Queer Theory and The Child

Review by Julia Shaw

Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley (eds) Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

"…yet the perverse imp within will probe beneath the fringes of forbidden robe, seduced by curiosity." — From "Metamorphoses of the Moon." Sylvia Plath. [1]

[1] Anyone curious, like Plath's perverse imp, about what queer theory has to say about children these days will be delightfully seduced by Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children. [2] Curiouser contemplates relationships between child sexuality and queerness in the context of queer theory, contemporary gay and lesbian politics, and cultural, psychoanalytic, and literary criticism. An edited collection bringing together work on queerness and children produced during the past couple of decades, Curiouser synthesizes, elaborates, contests, and complicates critical perspectives on "the child" and sexuality that have appeared increasingly in recent years in gay and lesbian studies and queer theory. GLQ, for example, has recently published a number of essays on children and sexuality: Ellis Hanson's "Screwing With Children in Henry James," "The Story of Jo: Literary Tomboys, Little Women, and the Sexual-Textual Politics of Narrative Desire" by Karin Quimby, Patrick McCreery's "Innocent Pleasures? Children and Sexual Politics," a review of six recent books on children and sex (not including Curiouser), "Molestation 101: Child Abuse, Homophobia, and The Boys of St. Vincent" by Kevin Ohi, who is a contributor to Curiouser, and Steven Angelides's "Feminism, Child Sexual Abuse, and the Erasure of Child Sexuality," which has the ring of a landmark contribution to queer theory in its proclamation that "the time has come to make further refinements to our categories for analyzing sexuality" and call for "a queer theory of age stratification." [3]

[2] Other recent works on queer theory and the child are of note. For example, less concerned with actual children's sexuality than with the theoretical risks and implications to queer theory of even daring to mobilize always inadequately problematized notions of the child is Karin Lesnik-Oberstein and Stephen Thomson's rather pointedly-titled "What is Queer Theory Doing With the Child?" [4] Lee Edelman's incomparable No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, which risks discussing the Child only in the service of an uncompromising attack against that very figure, is an indispensable contribution to the growing work on the child in queer theory, and includes "The Future Is Kid Stuff," a deliciously devastating assault against politics defined, as he describes it, by a "reproductive futurism" whose sole purpose is the protection of the Child and the social (heteronormative) order that the Child represents. [5] And of course, James Kincaid's 1992 Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture and 1998 Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, through their bold, candid, often wry treatments and historical analyses of child sexuality and the cultural production of assumed childhood innocence have had a defining influence on gay and lesbian perspectives on the child. [6]

[3] Queer theory's treatment of children has been shaped by, as much as it has shaped, a prior critical discourse on child sexuality. Curiouser, like the writers mentioned above, borrows from and builds upon a body of work on children and sexuality that emerged, most notably, after Sigmund Freud's ground-breaking 1905 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, a revolutionary text which acknowledges, unlike previous writers, both that children are sexual and that child sexuality is a universal and normal phenomenon. [7] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who take psychoanalysis to task in "Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…" for its oversimplification of the figure of the child ("psychoanalysts, even Jung, did not understand…they killed becoming-animal, in the adult as in the child"), offer readings of Freud's Little Hans and James' Maisie and Daisy that remind us of the crucial distinction between the child as someone who becomes and "the becoming itself that is a child or a girl." [8] Addressing the relationship of psychoanalysis to the queer child, editors Natasha Hurley and Steven Bruhm trace Freud's contributions to the literature on child sexuality and the stumbling blocks that psychoanalysis presents for queer projects. Curiouser includes several psychoanalytic essays that build upon and elaborate the difference identified by Deleuze and Guattari between the attributes of children and the very production of "child-ness": Paul Kelleher's "How to Do Things with Perversion: Psychoanalysis and the 'Child in Danger,'" Kathryn Bond Stockton's "Growing Sideways, or Versions of the Queer Child: The Ghost, the Homosexual, the Freudian, the Innocent, and the Interval of Animal," and Eric Savoy's "Theory a Tergo in The Turn of the Screw," each of which, in its emphasis on the fundamental incoherence of the subject and the play between fantasy and reality, articulates uses of psychoanalysis for queer child studies that counters what Bruhm and Hurley refer to as "the stuck story of clinical psychology" and its general refusal to imagine child sexuality apart from the discourse of trauma (xxvi). Since Freud, we have seen important contributions to the literature on children and child sexuality such as Philippe Aries' 1962 Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life and Foucault's 1978 The History of Sexuality, [9] the latter of which, as the introduction to Curiouser suggests, identifies the sexual child as the crucible in which the modern homosexual was forged: "The initial policing of child sexuality…enabled the persecution of perversions that would eventually earn the sodomite his certified homosexuality" (xv).

