The Puritan and the Prurient

There is an article at New Republic by Ira Wells: Forgetting Lolita: How Nabokov’s Victim Became an American Fantasy. It’s a reasonably thoughtful piece. And it’s an important topic. But something about this kind of writing seems strange. Let me try to briefly explain.

We live in a Puritan society. Oddly or not, prurient is the shadow of Puritanism. We are obsessed with sexuality. Even our obsession with innocence is sexualized. The article has a tinge of the prurient about it. Something about it comes off as the author fantasizing about other people’s fantasies. That is how it seems to me, for some reason.

There is a connection between Protestantism and the idealization of childhood. In traditional cultures of the past, the moment a boy or girl was capable of having sex, they had sex. And the moment they had sex, they likely not too long later had children. There wasn’t this notion that young people should wait to have careers or even get married.

You still see more of this attitude in Catholic countries. Southern Europe was more influenced by the Catholic Church and the Mediterranean culture it embodied. Unsurprisingly, Catholic countries have lower sexual ages of consent. It’s expected that people have sex, get pregnant, and then hopefully are married. There is no Protestant concept of most people resisting the sin of sexuality.

Protestant societies seem much more repressed about sexuality. And repression leads to sexual deviancy. That is even a problem for Catholic priests, the only Catholics expected to fully repress their sexuality. This relates to the weird genre of virginity porn, the fantasizing about young people not having sex. A popular example is the Twilight series. It was written by a Mormon and it should be noted that Mormons originally came from Puritan country, i.e., New England.

This was the culture that Vladimir Nabokov was writing about in Lolita. The novel is an anthropological study. It’s not just about sexuality of dirty old men. The entire society is implicated.

* * *

America America’s Lollipop Licking Tease:
The Eroticization of the Female Child in 1930s Film
by Susan Jennings Lantz

James Kincaid, in Child Loving, would agree. His argument states that myths about childhood innocence and concurrent vulnerability arose historically as we created a separate identity for children. This stoked a “quasi-erotic” love of children as innocents, and a hatred of those who act out of eroticism. In both Child Loving and Erotic Innocence, he discusses, at great length, the ways in which production of the monster known as the pedophile in many ways allows not only the Victorians, but members of our contemporary culture, to define ourselves. We reject pedophiliac monstrous activity with such automatic indignation that, as a group, the indignation begins to feel like pleasure. We open up a space for societal glee when we hear a convicted child molester has committed suicide, and we pretty much allow an approved ideological space for murderers in prison to torture, rape, and murder convicted child molesters. Kincaid asserts that by insisting that children are innocent, pure, and asexual, we have created a “subversive echo” that presents the child as experienced, corrupt, and erotic. We have set the trope of the innocent child to be fetishized, and the object of forbidden desire in popular culture. “What we think of as “the child” has been assembled in reference to desire, built up in erotic manufactories, and . . . we have been laboring ever since, for at least two centuries, both to deny that horrible and lovely product to maintain it” (Child
Loving 4).

Rose, Wullschlager, and Kincaid all agree that during a time when Victorian and Edwardian England was celebrating the innocence and purity of children in fiction and art, avgreat disparity was occurring at the same time. While children from the upper classes were glorified for their innocence, children from the lower classes were exploited for theirs. On one end of the spectrum were upper middle class Victorian children depicted spinning hoops and sailing toy boats in Kensington Gardens, attending Eton, and frolicking in Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh, Kanga, and Piglet. In the middle of the spectrum were the children working in factories, as apprentice domestic servants, chimney sweeps, or selling matches and flowers. At the other end of the spectrum of the era were the children sold into sexual slavery.

In 1885, English editor and rights activist W.T. Stead purchased a thirteen-year-old girl from her mother with the understanding that his intentions were to procure her “Maiden Tribute.” Instead of raping the child, he wrote a series of articles for his paper The Pall Mall showing how easy it was to purchase a child sex slave which brought the issue to the public eye. His series was wildly popular and has been credited for changing legislation in regards to the legal age of consensual sex for children (Polhemus).

Across the sea in America things were similar. Poor children worked in factories and in coal mines, and really poor children were ripe for sexual exploitation, while the children of wealthier families were more protected and glorified. This glorification, on both sides of the Atlantic, began to lead to sentimentalized views of childhood in media and the popular press. The era after the American Civil War produced much art that evoked nostalgia of childhood. Artists such as Winslow Homer and Mark Twain glorified the world of the average child in their works to great aplomb. Children were no longer considered to be inherently evil, as the Puritans had suggested, and were no longer expendable in bloody wars. They were a treasure.

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