In 2005 the Bad Sex Writing Award was bestowed upon André Brink. In spite of the freedom of expression in our society and the status of being an acclaimed novelist, it would appear that he finds it difficult to write about sex. More difficult then, must be the arena of writing about the ‘taboo’ of child-sex. This essay seeks to explore the representation of child-sex in the novel and how fiction writers attempt to portray a social reality that readers do not ordinarily have access to. The historical and contemporary dilemmas and issues that surround the representation of child-sex provide the matrix of the discussion.
Lolita, The Bluest Eye and The Conservationist have been chosen as the illustrating examples because of their suitability in terms of quality of writing, clarity, and the fact that the sex scenes quoted can maintain meaning in their excerpted form. Notwithstanding the latter aspect, all of the works are included because the sex scenes also connect to the broader themes of the novels, which will be referred to.
The novels chosen were all written during the twentieth century. Much of the sex literature written during that century have been influenced by the theories of European sexologists and Sigmund Freud. The deregulated relationship between Eros and Psyche, and the dominant role of the unconscious promulgated by Freud were major influences in liberating writers. “The virtual disappearance of sexual renunciation from western European literature in the twentieth century was part of the Freudian bequest.” (Mills, p278).
While it is acknowledged that the cultural values of a reader will determine a response to a definition, in order to determine whether the representation of child-sex falls into areas of pornography, taboo, or social reality, it is necessary for the purposes of this essay to define what is meant by the two former terms. Pornography, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is the “explicit description or exhibition of sexual activity in literature, films, etc., intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings.” The same dictionary defines taboo as “prohibited, consecrated; avoided or prohibited by social custom.”
One of the earliest writings that stirred enraged debate between erotica versus the taboo of pornography was Pauline Reage’s2 1954 The Story of O. “It was for this reason she required the girls to be naked at all times; the manner in which O had been flogged, as well as the position in which she had been tied, had the same purpose. Today, it would be O who would remain for the rest of the afternoon – for three more hours – with her legs spread and raised exposed upon the platform and facing the garden…Anne-Marie opened her thighs and had O notice that one of her labia, midway down and close to its base, had been pierced: a clean hole, such as a ticket-puncher makes… ‘But aren’t you going to give me an anaesthetic? O cried, trembling. ‘Certainly not,’ replied Anne-Marie, ‘you’ll simply be tied, somewhat tighter than yesterday. That is altogether sufficient. Come.’” (Mills, p.316-317)
Many critics felt that the novel was pornographic, yet writers like Susan Sontag defended the French erotic tradition presented by decisive writers like Reage in her book, The Pornographic Imagination, saying that “Everyone has felt (at least in fantasy) the erotic glamour of physical cruelty and erotic lure in things that are vile and repulsive. These phenomena form part of the genuine spectrum of sexuality …” (Mills, p.280)
Freud’s revelations on infantile sexuality and teenage latency denuded childhood of its incorruptibility and accorded child sexuality a literary status that saw teenage rites of passage becoming an area that was frequently explored in twentieth century fiction.
The taboo regarding the representation of very young child sexuality was observed in erotic literature but not in pornography. Although Nabokov wrote Lolita at a time when statutory rape was a crimeeb, the social ill of childhood sexual abuse was an observed ‘silence’ that was maintained in the domestic location. This silence is representative of the many silences that form a fundamental core of the strategies that motivate and permeate discourses.
Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality, Volume I posits that prior to the seventeenth century children were sexually precocious, but in subsequent centuries their sexuality was stifled in the new discursive managements of sex. It was not that less was said about sex, it was just said in another way by people with varying perspectives, “and in order to obtain different results.” (Foucault, p.27)
However, the silence – or the things that are forbidden to be uttered – becomes an aspect that exists alongside that which is said. Foucault believed that it is impossible to have binary division between what is spoken and what is unsaid. There are many silences and it becomes necessary to look into those silences: to examine alternative ways of speaking into the silence, to identify the speakers and the silent, and to distinguish whether or not the discourse is authorised.
