Not in Front of the Children: "Indecency," Censorship and the Innocence of Youthby Heins
From Huckleberry Finn to Harry Potter, from Internet filters to the v-chip, censorship exercised on behalf of children and adolescents is often based on the assumption that they must be protected from "indecent" information that might harm their development whether in art, in literature, or on a Web site. But where does this assumption come from, and/i>
From Huckleberry Finn to Harry Potter, from Internet filters to the v-chip, censorship exercised on behalf of children and adolescents is often based on the assumption that they must be protected from "indecent" information that might harm their development whether in art, in literature, or on a Web site. But where does this assumption come from, and is it true?�
In Not in Front of the Children, Marjorie Heins explores the fascinating history of "indecency" laws and other restrictions aimed at protecting youth. From Plato's argument for rigid censorship, through Victorian laws aimed at repressing libidinous thoughts, to contemporary battles over sex education in public schools and violence in the media, Heins guides us through what became, and remains, an ideological minefield. With fascinating examples drawn from around the globe, she suggests that the "harm to minors" argument rests on shaky foundations.�
There is an urgent need for informed, dispassionate debate about the perceived conflict between the free-expression rights of young people and the widespread urge to shield them from expression that is considered harmful. Not in Front of the Children will spur this long-needed conversation.�
Marjorie Heins, director of the Free Expression Policy Project at the National Coalition Against Censorship, is the author, most recently, of Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America's Censorship Wars.
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"TO DEPRAVE AND CORRUPT"
Minors, Censorship, Sex, and History
The judges who quoted Plato's Republic in their 1998 ruling against the drama teacher Margaret Boring reflected a familiar and obviously ancient child-rearing philosophy. As one scholar observed not long ago, "the greatest part of contemporary criticism of television depends on a moral disapproval which is identical to Plato's attack on epic and tragic poetry in the fourth century B.C."
The notion that young people need special protection from improper ideas was not a moral tenet of the ancient world, and in this sense Plato was a rebel. The ancient Greeks associated children with grossness and lewdness, not innocence. Youngsters had to be tamed and educated, but not kept ignorant of sexual realities. On the contrary, the most highly prized sexual relationship in ancient Athens was between an adult man and an adolescent boy; it was viewed as critical to male socialization. Ethicists may have pondered the intricacies and agonized over the pleasures of "Greek love," but Plato's preference for nonsexual affections was largely a protest against things as they were. The same is true of his desire to ban literary descriptions of the gods' erotic activities because they would "engender laxity of morals among the young."
The puritanical Plato, fundamentally suspicious of creative art, rejected the humanism and democracy of Athens and "embraced the barbarism of Sparta," Athens's militaristic rival. That the Spartan program resulted in "a narrow and brittle personality is appalling," according to one historian, but "certainly these virtuous prehistoric people had nothing to learn from us about the possibilities of molding the child."
Plato's pupil Aristotle took a more nuanced view of the imitative effects of art and entertainment. Spectators at tragic dramas, Aristotle said in his Poetics, do not imitate the dreadful acts depicted onstage but instead, through the phenomenon of katharsis, are purged of violent and unruly emotions. Artists, critics, and philosophers have debated, expanded upon, and modified Aristotle's catharsis theory ever since. But although Aristotle's aesthetics were a break from Plato's more simplistically didactic approach, the younger philosopher was also not exactly a libertarian when it came to minors. In his Politics, Aristotle urged that "all unseemly talk" be "kept away from youth," for "the unseemly remark lightly dropped results in conduct of a like kind." Thus, "younger persons" should not be permitted "at comedies or recitals of iambics" (a poetic meter "often used for scurrilous purposes").
As in Greece, boys in ancient Rome were often sexual partners for "gentlemen of quality." Wives, it is said, were greatly relieved when the youths reached puberty and were expected to abandon their "passive" sexual roles for more "manly" forms of erotic activity. A boy's first ejaculation "was celebrated by his family at the feast of the Liberalia. On the other hand, virginity was "sacrosanct" for girls, at least those of the upper classes. But because young females were married by 12 or 14, they also were not ignorant of sexual realities for very long. Youngsters in Roman households were exposed to "foul songs" and other ribaldry. The uninhibited eroticism of frescoes that adorned living spaces in ancient Herculaneum and Pompeii suggests that little effort was made to hide sexually explicit images from young viewers.
