When the XXX Editions in Spain asked for a preface to their Castilian translation of For a World Without Moral Orderand Alice in Monsterland (both on the troploin site), I thought the best introduction was to develop one of the themes of these texts, child/adult relationships, a highly emotional issue that not only stirs up controversy, but is also one of the topics most open to misinterpretation. (1)
One of the questions asked in these texts concerned the social meaning of the overall anti-paedophile consensus that has prevailed in Western democracies since the end of the 20th century. (2)
Only the very naïve can seriously believe that a society rich in misery and oppression would at least have the advantage of caring for child welfare, as if the increased attention paid to paedophilia and its repression came from positive fights for more freedom, and resulted in a better life for kids.
We are well aware that we are treading on slippery ground. On other topics, prison for example, with a minimum of effort, we can make people understand that our critique of prison does not imply that all detainees are good guys, or even potentially subversive. Likewise, it can be difficult, but it is not impossible to explain why refusing to rally behind the French State in its war against the Islamic State after the November 13, 2015, Paris mass killings, does not mean any support for the Islamic State. In sexual matters, however, misunderstanding always lurks in the shadows.
The difficulty with our critique is that its validity derives from a society that does not exist yet, hence from a revolution to make. Quite an uncomfortable position… which is indeed the case with any radical critique. When we question capital and wage-labour, we do not militate in favour of jobs, good pay or guaranteed income for all. And yet a couple of billion people would be quite happy to get a job, good pay or a guaranteed income. Without denying this undeniable fact, our critique focuses on the possibility of a revolution that would give other choices than between misery and work. Supposing a worker who has just been fired reproached Das Kapital with not giving him any immediate solution to his plight, he would be right, except he would be asking the book for something that Marx could not put in it. The same applies to rape and sexual abuse. We are not accountable for the disorders and crimes of the existing society. And whenever, given our capacities, we take part in struggles against the effects of these social evils, we nurture no illusion about the scope of actions which do not address the causes. (3)
Parricide used to be treated and regarded as the crime of crimes. Now the ultimate crime is the violation of childhood dignity and rights. This change means neither that everything is relative, nor that parricide or harming a child is inconsequential, nor that we should wish for a trivialisation of incest.
Putting paedophilia in perspective as a historical object is to understand how it has become a priority issue.
Late 20th century capitalism commodified children by turning them into a consumer group, a segment of the economy, while at the same time individualising and privatising them. Such is indeed the lot of any “market actor”, with the big difference that youth is more vulnerable. Commercialisation is dehumanisation. Children have come to be perceived as objects. Therefore also as sexual objects.
While women’s magazines extol women’s freedom, they always help their readers exercise this freedom by teaching them how to please and seduce. The novelty is, the message now also targets 12-year-olds, formerly called “little girls” but now commonly treated as adults. An article on child protection will be followed by pictures of eroticised teenagers. Not a child porn site, but the respectable Vogue (circulation, one million copies) displayed suggestive models aged 6 to 10. Easy access to pornography goes alongside with gender studies in secondary education and constant warning against potential sexual predators. The development of a consensual feminist discourse parallels hyper-feminisation, and the body and beauty cult reinforces gendered stereotypes.
It is no accident that these contradictions are exacerbated in Britain, the US and Canada, pioneers of the Politically Correct. Equally significant is the fact that such countries are those that make it impossible for an ex-sexual delinquent to live a “normal” life after serving his sentence.
The development of paedophilia as a social phenomenon since the end of the 20th century owes little to a growing care for children, and a lot to a way of life that turns each of us into a consuming subject and object. Both. One complements the other. If I exercise my freedom of choice as a subject buyer on the market, I am also treated as an object by other subjects, companies of course, but also individuals. Actually, with the soaring e-commerce and the popularity of eBay, every one of us is a seller and buyer these days. We are all traders now, self-employed auctioneers of our own possessions. How could a domain as central as sex escape the subjectification/objectification process ? The same society represses what it creates, and dealing with some of the effects makes up for the inability to address the causes.