Since the eighteenth century discourses on sex have been generated within the space of power. “Incitements to speak were orchestrated from all quarters, apparatuses everywhere for listening and recording, procedures for observing, questioning, and formulating. Sex was driven out of hiding and constrained to lead a discursive existence.” (Foucault, p.33)
The Middle Ages’ uniform discourse was structured around the theme of flesh and the practice of penance, but in more recent centuries this moral uniformity has relaxed and broadened. It must be acknowledged that rather than hide sex, the last three centuries have sought to encourage the adoption of devices invented for speaking about it. “Rather than a massive censorship, beginning with the verbal proprieties imposed by the Age of Reason, what was involved was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse.” (Foucault, p.34)
While it may be acknowledged that much of the sex written is merely written on a literal level, there are writers that used sex, and in the scope of this investigation – child-sex – to illuminate larger societal issues. Sex then, is the writerly device, not the issue.
The discursive upsurge of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created two changes in the system: the married couple were given more discretion, and scrutiny was intensified in the marginal areas of sexuality that had previously been discounted, but now “it was time for all these figures … to step forward and speak, to make the difficult confession of what they were.” (Foucault, p.39). These were the areas of child sexuality, mental illness, criminals, homosexual sensuality, dreams, obsessions, etc.
Infringements of marital and familial law were considered amoral but not punishable. The ‘unnatural’ became a particular dimension in the matter of sexuality – sadism, sodomy, incest, bestiality, necrophilia were considered offences against the normality of natural functions and were punishable. The two registers for governing sex were the law of marriage, and the order of desires and rules of sexuality.
It is against this Western mode of sexual discourse that the depiction of child-sex in the novel will be examined. Is the topic of child-sex unsayable or is it unhearable? The challenge for the writer is to find the language that will articulate the unsayable or the silence. Writers use narratives to fill the silence that represents a societal problem. The benefit of writers engaging with this topic is that they are breaking free from a culture of silence by engaging with significant issues.
In the texts that are presented herein, the writers explore the silence of child-sex but the writing of sex is usually written parallel to another restraint of liberties, either personal, social, emotional or political. In The Conservationist, Gordimer presents the incident of child-sex against the backdrop of oppressed civil liberties during apartheid South Africa. The sexual constraints of a society, where and when the sexual act can take place are Nabokov’s overt backdrop for Lolita. Toni Morrison focuses on beauty and racism in The Bluest Eye. In all three novels, the writers are setting down details of a hidden side of society.
The challenge for the reader of these texts is to overcome our fear of being pulled into a situation where we will have to face ourselves and our culpability in promoting or maintaining the silence about issues of taboo.
There are complex issues attendant upon all writing. Writers strive towards writing that is meant to communicate their purpose to an audience. When a writer seeks to insert a principle however, they have to guard against being dictatorial. Writers seek out tools and techniques that will help them to articulate their purpose. Gordimer, writing in 1974, in white-dominated South Africa, employs her trademark spare prose to portray the seductive Mehring in The Conservationist as he engages in heavy petting with a young girl on a flight from Portugal. Gordimer has always spoken into the silences of the social reality of South Africa and in The Conservationist she uses the sex between Mehring and the Portuguese girl to highlight Mehring’s social and authoritative impotence, and locates it in an aeroplane flying somewhere between Lisbon and Johannesburg. “It could have been the last of Europe or was Africa, already, they were unaware of passing over. She need not be afraid of wanting what was happening because it was happening nowhere.” (Gordimer, p.129)
Locating the sexual activity in an indefinable area, such as in-flight, is a useful construction in fiction. Gordimer uses the spatial location to establish a rite of passage, which is an expression of an interior journey as well as a literal journey – crossing the border of innocence for the girl, and for Mehring it is crossing the border of decency and morality. For Mehring it is also possible that because he is literally in ‘no-man’s land’ he feels liberated, that he is neither confined nor answerable to accepted modes of behaviour. Mindful of her writer’s duty to convey a message without moralising, Gordimer has successfully used place to represent a zone where morality issues are less established.
