What’s innocence?

After the commotion about child pornography and child abuse that has arisen in the aftermath of the Dutroux case, pedophilia has become a thornier issue than it already was. And it was never an easy subject to begin with.

For starters, child abuse and pedophilia are depicted as completely interconnected nowadays, as if they are two aspects of the same thing: as if pedophiles always abuse children and as if all child abuse is committed by pedophiles only. But that’s not the case at all, and Dutroux himself is a painful example of this. Dutroux was not especially attracted to children or young girls, and would never describe himself as a pedophile. It appeared to be more of a monetary interest for him: he felt that he could earn a lot of money by selling or renting children’s bodies, or videos in which young girls were raped.

Who were his customers then? Did he sell his tapes exclusively to a pedophile clientele? That’s difficult to determine. His sellers’ list has not been published.. But in as far as Dutroux had a concrete clientele in mind, I suspect it didn’t consist solely of pedophiles.

Judging from the few published interviews with sex tourists – men who travel to Thailand, for example to ‘buy’ something they can’t get here – the case is considerably more complicated. Some men crave for very young girls because they assume that they are “untarnished”, in contrast to more mature women; they would still be “honest and easygoing,” or virgin,s or – equally important – not infected with venereal diseases.

That such a desire is tainted, goes without question. I merely wish to point out that some men are attracted to young girls for reasons other than pedophilia. And that it seems that their motives are not taken into account in the debate about child abuse.

Conversely, not every pedophile abuses children, but pedophiles are held responsible as a group for something only a few of them do. There are a lot of pedophiles who desperately try to control themselves, who search for assistance because they realize their nascent desire must not be put into practice; pedophiles who are in love with children but who are horrified by the thought of seducing a child into doing something it perhaps doesn’t want to do – not to mention forcing it.

The bitter side of the current climate, in which pedophilia is automatically seen as a pathological or criminal tendency, is that those who do their utmost to control themselves, are equated with those who disregard boundaries.

The truly horrific fact is that most child abuse is not perpetrated by strangers: people from outside. Child abuse is most often not perpetrated by pedophiles, nor by psychopaths like Dutroux. Most often, the villains are family members: fathers, uncles, brothers, nephews or cousins; and once in a while, even mothers or sisters.

Consider thisfact: children are most often raped by people who consider themselves to be “healthy” heterosexuals, and who would be thunderstruck by the accusation of pedophilia. They turn to children, because they tell themselves that they have “the right to have sex” and that the child was simply there; or they assert it would be “good” for the child to have a sexual experience and that they are only being “nice” to the child, or even advancing the child’s sexual education.

Here, a rather scary analogy arises. Years ago, the women’s movement made it terribly clear that rapists generally aren’t scary men who suddenly come jumping out of the bushes; usually, they are men that you are already familiar with. Friends and acquaintances usually – and upsettingly – pose a greater threat than absolute strangers. Home is not always a safe place.Maybe this reality also applies to child abuse?

Apart from all that, there’s yet another unsettling factor in the debate about child abuse and pedophilia: children are depicted as victims, depleted of sexual urges themselves. Children seem to be ‘innocent’ (read: asexual) by definition. If sex was involved, the children must have been victimized – no way that they wanted any part in this.

(And maybe this is precisely why the Dutroux case received so much attention. There are sharply and clearly divided roles: the monster versus the innocent victims and – fortunately – the monster is located outside the house, outside the family, that should symbolize safety. Nobody needs to worry: the case is crystal clear.)

Obviously, the girls who were abducted, raped, and murdered by Dutroux were victims. They had no desire at all to be ‘taken’ or ‘awakened’. They didn’t want to be raped, to be videotaped while this happened, and to be killed and discarded afterwards.

But ever after Dutroux, we’re collectively acting as if children and teens are inherently deprived of any sex drive whatsoever. Nowadays, we presuppose that children are a-sexual and are ‘innocent’, bereft of any desire of their own. We’re shocked when a child shows sexual proclivity, and ascribe such behavior to outside – and thus, according to modern parlance: abusive – influences.

But what if a child, or a youngster, does have a sexual urge? What if you’re eight, or twelve, or fourteen, and you long for some kind of sexual knowledge or encounter?

[To cut the argument short: a youngster searching for sex and/or testing his or her limits, is not inviting rape or abuse, just like a woman dressed in a skirt is not inviting rape either. And if a kid or youngster – or, for that matter, a grown-up – shows any sexual curiosity, that curiosity can never serve as an excuse for anybody else to push – much less: to transgress – the limits that the subject themself poses. Consensus and acceptance is what it’s all about.)

In discussions about pedophilia, people tend to refer to the child’s right to say “no.” Obviously, that’s their right and children should be fiercely emboldened to turn down any advances that they don’t feel at ease with.

But what does this entitlement to say “no”, entail when we basically don’t accept the possibility that a child might actually say “yes”? Hasn’t the right to say “no”, thus turned into a child’s duty to say “no”? Haven’t we – by assuming that a child’s or teenager’s “yes” must invariably be tainted – inadvertently incapacitated or nullified their right to say no?

Again, I invoke feminist theory. You could say that women ‘invite’ rape unless they adhere to strict standards – to wit: a condescending regime, that interprets any liberty taken, be it in clothing style, behavior, or freedom of range, and most of all: them not being accompanied by a male, as a free-pass for men to ‘take’ this woman. But that is rather old-fashioned, isn’t it? Exploring sex doesn’t equal being a slut. And even if one is a slut, that doesn’t grant others permission to rape you.

Likewise, children have sexual desires, and sexual curiosity. But that mere fact doesn’t grant others any rights. The real issue is how you encourage children themselves to explore, develop and channel their wishes and desires.

I’m rather afraid that the current climate – one in which sex with and between children has become a taboo – doesn’t stimulate any open discussion on the topic. The bad news is that such a stifled climate will make it more difficult for children to say “no’, simply because they can’t say “yes” anymore – and if, courageously, they do so anyway, we simply don’t believe them anymore.

I lost my virginity when I was thirteen years old; the man who ‘took’ it was twenty, or twenty-one. Years later, I wasn’t too sure whether my decision to have sex with him was sound, but I am damned sure that it was my decision at the time. What’s more: I was hell-bent on having sex with him.. Weeks in advance, I had restless dreams, tossing and turning at night.

I was much more ready than I myself could handle. Did I throw myself at him? Yes. Did he take advantage of me? Yes. Would he have fucked me if I hadn’t made all the moves? No. Do I regret the experience? No. Could my first sexual encounter have been better, in retrospect? Yes, definitely. Do I regret it? No. The experience taught me that I could own my sexuality – even as a kid.

Children are not asexual, and thus, not necessary ‘innocents’. We’d all be better off once we realize that. Only when we acknowledge that (some) children actually – positively, and sometimes even aggressively – crave for sex, we can hope to enable them to distinguish between ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Assuming that ‘no’ is the only possible answer that children could give, is not helping them at all.

Do you know what’s creepiest of all? Children too can be quite perverted in their sexual behavior. This year, several articles were published, stating that the police had arrested children who were guilty of sexual harassment – even rape. Headlines like: “Eleven-year-old boy rapes five-year-old girl.” I’ve read at least six or seven reports like that in the past couple of months.

Such stories make me terribly sad. What those children do is immoral, and there is something awfully wrong with them. But it’s an argument for the proposition that children have desires – and the proposition that the sexuality of children can be pretty wild. Above all, it’s a strong argument against the idea that children are immaculate, naïve, and sexless creatures by definition, who are solely used as the objects of other people’s vulgar lusts.

[Kindly translated by Erica van Loon.]


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