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The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

by Kathryn Bond Stockton

Children are thoroughly, shockingly queer, as Kathryn Bond Stockton explains in The Queer Child, where she examines children’s strangeness, even some children’s subliminal “gayness,” in the twentieth century. Estranging, broadening, darkening forms of children emerge as this book illuminates the child queered by innocence, the child


Children are thoroughly, shockingly queer, as Kathryn Bond Stockton explains in The Queer Child, where she examines children’s strangeness, even some children’s subliminal “gayness,” in the twentieth century. Estranging, broadening, darkening forms of children emerge as this book illuminates the child queered by innocence, the child queered by color, the child queered by Freud, the child queered by money, and the grown homosexual metaphorically seen as a child (or as an animal), alongside the gay child. What might the notion of a “gay” child do to conceptions of the child? How might it outline the pain, closets, emotional labors, sexual motives, and sideways movements that attend all children, however we deny it?

Engaging and challenging the work of sociologists, legal theorists, and historians, Stockton coins the term “growing sideways” to describe ways of growing that defy the usual sense of growing “up” in a linear trajectory toward full stature, marriage, reproduction, and the relinquishing of childish ways. Growing sideways is a mode of irregular growth involving odd lingerings, wayward paths, and fertile delays. Contending that children’s queerness is rendered and explored best in fictional forms, including literature, film, and television, Stockton offers dazzling readings of works ranging from novels by Henry James, Radclyffe Hall, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and Vladimir Nabokov to the movies Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Hanging Garden, Heavenly Creatures, Hoop Dreams, and the 2005 remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The result is a fascinating look at children’s masochism, their interactions with pedophiles and animals, their unfathomable, hazy motives (leading them at times into sex, seduction, delinquency, and murder), their interracial appetites, and their love of consumption and destruction through the alluring economy of candy.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“I consider Kathryn Bond Stockton to be one of the most impressive and important queer critics in the academy today, and The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century only confirms that assessment. It is magnificent: the kind of book that defines the field and is returned to again and again, inspiring all sorts of thought and work for generations to come.”—Michael Cobb, author of God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence

“I don’t know when I’ve been so captivated by a book and eager to get to the next page. That it is original and that addresses a topic, the queer child, pretty much completely ignored is one mark of its importance. Even more striking though is the ease with which stunning insights are delivered as if they were a matter of course. Many readers will be struck by the centrality of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s book and the graceful way it exposes and breaks the silence surrounding the queer child.”—James R. Kincaid, author of Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Series Q
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Kathryn Bond Stockton


Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4386-8

Chapter One

The Smart Child Is the Masochistic Child Pedagogy, Pedophilia, and the Pleasures of Harm

Television won't let you not catch a predator. At least now, every day on cable, and even on Dateline NBC with its series To Catch a Predator, we are asked to think of adult-child relations almost first and foremost in the guise of harm. Or potential harm, if adults and children who are not related are allowed close contact without supervision. And these suspicions were underscored a while ago (in September, 2006) by the "Foley scandal," involving Congressman Mark Foley (R-Florida), who was mentoring congressional pages aged sixteen. When he "harmed" these "children" by talking with them about sexual pleasure, his and theirs, it became more evident what "harm" is, according to the public: anybody's pleasure, an adult's or the child's, that comes to children (even to their ears) before it is time. Harm is any form of premature ejaculation (a "sudden ... utterance," says the dictionary) involving children.

Henry James Instead of Television

If we would circumvent what TV is telling us at the start of the twenty-first century, we must begin in the 1890s-and, most importantly, with Henry James. With James's help, one cuts a path, a distinctly different path, through the field of children's harm and thus raises questions that television, with its current focus, fails to see. First, we can ask: are we as an American society much less troubled by children's pain (for example, their economic suffering) than we are troubled by their sexualized pleasure, even though we cite their possible pain as our rationale for delaying their pleasure? Laws, we should notice, at least in the United States, are better designed to catch a child predator than put an end to childhood poverty. Second, we might wonder: given that children and teens have not found it safe by and large to express their same-sex longings to peers (without the fear of ridicule, rejection, or bullying), to what extent has man/boy love, at least for a century, in some contexts, functioned as a substitute lateral relation for men and boys?-especially if each of them has been publicly trapped in delays, with the dictates of arrested development and ghostly gayness thrust upon them. Or to meld these questions: has what is called man/boy love found surprising outlets in mutual pain, giving men and boys ways to meet inside delay? As we know, delay is the crux of so many matters that touch upon children, girls and boys.

