Presumed innocent: a history of adolescent sexuality

From acknowledged reality to hidden taboo, the representation of sexuality in art and culture has a long and difficult history

Hey little girl, is your daddy home
Did he go away and leave you all alone
I got a bad desire, I’m on fire

I once believed there was something timeless about great works of art. Or, rather, I had always believed the works of art and culture I love to be timeless. Clearly I’ve been wrong. Time matters. Listening to favourite music and watching films that meant a lot to me in the past is becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

There's the romanticised sexual abuse, which many, it's hard to believe now, once took totally for granted. While they may not fall into the "great art" category, the early James Bond films were definitely defining. Take Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965), in which Sean Connery's Bond essentially rapes women, who quickly come to appear to love it after all. Watching 1982's Blade Runner recently, I squirmed uncomfortably as heartthrob Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard appeared to my more modern eyes, transformed as a sleazy creep when he pins Sean Young's Rachel against the wall, punches the door and throws her against a window as she tries to leave. "Say 'kiss me'," he insists. Like Bond's interchangeable women, her character breathily succumbs.

So what are we to do? Ban them, as The Orpheum Theatre in Tennessee did, last year, with Gone With The Wind (this time on the grounds of racial insensitivity)? Obviously we don't want racism to be celebrated, but films such as these become useful cultural artefacts, reminding us of changing attitudes. Rather than sweeping them under the cultural carpet, it's useful to be reminded, from time to time, of where our own complicated and frequently contradicted attitudes have emerged from.


Adding context through conversation can be useful, but banning feeds into that Orwellian notion that if we shut down a conversation entirely, what we have removed from the airwaves, or pub, dinner and café tables, will simply cease to exist. The opposite is true. We can disallow actions, but banning thoughts and feelings adds a layer of shame, while also giving the necessary shade for twisted versions to grow.

Things become even more loaded when it comes to attitudes to, and representations of, adolescent sexuality. To get this straight at the outset: I do not for one nanosecond condone the actions of people like Matthew Horan, the 26-year-old Dubliner who was jailed for seven-and-a-half years last month for coercing young girls to send him sexually graphic pictures. However, the evidence of art, music, drama and literature demonstrates that children and adolescents have been viewed as sexual beings for centuries.

Emphasis on innocence

Go back in time, and discover that Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is just 13. In the original source for the 1597 play, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, a poem by Arthur Brooke, Juliet is 16, but in Shakespeare's version, Juliet's father says "she hath not seen the change of fourteen years." Paris, who has his eye on Juliet and, presumably, the Capulet wealth (as she is an only child) points out that "Younger than she are happy mothers made".

Shakespeare’s goal was to emphasise the innocence of his lovers, rather than to write a play celebrating statutory rape. So what has changed? The most significant answer is life expectancy. In the 1600s and 1700s, life expectancy at birth hovered between 30 and 40. Consequently, the idea of adulthood was applied at an earlier age. You can see this shift in the changing ages of sexual consent. In 1275, the age of consent was set at 12 in England. In 1875, it was raised to 13, and to 16 in 1885. Parallel to this, life expectancy in England had risen to 55 by 1850.

In the era of arranged dynastic marriages among the aristocracies of Europe, even younger children were also sexualised. Boys were celebrated for their potential potency, and girls for their fecundity, in both marriage portraits and betrothals that took place as young as two and three years of age. The marriage of Prince Arthur, elder brother to Henry VIII, to Catherine of Aragon, was agreed between their parents when he was two, and she was three. Centuries later, Lydia Bennet in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) is 15 when she begins her flirtation with George Wickham, and her mother is thrilled when the outcome is resolved (thanks to the machinations of Mr Darcy) "This is delightful indeed! She will be married! […] Married at sixteen!"

Artistic infatuation

All this came to mind on learning about the recent petition presented to New York's Met Museum, which requested that the 1938 painting Thérèse Dreaming by Balthus be removed, or recontextualised with a panel saying "Some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus' artistic infatuation with young girls." The painting shows a girl, aged 12 or 13 sitting on a chair. Her red skirt has ridden up her legs, exposing a pair of childish white knickers. So what, exactly, is the problem here? Is it that we don't want to acknowledge that an adolescent girl may be at the cusp of becoming a sexual being; or is it that we don't like to see an older man noticing it too, regardless of his intent?

The cultural shift in the 19th century that saw changes in the age of consent is paralleled by a contemporary shift driven by third wave feminism and movements such as Me Too. For some this is seen as taking away the final excuses of those who practice sexism and abuse, and makes plain how problematic the adult male gaze is. The lack of space for nuance however, risks demonising it entirely.

Now that we are all living longer, the idea of adulthood has been delayed, but centuries of physical and hormonal maturity in adolescents hasn’t necessarily caught up with our social mores. The trouble is, society doesn’t quite know how to deal with this. The question shouldn’t be whether children are sexual, but how adults respond to that.

In Ireland, the age of consent is 17. New laws on sexual offences, enacted in March 2017, are actually remarkably sensible on the subject of adolescent sexual attraction.

“Offences concerning sexual acts with under age children have also been restated and strengthened in this Act. However, the Act also recognises the reality of under age, consensual, peer relationships through the introduction of a ‘proximity of age’ defence. Under this provision, a person charged with an offence of engaging in a sexual act with a person between the ages of 15 and 17 years can rely on a defence where the act is consensual, non-exploitative and the age difference is no more than two years.”

