Losing sight of the child – sexual abuse in Steven Angelides’ The Fear of Child Sexuality: Young People, Sex, and Agency

In this post, Dr Ruth Beecher argues that Steven Angelides loses sight of the child altogether when he argues that child sexuality has been “disarmed and disempowered by the child sexual abuse movement” in his recently published book, The Fear of Child Sexuality: Young People, Sex, and Agency.

Steven Angelides has written a “clearly argued, sensible yet provocative book”, as Joanna Bourke argues in her review. Yet when he addresses child sexual abuse, he ties himself in rhetorical knots and loses sight of the child altogether. Acknowledging that feminist rhetoric and action since the 1980s has improved the way anglophone societies respond to child sexual abuse, Angelides decries “radical feminists” for silencing discourse about children’s sexual agency.

Images by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

It is surprising to realise that the “radical feminists” to whom Angelides refers are sociologists, psychologists, social workers and other child protection practitioners. He has categorised them as such because they combine a feminist stance with liberal state assumptions that children cannot give informed consent to sexual relations until they reach adulthood. Angelides objects to the concept of power relations these professionals describe, arguing that all people who are “purportedly in submission” exercise power to “varying degrees” unless they are in a state of complete bondage. A child at the cusp of adulthood does not jump from “a position of powerlessness to one of (adult) power, or from a position of sexual ignorance to a position of sexual knowledge.”

I agree. But Angelides accuses these “child sexual abuse feminists” of constructing a juridical barrier at a random age between an idealised childhood and a sexually mature adulthood. Denouncing the notion that child sexuality is immature experimentation in contrast to the idea that adult sexuality is fully formed and coherent, Angelides ignores developmental theory.  The literature since the 1980s has been increasingly sensitive to the nuances of children’s ages, abilities, and maturity and attempts to document emotional and physical markers to help us understand child development and respect children’s agency at different “ages and stages”. How can adults respect children’s agency (sexual or not) if we cannot understand them?

Neither are child sexuality and child/ adult sexual relations clearly delineated by Angelides, and the reader is sometimes uncertain as to whether he is alluding to children’s sexual agency or specifically to (some?) children’s rights to choose sexual relations with adults in some circumstances. Criticising others for wielding a “conceptually undifferentiated category of the child,” he displays the same tendency.

In an earlier chapter of his book, Angelides recounts an illuminating anecdote. At a dinner party given by his parents, the teenage Angelides was confronted by an eight-year-old girl. She told him “in great detail, and with great delight, her sexual exploits with a thirty-year-old man. ‘He sticks his udder into my udder,’ she said with a smile.” Angelides was unsettled by her disclosure: “I thought I ‘knew’ this female child as a Child, with all its Western connotations of innocence.” As an adult, he is no keener to think beyond the symbol to the actual child. Who was she, why did she confide in him, and what was she trying to tell him? Angelides chides feminists for reversing the “Freudian-led overemphasis on child sexuality and fantasy” and emphasising instead “the reality of sexual abuse,” and thus neglecting child sexuality. I do not criticise the teenage Angelides for his confusion in the face of the girl’s disclosure but I do urge the adult Angelides to think more deeply about the child’s disclosure, her reality, how he responded to it and the real-world consequences for children who try to tell.

Sexual abuse is a violation of a child’s emotional and bodily integrity as well as their sexual agency. In most cases, it is an act perpetrated by a person who is older, more developed, and physically bigger than the baby, infant, pre-pubescent or pubescent child who is the victim. It is always difficult to write about sexual violence and to find ways to avoid sensationalism. However, the reality of the act(s) can be lost in the rhetoric. In the most basic physiological terms, children’s bodies (mouths, fingers, vagina, anus) are not made to accommodate adult-sized tongues, fingers or genitals in a sexual act. Adults do not have sex with children to meet the child’s developmental or sexual needs; they do it to meet their own. It is an abuse of trust, a physical violation, and an act of monumental selfishness.

Angelides decontextualizes sexual abuse but fails to acknowledge that children who are sexually abused have usually been emotionally deprived, neglected or physically abused as well. Without the basic building blocks for their emotional and intellectual development and without secure relationships, they are vulnerable to predation.  This is often by people known to them who groom them to make it easier for them to carry out the abuse and hide their actions. He fails to acknowledge the limitations of the agency and power, sexual or otherwise, of either the eight-year-old or the sixteen-year-old in what he calls “intergenerational sex,” and which I contend is still more accurately called “rape” or  “sexual assault.”

Angelides rightly documents many emotional, judicial and social responses to child sexuality and child abuse that are irresponsible and reactive to public opinion, media diatribes or political expediency.  But in theoretical or concrete terms, I am none the wiser as to specifically what aspect of child sexuality has been “disarmed and disempowered by the child sexual abuse movement.” We have direct testimony from children and adults as to the many ways in which sexual abuse has damaged their psyches, their bodies and limited their choices, why transfer the blame for the consequences of child sexual abuse to feminists and child protection practitioners?

 

The Fear of Child Sexuality: Young People, Sex, and Agency
By Steven Angelides
University of Chicago Press
272pp, £68.00 and £24.00
ISBN 9780226648460 and 9780226648637
Published 22 August 2019