Speaking of Children Delaying Relations

Delay is seen as a friend to the child. Delay is said to be a feature of its growth: children grow by delaying their approach to the realms of sexuality, labor, and harm. The point of delay as a boon to growth is to shelter children from these domains.

But the act of sheltering is a kind of dancing on the knife-edge of delay. How can children be gradually led by degrees toward domains they must not enter at all as children? In the broadest sense, children are protected by laws that blanket them from harm, to be sure, but also from agency in their own pleasure. (Age of consent laws are a clear example.) Indeed, the paradox I put before us in the introduction is the possibility that we fear the children we would protect. We sense they are vulnerable and dangerous through pleasure, whether this pleasure comes through money or through sex. Labor, I have said, long after it is outlawed as a child's moneyed engagement with the world (because it is thought a harmful engagement), still is a force, often for pleasure, in the child's imagination ("what will you be when you grow up?"), though sometimes in unimaginable forms, especially if the child is precocious or clever.

The problem, therefore, is delay's infidelity. It has relations with relations it stalls. (Labor relations, for example.) Moreover, as is obvious, we know how sexual delaying sex can be. Sexual delay as an active arrest ("I am delaying my sexual activity") is a way, we say, of "maturing" sexually-a sexual growth to the side of sex-raising the question of when does the child, when does each child, actively enter into delay? Talking, of course, can be a delay, even itself a sexy delay. It's a delay since it often isn't sex (it is talking, after all), but it can be greatly suffused with pleasure, even a highly sexualized pleasure, even if the topic of the talking is pain. Talking about one's battles with parents or their neglect can be a sexy bond among teens. Talking can even be a kind of whipping: a verbal (and imaginative) painful enjoyment.

Confessing none of this, ours has been a culture (especially in America, even quite currently) obsessed with how adults talk to children, never mind how adults prey upon children. In fact, to talk "about" the child in certain ways-even in oddly democratic ways, as we're about to see-is predation in the minds of many people. Unless you are NAMBLA and talk in these ways.

NAMBLA is not subtle. It well knows that pedophilia still, in the twenty-first century, is a bogeyman in public depictions of gay men as teachers or gay men with children. Yet, knowing this, the North American Man/Boy Love Association stirs the pot with slogans like "Smiles Imply Consent." Even so, NAMBLA has serious intents. The murkiness of children's smiles aside, NAMBLA advocates for a child's agency, insisting that adult pedophilic love for children is not about molestation or harm. The child is a companion to his male lover, not some verbal or sexual prey, in NAMBLA's view.

All of this is surely provocative enough for most people's tastes. And, indeed-this story is familiar-many gay communities continue to ostracize NAMBLA from their ranks. But there is something we might find more provocative, at least conceptually. This provocation comes to us from Henry James, from his novella The Pupil, from 1891, around the time of the entry of the word homosexual into English. With the stroke of his pen, one could say, James revises our conceptions of children, their talk with their teachers, their teachers' labor (as a scene of pain), and the love of a boy for a man and vice versa, all in the context of enjoying harm. James reveals how the budding intellectual is a masochistic child. This is someone whose verbal delights attach themselves to talk of pain and whose masochism, even more remarkably, leans on the masochism of a pedagogue whom he loves, pursues, and admires.

