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WIM 4: The Sticky Part

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If there was no case to be made for censorship at all, on any level, at any time, dealing with Really Bad Readers, Ideological Division, would be a lot easier.   But the problem of censorship–of the urge to censor; and the need to censor; and the collateral damage from even the most rationally based form of censorship–is a lot more complicated than it looks.

Let’s take, for a moment, the one form of censorship that engenders the least discussion and protest:  child pornography.

The US courts, exquisitely wary of the reach effects of their decisions–whatever rationale they might give for banning something, it will be applied to something else they don’t really want to ban–have pretty much come down on the side of defining the harm from child pornography as the physical, mental and emotional harm done to the minors forced to participate in it.

In practice, that has meant court decisions that uphold bans on videos and pictures of real minors engaged in sexual acts, but strike down bans on text-only stories, drawings, or digitally animated productions where no real minors have ever been involved.   That way, the courts manage to skirt the censorship issue entirely.   They do no put themselves in the position of banning or regulating speech.   They stand behind laws that forbid adults to use minors for sexual purposes, whatever those purposes may be.

But the real problem with child pornography is not the effect it has on the minors used in it, but the effect it has on the consumers of it, and the effect that effect has on society at large.

And actual child pornography–pornography about pre-pubescent minors–is the least of it.   True pedophilia, the sexual desire for children under the age of about eleven or so, is very rare.   The stats I’ve seen on it have been less than one or two percent in the population at large and less than six percent in child-intensive environments like schools and children’t groups.  (The incidence is higher in these venues because pedophiles gravitate to places where they will have access to children.)

True pedophilia is objectively a perversion–it is virtually never found in non-humans in nature; it serves no biological purpose; its entire long-term effect is destructive of the perpetrator, his victim, and just about anybody else that comes in contact with it. 

To the extent that the existence of pedophiliac pornography is a danger in and of itself–not because it causes harm to children actually used in it, but even as it exists in forms that use no actual children at all (like all-text stories)–the problem is normalization and stimulus.  If you’re on a diet, it’s not a great idea for you to look at pictures of Beef  Wellington and Baked Alaska all day.  It’s destructive to your willpower.  If you have strong sexual urges for small children, it’s not a good idea to stoke your fanatasies with stories about getting your itch scratched.  It’s likely to make it hard for you not to scratch it.

Normalization is a little more complicated, but it runs along the same lines.  The judgment of this society, and of every other society  now on the planet, is that this behavior is inexcusable.  Internet child porn, especially, tends to create an alternate universe where no such condemnation exists, and where the wider society’s condemnation looks like nothing better than bigotry, a matter of opinion. something that might one day be changed.   That doesn’t help you resist scratching that itch, either.

But no matter how, um, yucky all that is, it isn’t really the major problem with child porn.   Most of child porn is not about pre-pubescent children.  Most pedophiles aren’t technically pedophiles, they’re older men who are strongly sexually attracted to young adolescents, and unlike true pedophiles, there have always been lots and lots and lots of them.

Hell, for most of the history of this planet, it has been the norm, not the exception, to get a girl married by the time she was fifteen, and usually to a much older man, somebody established in a profession or materially successful, a financial sure thing, not a risk. 

In Western societies, where a great deal of emphasis has always been placed on the education of women (at least, relatively to others) and where there have arisen good reasons to postpone girls’ sexual initiation until adulthood (or near adulthood), a complicated set of taboos and customs grew up to protect girls from older men, who were seen as barely able to control themselves in the presence of thirteen and fourteen year olds.

There was clothing, for one thing–the clothes worn by a girl still to be considered a “child” and therefore off-limits were significantly different from the clothes she would wear when she was old enough to signal availability.  So were the ways she was allowed to wear her hair.  Having finished school–high school, in the US, mostly–she would let her skirts down and put her hair up and “come out.”  After that, it was socially acceptable for men to pay attention to her in a sexualized way.  Before that,  not.