A major theme of The Bluest Eye concerns sexual initiation. Morrison relates three sexual incidents involving children. The first incident is when Henry Washington fondles Frieda, the second is when Cholly is a twelve-year-old boy and he has his first sexual experience with Darlene, and the third incident is when the adult Cholly rapes his eleven-year-old daughter Pecola.
In Cholly’s sexual experience with Darlene, Toni Morrison locates the action in the pine woods behind his late grandmother’s house. Locating the incident in the woods – that is out of the traditionally socially approved locations of sexual activity – Morrison is able to explore social issues other than the sexual act itself.
The woods represent the transitional zone, the intersecting threshold between where whites and blacks live. It is no co-incidence then that the area in which Morrison chooses to locate Cholly’s experience represents the complex nature of boundaries; boundaries always suggest an imbalance of power. The woods, too, are suggestive of hunting. “They were out of breath and sank down in the green-and-purple grass on the edge of the pine woods… Their bodies began to make sense to him, and it was not as difficult as he thought it would be… Darlene froze and cried out. He thought he had hurt her, but when he looked at her face, she was staring wildly at something over his shoulder. He jerked around. There stood two white men… There was no mistake about their being white, he could smell it. Cholly jumped, trying to kneel, stand, and get his pants up all in one motion. The men had guns.” (Morrison, p. 115-116)
The armed white men – representing power – force Cholly to continue his sexual act with Darlene, and “with a violence born of total helplessness, he pulled her dress up, lowered his trousers and underwear.” Morrison does not dwell on the physical details of the rape, but chooses rather to emphasize the interior turmoil that Cholly is experiencing. “Cholly, moving faster, looked at Darlene. He hated her. He almost wished he could do it – hard, long, and painfully, he hated her so much. The flashlight wormed its way into his guts and turned the sweet taste of muscadine into rotten fetid bile. He stared at Darlene’s hands covering her face in the moon and lamplight. They looked like baby claws.” (Morrison, p. 116)
Cholly directs his hatred at Darlene because he is unable to protect her against the white men. He does not consider directing his anger towards the humiliating white hunters, because as a black boy growing up in the 1960’s he does not have the social authority to challenge them. Instead of being granted the status of a young lover, the white men’s sniggering reduce him to a frightened black fourteen year old. In this tragic scene of social power, Morrison alludes to the larger theme of the novel – how white superiority shapes and determines a suppressed community’s sense of themselves.
Morrison also portrays each of these sexual experiences as degrading and cruel, implying that sexual coming-of-age is traumatic, especially in an abnormal or abusive environment. “She was washing dishes. Her small back hunched over the sink. Cholly saw her dimly and could not tell what he saw or what he felt. Then he became aware that he was uncomfortable; next he felt the discomfort dissolve into pleasure. The sequence of his emotions was revulsion, guilt, pity, then love. His revulsion was a reaction to her young, helpless, hopeless presence. Her back hunched that way; her head to one side as though crouching from a permanent and unrelieved blow. Why did she have to look so whipped? … What could a burned-out black man say to the hunched back of his eleven-year-old daughter? If he looked into her face, he would see those haunted loving eyes. The hauntedness would irritate him – the love would move him to fury. How dare she love him? Hadn’t she any sense at all? What was he supposed to do about that? Return it? How? … His hatred of her slimed in his stomach and threatened to become vomit.” (Morrison, p.127)
Here Morrison motivates Cholly’s rape of Pecola, describes his loathing of his daughter because her love for him makes him aware of his failures. His emotions become confused and violently misapplied in the most traumatic experience in the novel. “Cholly raised his other hand to her hips to save her from falling. He put his head down and nibbled the back of her leg. His mouth trembled at the firm sweetness of the flesh. He closed his eyes, letting his fingers dig into her waist. The rigidness of her shocked body, the silence of her stunned throat, was better than Pauline’s easy laughter had been. The confused mixture of his memories of Pauline and the doing of a wild and forbidden thing excited him, and a bolt of desire ran down his genitals, giving it length, and softening the lips of his anus. Surrounding all of this lust was a border of politeness. He wanted to fuck her – tenderly. But the tenderness would not hold. The tightness of her vagina was more than he could bear. His soul seemed to slip down to his guts and fly out into her, and the gigantic thrust he made into her then provoked the only sound she made – a hollow suck of air in the back of her throat. Like the rapid loss of air from a circus balloon. Following the disintegration – the falling away – of sexual desire, he was conscious of her wet, soapy hands on his wrists, the fingers clenching, but whether her grip was from a hopeless but stubborn struggle to be free, or from some other emotion, he could not tell. Removing himself from her was so painful to him he cut it short and snatched his genitals out of the dry harbour of her vagina. She appeared to have fainted. Cholly stood up and could see only her grayish panties, so sad and limp around her ankles. Again the hatred mixed with tenderness. The hatred would not let him pick her up; the tenderness forced him to cover her. So when the child regained consciousness, she was lying on the kitchen floor under a heavy quilt, trying to connect the pain between her legs with the face of her mother looming over her.” (Morrison, p.128-129)
The rape of Pecola is a repetition of the sexual humiliation of Cholly’s first sexual experience with Darlene. Morrison uses explicit, unadorned language in describing the forbidden sexual encounter and heightens the sense of sympathetic horror that a reader feels.
