Drawing the Line: A Feminist Response to Adult—Child Sexual Relations

  • Mica Nava
Part of the Youth Questions book series (YQ)


The contemporary feminist movement in the United States and Britain and feminist ideas about sexuality developed in large part both out of, and in reaction to, the libertarian and liberation politics of the 1960s. Within the libertarian theoretical frame work, sexuality was understood as an energy and source of pleasure which needed to be freed from societal constraints1. Sexual repression was perceived as intimately linked to political authoritarianism: it was both a consequence of it and contributed to its persistence. Thus one of the tasks of socialists was to undermine the prevailing sexual codes, to explore hedonism both for its own sake and for what were considered to be its inevitably progressive political ramifications. Important among the targets of these libertarian critiques were monogamous marriage, the age of consent, legislation relating to homosexuality and abortion, and almost any other sexual taboo which placed limits upon the ‘free’ sexual expression to which every individual was entitled.2


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  1. 1.
    See for example the work of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. Lynne Segal (1983) discusses this background in ‘“Smash the Family?” Recalling the 1960s’.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For example David Cooper said in Death of the Famil? (1971): ‘Making love is good in itself and the more it happens in any way possible or conceivable between as many people as possible more and more of the time, so much the better’ (quoted in Segal (1983) p. 53). See also The Little Red Schoolboo? (Hansen and Jensen, 1971).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The argument is elaborated by Fernbach (1980).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Much has been written about this issue. See for example: ‘What is Pornography? Two Opposing Feminist Viewpoints’ in Spare Ri?,119 (1982); Rosalind Coward and WAVAW (1982); Paula Webster (1981); Andrea Dworkin (1981); for a very useful overview see Chapter 7 in Elizabeth Wilson (1983a).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See discussion by Hilary Allen (1982).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Linda Gordon and Ellen Dubois (1983) in their article ‘Seeking Ecstasy on the Battlefield: Danger and Pleasure in Nineteenth-Century Feminist Sexual Thought’ examine theoretical and political differences between nineteenth-century ‘social purity’ feminists and early twentieth-century women sexual radicals. They suggest that aspects of these different traditions are echoed in today’s divisions between feminists. Elizabeth Wilson (1983b), in her introduction to the Gordon and Dubois article in Feminist Revie?, no. 13, situates these observations in the context of the American debate, though they are clearly relevant to discussion in Britain as well.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    The capitalism-patriarchy debate has provided another. For a discussion of these differences see Anne Phillips (1981).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    These are of course pseudonyms.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    It is of course vital to keep in mind that the overwhelming proportion of adult-child sexual encounters take place between men and girls.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    This argument is developed in Nava (1983).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    I know of no systematic research in this area. Information is difficult to obtain since incidents of this kind are often only known about locally; details of them tend to be hushed up and frequently do not even reach the administrative levels of the education authority.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Valerie Walkerdine (1981) has drawn attention to a remarkable instance of this process.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    An astonishing 90 per cent of education authorities in this country have not banned corporal punishment; a high proportion of schools continue to use it on a regular basis.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    A historically specific category constructed in relation to legal and psychiatric discourses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though details of this process are hard to come by.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    For example Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin (both contributors to Daniel Tsang (ed.) (1981) The Age Tabo?, a collection of articles which examines the issue of sexual relations between men and boys) are known among feminists in the United States for their libertarian defence of sado-masochism.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    PIE (Paedophile Information Exchange) in their pamphlet Paedophili? (1978) quote a study by Lauretta Bender and Abraham Blau: ‘The Reaction of Children to Sexual Relations With Adults’ American Journal of Orthopsychiatr? (1937), in which it is claimed that: ‘The emotional placidity of most of the children would seem to indicate that they derived some fundamental satisfaction from the relationship. The children rarely acted as injured parties and often did not show any evidence of guilt, anxiety or shame. Any emotional disturbance they presented could be attributed to external restraint rather than internal guilt.’Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    In fact of course there are (at least) a few known cases where individuals associated with those groups which defend, theorise and attempt to cleanse paedophilia, have deceived and taken advantage of boys in council care and other difficult personal circumstances.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    The paedophile is almost never a she.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Elizabeth Wilson (1983b, p. 38) has made this point in relation to sado-masochism and Gayle Rubin’s libertarian defence of it.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Of course virulent criticism has also been articulated by right-wing moral crusaders, such as Mary Whitehouse, who oppose all forms of sexual behaviour unsanctioned by marriage, most particularly those which are homosexual. These views are not considered in this article since they did not enter into Mary’s deliberations when evaluating the issues.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Under-age sex has also frequently been used as a pretext for taking young girls into council care, see for example Deirdre Wilson (1978). A number of astute and persuasive criticisms of the age of consent legislation are made by young women in ‘Sex Under Sixteen’ in Spare Ri? 108 (1981).Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    How individuals end up ‘selecting’ a particular set of views is of course a very complex business and cannot be understood without also taking into account unconscious mental processes.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    The age of consent is a very complex issue which is only superficially addressed in this article. An argument could be made for abolishing it and putting in its place a professional code of practice in which sexual relationships between teachers and pupils, although not illegal, would be grounds for dismissal (as they are between client and practitioner in the medical profession). This would be likely to improve the rate at which such offences get reported, since the police and courts would not be involved, and might therefore be more effective than existing procedure. However a reform of this kind would fail to protect those children assaulted outside educational institutions — a very high proportion of child abusers are family friends and relatives who are not covered by incest legislation either.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Erica Carter, Adrian Chappell, Barbara Hudson, Angela McRobbie, Mica Nava, Valerie Walkerdine, Julian Wood 1984

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  • Mica Nava

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