An Age of Innocence: Awkward Adults and Gendered Children

An Age of Innocence: Awkward Adults and Gendered Children

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here on Nursing Clio and up until the other day I had been planning on writing something incredibly exciting (I swear) regarding the history of prostitution. As it often does, however, life happened. The image below rolled across my computer screen and derailed that little nugget in favour of a conversation about our current obsession with the innocence of childhood and the possible impact it has on decisions that we, as adults, make regarding how best to guide children into adulthood. How much does adult-onset awkwardness about the fact that children do have a sexuality and are sexed influence the way we talk about issues relating to sex?

Before we get to the image, however, I think it’s worth briefly clarifying here that there is a difference between children as objects of desire or the sexual exploitation of children in any form, and an understanding of children as being capable of a sexed experience. Children have crushes, develop an early awareness of their own gender, and encounter daily the practicalities of existing as biologically sexed. I’m not defending any practice or behaviour designed to degrade or otherwise take advantage of any child. My concern is with how we, as adults, handle this reality, and whether there is something to come from examining the idyllic façade of innocence which we drape over our children.

With that said it’s time to have a look at the picture which spawned this blog post:

Seven Year Old

At first, it seems that this picture actually depicts exactly the opposite of the innocent, asexual child; this is, after all, an image explicitly discussing a child’s sexuality. It was posted on the Facebook page of LGBT News (I’m not sure if the link to the actual photo will hold, but here it is anyway) back in April 2012, generating what seems to me a fairly robust conversation.

When I last looked it had been liked 389,869 times and there were almost 40,000 comments. I’m sure the discussion generated is not the largest, the most vociferous, or the most controversial on Facebook, and yet 40,000 comments is not a flash in the pan either. It was these comments that changed this from a conversation about this child’s sexual orientation to a conversation about the possibility or appropriateness of sexuality in this situation at all.

What was most interesting was one particular avenue of inquiry which asked at what age was too old or young to grasp one’s own sexuality. This was one of the few questions which appeared to cross partisan lines, so to speak; presenting itself on both sides of the conversation. There were, of course, the comments which not only should not have been put into print initially but certainly do not need to be repeated here, as well as the comments in support of both him and his mother, but what struck me were the number of questions asking, sometimes almost verbatim: Is 7 too young to know that he is, or you are, gay?

Check out some of the following:

did not know my sexual preference until around puberty
What 7 year old knows their sexuality?!
This makes no sense how can a person who is not yet sexually active have a sexual preference, I think putting this online is only going to hinder the confused misguided boy
How could a child possibly know he’s gay as [sic] seven
Really?! at 7??? dont ALL boys NOT like girls at that age?! im not against gays but i think the fact that he is 7 makes this entire statement WEIRS!!!! [sic]

Now, the reality is that many of these comments even without explicit mention of any concern with the boy’s expressed homosexual desire still convey an ambivalence, at the very least, about his particular form of sexual expression and identity. As other commenters rightly pointed out, children often develop crushes even if it does not culminate in a sexual experience or they don’t have the vocabulary to put these essentially sexual feelings into words:

I have 2 daughters who are 4 and 5. They both occasionally joke about boys being cute or about when they grow up and have husbands. They aren’t thinking about sex, they don’t even know what that is and yet they are drawn to boys. If my kids can know at 5 that they are heterosexual, why couldn’t a 7 year old know he’s gay? That doesn’t mean everyone who is gay knows at 7 but apparently this kid does and it’s his life.
At 7,said another, ‘I knew I liked girls so why can’t he know he likes boys. I didn’t identify myself as straight though. Not sure why he would be seeking to label himself at such a young age one way or another. Either way, it’s nice to see someone so young being at home in their own skin.

This author, for one, remembers proposing marriage to a poor girl on a school bench when he was four and she was five (although, to be fair, it was more a polite statement than a question: ‘I’m going to marry you one day’). I’m fairly certain I didn’t know what sex was, I probably didn’t know where babies came from, and I’m convinced that I wasn’t ready for a long-term and legally binding relationship, but nonetheless, the interest was there.

So yes, unfortunately, this conversation probably wouldn’t have taken place to this degree (or at all?) had this been a child identifying as straight. BUT, and there’s always a ‘but,’ this alone is too simple an explanation for why these questions arise. We can’t merely chalk up these types of exchanges to rampant and universal homophobia. Intermingled in this conversation is a very real concern about how much children can and cannot know about sex, at what age they should become aware of sexuality, and how these factors will ultimately affect their long-term social and psychological development. It’s a decidedly adult problem which assumes an initial stage or period of innocence through which children traverse, only to come out the other side tarnished by carnal knowledge.