Locating the rape in the kitchen, traditionally the safe and nurturing heart of a home, adds to the violation of Pecola. Morrison’s portrayal of Pecola as a silent participant amplifies Cholly’s desecration of her. She is the child who is voiceless against the cruel adult world.
Frieda’s violation by Henry Washington is less traumatic than Pecola’s because her parents come to her rescue. Their appropriate nurturing and protective role is in direct contrast to Cholly’s crime against his own daughter. However, Frieda’s parents do not explain exactly what has happened to her so she is left with a blurred impression that she might be ‘ruined’ like the local prostitutes. Morrison suggests that the sexual maturity of the girls is made difficult by their parents’ failure to educate them appropriately. There is the prevalent premise that women’s bodies are available to be abused. Morrison uses the theme of sexual violence in the novel to suggest that racism is not the sole contributor to the distortion of black self-esteem.
At the time when Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye, in the 1960’s, black Americans were experiencing a time of social upheaval and The Bluest Eye was Morrison’s way of writing against the silences in the community. The first line of the novel is, “Quiet as it’s kept,” a figure of speech that speaks into a silence; it initiates – for Morrison – a novel of exposure and “disclosure of secrets, secrets ‘we’ shared and those withheld from us by ourselves and by the world outside the community.” (Morrison, p.169)
When Nabokov published Lolita in 1955 readers were outraged by the character Humbert’s brazen lust for his landlady’s twelve-year-old daughter, Lolita, and by Lolita’s careless collusion in Humbert’s violation of her. Throughout the narrative Nabakov’s prose is filled with witty, deft, lyrical language exposing his desires, yet he never explicitly exposes the physical details of Humbert’s sexual activities with Lolita.
“That my novel does contain various allusions to the physiological urges of a pervert is quite true,” Nabokov admitted but rejected that Lolita was a record of his love for the romantic novel. “The substitution ‘English language’ for ‘romantic novel’ would make this elegant formula more correct.” (Nabokov, p.316).
It is almost as if Nabokov was doing what society prescribed he do according to Foucault – speak out, tell of temptation and confess. However, what Nabokov was doing, was using his impressive command of English to attack the silence of paedophilia at a time (1950’s) when speaking about it was one of the taboos in literature and society itself. “Their [the publisher’s] refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself.” (Nabokov, p.314).
Nabokov entreats readers at the outset of the novel to consider that “’Lolita’ should make all of us – parents, social workers, educators – apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.” (Nabokov, p.6). At the end of the novel Nabokov maintains his ironic tone, he allows Humbert to admit his guilt: “Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges.” He ends by Humbert petitioning Lolita: “Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy.” (Nabokov, p.309).
Nabokov does not locate the trauma of child-sex in an actual vivid description of a sex scene; instead he skilfully uses Humbert’s obsessive lust for nymphets to build up the profile of a paedophile.
