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Feminism, Child Sexual Abuse, and the Erasure of Child Sexuality
Historians do not usually like to speak of the "lessons of history," as if [it] were some objective, finally definitive schoolteacher. But in many years of work at the craft, I have never come across a story that so directly yields a moral. The moral is that the presence or absence of a strong feminist movement makes the difference between better or worse solutions to the social problem of child sexual abuse. . . . Without a feminist analysis, evidence of child sexual abuse means that danger lies in sex perverts, in public spaces, in unsupervised girls, in sexually assertive girls. . . . As with adult rape, child sexual abuse without feminist interpretation supplies evidence and arguments for constricting and disempowering children.
—Linda Gordon, "The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse"
In the 1970s the child protection lobby and feminism together spearheaded a painstaking interrogation and politicization of the social problem of child sexual abuse. By the 1980s a powerful discourse of child sexual abuse was working hard to expose the widespread problem of incest in the patriarchal family and was vigorously contesting legal definitions of abuse that ignored or downplayed nonpenetrative sexual acts. The myth of stranger danger was found to be a patriarchal ruse as feminists produced an array of statistics revealing that fathers, other male relatives, and male acquaintances were the primary perpetrators of child sexual assault. Drawing on the rhetoric of radical feminist antirape and antipornography movements, a new approach to abuse emerged that expanded the definitional terrain [End Page 141] of sexual abuse as well as eroded distinctions among the acts it comprised. Feminists were particularly influential in challenging the notion that children subjected to sexual abuse were somehow complicit in the crime (by seducing adults, "asking for it," or fabricating charges) or that child prostitutes and children involved in pornography or intergenerational sex could knowingly consent to such activities. In a significant reversal of the common twentieth-century tendency of victim blaming, the innocent, powerless, blameless, and unconsenting "victim" and "survivor" of sexual abuse became key cultural terms.
The "rediscovery" of child sexual abuse—perhaps more accurately called a "reinterpretation"—has been profoundly important for Western culture.1 Few would dispute that patriarchal social structures, male sexuality, and power relations between the sexes and between adults and children have been subjected to much-needed critical scrutiny or that our reexamination of the dynamics of child sexual abuse and its detrimental effects has generated valuable insights into diagnosis, therapeutic intervention (for both offenders and victims), and management. However, significant gains are often accompanied by equally significant losses. This essay suggests that, despite admirable efforts to empower children and protect them from the harmful consequences of sexual abuse, they have in one particularly notable way been disempowered and disarmed by the child sexual abuse movement. I argue that the discourse of child sexual abuse has expanded at the expense of a discourse of child sexuality. Rigorous attempts to expose the reality and dynamics of child sexual abuse have been aided, if not in part made possible, by equally rigorous attempts to conceal, repress, or ignore the reality and dynamics of child sexuality. This placing of child sexuality under erasure has had deleterious consequences at both the level of everyday practice and at the level of theory. First, the desexualization of childhood has damaging psychological and psychotherapeutic consequences for child victims of sexual abuse. Second, with "child sexuality" figured only as an oxymoron in the feminist discourse of child sexual abuse, its erasure ensures that the categories of "child" and "adult" are kept distinct and at a safe epistemological distance.2 For queer theorists trained to unpack the mutual imbrication and constitution of binary oppositions, this is highly problematic. As will be shown, not only does queer theory have much to offer theorizations of the relationship between analytic axes of "sexuality" and "age," but there may be an instructive methodological lesson for...