[4] The sexual liberation movement in the U.S. was in full force at the time of the publication of The History of Sexuality, and the discourse of child sexuality was no exception. As Angelides puts it, thanks to the sexual liberation movement "not only was child sexuality a palpable conceptual figure for most of the twentieth century, but it had even become an overt political issue." [10] Daniel Tsang's 1981 The Age Taboo: Gay Male Sexuality, Power, and Consent is just one of an overwhelming number of works during this period that takes up the question of intergenerational sex and gay liberation. [11] But, as Angelides carefully documents, feminists in the late 1970s and 80s inaugurated, in contrast to the discourse on child emancipation and sexual freedom, a pervasive and hegemonic "discourse of child sexual abuse" whose continued dominance goes without saying. [12] It was on the heels of contest among liberation and pedophile groups, radical feminists decrying child sexual abuse, and pro-sex feminists like Pat Califia that Gayle Rubin's important 1993 essay "Thinking Sex" was published in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. While current psychoanalytic and poststructuralist-inflected gay and lesbian perspectives on child sexuality now offer more complex notions of power and subjectivity, Rubin both predicted and helped make possible recent queer analyses of child sexuality by addressing intergenerational sex and the arbitrary boundary between adult sexuality and childhood innocence. [13] Bruhm and Hurley offer an overview of the feminist discourse of child sexual abuse that emerged in the U.S. in the 1980s and its effect on conversations, particularly within gay communities, about intergenerational sex. Bringing attention to the subsequent hegemony of the discourse of childhood trauma in psychotherapeutic communities, child welfare, and dominant culture, they consider how "the premises of psychoanalysis might help us to imagine the queer child" despite the dominant discourses of trauma (xxvi).

[5] Curiouser is important largely because it contextualizes and clarifies what has been, especially since Freud, an over-determined and charged discourse on child sexuality — a useful feature in its own right. But its consideration of that discourse in relation to queer theory, a relatively new discipline whose interest in the queerness of children is newer still, is invaluable and is what makes Curiouser, in a sense, the first collection of its kind. Using exemplary essays from contemporary literary, queer, psychoanalytic, and cultural criticism, it traces the lines of divergence and convergence surrounding representations of children and sexuality. One of the most useful essays in this collection is, quite simply, the introduction, which seeks to organize some central issues and texts related to child sexuality and queerness. Bruhm and Hurley delineate often vertiginously imbricated problems such as the very notion of child sexuality in the context of presumed sexual innocence, proto-queer children, intergenerational sex (both hetero- and homo-), and the troubled relationship between gay and lesbian politics and children. The introduction also glosses the history of the modern child, newly situated alongside the emergence of queer, modern sexuality: "The modern-day queer is unthinkable without the modern child" (xiv), they write, which begins their recontextualization of the child and sexuality, starting chronologically with John Locke's 1690 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and moving through Jean-Jacques Rousseau to William Blake's Songs of Innocence, whose moaning, desirous children are far from innocent.