Plato and even Aristotle may have disagreed with such exposure of minors to erotic art or ideas, but it was Christianity that radically changed attitudes about sexual knowledge. With the ascendancy of the peculiarly Christian notion that sexual desire is sinful, children's virginity now assumed interior, spiritual value. Simultaneously and paradoxically, Christianity viewed children as untamed vessels of depravity and Original Sin. Up to this point, as historian John Sommerville says, "even the few authors who reflected on the child's needs had considered children to be only potentially human"infanticide, abandonment, and sales into brothels being among their frequent fates. The precepts of Jesus "exactly reversed the expectations of his hearers" by elevating the helplessness of children, and their ignorance of social convention, to a state of grace.
At the same time, the Christian societies of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages married young people "as close to puberty as possible," not only to maximize the possibilities for childbearing, but to "mitigate through lawful wedlock the disruptive tensions of sexual attraction." In a world where average life expectancy was about 30 years, and infant mortality about 45 percent, an early start at childbearing was probably well advised. So eager were parents to marry off their children that even the minimum legal ages (generally, 12 for girls and 14 for boys) were sometimes overlooked. One court in 11th-century Byzantium invalidated a marriage because the girl was not yet 12.
Christian sexual proscriptions clashed with economic and practical realities. In medieval and early modern Europe, adults and children often slept together around a common fire. A child "learned about intercourse by being in the same bed with parents when they did it." This youthful familiarity with the "primal scene," later thought by Freud to be a source of neurosis, persisted into the 17th century.
At the same time, virginity for girls remained tightly guarded. It was a commodity to be bartered in exchange for an advantageous marriage; it ensured the legitimacy of offspring as well as the husband's ownership of his wife. Children in the Middle Ages and early modern Europe were thus bargaining chips in the business of economic alliance building through marriage, not the coddled innocents of later Western imagination. Infant and child mortality was still hightoo high, according to some historians, for parents to invest much emotion in their young. Tight swaddlingessentially immobilizing the young child for upward of a year after birthwas convenient for parents but not likely to advance autonomy or muscular development. The common practice of sending infants away from home to wet nurses did not enhance either mother-child bonding or the likelihood of physical survival. Early apprenticing-out of both middle- and working-class youngsters completed the picture of a social system in which children were viewed more as financial assets than as vulnerable beings.
Records from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and early modern times nevertheless reflect some familiar conflicts over youth and sexuality. Children educated in monasteries were strictly controlled in order to prevent sexual contact. Their instructors' fears "were evidently well-founded," for youngsters' hormonal drives and sexual curiosity were manifest even in strict monastic settings. But those sent to nonmonastic schools in the late Middle Ages, at ages as young as 14, often lived a free and bohemian life. Images of juvenile sexuality pervaded Christian iconography, with depictions of the Christ child in sexual situations, and pairings of adult men and adolescent boys. Renaissance artists "revived the use of adolescent figures which the ancients had used to represent Eros."
Censorship of sexual expression was primarily a function of the Church. Savonarola's campaign against indecency in late-15th-century Florence culminated in a "Bonfire of the Vanities" that consumed lewd pictures, books, cards, and trinkets. The Church's first official Index Librorum Prohibitorum half a century later banned books "treating of lascivious or obscene subjects," but made an exception for "works of antiquity, written by the heathen," because of "the elegance and propriety of the language." The primary targets were impiety and heresy. The Church censored Boccaccio's bawdy Decameron, for example, only to the extent of expurgating "the uncomplimentary references to the clergy." The "amorous incidents" were left untouched, but priests and nuns were replaced with "a citizen, a nobleman, or a bourgeoise."
If minors were not singled out for protection from sexual knowledge or literature, they were subject to their parents' commands, and nowhere more so than in the realm of courtship and marriage. Historian Lawrence Stone argues that for Elizabethans watching Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the teenagers' rebellion against parental demands was not heroic or admirable, but a violation of duty; their tragedy was "the way they brought destruction upon themselves" by violating social norms. Whether or not we agree with Stone's interpretation, the problem for Romeo and Juliet was clearly not sexual precocity or adolescent lust; these Shakespeare takes for granted. Juliet's wedding-day speech, "Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night," makes the point:
Come, civil night, Thou sober-suited matron, all in black, And learn me how to lose a winning match, Played for a pair of stainless maidenheads: Hood my unmanned blood bating in my cheeks With thy black mantle ... O, I have bought the mansion of a love, But not possessed it, and, though I am sold, Not yet enjoyed.
