Feature photo: Deposit photos. Photo by Viktoriia Tuzenko
Censorship is never a girl’s friend. It never has been historically.
Let’s be clear about one thing. Girlhood is a construct. Being feminine is a construct. What this means is that girls are required to act a role, or what Shakespeare says is playing a role on the world stage. Such does not mean that “being a girl” is who she is. She is biologically a girl, but being a girl is something different. Yes, she has a vagina and will get breasts. Yes, she can get pregnant and give birth to children, but that is biological, not feminine. I have a penis, but nothing is stopping me for “being a girl.” In fact, some guys are really good at it. In fact, sometimes, in my darkest fantasies, I play the Lolita.
But our society, the director in the chair, has other plans for you being you. I left that stage a long time ago. I fear I failed miserably at being an actor.
We all think we are normal, yet we have no idea what normal is. To be normal is to be unseen. I look normal, a generic white, middle-age man. When men like me look at ourselves, our race is invisible. Being white is being normal. Does that mean the Black man is “crazy?” I will leave that up to Black men to answer.
As a man who was once committed to a psychiatric hospital told me, “I feel safer in here than out there.” As a Black man told me, “Professor, when I am at the white school and I see a police car, I am scared. When I am at the Black school and I see a police car, I feel safe.”
To fully understand this essay, it may be best to read or listen to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death in which he does a brilliant job deconstructing the play, the performance, the act, we all live daily. The truth is that being normal is being who we really are, who I really am, and that, Becker argues, is more in line with being neurotic than “sane.” I will make this clear to all of you. I am anything but normal, so I ask that you take this challenging walk with me.
The “Death Terror” Equals the “Sex Terror”
In fact, few people really know who they are because they have played a role prescribed to them by those that hold power above them, our church leaders, our teachers, and parents. But for those, let’s say, afflicted, we have little choice but to look at ourselves. When one is cast out of normalcy, out of the groups with void faces, being seen is very painful, but once done, one can never return. Any sexual thought outside of a marriage, even today, is seen as a kind of perverted addiction, the sex terror. If it feels that good it must be that bad.
Being sane is boring. Being normal is very boring. Healthy sex is boring because who is qualified to tell you if what you look at or think of is inappropriate? Your life context is very different than theirs. The sex offender treatment provider will, but they live in an isolated environment where everyone that does this thing did that thing, but they know little of the world outside. They’ve become civilly committed to their professions and know little of common secrets. To live to their standards is to live forever a prisoner. I doubt such is effective at all. If one takes a lie detector long enough, they learn to pass when lying.
That is why we have sexual fantasy: to think and do things we “normally” cannot. If your fantasy involves sex with your partner, then why do you even need it unless you are at long distance? Those that defend this position, I think, are scared of the “sex terror.” The healthy sex folks are afraid of sex, so they try and make sex less traumatic by naming it “healthy” or “safe” sex. In reality, sexuality is seldom concrete or that simple. What I share here is difficult because I am writing about kids, art, and sexuality, but before we scream censorship (which means let’s run and hide), why don’t’ you all face this down with me? Let me be the teacher, you the student? I hope to put my three masters’ and Ph.D. to good use.
We Have Made Our Bad Actions Normal and Our Natural Actions Abnormal
The general sexual rule is that if we find something or someone “unusual” attractive, we will become hedonistic offending monsters that will drive the whole world toward moral death, or Becker’s death terror. Fantasy is not an illegal or problematic function or impulse for most; it is necessary and vital for many. The images I show you here are necessary for many, many people and are not sexual in nature, but they can evoke thoughts.
They helped me cope with years of abuse and trauma. If I lost them, I am not sure if I could function as well as I do. Some do look at abusive images, but those actions have little to do even with those images and more to do with their own past development and conditioning. If we censure the image, we cannot get to prevention of child abuse. We just hide it.