[6] The publication of Curiouser could not be more timely considering recent heightened popular attention to children and sex: as the introduction intimates, the publication of Judith Levine's 2002 book Harmful to Minors caused more than a stir. [14] After members of the Minnesota House of Representatives threw a tantrum over her book (the Republican majority leader insisted that "this kind of disgusting victimization of children is intolerable, and the state should have no part in it"), the University of Minnesota Press, which, perhaps miraculously, later published Curiouser, set up a two-month review of its selection process. [15] Levine herself discusses in her introduction the roadblocks that she faced trying to find a publisher, remarking that "the forces and feelings that almost ate Harmful to Minors are precisely what Harmful to Minors is about." [16] Meanwhile, since the publication of Curiouser, there has been no scarcity of juicy stories of sex and children available for public consumption. Michael Jackson's trial has come and gone, but our fascination with him and his ilk has not waned. As James Kincaid notes in the opening essay of Curiouser, "Had Michael Jackson not existed, we would have been forced to invent him, which is of course, what we did" (5). No doubt, the perpetual scandal that is Michael Jackson promises a vicarious fix for our righteous child love. Indignant, we'll condemn what goes on at the Neverland Ranch, and like Sergeant Lucas in The Woodsman recounting the tragic story of a young girl, a "little cutie" who has been "sodomized in half," we are convinced that our respect for the child's innocence separates us from the sick pervert. [17] But in the same way that Lucas's somber narration is hardly distinguishable from the pedophile's own fantasies of seducing a child, this very idealization of innocence may be largely responsible for sexual violence against children. And we cannot ignore, in this respect, that the fantasy of childhood innocence, and not just homophobia, is also responsible for violence against queer children, not to mention queer adults. As Eve Sedgwick puts it in her essay "How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay" reprinted in this collection, "it's always open season on gay kids," (140) and the reality of that violence is one of the liabilities of the dangerous assumption of childhood asexuality.

[7] Curiouser, however, is an important contribution to the discourse of child sexuality despite its timeliness. The collection does not take the child next door featured on the nightly local news as its starting point, but rather, it begins with an emphasis on narrative, the proposition that children and sexuality cannot be understood outside of the stories we tell about them. This is a proposition that requires patient, careful consideration of our fundamental assumptions, our stories, about children and sex, one that seems incompatible with the short attention span of media frenzy, its mad rush to save what Kelleher in his essay terms "the child in danger," and its interminable, nauseating reiteration of that story. Curiouser does not seek to save the child, but asks, how is it that the dominant cultural narrative of children is that they are constantly in danger, innocent victims of other people's raging sexual appetites? And then, how is it that these supposedly asexual cherubs always grow up straight? How does the category of the child function in political and cultural exchanges over art, the nation, and public policy? For what does "the child" substitute, what anxieties and desires are projected onto it, and to what ends? What work is it doing for the maintenance of straight cultural norms, and what are the liabilities for children and their sexuality?

[8] Literature, of course, is the discipline that most obviously foregrounds story as such, and in particular, children's stories and stories about children. Literature perhaps owes its most sustained, queer representations of desiring and desirable children to Henry James, whose first novel Watch and Ward (1878), a bizarre tale of a guardian's (successful) efforts to raise his adopted daughter as his future wife, was published over two decades before Three Essays, and presages his novellas "The Pupil" (1891), The Turn of the Screw (1896), and Daisy Miller (1879). One essay in Curiouser that explicitly and elegantly considers the linkages between representation and the heteronormalizing work of presumptive childhood innocence in Henry James is Kevin Ohi's "Narrating the Child's Queerness in What Maisie Knew." For Ohi, "children are queer," but the refusal of identification with the queerness of children, exemplified by an insistence on childhood innocence, is part of what he calls, borrowing from Sedgwick's "How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay," a fantasy of queer extinction. "Childhood," he writes, "marks a…locus of impossibility, of murderous disidentification" (82). "The murderous disidentification with children under the aegis of erotic innocence," he continues, "works in concert with homophobia. Its insistence on the blank innocence of childhood is also an insistence on a (future and legibly incipient) heterosexuality" (84). Explaining the collection's two guiding questions, why are kids presumed innocent and straight, not in terms of contradiction but of relation, Ohi's lucid analysis makes a persuasive case for the relevance of child sexuality to gay and lesbian politics and theory. Turning to James' What Maisie Knew, Ohi pushes his analysis of child sexuality by reading Maisie's erotic innocence as the result of "a rhetorical operation of voiding or erasure" (90). Alternately describing Maisie, or citing James's descriptions of the child, as, for example, "the rope in a tug-of-war," a "receptacle," and a "shuttle-cock" (92-93), Ohi argues that Maisie is "the ground of exchange in the novel" (94) both between characters and of the narration itself. His intricate reading of the novel, like many of the essays in the collection, does the important work of articulating the effects of representation on what we only retroactively come to understand as childhood innocence and its relation to queerness.

