On “innocence”

There’s a very interesting view in New Zealand that seems to permeate through certain sections of the population.

Namely, it’s the view that children are born innocent and that society corrupts them as they go along. The view that we should all aspire to be like children.

While I agree that there is much to be liked about children- their enthusiasm, their openness, their caring nature, their carefree competition, and desire to learn and explore, for instance- I also know that children are far from innocent. Children will happily repeat racist and sexist slurs they hear from their parents or from other children with no idea what they mean- because they are naive and in many cases sheltered from the harm done by words. As discussed elsewhere, children will beat and bully each other into submission, and stand by or enable bullies. Children don’t care about being objective, they are highly partisan and before they become teenagers, they tend to be devoted largely to what they’ve been taught by their parents.

So you’ll have to excuse me when I reject the notion that children having sex is corrupting their innocence or some larger failure of society. Nope. It’s because puberty is accelerated in modern society with more plentiful and sometimes more nutritious food available. (and also partly due to lax farming standards that include hormones and other “goodies” in our meat, but fortunately we don’t do as badly on that sort of practice with locally grown food) It’s because we have a society where children have small amounts of independence at school and afterwards and parents are generally only accepted as authoritarian lords over their families when they panic1 and decide to hurt or abuse their children. Oh, and it’s also because we don’t try to stop them finding out about sex, say, by never talking about it among ourselves in public.

Now, while our conservative friends may realise that children that bully aren’t necessarily to be emulated by adults, they don’t seem to extend this logic to children who are sexually ignorant. Apparently they would like us to believe that a ring and a promise will arbitrarily heal everyone’s relationship issues, that sex before then is less than ideal, that teenagers having sex will inevitably result not only in teen pregnancy, (not if you educate them and make sure they have condoms and other birth control if they have girlfriends/boyfriends) but also abortions. (see before, see their opposition to emergency contraceptives despite the ones being sold or given away in New Zealand not even being physically capable of performing an abortion) Even worse than that, our friends to the right railed against a policy that made sure that girls would be protected from cervical cancer through the HPV should they ever choose to have sex. (yes, family first again linked to this article. Aren’t they lovely?)

It strikes me as an inherent contradiction to maintain that kids that don’t have sex (well, at least until they’re old enough and independent enough to get married without your consent) are “innocent” and somehow more morally pure for their virginity even when they are bullying each other, and even when you claim that this behaviour is so bad you’re prepared to hit them for it.

And that’s not the worst of it- this concept of sexual innocence is directly psychologically damaging. Not only does it disproportionately punish young girls for being sexually active, (as opposed to treating young boys equally) it treats teenage pregnancy as somehow making daughters and sisters “damaged goods” sexually and in their career life instead of merely viewing a symptom of bad social choices encouraged by our lacking support of young people being safe in their sexuality. And it’s not just teenagers who get damaged when women’s virginity is held up on a pillar- it hurts rape victims, it hurts women who decide to have casual sex and are then shamed for it if they speak about it, it hurts women who have had experiences in imperfect relationships and are viewed as threateningly independent by future partners or husbands.

Even beyond that, it hurts men too, implying that male sexuality is some sort of corruptive agent, that loving someone safely and with regard for their mind body and feelings is wrong, that sex is something dirty we inflict on people and we shouldn’t talk about it to learn how to do it better and with more care and respect. And even beyond that, it implies that homosexuality extends that corruption to other men, (and you begin to see part of why those influenced by conservative religious doctrine like this idea now) that anal sex is necessarily wrong, (despite the fact that women do it with men, too) and all these other ridiculous ideas around penetration being some sort of shame.

We’re also missing the effect it has on women who initiate sex- because the idea is that she’s to be shamed for wanting it, there’s this false implication (and it tends to be more an assumption than an issue of denial) that women simply do not, or should not, initiate sex, nor should they approach men to try and strike up a relationship- women are supposed to be subtle little wallflowers, after all.

And that has two more (fortunately the last I want to talk about here) flow-on effects: People raped by women are treated with additional skepticism because women “simply don’t do that”. I suspect this seems to be because of the perception that rape is exclusively a violent crime- yet all cases of women commiting rape I’ve ever heard of have involved abuses of power which involve the woman in question adding a sexual dynamic to an existing relationship that’s unbalanced in her favour. (Don’t get the impression that women are unique in this though- men commit almost all rapes, yet that element is present in most rapes overall anyway, as most rapists are trusted by their victim. Consider rape-incest or pedophilia.)

Finally, it also justifies rape and sexual misbehaviour committed by men, due to a perception that innocence must be guarded- what went wrong that “we let” this happen to young boys when charges are laid against priests for sexually abusing them. How women “need to keep themselves safe”, how “drinking is making young women vulnerable”, how men get away with saying disgusting things like how they “just couldn’t help themselves”- and get such statements covered without editorial criticism in the media. Innocence, at least in the sense of not being violated, is not maintained through vigilance. It’s taken without consent.

1If you follow the link, please note how none of these people were charged except when someone who was suspected to be trustworthy was willing to testify. There’s apparently more than one way to beat something up.

note: Apologies I was late with this one, I’ve been writing all over the place today.

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One Response

  1. This was definitely enlightening! Many of the things I had already come to realize, most being the ones about women, but often times when I think of innocence it only relates to women. Perhaps it’s because i’m a woman myself and can feel some of the stresses regarding innocence whereas it’s difficult to place myself in a mans shoe and not many people write about it effecting both genders. Thanks for sharing this piece, it has certainly opened up my own mind 😉

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