Foucault on anti-pedophile hysteria

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A sufficiently large, massive, and at first glance irreversible evolution could have raised the possibility that the legal restrictions imposed on the sexual practices of our contemporaries would finally desist and disperse, especially since that regime is not particularly old. The penal code of 1810 barely touches on sexuality, as if it and the law had little in common; and it was not until the later nineteenth century, and even more so in the twentieth century, not until the days of Petain and the time of the 1960 Mirguet amendment that legalization of sexuality became increasingly burdensome. But the last decade, with its mores and opinions, has called for an examination of this legal system.

For the last few months though an opposite trend has gained momentum, all the more disturbing in that it is not restricted to France. Look at the United States, and particularly at Anita Bryant's anti-homosexual campaign which bordered on a call for murder. Though in France a similar phenomenon is taking place, a number of specific and precise facts seem to indicate that the police and the courts are quickly reverting to rigid, hard and fast positions. And this movement is often sadly supported by campaigns in the press.

We are facing today a global movement towards liberation, then the return swing, the backlash, the checking, perhaps even the birth of a reverse trend.

Though we are indeed at a point of change, this change will not result in any serious alleviation of the legislation concerning sexuality. Throughout the nineteenth century there developed, slowly but surely and with extreme difficulty, a ponderous body of laws thoroughly incapable of articulating that which it was punishing. Crimes were prosecuted though they remained undefined. The offenses that were prosecuted remained undefined. A law was defined to protect decency, but decency itself remained undetermined. In practice,the rights of decency were invoked whenever legislative interference in sexuality demanded justification.

And it could be said that all legislation concerning sexuality is in fact an assemblage of the laws of decency. This legislative machine that sought out an undefined object was only used in cases deemed strategically useful. There was in effect a whole campaign against teachers; at another stage, the clergy felt the heat. This legislation was used to control child prostitution, which was terribly important from 1830 to 1880. Now it becomes clear that this instrument, all the more flexible for being undefined, can exist only so long as the notions of decency, offense, and crime subscribe to a system of value, culture, and dis- course; in the pornographic explosion and its subsequent profits in this new environment, it is no longer possible to use those words and to apply them by the old rules. But what is taking shape, which is why it is important to discuss the problem of children, is a new penal and legislative system which will not only punish presumed infractions of the general laws of decency but more importantly will protect populations or segments thereof considered to be especially fragile. This means that the legislator will no longer try to justify his measures by proposing to defend the universal decency of humanity. Instead he will claim that there are those for whom the sexuality of others presents a permanent threat; those being children on the brink of an adult sexuality that will be foreign and threatens to hurt them. Hence a legislation arises calling upon the notion of a fragile, or "high-risk", population with a psychiatric or psychological body of knowledge tainted with a vulgarized brand of psychoanalysis. This provides psychiatrists with a two-fold right of intervention. First in general terms: of course childhood sexuality exists, let us not revive those ancient chimeras of the child as pure and innocent of all sexuality. But we psychologists or psychiatrists or psychoanalysts, we pedagogues, we know that a child's sexuality is a specific sexuality that has its own forms, seasons of maturation, moments of strength, specific drives and equally specific latency periods. The sexuality of the child is a land whose geography the adult should not penetrate, a virgin land that, though sexual, fiercely retains its virginity. The psychiatrist thus intervenes as a safeguard, as a guarantor of the specificity of infantile sexuality, as a lord protector. On the other hand, in each case the doctor will assert that an adult has come to mix his sexuality with that of the child. Perhaps the child with his own sexuality desired the adult, perhaps consented, perhaps even initiated the first steps. We can admit that it was the child who seduced the man, but our psychological insight assures us that the seducing child will undoubtedly be damaged and traumatized by having had an affair with an adult. Consequently the child must be protected from his own desires, inasmuch as those desires lead him towards an adult, and it is the psychiatrist who can claim to predict that a particular trauma will result from a certain type of relationship. Thus at the very core of this new wave of legislation designed to protect the fragile segment of the population occurs the erection of a new medical power, to be founded on an altogether debatable conception of sexuality, and above all on the relationship of infantile to adult sexuality. On the one hand childhood is by its very nature endangered and must be protected against any imaginable threat long before any conceivable act or attack. And on the other hand lurk the dangerous ones, who are obviously adults and who are dangerous by virtue of the new sexual machinery that is being installed. Prior to this the laws prohibited a number of acts, acts so numerous as to defy comprehension, but it was to the acts that the law addressed itself: it condemned types of behavior. What the intervention of the law, the judge, and the doctor are defining and authenticating are the dangerous ones. There will then emerge a society of dangers made up of those in danger and those who bear danger. And sexuality will no longer be a form of behavior with certain precise prohibitions but rather a kind of danger that lingers, an omnipresent phantom that lightly passes among men and women, children and adults, and finally simply among adults. Sexuality will become the threat looming above all social bonds, relations among generations as among individuals; On this shadow, on this phantom, on this fear the power structure will assume control by means of a seemingly generous and blanket legislation thanks largely to a series of timely interventions that will probably involve judicial institutions supported by the medical profession. And there will arise a new order of sexual control: in the second half of the twentieth century sex will be decriminalized only to reappear as a danger, and a universal one at that. There lies the real danger.

As to the "true" age of consent, it is extremely difficult to fix the boundaries. Consent is one thing; another is the possibility for the child to be believed when speaking of his sexual relations or of his affections, of his tenderness, or of his contacts (the adjective "sexual" is often problematic here because it does not correspond to reality) -- the child expresses his feelings or recounts his adventures. When it comes to children, the first assumption is that their sexuality can never be directed towards an adult. Secondly they are deemed incapable of self-expression. Thus no-one ever believes them. They are believed to be immune to sexuality and unable to discuss it. But really, to listen to a child, to hear him speak, to hear him explain his relations with another, adult or not, provided one listens sympathetically, permits one to establish the nature of the violence or consent to which he submitted. And to assume that because he is a child, it is impossible to know what happened, or whether or not he consented, is unacceptable.


Michel Foucault is Professor at the College de France. Translated by Daniel Moshenberg.


Excepted from "Dialogues," a French radio program produced by Roger Pillaudin and published by Recherches, April 1979.


from SEMIOTEXT(E) SPECIAL, Intervention Series 2: Loving Children, p. 44ff.

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