The Invention of Childhood?
Philippe Ariès argued in his 1960 book, Centuries of Childhood, that the modern concept of childhood as a period of prelapsarian innocence was an invention of the 17th century. In the 1500s, "[e]verything was permitted in their presence: coarse language, scabrous actions and situations." "The idea did not yet exist that references to sexual matters ... could soil childish innocence," because "nobody thought that this innocence really existed." It was only toward the end of the 16th century that "certain pedagogues ... refused to allow children to be given indecent books any longer." Until then, "nobody had hesitated to give children Terence [the bawdy Roman playwright] to read, for he was a classic. The Jesuits removed him from their curriculum."
Ariès concluded that the idea of a separate and uniquely innocent childhood produced anxieties and neuroses that are still with us. Children had to be taught to conceal their bodies from each other. The new moral climate produced "a whole pedagogic literature for children." As a result, the modern world "is obsessed by the physical, moral, and sexual problems of childhood" in a way that did not occur to ancient or medieval minds. An "increasingly severe disciplinary system" in boarding schools deprived youngsters of the freedom they had previously enjoyed among adults.
Centuries of Childhood has had tremendous influence, and many critics. Historian Natalie Zemon Davis, describing adolescent rituals and escapades in the Renaissance and Middle Ages, concludes that a separate preadult period of maturation was recognized before the 17th century. Lawrence Stone is even more dismissive of theories that adolescence, "and the nuisance it causes to society," were not recognized as problems at least by the Renaissance. John Sommerville points out that not all Christian pedagogues advocated censorship: Martin Luther, for example, "objected that children could not be protected from ribaldry but must conquer it instead." Psychohistorian Lloyd de Mause faults Ariès for minimizing the brutality of beatings, rapes, and other forms of child abuse that existed from earliest times.
Much of the criticism of Ariès is well taken, but does not really undermine his basic insight. All historical periods embody tensions between conflicting social trends. In 19th-century England, Victorian sexual repression coexisted witheven stimulateda brisk trade in erotica, while simultaneously in the United States rigidly antisexual "Comstockery" thrived, while contending against a vocal movement promoting free love. Thus, Linda Pollock's evidence (to take a nonsexual example) that many 16th-to-18th-century parents doted on their offspring does not negate the fact that other children and adolescents in the same period were starved, beaten, and psychologically abused. Stone's account of English apprentices' precocious social life from the 16th century on suggests that youthful sexuality flourished even while, as Ariès documents, pedagogues were inventing new rationales to control it. As historian David Archard argues, Ariès's claim was not so much that the separate nature of childhood was not recognized in the Middle Ages but that our modern sense of what that nature isuncorrupted, asexual, and psychologically vulnerableevolved later. And with the modern perception came heavier, more institutionalized censorship and control.
Michel Foucault took Ariès a step further. It has only been in recent centuries, Foucault said, that childhood sexuality began to be isolated, examined, and viewed as sinful precisely so that authority could be exerted to control it. One has only to "glance ever the architectural layout," the "rules of discipline," and the "whole internal organization" of secondary schools in 18th-century Europe to see that "the question of sex was a constant preoccupation." "The space for classes, the shape of the tables, the planning of the recreation lessons, the distribution of the dormitories (with or without partitions, with or without curtains), the rules for monitoring bedtime and sleep periodsall this referred, in the most prolix manner, to the sexuality of children." Eventually, "a whole literature of precepts, opinions, observations, medical advice, clinical cases, outlines for reform, and plans for ideal institutions" developed to control the sexuality of the young.
Certainly, the 17th and 18th centuries brought the West closer to contemporary ideas about childhood and sexual expression. Historians note a stronger sense of parental involvement in 17th-century England and America, "new methods of child-rearing, based on the small, nuclear family," a reduction in the number of children being sent from home to become apprentices, and a proliferation of medical interventions and parental-advice manuals. Seventeenth-century Puritanism viewed children as carriers of Original Sin, who must be controlled and indoctrinated into right behavior, but it also led to John Locke's 1693 Thoughts Concerning Education, which dramatically influenced pedagogy and child rearing for the next several centuries.
