The issue of extending childhood is a topic I’ll revisit and review from time to time – when I was writing about the age of consent (which I regard as being a small corner of a much larger issue) I happened to watch ‘Iron Jawed Ladies’ (starring Hilary Swank and Aussie Frances O’Connor) a US film about the US Suffragette movement. What struck me at the time was the patronizing attitude men had towards women and the absurd arguments they put forward to justify preventing women getting the vote.
What has this got to do with the age of consent? The arguments used to justify preventing women from getting the vote stemmed from a popular idea that women were to be protected from harsh realities because they did not have the ‘constitution’ or ‘mature rationality’ of men. This was an argument that was also used against other races. White men were morally and intellectually superior.
It was also an argument used by men to control women’s sexuality. There were all sorts of false ideas promoted at this time. Female orgasms were linked to hysteria, clitoral orgasms were considered inferior to vaginal orgasms – the list of ignorance is long. The field of sexology, pioneered by Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis, began to explode several myths. It has always been a controversial field because of its myth busting. Part of the process of controlling women’s sexuality was to infantalize women. Male doctors would not even dare to mention certain ‘delicate’ subjects to women, despite it being about their gynaecological well-being. And as the field of anthroplogy revealed radically different approaches to sexuality this knowledge was also kept from women because of its ‘delicate’ nature.
It was part of a general patronizing attitude.
The move to extend the age of consent was directed mainly at girls/women (boys were allowed certain hypocritical exceptions) and there was both a patronizing and matronizing aspect. The age of consent is not only about sexual intercourse that might lead to pregnancy or STIs, but also about withholding sexual information. It is usually only girls/women who ‘loose’ their innocence – it’s a mark of virtue if a man gains sexual experience early.
Of course it’s linked to the high value Western society places on female virginity (in other cultures the hymen is considered an aberration and is broken in childhood). Feminism has made a thorough examination of the economic and patriarchal reasons for preserving virginity which I asume most of you are familiar with, so I won’t repeat them here.
In my Temenos system I argue that the second stage of development deals with the archetype of the father and mother, the shadow version of which is the terrible father and terrible mother. The patronizing attitude is an example of the terrible father and it necessarily makes an alliance with the ‘matronizing’ attitude. The father protects by using discipline, the mother protects by wrapping the child in cotton wool. We find the matronizing impulse in both its good and shadow versions most in the helping professions, including psychology (and especially social work).
The creation of ‘victims’ is often a result of an overactive matronizing impulse. A victim cannot take responsibility for themselves and must be protected, wrapped in cotton wool, by the matronizing power. This is not to deny the genuine cases of victimization, just to recognize a pathological matronizing impulse that creates and perpetuates victimhood.
The age of consent laws were championed by Christian feminists who were part of the social purity movement and part of the worthwhile reform of many social evils (including slavery). But it also stepped into a moral matronizing stance. This still exists today in the feminist movement with an obvious split between what has been called the anti-porn and pro-porn feminists. (Is there a better title? I hope so, but you get my point). The anti-porn feminists see porn stars as victims of an insidious patriarchal industry whereas their opposites recognize sex work as a legitimate avenue that may empower women – not all of them are the victims the matronizing impulse would have them be.
I suspect the same forces are at play in creating and sustaining the myth of the innocent child and extending that idea into late adolescence. As I’ve already said the evidence seems to suggest that ‘children’ are maturing physically, cognitively, affectively and morally at an earlier age. A 16 year old in 1920, 1950, 1970 and 2006 are different in terms of knowledge and maturity.
As an interesting side note – a new Australian film has caused a controversy. It’s 2.37, the debut film by Murali Thalluri (which has just opened the Melbourne Film Festival). It looks at teen suicide and covers subjects such as sibling incest, homophobia, bulimia and confusion over sexual identity. The irony is that it has been given an R rating, which means it can only be seen by 18 and over. This is actually very funny because Murali wrote and started the film when he was 17 and technically he could not have seen his own film. All of the events in the film are based on his experience as a 16 year old, including the suicide of a friend and his own slide into depression and attempted suicide. This means that a film that might help teens understand their own angst and made by a teen will not allowed to be shown to very age group it was about, by and for. So, go figure!