But mothers did not rely entirely on cues like clothing and hair to protect their daughters.  They worked overtime to limit the contact those daughters had to men who might be dangerous.  Nikos Kazantzakis talks about the custom on Crete in the last century to remove a girl who had entered puberty even from the company of her fathers and brothers.  In Anglophone societies, there was never this much paranoia, and in America especially there was a fair amount of open contact between the ages and the sexes.  But girls, especially, were still hemmed in by rules and regulation meant to keep older men away from them as much as possible.

What’s more, the world of the child herself was carefully and ruthlessly desexualized.  Entertainment meant to be brought into the home–whether popular novels or television shows–was Lloyd C. Douglas and Leave It To Beaver.  The merest hint that “something” might be going on between men and women rendered novels and television shows off-limits for anyone under at least sixteen, and often older.  What’s more, popular entertainment maintained the position that real, grown up men were not interested in teen-agers.  Watch some of the movies from the thirties and forties sometime.  When the teen-aged girl gets a crush on the older man, the older man is either disgusted or amused.  He doesn’t leap at his chance and get the girl pregnant.  Nor does he stalk her until she gives in to his advances.

A lot has changed since 1958, a year when teen-aged girls were still expected to be treated like children (and to look like children), and the year that saw Lolita published for the first time in the United States.  It’s an interesting juxtaposition.  Lolita is the third rail of censorship discussions.  For one thing, there has never been a solid consensus about what it means, that is, what Nabokov meant to say.   And Nabokov was no help.  Everything he said about the novel was mush.  More than that, though, Lolita is quite defnitely art, not trash, on a technical level.  Nabokov was a lot of things, but one thing he never was was a tenth rate hack of a porno writer producing the text equivalent of bump and grind. 

The  US Supreme Court used to ask if a novel that contained highly explicity sex scenes had “redeeming social value,” but how are we supposed to define “redeeming social value”?  Would Lolita have redeeming social value if we could be sure that it is the portrait of a “sexual predator” and how he thinks?  What if it is a sympathetic portrayal of an older man’s attraction to a teen-aged girl, meant to make such relationships look acceptable and bring down the prejudice (and now the significant legal ediface) raised against them?  What if it is meant to be the portrait of a teen-aged girl as predator, a portrait meant to absolve the older man from all guilt, to show him as the victim and not the assailant?

And what do we make of Lolita now, fifty years after its publication, when all the carefully built walls between teen-aged girls and older men seem to have come down, when sixth-graders go to school in midriff-baring t-shirts, mini skirts short enough to flash their underwear, and fuck-me pumps?  Turn on the television these days and you’ll find enough sex to have kept an “adult” theater busy in the fifties.  Even women who are clearly “adult” in the sense that we know how old they are are often deliberately starved and surgically refashioned to look like teen-age girls.  There’s exactly one age when a woman naturally has narrow hips and relatively large breasts:  at puberty.  After that, they get “parts,” as Mary Lou Retton put it, explaining why most successful female Olympic gymnasts are very young.

We no longer want our movie stars and models to have “parts.”  We want them to look fourteen.   And they do.

When they don’t, we hire actual fourteen year olds.  Open the pages of the New York Times any day of the week, and of dozens of other newspapers across the country, and you’ll find fashion advertisements without number: girls crouched on their hands and knees, girls in tight and minimal dresses posed to maximize the exposure of their breasts and legs, girls in sheer blouses with their nipples clearly visible through the net.

The chances are good that most of the girls you see in those photographs will be fifteen years old or younger, made-up and posed to be more sexy than Ava Gardner on her best day.  If those photographs had shown up on a porn site instead of in a fashion ad, if they’d shown up on somebody’s digital camera, the photographer would have gone to jail and spent the rest of his life as a registered sex offender.   The fashion photographer will just put those in his portfolio and get more work.

Think about that for a minute.

Written by janeh

October 14th, 2008 at 5:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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