Locke argued for a reasoned, humane, and noncoercive style of teaching and socializing youth. His theory of learning was based on "sensationalist epistemology" the idea that the human mind is a tabula rasa and that parents and educators are therefore responsible for children's development. Implicitly denying Original Sin, Locke set the stage for increasing state interference in children's upbringing to correct any failings by the formerly autonomous patriarchal father. Some of the effects were salutaryswaddling and wet-nursing declined; revulsion against flogging and other brutalities increased. But new, institutionalized concern for youngsters had its ominous side. If the authoritarian child rearing of Puritan days was justified in the interest of saving youth from sin and damnation, so the more nurturing philosophies that succeeded it rationalized repressive practices as necessary to protect youth from frailty, disease, or corruption. Censorship became a concern because "sensationalist epistemology" assumed that amoral literature could create "impressions as real to the mind as those made by other experience." The most repressive and brutalizing manifestation of the new protectionism was the collection of myths and practices directed toward suppressing youthful masturbation.
The publication in 1710 of a lurid English tract entitled Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, And all its frightful Consequences, in both Sexes, Considered, marked the beginning. The "frightful consequences" ranged from pimples and lapses of memory to hysteria, impotence, bodily pains and itching, tumors, and insanity. Onania reportedly passed through at least eighty editions; it was translated, studied, and duly incorporated into medical tomes. By far the most influential of these was the Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot's 1758 work, L'Onanisme, Dissertation sur les Maladies produites par la Masturbation, which drew on Onania even while acknowledging that the earlier work was "a perfect chaos," full of "moral trivialisms." Claiming the authority of science that his predecessor lacked but also relying on moral and religious exhortations, Tissot reported many dreadful consequences of youthful self-gratification, including consumption, incontinence, jaundice, loose teeth, sallow complexion, and a variety of psychological ills thatto the extent Tissot's secondhand reports were accuratewere probably caused by the overwhelming shame and guilt foisted on youngsters who indulged in the natural, common practice.
Literary historian Walter Kendrick explains L'Onanisme as based "on the ancient theory of the humors," bodily fluids thought to govern "everything from excretion to thinking." To masturbate meant, "according to a clear if barbaric logic," to waste precious semen. "Performed in childhood, masturbation rechanneled the life force that should have gone toward healthy physical and moral development. Its result was weak, sickly, and impotent adults." As for girls, the "economic metaphor" of wasted sperm "worked less well," yet Tissot thought the damage wrought by female masturbation was even more severe, and included "a horrifying list of specifically female complaints," from "attacks of hysteria or frightful vapors" to cramps, discharges, "falling and ulceration of the womb," "lengthening and scabbing of the clitoris," and, finally, "uterine fury, which deprives them at once of modesty and reason and puts them on the level of the lewdest brutes."
It is not easy to understand why adults began in the 18th century so severely to punish their children for responding to a natural impulse. One is even tempted to consider Lloyd de Mause's theory (not credited by most historians) that parents, doctors, educators, and government officials had reached a "psychohistorical" stage at which children became the unfortunate scrims on which adults projected their own sexual anxieties. But whatever the cause of the obsession, for the next 150 years, as Peter Gay recounts, preventive measures ranged from the relatively mild "avoidance of tight lacing, licentious novels, featherbeds, and similar luxuries" to horrifying practices like "cauterization of the sexual organs, infibulation, castration, and clitoridectomy," and elaborate mechanical restraints: "modern chastity belts for girls and ingenious penile rings for boys or straitjackets for both, all designed to keep growing or adolescent sinners from getting at themselves." Havelock Ellis summarized: Tissot and his followers were responsible for much of "the suffering, dread, and remorse experienced in silence by many thousands" of young people over several centuries.
A few years after Tissot published his influential work, European intellectuals were devising sunnier, less punitive, but not necessarily more balanced views of youth and sexuality, Émile, or On Education, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's fictionalized 1762 treatise on child rearing, insisted on the natural innocence of youth, urged withdrawal of adolescents from the libertine and "scandalous morals" of 18th-century French life, and imposed detailed prescriptions for an ideal education. Although Rousseau acknowledged that sexual potency comes with puberty, he wanted to postpone initiation and even instruction until the age of 20. In the meantime, he urged, adults must avoid arousing youngsters' erotic curiosity. "Put their nascent imaginations off the track with objects which, far from inflaming, repress the activity of their senses." Although Rousseau has been credited with at least "calling attention to the needs of children," his pedagogical theories had an authoritarian edge; and despite his sentimentalizing of childhood, he left his own five illegitimate children at foundling homes.
Excerpted from NOT IN FRONT OF THE CHILDREN by MARJORIE HEINS. Copyright © 2001 by Marjorie Heins. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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