The attraction, “Every movement she made in the dappled sun plucked at the most secret and sensitive chord of my abject body”(Nabokov, p.41);
the grooming of Lolita, “’Give it back’, she pleaded, showing the marbled flush of her palms. I produced Delicious. She grasped it and bit into it” (Nabokov, p.58);
the seduction, “I touched her hot, opening lips with the utmost piety, tiny sips, nothing salacious; but she with an impatient wriggle, pressed her mouth to mine so hard that I felt her big front teeth and shared in the peppermint taste of her saliva” (Nabokov, p.112);
commanding her to silence, “From the very beginning of our concourse, I was clever enough to realize that I must secure her complete co-operation in keeping our relations secret, that it should become a second nature with her, no matter what grudge she might bear me, no matter what other pleasures she might seek” (Nabokov, p.149);
the provision of gifts to maintain the relationship “I bought her four books of comics, a box of candy, a box of sanitary pads, two cokes, a manicure set, a travel clock with a luminous dial, a ring with a real topaz, a tennis racket, roller skates with white high shoes, field glasses, a portable radio set, chewing gum, a transparent raincoat, sunglasses, some more garments – swooners, shorts, all kinds of summer frocks. At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go” (Nabokov, p141);
and finally, the warped desire to possess her completely “’My chére Dolorès! I want to protect you, dear, from all the horrors that happen to little girls in coal sheds and alley ways…Through thick and thin I will stay your guardian, and if you are good, I hope a court may legalize the guardianship before long.” (Nabokov, p.149)
Although Nabokov refrains from the sexually explicit, that’s not to say that his adroit prose does not stimulate an erotic response “Her legs, her lovely live legs, were not too close together, and when my hand located what it sought, a dreamy and eerie expression, half-pleasure, half-pain, came over those childish features.” (Nabokov, p.14) It is almost certain that the coupling of the erotically charged imagery evoked by Nabokov’s language with the inclusion of “childish features” provokes discontent and criticism of Lolita.
Even though laws concerning previous sexual taboos – inter-racial marriage, homosexual unions – have been relaxed, the locus governing child-sex remains the one area that has not relaxed its strong moral condemnation of representation. This is possibly because the young child5 cannot be considered an equal in a relationship involving an adult, nor as some might argue, emotionally mature enough to actively participate in the area of sexual activity.
Morrison was perceptively sensitive in her portrayal of Cholly as rapist twice over. Her careful casting of Cholly was intended to de-masculinise rape, to re-cast it as a social problem against a social and political history, and to classify the violent phenomena of rape in its true class – a crime as violent response to a social ill. Morrison did not intend for Cholly to be the sole perpetrator of the violence, rather, she hoped that the reader would engage in the larger social issues and be provoked into considering their own culpability in the social milieu that promotes this type of response.
Nabokov is more direct in his accusations against paedophiles, couched as they are in irony. At no stage does Nabokov allow Humbert, the perpetrator of the ‘crime’ against Lolita, to redeem himself, even after he murders the sadistic leader of an underground pornographic movement. Nabokov locates Humbert – narrator and perpetrator- in a jail cell from where he recounts his obsession with “nymphets”. As Foucault asserted, the only official sites of jurisdiction over ‘deviants’ such as child-abusers are mental institutions and prisons.
Child-sex was not the only sexual taboo in South Africa in the 1970’s. Sexual activity across the colour divide was forbidden, living with a partner was constantly paraded in the newspapers as “living in sin”, in fact the Calvinist state promoted sex only within the confines of a same sex, same race marriage. Tied to this suppression of sexual freedom, was the extreme suppression of movement for blacks at the peak of apartheid.
Gordimer uses the suppressive political climate of the time to background the white character of Mehring. In terms of the societal structures, Mehring was a privileged white who had access to everything. Despite his elevated and envied status, he is unable to establish his masculinity in most areas of his life. At work, he commands respect only because he is the boss. On his farm, his workers do as they will with his possessions in his absence, and he feels powerless to assert his position without seeming petty. In love he is thwarted. His ex-wife despises him. His mistress is an independent, liberal-minded woman who uses him. His son is distanced from him emotionally and physically.