[9] In addition to its selection of essays in literary criticism, Curiouser also includes film criticism and cultural criticism. Ellis Hanson's "Knowing Children: Desire and Interpretation in The Exorcist" is a clever, playful meditation on the queer child as an emblem of the failure of interpretation. "The Exorcist generates an epistemological crisis," Hanson writes, "a panic about the validity of interpretation, that hinges on our perception of a queer sexuality, in particular, the illicit sexual drives and sexual knowledge of a child" (113). Reveling in "the delectably polymorphous perversity of Regan's obscenities" (122), Hanson associates the knowing gothic child with the undoing of interpretative mastery, identifying film technology as just one mode of communication whose proper functioning is repeatedly thwarted in The Exorcist. Other essays also foreground the paradoxes of interpretation, in particular through their use of memoir, or what Bruhm and Hurley refer to as "theoretical memoir" (xxxii). In "Tongues Untied: Memoirs of a Pentecostal Boyhood," Michael Warner considers the strange continuity between his Pentecostal boyhood and his current life as a prominent queer theorist. "Your arguments have to be readings," he writes. "I remember being surrounded by textual arguments in which the stakes were not just life and death, but eternal life and death" (217) — a pithy remark underscoring both how the interpretive strategies Warner cultivated as a child inform his queer scholarship, and the centrality of interpretation to queer survival that also characterizes Curiouser as a whole. Kathryn R. Kent also employs memoir in her essay "'No Trespassing': Girl Scout Camp and the Limits of the Counterpublic Sphere," one of a number of pieces in the collection, such as those by Lauren Berlant and Judith Halberstam, that specifically addresses girls. Kent's essay alternates between autobiographical vignettes and critical analysis of lesbian identity formation in what she regards as the counterpublic sphere of Girl Scout camp. In "Oh Bondage Up Yours! Female Masculinity and the Tomboy," Halberstam, whose writing here is also autobiographical, considers, in contrast, the queer aesthetics of girls who position themselves outside or against institutional settings, what she refers to as "punk tomboyism" (206). Berlant, finally, offers a searing and engaging critique of the notion of privacy and its role in delineating "a boundary between proper and improper bodies" and the determination of "what counts as legitimate U.S. citizenship," all in the name of protecting "the little girl" (60).

[10] One of the most important contributions of Curiouser, I think, may be an implicit if understated argument for the usefulness and relevance not only of "the child" and child sexuality to more nuanced, comprehensive gay and lesbian analyses, but of gay and lesbian studies to the field and broader national discourse of childhood development. Perhaps more than any other, Curiouser is a gay and lesbian studies text whose designation as such (check the back of the book) underscores and troubles some of the interesting paradoxes of the discipline. Queer theory and gay and lesbian studies maintain, on the one hand, a kind of distinction from broader sexuality studies (how many courses on human development engage queer theory, for example?), even as one of the most important contributions of this body of scholarship is its denaturalization of sexual identity as such. What has become gay and lesbian studies has had to insist on a space in which to articulate marginalized views and voices; and yet, its usefulness extends far beyond specifically LGBTQ populations. Without reducing gay and lesbian studies to a homogenous and univocal category and thus dissolving the productive disagreements within it, one can imagine that queer perspectives, which implicitly and often explicitly have as much to say about straight culture as they do about queer cultures, also have a lot to say to straight society. Introduce the child, the paradigmatic symbol of heterosexuality and fiercely guarded commodity of straight culture, into queer thought, and we will find an inestimably powerful resistance to any affiliation or exchange between the heteronormative and non-heteronormative (in case it requires any search). Yet at the same time, we have an inestimably strong warrant for the claim that straight culture needs — even if it doesn't want — queer theory. The queer analyses of Curiouser produces a critically different story of the child — a story of a queer child who "probe[s] beneath the fringes of forbidden robe, seduced by curiosity," one who, like the child on the cover of Curiouser, has horns, a dragon's tail, and butterfly wings, and more, a queerness necessary to mitigate against the annihilating and devastating consequences of presumed innocence, of presumed serviceability to adult fantasy. To say that straight culture needs queer theory is also to say that straight culture desperately needs to hear and to take seriously the queerness of children elaborated in Curiouser even as it anxiously represses and refuses alternative narratives of children, and thus, of heterosexuality as such.


