Little Darlings

EROTIC INNOCENCE: The Culture of Child Molesting, by James R. Kincaid

According to the author, ‘images of youth are idealized, fetishized, and eroticized in everyday culture.’

James R. Kincaid, a professor of English at the University of Southern California, seems to have screened every movie that ever featured a child, and his reading list is extensive as well. In Erotic Innocence, a compelling cultural history of children and sexual desire, Kincaid takes on some obvious targets. Consider the legions of child actors whose images are the very essence of innocence and purity, but whose photos and mannerisms belie a darker knowledge of desire.

It’s no accident that child stars seem always to be photographed in the same way: eyes wide, mouth opened in a smile. It’s a sexual gaze, asserts Kincaid. In a memorable illustration from the chapter, Kincaid shows images of Alicia Silverstone, Betty Boop, Macaulay Culkin, Jay North, Elija Wood, Winona Ryder, Sandra Bullock, Ricky Schroder, Shirley Temple, Buster Brown, Demi Moore, Marilyn Monroe and Patty McCormack. His assertion that they’re all of a type is pretty compelling when viewed side by side. While adults may argue that children’s images are entirely free of sexual connotations, there can be no doubt that these children serve as erotic objects and fetishes to the culture at large.

Kincaid also calls attention to widespread hysteria over childhood knowledge of sex: the threat of kidnapping, the fear of abuse in day-care centers, the fear of the Internet being used by pedophiles. Never mind the fact that only about 100 children a year are abducted by strangers, that the McMartin day-care case was a horrible sham, or that Internet ads for “kiddie porn” are nearly always police-run dragnets. The war against such nonexistent crimes, Kincaid writes, masks real and much more pervasive abuse to children, like poverty, physical abuse, and simple indifference.

It’s no accident that child stars seem always to be photographed in the same way: eyes wide, mouth opened in a smile.

What Kincaid proposes in this cogent work (though it’s marred by some overly snide asides) is that we accept that our children are sexual creatures and dispense with hysteria in favor of a frank and reasoned approach to a subject thoroughly obscured, at least as present, by fear and sensationalism. Often fascinating and sure to spark controversy among the recovered-memory and Courage to Heal set.

EROTIC INNOCENCE: The Culture of Child Molesting, by James R. Kincaid (Duke Univ. Press, 312 pp with 24 illustrations)

 

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Rebecca Kurson

Rebecca Kurson writes about literature, pop culture, television, science fiction and music. Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Observer, The Federalist and Rodale's Organic Life.

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