These last claims-about enjoying harm and the child's mirroring of his teacher's masochism, as if he were catching a lateral pass-are the heart of this chapter. It is also pertinent for the start of my book that James's story displays the outlines, in the 1890s, of four (or even more) versions of children who are intertwining: protogay child, adult queer child, innocent child, and child whose fascinations with aggressions would catch the interest of Freud. For here in The Pupil, a child who might be called a "homosexual," if we could see his future unfold, is practically given to his tutor by his parents. The tutor himself is a quasi-queer child in that he is fastened to the future of a child he himself has not fathered and appears delayed, to put the matter mildly, in his own approach to normal couplehood. More than that, we watch the tutor learn to love the boy for how the boy defeats the assumption of his innocence, showing instead a remarkably savvy sense of what is sex in James: money, family finance. James turns the screw of what could look like same-sex pedophilia in the direction of brotherly masochism: man and boy side by side in a contract that lateralizes boy and man, though it does not at all equalize them.

In fact, in The Pupil, in taking revenge on the world of parents, James has his cake and eats it too. It's as if a certain kind of man/boy love-the masochistic kind-is a reply to parental abuse. That man and boy pleasure themselves with their words about abuse (to them it's a thrill to rehearse how they are "beaten") is James's clever portrait of a pleasure he himself perhaps knew as a child: a cyclical, syntactical rehearsal of shame that he intellectually embraced and enjoyed. But this is getting ahead of ourselves. We should start again with a general provocation to our imaginations.

The Child, the Adult, and the Scene of Pain

It would be striking to hear of a case coming to court in which an adult is accused of allowing a child to beat him (to thrash him, for example, with a riding whip). Or of allowing a child to spank him while both are fully clothed. Or of allowing a child to seduce him into monetary ruin. Could an adult be said to be guilty of letting a child render him this pain?

Not even NAMBLA has asked this kind of question. Their stated fantasies (emphasis on "stated") are more directly modeled on questions of pleasure and the language of equality in a standard vein. In fact, from the fantasies of NAMBLA comes a principle, in their estimation: the gay pedophile is drawn not only to the child, they would say, but also to its agency. That is to say, in NAMBLA's view, the presumed dominator of an innocent child (namely, the pedophile) is, by contrast, fighting like a lawyer for the child's legal rights, for the child's freedom to appear to the law as something other than an innocent. So NAMBLA argues for the child's legal right to design its education; to divorce its parents; to choose its pleasures.

But here is where their fantasies of democratic pleasures can't escape an irony. For to what extent is the object of pedophilic attraction-that is to say, the child-a product of the law? To what extent does the pedophile need the law to produce the figure of the child, and thus need the juridical measures that so curb the childhood agency he would undress? (Otherwise, how is he undressing a child?) And what about the law's own cherished fantasies? In the way it makes the child into an innocent, a body more in need of protections than of freedoms, the law has produced the child as queer (odd, strange) even as the category is produced as normative. The child is a species of legal strangeness in its position as judicial teacher's pet: literally so, after what is called "the Mary Ellen Affair," taking place in 1874 (four years past the publication of the novel Venus in Furs, the most well-known of all masochistic texts). In this legal case, a New York social worker found to her dismay that no laws existed that would make it illegal to abuse a child. After this discovery, she took a clever tack. She persuaded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to prosecute the parents of her abused client according to the terms of the existing cruelty-to-animals law, armed with the logic, successfully presented, that children belong to the animal species and therefore should enjoy an animal's right not to be treated cruelly by anyone, including one's parents.

But to make this more complex: What about the right to be treated cruelly; the right to be beaten according to one's wish at the hands of adults; or, as a child, to inflict such pain? (We know from case studies, even from the 1880s, that masochists, for instance, had these thoughts as children.) Do such rights belong to the child? Adult masochistic relations, of course, are to a point protected by the law. But can children, who cannot legally consent to their sexual pleasure with adults, consent to the giving or receiving of pain with them? Generally, not-if there is any hint of erotic pleasure tied to it. Courtesy, that is, of most state statutes, these would be "indecent liberties" that the adult would be taking with the child.

As a devil's advocate-from another planet-one might argue otherwise. For insofar as masochism often is not sexually penetrative; and insofar as masochism is itself a preference for a sexual delay (suspended states of erotic contemplation, as we will see); and insofar as masochism generally stands hierarchies on their heads (making a woman, for example, the torturer of a male masochist); and insofar as masochism may itself imagine a new symbolic order, as we will explore, might not the child who agrees to give pain, and the adult who agrees to receive it, be guilty only of playing at remaking laws without really breaking laws?