Here, it’s clear that “consent” means consent, and consent cannot be freely and fully given when there’s an imbalance of power, intellect or age. Growing up, most people find themselves attracted to people their own age. Consider how difficult it must be if that balance changes, and an asymmetrically creeps in. Once again, this is not to condone paedophilia, which is an entirely different pathology.

Altogether different narrative

The video for Bruce Springsteen's 1985 I'm on Fire tells an uptown-girl-style story of unrequited love but, taken alone, the lyrics that appear at the top of this article seem to propose an altogether different narrative. Then there's Jerry Fuller's 1968 song Young Girl, performed by Gary Puckett & The Union Gap. "Young girl, get out of my mind / My love for you is way out of line / Better run girl / You're much too young girl…" Here, the singer is shocked to discover the age of the girl he has his eye on, and is keen to do the right thing. "Beneath your perfume and your make-up / You're just a baby in disguise / And though you know that it's wrong to be / Alone with me / That come on look is in your eyes." But did Young Girl sell millions because of its catchy tune, or because, while it clearly appeals to a particular fantasy, it also touches on something that runs deep in human nature?

Similarly, The Police's Don't Stand So Close To Me (1980) deals with an older man being troubled by his feelings for a much younger girl: "Young teacher, the subject / Of schoolgirl fantasy / She wants him so badly / Knows what she wants to be." Tellingly, it is much harder to find songs in which female singers are bothered by their attraction to older men. Sexual innocence has been, for the most part, gendered. I remember absorbing the idea in school that "boys are born knowing", although in both Young Girl and Don't Stand So Close To Me, the girls are the agents, the men unwilling dupes of their sexual wiles.

Whatever about the fantasies, roles of innocence are harmful to children who don't conform. US artist Mike Kelley, whose work frequently explores childhood sexuality, often through the use of stuffed animals, described the problem in an interview in the LA Times: "I grew up feeling abnormal because I was born into the wrong environment and it took me a long time to discover I was a normal person. […] I felt like I was insane because I lived in a world that purported to be 'normal' and I just couldn't do it."

He goes on to say that he believes people focus on the teenage aesthetic in his work “because for some reason the culture’s taken an interest in adolescence right now. I’m interested in it because it’s the time when the child struggles to take on the role of the adult…”.

Put that way, it's obvious; but we still want to deny sexuality in that exploration. Echoing Kelley, Emma Renold's book Girls, Boys, and Junior Sexualities, (Psychology Press, 2005), discusses how romanticised ideas of the wholly sexually innocent child "stigmatise and exclude those who do not conform […] so that any child who sexually responds, or is sexually knowledgeable is stained as 'damaged goods'," she writes. "Such is the denial of children's sexual awareness, that any child's early interest in sex can be interpreted as a warning sign that the child has been sexually abused."

It is redundant to apply standards of the present to the past, but it is equally so to try to protect something that doesn’t exist. “There seems to be widespread belief that children do not know or should not know anything about sexuality,” Renold writes. “Moral panics and public concern that children are not innocent enough hinges primarily upon issues of ‘early sexual maturation’,” which give rise to the conundrum of education and how best to protect children: do you teach too much too soon, or too little too late?

And what about these troubling stories, films and songs? Should they be banned? Does art or literature that addresses deep issues within society provide models for deviancy, normalising abuse; or do they offer spaces for conversation about the complexities, imperfections and messiness of human life?

The philosopher Michel Foucault offers the idea of the 'Heterotopia', a space which is the mirror image of Utopia's impossible perfection. Foucault's 'Heterotopias' are the spaces in which behaviours outside the norms of society can take place, so that society can continue undisturbed. He includes prisons, the honeymoon, cemeteries, asylums and old people's homes. To these I would add the realms of art: the gallery, the cinema, the novel and the stage. The evidence of the thoughts, feelings and desires of society since the beginning of time is to be found therein.


Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was first published in France, as no British or American publisher would touch it for fear of prosecution. The narrator, Humbert Humbert, awaiting trial for murder, describes his passion for the 12-year-old Dolores Haze, his "Lolita". In a New Yorker review at the time of its 1958 US publication, Donald Malcolm writes how Nabokov "has coolly prodded one of the remaining few raw nerves of the twentieth century," evidently not anticipating today's myriad delicate sensibilities.

In Edgar Allen Poe's 1849 poem Annabel Lee, the maiden "who lived with no other thought / Than to love and be loved by me," was also very young. "I was a child and she was a child […] But we loved with a love that was more than love / I and my Annabel Lee." In 1835, Poe had married his cousin, Virginia Clemm. Poe was 26, and she was just 13. Clemm died two years before the poem was published.

Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver, attempts to rescue Jodie Foster's 12-year-old prostitute Iris (right). Iris represents a world that both attracts and repels Bickle, leading to his mental breakdown and attempted suicide.

Alice in Wonderland (1865) author Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) became a suspect figure on the discovery of his photographs showing young semi-naked and nude girls. A New York Times review quoted Lolita author Nabokov as saying there was a "pathetic affinity" between Dodgson and his own creation Humbert Humbert. Many Victorian photographs of children show an ambiguity between innocence and sexual knowing.