Sunday, January 29, 2017

Review of "Erotic Innocence" by James Kincaid

I first read this 1998 book a few years ago, and have just finished reading it a second time. The first time, I was very impressed and figured he was right about everything. This time my reactions are mixed.

When he documents how our society is obsessed with sexual harm to children and argues that our concern goes way too far, I am with him.

When he posits this as part of grand social currents running back into the 19th century and beyond, it doesn't ring true. When he argues that our society has transformed children so that just about everyone finds them erotic, and the hysteria against pedophilia is in part a fierce reaction to horror at the prospect of recognizing it in themselves, I am puzzled. He proceeds to list a variety of movies where we can see this eroticism, including Shirley Temple movies and Macaulay Culkin. I rented the original Home Alone to check, and I just didn't see the erotic aspects of the portrayal of the kid.

He describes the long battle between those who claim to have recovered memories of sexual abuse and those who claim they are false memories. He describes them as both locked in a common narrative from which they cannot escape and urges a different narrative. But this conflict doesn't seem unsolvable in the way a religious debate is. The camps are arguing about what actually happened in the real world. If we found that every interaction between the parties had been captured on hidden video cameras, we could resolve the issue. One party was right and the other was wrong. Actual incestuous rape over the course of years is a huge deal to the people involved.

Now, I am convinced that very few of those video cameras would have captured the abuse that is alleged. So therapists should not go looking for it and it would become a serious problem for the few people who have it, much like, say, auto-immune diseases.

In the end (pp284-285) Kincaid has a list of bad habits we need to lose. The first is to "stop looking for monsters and their victims". I support that, but would broaden it to say, "stop sensational reporting about very rare people doing horrible things". I would include stories of gruesome nonsexual murders, very strange diseases and bizarre accidents.

He also says, "Stop tracing everything backward, looking always to the past for sources, explanations, and excuses." That is a reasonable approach to therapy and mental health. It is behind the move 50 years or so ago to give up on Freudian analysis and move more towards present-centered therapies such as cognitive-behavioral. But its relationship to the purported erotic innocence of kids is far from clear.

Why did I accept all his arguments the first time? I have a hole in my understanding of grand assertions about the hidden structure of society -- what feels like a blind spot. Foucault's claims comes to mind, as do patriarchy and postmodernism. (Hopefully I'm conveying a basic idea, even if those things are different). Maybe those who do feel comfortable understanding such theories and evaluating them could weigh in on how Kincaid's claims stack up.

When at the end Kincaid briefly touches on how we should actually view children if we erased this erotic innocence, he emphasizes that they have agency -- opinions and beliefs, and we should listen to them. They may also have some sexual feelings of their own. This all seems straightforward to me. When I was raising my three girls, I put a high priority on listening to them and relating to them as they saw the world, and above all respecting them. I wasn't attracted to any of them, but I didn't feel hampered in seeking to understand and respecting their attractive friends the same way on the rare occasions when that made sense.

If Kincaid is wrong about the grand societal forces that have made us all see children as erotic, why did he go astray?

He has admitted elsewhere that he is a "theoretical pedophile". Our sexual preferences are largely immutable. A straight man can't really explain why he finds women hot, and a gay man can't really explain why he finds men hot. And to some pedophiles who find children sexually attractive, maybe they can't remove that filter and see the kids the way most people see them.

He thinks we should go back to hugging kids and playing with them without worrying obsessively about the chance for some contact that might be construed as sexual. I'm all in favor of that. But he then adds, curiously, "if you find yourself getting too excited, going too far, wanting to incite or not to stop -- then stop. If you are hard-pressed, then indulge in voyeurism, which is child abuse only by elastic standards". This is good advice for pedophiles, especially ones who like him (I'm speculating) cannot see children as not erotic. But I honestly don't see how it is relevant to most people.

Given my tastes, I don't find any boys erotic, but I also don't see that girls in movies are presented as particularly erotic either. They're often adorable, and sometimes they have an erotic effect on me, but I think that is inside me and not an aspect of them. I suspect the vast majority of the world who are not pedophiles would be even less likely to see erotic children. Whose reaction is more common? It should be a question that's easy enough to answer empirically. Among people who would not be horrified to find they had a forbidden attraction, do they find children as portrayed in the West today erotic or don't they?

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