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The Children Are Our Future -- But What Is In Their Sordid Past?

Posted: 10/20/06 07:26 AM ET

Have you heard? Keisha Castle-Hughes -- the 16-year-old actress best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in Whale Rider -- is pregnant. She's expecting her child in January. (One month before that, you can see her play the Virgin Mary, in the upcoming film The Nativity Story. I'm not kidding.)

As the story hits the stands, 16-year-olds everywhere are undergoing an identity crisis. Are they children or not?

On the one hand, we've got a kerfuffle of righteous outrage on their behalf from the self-appointed grown-ups of America. "PROTECT THE CHILDREN" is the new clarion-call catchphrase for Democrats and Republicans alike: "Republican leadership chose politics ahead of PROTECTING CHILDREN," tsk-ed Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee. "The Foley scandal shows what happens when political correctness is put ahead of PROTECTING CHILDREN," wailed Tony Perkins of the super-conservative Family Research council. Indeed, according to the New York Times, 79% of Americans believe that the Republicans of Congress "put their political interests ahead of PROTECTING THE SAFETY" of the children.

On the other hand, what children? My last post abused the word "pedophile" like a McMartin Daycare pupil, and I discovered from the comments that for every indignant child-protector, there's a literalist keen to define what a "child" really is. A pedophile, they argued, is attracted to children, and Mark Foley's favorite young studs were too old to be children. Instead, they said, Foley is simply "a homosexual predator who went after teenaged males" and "a self-proclaimed gay man who likes boys." (Do you hear that? It's a collective shudder from the gay community. Thank you, Mr. Foley, for turning the clock back thirty years on gay acceptance and understanding.)

It's time to settle this question once and for all: What is a child? How long should children be innocent from sex? As usual, history can be relied upon to cloud the issue. In fact, the very concept of "children" is relatively new, and so is the illusion of sexual innocence.

Let's start off as far back as we can, in ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks had a myth in which Zeus abducts a young boy named Ganymede, carrying him up to Mt. Olympus to be his eternal boy-lover. This is occasionally referred to as "the rape of Ganymede," but everyone in the story -- including Ganymede's father -- is fairly pleased with the situation.

The Ganymede myth was a cornerstone of Greek pederast culture, especially on the island of Crete, where inhabitants performed a ritual described by the Greek historian Ephorus: men would ceremonially "abduct" young boys, taking them into the countryside for two months of feasting, hunting, and sexual intercourse. The boys' families would pretend to resist the abduction, but in reality it was all a game, like "kidnapping" a bride before her wedding. A family that tried to protect their son from his abductor was considered "extremely shameful," wrote Ephorus, "since in effect they are publicly admitting that the boy is unworthy to get such a lover."

Culturally sanctioned boy-love turned out to be a passing fad, but it was a long time before the modern concept of childhood arose. In fact, it wasn't until the Renaissance that children appeared in Western art at all -- young people were depicted as miniature adults. Perhaps because of the shorter lifespans back then, infancy was thought to lead directly into adulthood; to this day, the French language doesn't make a distinction between "baby" and "child" (both are translated as enfant).

It was a Frenchman, the influential social historian Philippe Ariès, who in 1965 wrote about the sexualized infancy of Louis XIII, quoting the diary of Henri IV:

"Louis XIII was not yet one year old: 'He laughed uproariously when his nanny waggled his cock with her fingers.' An amusing trick which the child soon copied. Calling a page, 'he shouted "Hey, there!" and pulled up his robe, showing him his cock.'

He was one year old: 'In high spirits,' notes Heroard, 'he made everybody kiss his cock.' This amused them all....During his first three years nobody showed any reluctance or saw any harm in jokingly touching the child's sexual parts."

When Louis XIII turned seven, though, school replaced sex games, for "he had become a little man." And only seven years later, "Louis XIII had nothing more to learn, for it was at the age of fourteen years two months that he was put almost by force into his wife's bed." As America will soon learn from Sofia Coppola's new movie, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were not much older when they took the throne.

The myth of childhood as we know it today -- sanitized, idealized, rosy and prolonged -- arose in the nineteenth century. You can trace it back to the eighteenth-century return-to-innocence philosophy of Rousseau. You can blame the Evangelical Revival, the increased length of the average lifespan, or the general prudishness of Victorianism. You can see it in the work of Charles Dickens, the legislation against child labor, and the invention of the children's literature genre. And you can feel in the air today, as American protectors of innocence wring their hands in despair. Yes: our contemporary view of childhood is Victorian.

So what is a child? Has the American child lost his innocence, or was he not so innocent to begin with? Perhaps we should leave the last word to Plato, the wisest man of the ages:

"Some men are male-oriented. While they are boys, because they are chips off the male block, they love men and enjoy lying with men and being embraced by men; those are the best of boys and lads, because they are the most manly in their nature. When they're grown men, they are lovers of young men. Do you want me to prove it? Look, these are the only kind of boys who grow up to be politicians."