It is not surprising then, that when Mehring is placed next to a vulnerable child on an aeroplane, he abuses his superior position. “She had not said good evening, just looked at him with cow-eyes, someone who never got her own way, resigned to any objections that might be made as she approached the seat. When the hostess offered rugs she opened her thin mouth in a soundless mew of thanks.” (Gordimer, p. 126)
Gordimer’s immediate introductory portrayal of the girl is one of victim and Mehring pounces on her. “In the cosy dark of other presences, in the intimacy like the loneliness of the crowd, the feel of flesh is experienced anew, as the taste of water is recognised anew in the desert. The finger went against the grain of fine down – yes, the flesh admits that it belongs to the Latin races, often hairy – and reached the warmth of the two legs pressed together. The skin was tacky, almost damp. It clung to his fingers with a message of excitement and pleasure. He felt how she kept her head absolutely still and knew he was forbidden to look at her face. Tucked, sucked in between the neatly parallel thighs his finger stirred only very slightly, just a murmur.” (Gordimer p. 128)
Afterwards, Mehring is not remorseful. He fleetingly and selfishly considers the implications if his “’interfering’ with a young girl” were to be discovered and comes to the self-serving conclusion that it was nothing more than “an insane risk”. In a society as severely structured as apartheid society was, it is possible that Gordimer provides Mehring with an opportunity to take this ‘insane risk’ because in a sense his own existence is manipulated by the authorities and he is rebelling against his overwhelming sense of impotence against the society and its restrictions.
After close examination of these three novels, the mechanics of representation are clear and they can be assimilated into a functional and identifiable poetic. The expression of sex in these novels is not intended as an active illustration of the sex act. In Lolita, Nabokov uses language to express desire and obsession, and the subject matter to address paedophilia. Morrison uses the scenes in The Bluest Eye to express vulnerability and anger and to address racism and beauty. The violation of the girl in The Conservationist is a vehicle through which Gordimer expresses impotence but addresses rage against suppression.
The writers also use sex as a means of dialogue. Their representation may be static, but their invitation to the reader actively invites engagement with the text and its premises and hopes to evoke a response.
Secrecy is a major theme in the portrayal of child-sex and this secrecy attests to a societal desire to suppress.
Connecting with another human being is one of the most powerful urges known to man. Humbert cannot resist his desire to touch ‘nymphets’, subconsciously Mehring wishes to have contact with someone on his own terms. In the sexual instances that he is involved in, Cholly advances gently, the fact that they both end badly are not related to his initial intent.
Although sex, and child-sex in particular, has different cultural implications, in all instances the writers acknowledge the uneven distribution of power in the relationship and thereby tacitly attest to the unacceptability of child-sex. When two people connect in a sexual way, there cannot just be a single active partner. While society generally accepts that male sexual activity is acceptable, and indeed desirable for male development, female sexual activity represents the loss of morality. All authors attempt to address this issue in their portrayals of the sexual activities. Humbert represents the perpetrator of ‘rape’ and yet Lolita is apportioned her share of the blame, “I had thought that months, perhaps years, would elapse before I dared to reveal myself to Dolores Haze; but by six she was wide awake, and by six fifteen we were technically lovers. I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.”
This is in keeping with the Freudian notion of the time that children were not innocent bystanders but that child sexuality “was precocious, active, and ever present”. (Foucault, p28.) Cholly is the perpetrator of the rape against Pecola, and the manipulated black boy in his sexual experience with Darlene, but Darlene and Pecola are both cast as the ‘silent’ victims perpetuating the misguided patriarchal notion that it is acceptable to sexually abuse a female. Mehring is the violator of the Portuguese girl, who because of her patriarchal culture is expected to keep her mouth shut. Both characters play their part, Mehring as perpetrator further enhances his stereotypical role of all-powerful white man and the Portuguese girl as second-class silent victim of a class and race structured society.
I do not believe that any of these novels show child-sex as pornography. Rather the writers portray child-sex to emphasize the erosion of societal values. The novels cited incite reader investigation into the larger societal problems and seek to encourage exploration of the authentic reasons for social manifestations.
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