The contemporary world needs the sexual criminal to shift onto a monster its own failure at treating and even understanding the contradictions linked to sex and specific to our time. Society pretends to be fighting for the children’s cause, when in fact it does its best not to see itself in the distorting mirror that the sexual predator holds up to us.
Traditional patriarchal pre-capitalist societies impose customs, habits and rituals that rule its members’ daily life and conflicts. With the decline of tradition, capitalist power relations and opposed interests (mainly the dominance of the bourgeois over the proletarian, but also of man over woman, and adult over child) are managed on a contractual basis, explicit or implicit. Two persons or entities agree to do something in return for a promised mutual benefit, on the assumption that each contracting party has full command of his or her free will. In an unequal society, this is fiction. There is no equality between boss and employee, and more inequality between man and woman than meets the eye. In matters of sex, to make the fiction workable, the modern State has gradually turned sexuality into a specific domain which it must protect within each of us. Since the 19th century, there has been an ever-growing public regulation of sex life, sometimes for the common good, always with the result of increased control over our lives.
For the child, his or her situation is next to untenable, because his or her capacity to enter into a contract is limited or none. If no law prevents two 13-year old girls from engaging in sexual play, in reality they can only do so without the adults’ knowledge. Society treats us as if we were free but restricts the exercise of that freedom within State-defined bounds. And it is worse for children who are caught in a double bind: “Be yourself and obey”. The State protects adults in spite of themselves: children are always protected against themselves.
By the bye, just as we present no contingency plans for the disasters and horrors of this world, we will not venture an educated guess on the definition of teenage-hood. A girl or boy of 8 is certainly not a teenager, nor even a pre-teenager. But when can a person be said to exercise his or her free will ? At 14 ? At 15, at 18 ? Or should we rely on the legal age of majority ? Or on the age of consent, which is 14 in Austria, 15 in France, 18 in Turkey and in the Vatican ? The only answer to the question is the critique of the question. Child/pre-teenager/teenager, these are categories fit for bourgeois institutions and commerce. A recent addition is the young adult, theadulescent in advertising and media language, the prospected buyer of mags, films, clothes, e-paraphernalia, etc., specific to this new age segment. In any case, as we wrote in 2001, I talk to a baby who is still incapable of answering in words, but I don’t read him The Society of the Spectacle.
The Communist Manifesto was an assault on overtly bourgeois thought, but Marx and Engels also felt the need to address socialist variants (“reactionary”, conservative”, “critical-utopian”) that could side-track the movement.
Since 1848, capitalism has proved fertile ground for confusion, political or otherwise, ways and norms of life no exception. In matters relating to what an outdated vocabulary called mores, reactionaries now like to clothe themselves in the garb of protesters. From the US Moral Majority to the surge of religious fundamentalism (Islam being only the most visible and violent), a worldwide cultural and moral backlash tramples over basic freedom in the very name of human dignity and women’s or children’s rights. It is as if, in the early 21st century, intellectual courage meant questioning gender theory and anti-racism. Rebellion becomes a conservative watchword. Confusion is worsened when some anti-abortionists start downplaying family and tradition, claim to be pro-woman, and “recuperate” feminist discourse. (4)
France is another case in point. When it became clear in 2012 that parliament would legalise same-sex marriage, the conservative Manif Pour Tous (i.e. “Demo For All”) was created as a response to the Mariage Pour Tous (“Marriage For All”). Though purportedly non-denominational and apolitical, this umbrella organisation was largely dominated by “tradi” Catholics, pro-family, anti-abortion and ultimately anti-gay groups, supplemented by a small but vociferous far-right fringe. It was supported but not organised by the mainstream right wing parties. La Manif Pour Tous flooded the streets and the media for two years, sometimes with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. They regarded themselves as resistance fighters against a selfish world, and claimed to be defending the heterosexual “mummy + daddy + kids” family in the name of children and as one of the last outposts of human rights in an increasingly commercialised society: “Human bodies are not commodities”. They were only anti-capitalist in so far as capitalism acts as a solvent of moral standards. La Manif Pour Tous offered a channel of expression to a multi-faceted confused dissatisfaction, gave birth to a lot of local initiatives (vigils, for example), and had many features of a grassroots movement: reactionary backlash with a popular militant face. It was fighting a lost battle, however: the 2013 law authorising same-sex marriage is unlikely to be repealed, even by a right-wing government.
