Revisiting the problem with protecting the innocent

Child prostituteLast winter I quoted, inspired by the sexual undertone in Balthus’s paintings of children at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an article about the negative consequences of equating childhood with innocence. In “Who Are You Kidding? Children, Power, and the Struggle Against Sex Abuse,” Jenny Kitzinger criticizes people’s tendency to describe childhood as an innocent time and space for at least two reasons:

[1] If defiling the pure and deflowering the virgin is supposed to be erotic, then focusing on children’s presumed innocence only reinforces their desirability as sexual objects…[2] If the violation of innocence is the criterion against which the act of sexual abuse is judged then violating a “knowing” child becomes a lesser offence than violating an “innocent” child.

Thinking about this made much sense then, as I strolled through the exhibition and wondered if Balthus’s objectification of children was, in fact, compensated by the empowerment he infused them with by giving them adult-like personalities, or some agency of their own. But it also makes sense now, as people bring attention to the “innocent” children that get trapped in the United States’ southern border or in the nets of prostitution in Brazil. If children should be protected because they are innocent, what happens with the (immigrant, prostitute) child that we cease to see as innocent?

From “Who are you Kidding?” in greater length:

…innocence is a double-edged sword in the fight against sexual abuse because it stigmatizes the ‘knowing’ child. The romanticization of childhood innocence excludes those who do not conform to the idea. Innocence is used to imply asexuality, ‘pre-sexual personhood’ (Hancock and Mains, 1987:32), or a limited and discrete ‘childlike’ sensuality. This penalizes the child who sexually responds to the abuse or who appears flirtatious and sexually aware… It is this notion which allows an abuser to defend himself on the grounds that his victim was ‘no angel’…


—Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Managing Editor

Balthus, Thérèse on a Bench Seat, 1939

To read more posts by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here.

Featured image: Balthus, Thérèse on a Bench Seat, 1939

“Who Are You Kidding? Children, Power, and the Struggle Against Sex Abuse,” written by Jenny Kitzinger, was published in A. James & A. Prout’s book Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood (London: Falmer Press, 1990)

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