The idea that the child is asexual has been accepted as natural and atemporal for the entire history of modern childhood. Social and moral norms deem that not only families and child-focused institutions, but rather society at large reacts strongly to children’s participation or interest in sex. The current discourses on sexual abuse overarchingly influence family and educational practices, causing parents and teachers to over-interpret children’s interactions with their peers as the result of sexual abuse or as evidence of sexual violence and/or deviance. I do not intend to minimize or ignore the reality and effects of child sexual abuse, but seek to interrogate who a child is, and how a child’s being and acting in the world are shaped by particular ideas. In this brief piece, I focus on the conceptualization of the child as asexual through denials and disregard.
Definitions of sexuality are situated in cultural, social, and frequently religious contexts and are influenced by adult conceptions of propriety. By definition, in the modern world, children’s sexuality is expected to be absent or latent (Freud, 2017). Any interference with this social order leads to considerable anxiety, leading to a loss of ‘morality’ and ‘innocence’ (Levine, 2002; Postman, 1994). Egan and Hawkes (2009) note that in contemporary reform narratives, ‘…child’s sexuality [has been] constructed as the result of a dangerous and socially unacceptable outside stimulus, and as a result, any realization of subjective sexual expression is rendered abhorrent and in need of adult intervention’ (p. 389). The need to ‘protect’ and ‘reform’ children dominates the discourse (Gulati, 2018, 2022).
However, there are other perspectives on childhood that shy away from such rigid adult constructions. According to the deterministic perspective, pleasure, exploration, naughtiness and playfulness in middle childhood or adolescence are natural and ‘developmental’. Human beings are sexual beings throughout their life and the biological and behavioural manifestations of sexuality unfold at different stages. The boundaries of childhood and adulthood are not so sharp and incisive as law and policy ordain; rather there is a seamless flow and continuity in development and change between child/adult stages. Children’s experiences and stories co-exist with adult narratives.
Our knowledge of the child’s development paints a different picture. Biological evidence corroborates that the ability to respond sexually is present at birth. There is an increase in sexual interest between the ages of three and seven. From the age of six to nine, genital play becomes covert. As a consequence of their inherent curiosity, children also discover fairly early that males and females have different genitalia. The expression of sexuality in childhood is not limited to biological underpinnings but can also be seen in their cultural world. In children’s socio-dramatic plays such as ‘play home’ (Ghar Ghar Khelna), children learn about adult roles, marriage and long-term relationships. In enactments of ‘doctor-doctor’ or ‘doctor-nurse’, children participate in a heterosexual play.
Even though anxieties surrounding children’s sexuality are indicative of wider threats to caste purity, the stability of marriage and family and gender norms, in this discussion, I limit the discussion to certain denials. The developing body is sexual, which is the first denial. However, the socio-cultural world finds it difficult to acknowledge and comprehend this biological and developmental givenness. By its social, political and cultural [and economic] construction, ‘childhood innocence and sexual enjoyment are incompatible’ and any hint of sexual knowledge and activity is the antithesis of a child’s conduct (Bhana, 2007, p. 437; Kesby, et al 2006, p. 191). This notion is self-perpetuating, as ‘(of course) everyone knows that children have no sex, which is why they are forbidden to talk about it, why one closes one’s eyes and stops one’s ears whenever they show evidence to the contrary’ (Foucault, 1976, p. 4).
What is forbidden in society is forbidden in literature for children too. From the standpoint of children’s literature in India, sexuality remains a ‘furtive reality that is difficult to grasp’ (Foucault, 1976, p. 105), a mystery, a domain quite obscure. The books meant for children are contrived as sanitized and protected spaces, where no hidden dangers of knowledge about bodies, pleasure, or instincts lurk. Any attempts to transgress this leads to an uproar. This was evident in the reader’s response to a recent text. Watermelon Route by Belgian author Quentin Greban was translated and published in Hindi and Marathi (2017). The text engages with the stirrings of love of the adolescent protagonist, Sassou. Sassou travels a long distance to gift watermelons to his love interest. Watermelon Route is an unusual text about romantic love and adolescence. Though the theme of love in childhood is a central theme in many texts–most of which engage with mother’s love, sibling love or friendship–this text took a leap. The sweet, dreamy world of Sassou beckons to the beginnings of romance, albeit not socially acceptable in a children’s text. The strong reactions to the book included not circulating it in public libraries in certain regions or halting discussions on it, saying–this is not our culture, it doesn’t happen here. The reactions are indicative of the deep and fixed social anxieties and uneasiness around change.
The second denial comes to us through the accentuation of the issue in the context of our cultural ethos. The Hindu worldview celebrates ‘brahmacharya’ and the overarching moral philosophy of self-control. The ethic of annihilation and conquest of desire by each individual is the telos of the ideal Hindu life. This largely governs the moral and social world. Though the principal mythological ‘texts consistently attest to the primary importance of sexuality’ (Kakkar, 2012), the Hindu religious teachers through the centuries have exhorted their followers to ‘gather’, ‘concentrate’, and transform the ‘scattered and darkening’ sexual drives into higher mental power (Ojas shakti). Sublimation and channelization are thus, the purpose of reconstruction of the Hindu male (sic) (Kakkar, 2012), whose celibacy is celebrated (John and Nair, 1998, p. 15). The training of the pehalwan (wrestler), an ideal figure, is an example of this sublimation and channelization: ‘for the wrestler the akhara earth is the perfect nurturing mother in whose lap he plays as a forever virginal, non-sexual child’ (Alter, 1992, p. 131). Further, the wrestler’s role in social life as a householder is the socialization and shaping of children into adults, who can ‘channel their emotions away from the intoxication of self-indulgent sensual gratification’ (Alter, p. 187). Thus, in most walks of life, asexuality is valorize, and sexuality is useful to serve reproductive purposes.