When faced with such confusion, critique must target both Political Correctness which has become part ofmainstream ideology, and its rejection by the supporters of tradition and patriarchy (or what is left of it). (5)
A sad side-effect of this confusion is that fighting on both fronts carries the risk of our critique being construed as a reactionary stand. Refuting some aspects of feminist theory will always leave the writer open to the accusation of sexism. Maintaining a critique of marriage when the gays fight for the right to get married is likely to attract more than a fair share of flak from some LGBT quarters.
The critic therefore finds herself or himself in a rather uncomfortable position. Targeting Political Correctness and patriarchy at the same time is no easy task, yet it happens to be the only possible one. If we let ourselves be carried away by consensus and emotion, we play into the hands of the dominants. We cannot avoid enquiring into the meaning and theusage of words, especially highly-charged words like man, woman,homosexual, child, adult… There is no other way but to criticise at the same time conservatism and “progressivism”, both of which are fostered and developed by capitalism, even in so-called modern countries. (6)
G.D., June 2016 (7)
(1 )Paedophilia sparked worldwide interest and emotion in 1996 at the time of the “Dutroux affair” in Belgium (abduction, rape and murder of children and young women). In 2001, Alice in Monsterland was written as a reaction to a minor scandal around Dany “the Red” Cohn-Bendit (ex-anarchist prominent in May 68,turned green and now a moderate ecologist), who was accused of having practised and condoned paedophilia in the 1970s. Because these events only indirectly relate to social movements, they are often deemed to be of minor interest. On the contrary, we should regard them as probes into deep realities. In our own way, we are simply following in the surrealists’ footsteps when they wrote about the Papin sisters (in 1933) and other significant social symptoms.
(2) What we are writing applies mainly to countries where most of capitalist domination takes a democratic form and tends to go beyond patriarchal traditions and all they entail. Yet even in Western Europe sexism prevails, overtly and covertly, more visibly active in Poland than in Britain, but still present everywhere.
(3) Talking of causes, most child abuse occurs within the family fold. It is all very well putting up “No Loitering” signs near the children’s play area in the public park, but a young girl or boy risks less sexual predation from the paedophile lurking in the woods or on the dark side of the Net, than back home from his parents, siblings, relatives, or even close friends of the family.
(4) As in Canada and the US: P. Saurette & K. Gordon, The Changing Voice of the Anti-Abortion Movement. The Rise of “Pro-Woman” Rhetoric in Canada & the United States, University of Toronto Press, 2016.
(5) In Europe, in the US and in other regions of capitalist modernity, the (relative but growing) equalisation of sexual practices coexists with a persistent (though diminishing) inequality between the sexes. Feminine subordination still exists. Compared to the 70s, there is even a regression, a renewed emphasis on motherhood as vital to a woman’s “destiny”.
(6 )A practical challenge is to fight inequality (particularly woman’s subordination to man) while we do not regard equalisation as the solution. As far as theory goes, opposed yet complementary writers like Sade and Fourier are helpful, because they force us to think the unthinkable.
(7 )Some of the issues raised here are also dealt with in a forthcoming pamphlet called Feminism Illustrated, by Constance Chatterley, containing a 1974 article and a 2015 interview. Constance Chatterley is a pseudonym I used in 1974, and again (for the last time, probably) in 2015.
For a more elaborate essay: “On “the women question” ”, readable on this site: https://troploin.fr/node/88