I would like to thank Michael O'Rourke for his valuable editorial suggestions and Ellen Berry for offering me the opportunity to write this review.

[1] Ted Hughes, ed., "Metamorphoses of the Moon," The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper, 1992) 308.

[2] Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley, ed., Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

[3] Ellis Hanson, "Screwing With Children in Henry James," GLQ 9.3 (2003): 367-391; Karin Quimby, "The Story of Jo: Literary Tomboys, Little Women, and the Sexual-Textual Politics of Narrative Desire," GLQ 10.1 (2003): 1-22; Patrick McCreery, "Innocent Pleasures? Children and Sexual Politics," GLQ 10.4 (2004): 617-630; Kevin Ohi, "Molestation
101: Child Abuse, Homophobia, and The Boys of St. Vincent," GLQ 6.2 (2000): 195-248; Steven Angelides, "Feminism, Child Sexual Abuse, and the Erasure of Child Sexuality," GLQ 10.2 (2004): 141-177, at 165, 167.

[4] Karin Lesnik-Oberstein and Stephen Thomson, "What is Queer Theory Doing With the Child?" Parallax 8.1 (2002): 35-46.

[5] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). "The Future Is Kid Stuff" was published in its original version as "The Future Is Kid Stuff: Queer Theory, Disidentification and the Death Drive" in Narrative 6.1 (January 1998): 18-30.

[6] James Kincaid, Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992); Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998).

[7] Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality [1905] Trans. James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 1962). Freud remarks in the second paragraph of chapter two of Three Essays, "Infantile Sexuality," that "not a single author has clearly recognized the regular existence of a sexual instinct in childhood" (39). Commenting on this assertion, Steven Marcus in the introduction to this edition of Three Essays remarks, "He [Freud] is indeed so struck by the boldness of this assertion that he has gone through the literature on the subject yet once more to test its validity. It remains valid. What Freud means is that no one before him had unequivocally recognized the pleasure seeking activities of infancy and childhood as both sexual and normal" (xlv-xlvi).

[8] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, "Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…" in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987): 259, 277. See also Deleuze and Claire Parnet's discussion of Little Hans in "Dead Psychoanalysis: Analyse" in Dialogues, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987): 77-123, and Deleuze on Alice in Wonderland in The Logic of Sense, ed. Constantin V. Boundas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

[9] Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Trans. Robert Baldick (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962); Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction [1978] Trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).

[10] Angelides, 146.

[11] Daniel Tsang, ed., The Age Taboo: Gay Male Sexuality, Power and Consent (London: Gay Men's Press, 1981). See also two special issues on homosexuality and child sexuality, "Male Intergenerational Intimacy: Historical, Socio-Psychological, and Legal Perspectives," Journal of Homosexuality 20.1 & 2 (1991).

[12] Angelides, 141, 147.

[13] See for example Pat Califia's Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex 2nd Ed. (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2000), which is dedicated to Gayle Rubin. Gayle S. Rubin, "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality," in Henry Abelove, Michele Aine Barale and David M. Halperin eds. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1993) 3-44, at 13, 20.

[14] Judith Levine, Harmful to Minors (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

[15] Robert F. Worth, "Renegade View on Child Sex Causes Storm," New York Times 13 Apr. 2002 «http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/13/books/13SEX.html» (Accessed 12 June 2002).

[16] Levine, xx.

[17] The Woodsman. Dir. Nicole Kassell. Perf. Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick. New Market, 2005.