This notion of childhood innocence is a reasonably new one, as Marjorie Heins, a lawyer and activist, rightly points out in her book, Not In Front of the Children, examining the impact of perceptions of children on censorship in America. There are numerous examples of the ways in which our confluence of childhood and innocence were simply not the same as in centuries past: babies were once thought to be born with original sin. The age of marriage, of childbirth, and of child rearing were all considerably lower, maybe in part because of the lower life expectancy, but lower nonetheless. And our notions of acceptable and appropriate sexual behaviours between adults and individuals we would now consider children or youths have changed considerably; sexual relationships between men and boys were common not only in Ancient Greece but also in Ancient Rome, for instance. For Heins, and I agree with her, childhood has only recently become ‘a time of sexual innocence.’[1]

So my question is what role or function does this notion of sexual innocence perform? What does it allow or prohibit us from doing? While in a sense we are protecting children from exploitation, is it also possible that we are potentially delaying maturation or leaving them exposed to the corruption we otherwise fear? While the issues are, of course, incredibly complex we need to be aware of particular tropes governing our thought so as to be able to critically evaluate them; not least because the impact of this demarcation between the innocence of youth and the knowledge of adulthood presents itself in numerous discussions of our sex, gender, and sexuality trinity.

In a previous post I’ve already indicated the (adult) reticence to incorporate particular discussions of sex into Australian school curriculums, but it’s a theme, implicit or explicit, which many of our other Nursing Clio bloggers have highlighted: whether we’re talking about how to deal with the contraceptive needs of adolescents in schools (thanks Carolyn Herbst Lewis), or the ways in which young people have been historically engaged with sex education (and you too, Adam Turner). Even Tina Fey had something to say on the issue describing her own lack of sexual knowledge as a teenage girl, believing that the blue liquid shown in tampon ads was what menstrual blood looked like (check out the first few lines of this article from The Conversation). Any way you cut it, there’s reluctance from a number of corners to discuss with young people the nitty-gritty, fundamental issues of sex.

Sex edTo thicken the plot just a little more, there is some evidence to suggest that maybe youth are not quite so negatively affected by conversations about sex, broadly speaking. A recent study undertaken in Australia regarding sex education indicated that ‘children’ seemed very confident in dealing with the subject, moreso, in fact, than their teachers in many cases. Asking youths aged between approximately 12 and 14 (or those in grades 7-9 for anyone familiar with the Australian education system) more than half of those surveyed wanted more sex education and earlier. Not only this, but a study conducted by the same research team indicated that many adult teachers were the ones really uncomfortable discussing issues like menstruation or wet dreams:

Five out of six male teachers and a third of female teachers were not comfortable teaching about menstruation. Almost half the female teachers were not confident talking about wet dreams, while even more male teachers found the topic uncomfortable.

Based upon the responses of students from the study one of the researchers, Bernadette Duffy, suggested that primary school children ‘“should be at least being taught about [puberty] in grade 3 and 4.”’ Incidentally, ‘the Australian curriculum authority would only introduce sex education in grades 5 and 6… not in grades 3 and 4.’

How this decision was come to I cannot say, nor do I mean to suggest that the only reason it was determined children would not begin sex ed. In the earlier grades was because it was deemed inappropriate. But, as with our image above, there seems to me at least a component of this decision was informed by these notions of what is (and is not) suitable for children of this age with regards to their knowledge of sex. Again, I cannot say whether this is right or wrong, beneficial or detrimental, all I can suggest is that it is only through asking ourselves these questions, bringing this knowledge to the fore, that we come to a better understanding of our own opinions and the potential problems inherent in the discourse generating them.

The sexuality of children is something which we, as adults, have come to find uncomfortable. While I certainly don’t have all the answers, I do wonder to what extent do our own notions of childhood purity might stymie these conversations regarding important issues of sex, gender, or sexuality, relationships, or health? Are we not talking about these issues because they make us uncomfortable or because they are inappropriate or unsuitable for children?

[1] Marjorie Heins, Not in Front of the Children: “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth (New York: Hill and Wang 2001), p. 8.

Sean Cosgrove's research areas lie at the intersection of histories of medicine, science and technology, gender, and popular culture primarily in the late nineteenth century, united by an interest in the experiences of, and ideas surrounding, the human body. He is also committed to public engagement and actively interested in fostering greater inclusivity in higher education. He has previously conducted research focusing on patients, hermaphroditism, and sexual violence and criminality in the nineteenth century, but has also worked on projects outside of academia.