Masochism's Child and the Masochism Not Appearing Here

Believe it or not, these kinds of questions pertain to James's novella. Yet despite my focus, here there will be no Venus in Furs, at least not exactly: no tableaux of the masochistic kind-paintings or statues-assisting a dreamy young man stopping time in contemplative states, mostly nocturnal, so as to imagine a beautiful woman dressed only in furs, a woman he teaches to take up his torture, to whip him unconscious again and again in accordance with a contract established between them. Instead, almost barricaded by a large lady who draws her gloves through a fat jeweled hand, we will find a smart child. Pursuing him, a tutor, caught on the horns of loving the child precisely for this young boy's brightness, for the linguistic seductions surrounding this student's secrets, making for every true pedagogue's dream: the pupil whose knowledge might challenge or defeat us. As for this pupil, he is well endowed with ears. With "big mouth and big ears," he seems to be fashioned with "intercourse" in mind-the kind of talk that, even so, runs along a spectrum of "refinement and perception." He is a scholar whose "sallies were the delight of the house"-even if he always was "as puzzling as a page in an unknown language." "Unconscious and irresponsible and amusing."

James is a central figure, in my view, if we would understand how masochism comes to be regarded as a mental state more than a visual sexual act. But what does James imagine for the child in this transition, from the whip to the mind, the fur to the word, that has all of us accusing ourselves in common parlance of being masochists (at one time or another)? One should recall for a moment the particular masochistic paradigm-the sexy kind-for which most readers have some kind of image: a beautiful woman armed with a whip delivering a blow to a willing man, according to a contract both have agreed to. As for The Pupil, masochism is a distinctly mental matter (no whips, no furs) and offers a distinctly verbal pleasure, allowing James to look as if he turns the physical features of masochism toward psychological and verbal intrigues.

His other move is more stunning still. The Pupil's masochism, as I've been suggesting, weds a young man's pain to a child's. For in James's story, a tutor makes a pact not to take on a woman but to take on a pupil-a boy (age eleven) with a weak heart but a mind so sharp that the tutor fears the child might be smarter than himself, even though the promise of the child's linguistic prowess is precisely a lure. Oddly, at the moment of the tutor's pledge to take the job, the child comes out with a puzzling cry-the narrator describes it as "the mocking, foreign ejaculation 'Oh là-là!'" (3). The boy's ejaculation over the contract (by this I mean his outburst over the agreement) is the first indication of the child's wry sense of family secrets, especially his parents' history of making torturous contracts with their employees, which cause him pain. This is juicier than it sounds. As the tale unfolds, the tutor who's a masochist to his teaching contract is torn between his wish to escape his employment, on the one hand, and, on the other, his desire to be verbally seduced by a child, whose mouth and ears are so alluring (for all that they catch and then convey). In one of the central man/boy scenes, talk turns into and out of blushing before it ends with a playful discussion of spanking and beating.

If one adds to this the pleasure of discussing the depravity of his employers with their son (the pupil in question), one has a recipe for an oral intercourse, one kept in motion by the teacher's masochism and the boy's verbal play. In this important way, the story addresses man/boy love not in the context of sexual illegality, nor in the context of physical domination, but, by contrast, in the context of employment. For the child is both the receiver of a service (the tutor's instruction) and a representative of the employer (in this case, the family who is shafting the tutor). Also, as one might expect in James, the boy as the tutor's conduit to torture is also being not so subtly impoverished by the parents, making boy and tutor together the sufferers of a masochistic scene, before the pupil's death from a violent joy (as cryptic as that sounds).


Excerpted from THE QUEER CHILD, OR GROWING SIDEWAYS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by Kathryn Bond Stockton Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. 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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Meet the Author

Kathryn Bond Stockton is Professor of English and Director of Gender Studies at the University of Utah. She is the author of God Between Their Lips: Desire Between Women in Irigaray, Brontë, and Eliot.

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