I recently read the most fascinating essay, and confident that there are no children who read my blog, I am going to write about it. Kids, if you're reading this blog, go outside and play Boxcar Children on the porch like I did when I was your age. Oh, how do I know how old you are? It doesn't matter! I played Boxcar Children until I was a legal adult. I cut my lip on my chipped "Ben" cup, otherwise I'd still be drinking out of it.
The essay is titled Afternoon of the Sex Children. It was written by Mark Greif, published in n+1 in 2006, then published again in The Best American Essays of 2007, which is clearly a misleading title. It should be American Essays Robert Antwan Liked Best in 2006. Nevertheless, hats off to editor Robert Antwan, because Best American Essays a very good series and Afternoon of the Sex Children was a very good essay.
The essay started, of course, with a discussion of Lolita, and whether Nabocov was a pedophile. Greif acknowledged all of the common literary interpretations that let Nabocov off the hook, but said that he felt they aren't honest about the real controversy. The problem with Lolita is that it's too vivid, too real. The author was too capable of sexualizing a twelve year old girl, too skilled at assuming that mindset for the sake of narrative fiction. But Greif credited Nabocov with something he is not usually credited to be: a social critic. "We are in the afternoon of the sex children," Greif writes. "Nabocov only saw the dawn."
Twenty pages about youth and sex later, Greif got down to his main point. Maybe child molesters and rapists are not an anomaly of our society, he suggested, but rather the worst product of our society.
Think of it this way (and this is my own analogy, so don't blame Greif if it's flawed): What is the worst reduction of a society that over-emphasizes thinness and that parades skin-and-bones models in its magazines? The most tragic product of that culture is someone who starves herself. It seems too far a stretch, too incomprehensible, except that it's real and is far more pervasive now than in previous centuries. Anorexia and other eating disorders are psychological illnesses, but we accept that our culture breeds the disease, which is why we're seeing so much pressure on media and fashion to stop featuring unhealthy models.
Perhaps even more dramatically than we esteem slenderness, we prize youth--both the season of youth and, when the season has past, the appearance of youth. So, what's the reduction of a culture that idolizes youth and that now sexualizes childlike images for adult purposes? The worst product of that society may very well be adults who have sex with children.
Just look at us. Every magazine cover has a headline promising the tricks to a youthful look, women are throwing botox parties in mass attempts to erase the proof of years, and an entire generation of men now think that the "Catholic school girl look" is sexy. Out with the naughty librarian hiding behind her glasses; in with the schoolgirl hiding behind her books. It doesn't follow that every man who likes a plaid skirt is sexually interested in the minors who wear them, but it follows that some of them do. Doesn't it?
Sexual fascination and abuse of children is perverse and infuriating--seemingly too far a stretch from our obsession with unlined faces and youthful bodies. But perhaps our society has infected our worst and most dramatically punished criminals--the ones who Oprah interviews in a three part series, the ones who I shake my head at in utter confusion and disgust. Me who has worn braids and knee high socks at the age of 23, and who already slathers on eye cream. Even if it's the speck in your eye and the plank in another, if you look closely you may be horrified to discover that both the speck and the plank come from the same diseased tree.
Greif believes that it's basically too late for us--or, rather, he admits that it's too late for him. He's too immersed. But maybe we can lay the groundwork so that our grandchildren have a healthy frame of reference in order to scrutinize and criticize our distorted attitudes towards age. It would have to start by a remaking of our sexual value system and by prizing the qualities of adulthood over the qualities of childhood. Sophistication is sexy. Experience is sexy. That proof of laughter around the mouth and eyes is sexy.
And is it hardly worth mentioning that, biologically, the procreating years start in youth and peaks in one's 20's? If there's anything that our sex-crazed and pill-popping culture is perhaps right about, it's that sex isn't just about procreation. Ladies, think of how exciting it would be to be in your 30's, perhaps even after you've bore children, and to know that your sexiness is just starting to form, not just starting to fade. That your most alluring attributes have something to do with maturity, with grace, with wisdom--not the shiny hair or taut flesh of your youth. Maybe we would spend more time developing those attributes that only improve with age, rather than mourning the loss or fretting the impending loss of vitality that diminishes.
Sexuality is a treasure for our children, intended for them to blossom fully into in adulthood; it's not a quality of youth for adults to exploit for our own doomed purposes. Perhaps our distorted attitudes about age are abusing both the gift of sexuality in adulthood and, for many victims, the gift of innocence in childhood.