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
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."