality is the sensations of being held, fed, bathed. It is safety and comforting excitement.
How do parents or caretakers, informed by our cultural Victorianism, experience and react to expressions of childhood (and female) sexuality based on socially gendered conditioning? As says Joseph D. Lichtenberg in 2007’s Sensuality and Sexuality Across the Divide of Shame, “Throughout the developmental cycle parents and other authorities indicate to children those body pursuits they regard as approved, and those body pleasure pursuits they regard as prohibited, and shameful.” Prohibited actions might be those considered “too” sexy (like touching your genitals even though a body is all you have) or “perverse” (like not conforming to socially-created gender roles even though, according to Lichtenberg, the “repudiation of opposite-gender traits… signals a failure in development and the formation of a defensively rigid masculinity or femininity.”)