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The need to defend childhood

Some things don’t need deconstructing

Artillery Row

An increasingly stark dividing line in the culture wars between conservatives and progressives lies over the treatment of children. Specifically, the extent to which children ought to be exposed to otherwise “adult” topics of conversation, most notably of sex and sexuality. 

Last year, during the Birmingham Pride Parade, I saw parents taking photographs of their children standing besides the innocuously flamboyant — men in fishnet shirts — and the downright disgusting — men in gimp suits, not to mention the increasingly common furries. The old argument of consenting adults being able to do what they like behind closed doors appears to have been blown apart, to the extent that not one part of the argument remains: the doors are no longer closed, the people involved are no longer adults only — and what of consent?

After all, children cannot consent. We know this, because our laws say so, and so does our natural inclination. So, it must be the parents consenting on their behalf. That’s what one Washington Post writer seemed to admit:

I agree that Pride should be a welcoming space for children and teens, but policing how others show up doesn’t protect or uplift young people. Instead, homogenizing self-expression at Pride will do more harm to our children than good. When my own children caught glimpses of kink culture, they got to see that the queer community encompasses so many more nontraditional ways of being, living, and loving.

Children have even been involved as performers as well as participants. Take the much-criticised “child drag queen” Desmond is Amazing. Of course, as Ben Sixsmith says, in typical satirical fashion, “a child dancing on stage whilst singing songs about being ‘pretty and petite’ whilst men throw money at them is not sexual at all, and if you think it is, you must be some kind of bigot”, so the problem may lie with me. But I remain unconvinced. 

When we look to the UK, our problems are different, but still sinister. The news that broke earlier this year of “the family sex show”, that was intentionally directed at children as young as five, came amidst stories of “drag queen story hour” (another American import, which the Free Speech Union claims is underpinned by a “radical, politically charged academic theory” known as “radical gender theory”) and the move by the government to introduce LGBT sex education to primary schools. The government claimed this would assist in “creating a happy and successful adult life”, which is a good thirteen years in the making. 

It reveals our increasingly cavalier attitude

As Malcolm Clark recently pointed out, “Most supporters of ‘Drag Queen Story Hour’ would not defend paedophiles, of course. But Drag Story champions often talk about boundary-breaking of all sorts with an enthusiasm which is deliberately unsettling.” And unsettling it is — not only for what children are exposed to, but for what it reveals of our increasingly cavalier attitude to what is, or should be, recognised as an extremely vulnerable period in a young person’s life. It is not helped by the fact that none of these things — child drag queens, children at Pride parades, drag queen story hour, family sex shows — are illegal, even though many of us feel a certain natural revulsion. 

Suddenly lurching out of the realm of legality and into that of morality is a dangerous thing, but in this context we risk muddying the waters between fully developed persons, capable of making moral and immoral distinctions, and the specifically innocent era in our life when such a distinction is unclear: childhood. 

Childhood is something special. It is a period in our lives of total, then gradually reduced, helplessness and innocence, when we believe in faeries and Santa Claus, when the world is good and evil, and when forgiveness is given so quickly because enmity is so insincere. This has not always been the case — indeed, childhood was in many ways an “invention” of the Victorian era. As Sir David Cannadine writes

A recognition that children were not miniature adults but had their own age-specific personalities and needs. Increasingly, childhood was redefined to signify dependence on parents, economic and sexual inactivity, and an absence of legal and political rights, but there was also a growing awareness that children needed to be protected and cared for, and that the state and voluntary organisations had an obligation to do so.

Sir David’s neat summary of the emergence of childhood as a discrete period in a person’s development is a well-recognised fact, with Philippe Ariès writing in the 1960s that prior to the mid-17th century, children were “mini-adults”. What might fashionably be called a “social construction” was, in reality, a realisation and a discovery. As Sir David writes, “the greatest change in attitudes and circumstances took place among the middle classes, where emotional intimacy was increasingly displayed between parents and children, which led to an idealisation of childhood as a magic phase of life, and a time of heightened emotional sensitivity.” Psychological study has since borne this out.

Childhood must then be protected as a sphere of innocence and joy, as William Blake wrote in 1789. Yet this sphere has come under attack, much earlier than Drag Queen Story Hour might suggest. As Kelli Buzzard wrote in the American Mind, the Hungarian Marxist Gyorgy Lukács “pioneered a sex education curriculum for Hungarian public schools that promoted early childhood sexualization and promiscuity. By introducing sexual activity and pleasure to children at a young age, Lukács believed he could eradicate an idea he considered a chief roadblock to revolution: that of ‘innocent childhood’”.

Childhood is intimately connected to family

Coincidences seem a little too common. The Free Speech Union article, quoted above, claims that Drag Queen Story Hour is a method of subversion much in line with Lukács’s vision. This would be easier to dismiss if a 2020 article had not argued that “Drag Story could help not just to dissolve gender boundaries but ‘white supremacy’, colonialism and err … capitalism. It’s apparently well-positioned … to ‘make revolution irresistible’”. Similarly, the unnerving Family Sex Show lists in its Glossary such terms as “anti-capitalist”, “ACAB”, “Eurocentrism”, “Social Construct” and so on. Terms that must be included in the performance, for why else would they be needed in a glossary?

We cannot discount the intentional revolutionality in erasing that Victorian victory of childhood as a desexualised sphere of life. To do so is to undo that victory and once again see children as “mini adults”, potentially exposing them to the dangers of the world before they are ready to understand and confront them. This is not confined to what W. H. Auden called the enticing mystery of sex, but extends also to the relations between races that the events of the last few years have inflamed.

If childhood must be defended, we need to know how. Fortunately, we have that ancient and time-proven method of doing so: the family. Dr. Rakib Ehsan’s exceptional and extensive writing on both the power and the need for family-centred policy shows just how important the family is in ensuring that childhood is protected and secured, both in terms of the material (as Dr. Tony Sewell writes) and the psychological benefits (with divorce being more damaging than grief). 

Childhood is intimately connected to family, yet Britain’s current family policies do not support families as much as they could. We need a pro-family movement, both in society and backed by the power of the state. The right has become almost irrationally fearful in this country of using state power to support essential social institutions, least of all the family. If we looked to America, especially in Florida under Governor DeSantis, we might learn a good lesson. The recent Parental Rights in Education Law exposes otherwise opaquely hidden education contents to those who have the greatest concern for children — their parents. 

It is time Britain had a pro-family movement for many reasons, but foremost among them, to protect our children.

This article originally quoted a writer as saying that the philosopher Gyorgy Lukács created a sex education curriculum which promoted “early childhood sexualization and promiscuity”. As we have been unable to locate a primary source we have removed this passage. We apologise for the mistake.

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