Being normal has nothing to do with who we really are. Recently, when a tiger broke out of its “sanctuary” and attacked zoogoers, the headlines noted that the tiger “went on a rampage” as if the tiger was the problem. I am pretty sure the tiger was just being a tiger. He was getting a new spot and making it very clear that the zoo was now its territory. They even had zoo psychologists note that the tiger had emotional problems. They killed the tiger.
I would have acted just like that tiger. Zoos are anything but normal. That is truth, and that brings on what Becker calls the “death terror” and what I redefine as the “sex terror” because, here, too, Becker fails miserably once he brings up sexuality. Why are we so uncomfortable simply admitting that we are sexual beings? What are we afraid of? That fear is due to ignorance or fear, fear that sex is just another word for abuse.
Years ago, when I was studying botany, I recall something profound my professor said. He said that having a sex is a marker for death. He noted that asexual things live forever unless, “you step on them.” I was perplexed. Then, years later, it made sense.
I know the image above is of a child, but artistically there are many important meanings we can draw from it. The picture is artistic and disturbing to many for many reasons. That is a good, artistic thing.
We all are scared to death of sexuality, of attraction, of feeling good. We equate sex with “the one-eyed snake and the forbidden.” The penis becomes the snake. The snake is the devil that fooled the innocent girl.
When a boy sees his penis, he is told to equate it to Satan’s will. When a girl sees a penis, it’s the devil, and when she looks at her vagina, she is told such is the pit of shame and death, the death terror and sex terror serenade in a confidence-killing dance. She learns to hate herself and be ashamed of her body. She learns that sex is trauma and it is child abuse.
None of that has to be true, but in our culture, we often manufacture trauma for profit. We misunderstand that sexuality and attraction have nothing to do with trauma. That trauma was forced upon us. To be liberated or empowered, we cannot fear sexuality or even a child that may be disturbing or evoke sexual feelings in us. That has nothing to do with the beautiful child in this image (and the beautiful snake, by the way). If such were child pornography, we would be witnessing harm rather than the complexity of artistic expression and its unearthing of the human condition. We may not always like our thoughts, but they still are our thoughts.
It’s easy to tell me that this image is “disturbing” and “sexualized” because we don’t want to deal with discomfort, but nothing is stopping any of you from simply looking away and carry on with your lives (even under quarantine). You are here because you want to look. No excuses. I am not judging you.
We All are a Disordered Diversity
There is no such thing as paraphilia, let’s be clear, but there is such thing as sexual diversity. But psychologists and psychiatrists are scared to death of that. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is also a construct, a guide that deems such and such behavior as “abnormal,” but given the combined statistics of all these “disorders,” it seems that just about everyone has one (or maybe two). I and everyone I know has several (yes, I studied the DSM). So being disordered is common, a kind of disordered diversity. Such is a political document weighted down by being political and professional. Those experts, when the lights are low and the music soft, are dirty little creatures, just like you and me.
Considering that there are over 600 forms of paraphilia (sexual fetishes for those unaware), they are anything but atypical. Though being attracted to the sockless 9-year old next door may make you the unglamorous 1 or 2%, sexual diversity is blatantly common and has little to do overall with harm. Those “paraphilia” that made it to the DSM Olympics, Pedophilic Disorder (which is not pedophilia by the way), is included because it’s more common than many of the others. So hence my attention to this particular one. Interestingly, foot fetishism is very common, but I see no sign of it in the DSM. I wonder?
Consider this, and it just hit me two days ago. Dr. Canter in a past interview noted that a heterosexual (“normal” guy, an invisible one), has 98% of women to choose from. A gay man has 2% of guys to choose from, and one minor-attracted (what some call pedophiles) has 0%.
Then it hit me. 2% is not a small number. I know a lot of gay people, and I mean a lot. According to The Williams Institute of Law, 3.8% of people are gay in the U.S., 1.8% transgender. My point is that all of you meet “pedophiles” every day and don’t know it. You cannot simply lock people up or kill those you hate. That is a stupid, emotionally-driven reaction. My advice is to learn about them from them and from responsible sources, not Wikipedia. If we put so little investment in knowing them, then we put little investment in knowing child abuse and prevention.