In contrast, the women’s sexuality is constructed and articulated through the ‘“desexualised” reproductive bodies as the ideal norm’ as opposed to the other, ‘“immoral” and “disreputable” sexuality’ (Anandhi, 1998, emphasis author’s). Concomitantly, non-Hindu and ‘tribal’ populations are portrayed as prone to sexual ‘excess’ and notably lascivious in their interactions within the community and outside it. This construction is accentuated in the discourse of sexuality in the Indian subcontinent (Srivastava, 2004, p. 13).
Sexual diversity is unknown in children’s texts. This forms the third denial. The construction of an adult ‘heteronormative’ reality is constructed as the natural telos of any childhood interaction between a girl and a boy. Evidence from popular Hindi films produced after Independence reveals the operation of this denial in our cultural world. Up until a decade ago, much of Hindi cinema centres on the idea of romantic love. Film after film celebrates the coming together of the conjugal couple. Oftentimes, it is strangers who meet and fall in love. However, for a sizable number of narratives where the protagonists know each other since a younger age, the seeds for romantic love are sown in childhood. Childhood friendships between a boy and a girl in Hindi films are ordained to become adult romantic love, and this love is invariably heteronormative (Gulati, 2017).
When children are not given opportunities or rather denied knowledge about their nascent yet advancing sexual development, they are left with no choice but to cull information from media, which is unreal and very sexualized. As a result, children are poorly prepared to negotiate sex and protect themselves when they do become sexually active (Kesby et al., 2006, p. 194). Like adults, children ‘see their lives through the prisms of the possible lives offered by mass media in all their forms’ (Appadurai, 1996, p. 54). Fantasy is legitimized as a social practice as it finds its way into the ‘fabrication of [our] social lives’, where every day common lives are driven less by the inherent nature of things and more by the possibilities suggested by the media (p. 55).
The issue of sexuality necessitates a recognition, where the place-markers for children (and individuals) are subject to historical changes and reflexive transformations. Within the process of change itself, there is a deliberate engagement with a spectrum of cultural, economic, political, and ‘global’ processes and the conceptions of sexuality and the discourses that surround it. Thus, sexuality is accentuated as the crucial ‘site around which social and cultural ideas may be expressed’ (Srivastava, 2004, p. 10). Children can not only be seen to create and be created by culture but also ‘endeavour to live in ways that maintain a critical and transformative relation’ to the existing social order and structures (Butler, 2004, p. 30). From Butler’s perspective, concerns about subjectivity, identity, and bodily integrity depend on a culture that acknowledges and supports their viability rather than being the result of one’s desire or an act of will. Significant considerations about the moral requirements of social interactions and agency, in general, are brought up by this co-dependence between individuals and society. Co-dependence demands a rethinking of how we view our interaction with society, thus making space for transformation.
To conclude, we have internalized the image of the child as a completely asexual being. At the same time, there is a strict boundary, marked at the 18th/21st birthday, when a child metamorphoses into an adult, albeit a heterosexual one. Changing the landscape is not easy. The irony is that sexuality is all around us (and children) in public view, in songs, cinema, advertising and in homes. The world is sexual. We do not and may not acknowledge that children are sexual beings who live in a highly sexual world (Olfman, 2009).
However, in childhood, repression acts and enacts through the obliteration of any sexual activity, the discourse of protection, acts of prohibition and censorship of anything remotely sexual. The natural developmental realities go unrecognized in this sociological and political construction. At the social-familial level, the purpose of an ideal parent is ‘to raise children … who are able to channel their emotions away from the intoxication of self-indulgent sensual gratification and towards a feeling of obligation to society at large’ (Atreya, 1973; Alter, 1992, p. 188).
The step forward is to problematize and unsettle the discourse of protection that creates a child’s sexuality as pathological. Feminist attempts to shift the discursive production lean towards a ‘healthy’ sexuality. State discourse is regulatory. Attempts made in school are ‘educative’ and therefore, reductive to a single dimension.
Hence, children’s literature may be a legitimate space where the silence of matters complicated, including sexuality is broken, made mellow, benign and deliberate. It is the site where the social puritan view and virtue of the child as asexual be disturbed, the child’s impregnable innocence of the mind be made strange. It is the site where the discourse of protection of children that legitimates surveillance and control is problematized, interrogated and hopefully stopped. Unlike the frenzy circus media creates, whether between adults or adolescents, hugs and glances, feelings and emotions, desires expressed or suppressed, may make for a gentle world within the covers of a child’s book.
Nidhi Gulati is Professor, Department of Elementary Education, Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi.
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Anandhi, S. (1998) ‘Reproductive Bodies and Regulated Sexuality. Birth Control Debates in Early Twentieth Century Tamilnadu’, in Mary John and Janaki Nair (eds.) A Question of Silence? The Sexual Economies of Modern India. Delhi, Kali for Women.
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Kesby, Mike, Gwanzura-Ottemoller Fungisai, and Monica Chizororo. (2006) ‘Theorising Other, “Other Childhood”: Issues Emerging from Work on HIV in Urban and Rural Zimbabwe’. Children’s Geographies 4 (2): pp. 185–202.
Levine, J. (2002) Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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 . Fiction for adults in India has a wide oeuvre of stories, in both, the little and big tradition focusing on multiple sexual identities. The range covers Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and recent stories, letters, biographies in several regional languages. See Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai (Ed) 2008. Same Sex Love in India: A Literary History. New Delhi: Penguin.