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Two of the biggest media brouhahas of the past few weeks inspired much hand-wringing over the sexualization of young girls.

The first was the April raid by the Texas state police on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a radical polygamist sect splintered from the Mormon denomination.

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The other big story involved Miley Cyrus, the "squeaky-clean" Disney icon, who got half-naked for Vanity Fair, prompting a titillation-tinged argument about that timeless bone of contention: how young is too young?

While no one defends forcing fifteen-year-old girls to marry fifty-year-old men, it seems we’re in a state of cultural cognitive dissonance when it comes to Lolita issues. On the one hand, teenage-chastity clubs, whether they work or not, have proliferated in the past decade. On the other, the New York Times runs smirking articles about such clubs, implying that their members are brainwashed by Christian ideology. Seventeen year olds who screw fifteen year olds get labeled sex offenders, while MILFs are a teen-comedy staple and teacher-student porn isn’t particularly frowned upon.

In the case of the polygamists, the source of the outrage is clear and well-founded: we feel that these young women been brainwashed and physically imprisoned. Yet polygamist groups have operated ever since the Mormon Church officially ended the practice in the 1890s so Utah could become a state, and there hadn’t been a raid on polygamist compound since the 1950s. Perhaps America’s zeal for freedom of religion — an angle to this story that the ACLU has argued should at least be part of the debate — allows us to look the other way.

The "Maiden Tribute" helped begin a tradition in British newspaper reporting that found its ultimate expression in the Page 3 Girl.

Why do we consider adolescents to be off-limits until a certain age, and then suddenly not only capable of participating in the sexual economy, but duty-bound to do so? And why does this age seem to be constantly moving to suit our needs?

The answer lies in the original concept for an "age of consent." In English and early American common law, when society was primarily agricultural and family members were labor, the unofficial age of consent was often between ten and twelve. It wasn’t until the nineteenth-century invention of adolescence — that is, a time when children are sexually mature, but still unable to make adult decisions — that things began to change.

On July 6, 1885, W.T. Stead, editor of the London Pall Mall Gazette, published the first in a series of scandalous articles, the "Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon." An epic piece of writing that shocked England, the "Maiden Tribute" told, in explicit detail, how innocent (and therefore syphilis-free) young virgins were being kidnapped and enslaved by brothels to service debauched men willing to pay for the privilege. Truly a landmark in journalistic history, the "Maiden Tribute" produced the same shuddering horror sought by today’s daytime TV talk shows, and helped begin a tradition in British newspaper reporting that found its ultimate expression in the Page 3 Girl.

     

  

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Though Stead was a Puritan, he understood the art of titillation. Cloaked in moral outrage, he quoted a procuress’ description of how the girls were acquired: "Drunken parents often sell their children to brothel keepers. In the East End, you can always pick up as many fresh girls as you want. In one street in Dalston, you might buy a dozen. Sometimes the supply is in excess of the demand, and you have to seduce your maid yourself, or employ someone else to do it . . . "

Respectable society was outraged both at the crimes described, and at the salacious nature of the writing. Even though Stead was personally sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for purchasing a young girl named Eliza Armstrong — selling her to a brothel, and then himself playing the part of her first client as "research" for his story — his supporters would not allow him to be silenced. When distributors refused to carry the Gazette, George Bernard Shaw himself volunteered to act as a paperboy. Stead emerged from jail a hero, and Parliament rushed to pass the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which raised the age of consent in Britain from thirteen to sixteen. The U.S. quickly followed suit, though here "white slavery" came to be synonymous with prostitution, forced or otherwise, and part of the temperance and feminist movements’ battle against "vice."

Stead’s investigative reporting paralleled the development of contemporary ideas about the "innocence" of the young and the medical establishment’s newfound concepts of childhood and social development. The new urban, middle-class lifestyle foisted years of education and training on children before they were allowed to take their place in society.

Stead was personally sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for purchasing a young girl, selling her to a brothel and then himself playing the part of her first client as "research" for his story.

Otherwise sexually mature humans were socially infantalized. The Gazette‘s well-to-do readers could easily imagine their daughters being dragged down the class ladder and condemned to a life of shame and ruin. Meanwhile, the men who were visiting prostitutes — and thus sitting out the normal mating dance that required them to forego sex until they had enough money to support a wife — were squarely blamed for dragging down the national mores.

As Carolyn Cocca points out in her book, Jailbait, the idea of an age of consent puts coercive legal support behind respectable married middle-class heterosexuality. Marriage, after all, is a contract (at least in the Hobbesian sense) in which one sort of good is exchanged for another. In the past, this was more or less explicit: a woman gave her reproductive and housekeeping services to a man; he, in turn, gave her financial support and status as a wife. However, like any other contract, the woman must consent of her own free will, and be of the legal age to do so. This idea of sex-as-contract was also the reason why age-of-consent laws punished male homosexuals: if young men could find sexual satisfaction with one another, there was no need to work hard in order to be able to get married.

Of course, we live in a different world today. In post sexual-revolution society, it’s increasingly considered okay to be gay, for men to do laundry and for women to express a guilt-free sexuality. But while the "contract" idea still lingers in age-of-consent laws, our increasingly laissez-faire economic notions also find expression in what we think about sex. Specifically, that it’s a commodity like any other, and one is not allowed to opt out of the market economy. Furthermore, adolescent sexuality, like any other desirable-but-forbidden commodity (like cocaine or alcohol during Prohibition), only becomes more attractive. By suppressing the fact of teenage sexuality, we at the same time eroticize it, creating a market for the very idea we seek to repress.  

  

     


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©2008 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.