That is the reality, but it’s also reality that the person liking the 9-year old does not offend any more or less than the invisible hetero guy or the gay or transgender person does. If we consider that attraction is not exclusive, then this percentage is much higher (more in line with 6%). I would say that when it comes to attraction online, that percentage moves closer to at least 60% because virtual reality changes reality. When I confront researchers with this, I get the sex terror … don’t go there. Why not? I am a lifelong academic with multiple graduate degrees that spent a lifetime of observation. It’s critical we address what we are afraid of.
[The Following Evokes the Sex Terror] Are You a Pedophile if You Find a Girl Attractive?
The young girl in art brings about our worst fears. What if we are attracted to her? What then? As Dr. Phil said years ago, his fear is that if people look at little girls in bikinis that such will “entice pedophilia.” I found that a rather dumb statement by a psychologist, but I think I got his real point: if guys keep looking at girls, they may start to prefer them over women.
I, too, started to theorize about this myself: if women are now scarier and have power, wouldn’t it be better to go younger? Are little girls as threatening as a butch dyke? When women get tired of the pains of being feminine, young girls are just mastering it. Is there danger in looking at young girls? For most, hardly and usually harmful actions are a result of a laundry list of past problems, not a kid in doing classical dance exercises or strutting around in a bikini.
When I showed a research psychologist a dance done by a 9-year old girl (a very good and skilled dance), he said what I often hear in professional circles: “I have little doubt that men look at young girls, but I don’t think most would dare.” From a criminal justice position, such makes no sense. Child pornography is booming despite the severe, and I mean severe, punishment people face. From a legal perspective, we have all the proof in the world: social media, bikini ads, and endless videos of “the most beautiful child models in the world” and those that pin them as child models and YouTubers are very big business. There are millions of little Russian girls on YouTube. They are big business because men and women look at them. Back when comments were allowed on YouTube, the most popular child videos were supported by dominantly adult male comments (by checking profiles), almost 90%. Most girls were under 12.
The Hooter Man’s Role
Being male is also a construct, and boys are told to go for danger, and this is a different danger than a butch dyke coming at you. A big, masculine woman threatens our very masculinities, but a young, feminine girl, rather, enhances it. We are the big boys, and she the little lady, a child but an expert in being feminine and acting the role but young enough to be filled with spontaneity and hope. There is little hope in an angry dyke or an intimidating academic. Though feminine, the girl does not need make-up. She shows the beauty of her freckles, unaware how beautiful she is, while a woman covers them for the role she plays: acting the woman everybody else wants to see.
The woman is ashamed of being herself; a little girl is herself before the spoils of self-consciousness imprison her. That is very attractive. I find this Irish girl stunningly beautiful.
That has nothing to do, actually, with pedophilia. That has to do with the male and female constructs, the roles we all play. If one is attracted to kids, there is nothing to entice about it. It’s a physiological response or one is hit with cupid’s arrow. Both of these are not controllable though we try like demons to control what we all don’t understand. We are terrified, and that makes us all brutal.
I am here to help you understand it.
You need to see images to understand the online context. We cannot promote feminism while hiding the evidence and muttering “trust me” or “we don’t want to sexualized girls further.” We cannot create cancel culture in the name of tolerance and safety. Cancel culture is harm because its goal is to run away from what is scaring and angering us. Sexuality is not the devil. Sexualization is typical and commonplace, not traumatic unless we make it so. I see it on every continent and in almost every single culture in the world. Here is a piece of my story.
It’s Not What You are Thinking
I go into a psychologist’s office, a big wig, that cost me $345 for 45 minutes. I say to him, “I think I have a Lolita complex.” He gave me the hated, “you must be a pedophile look” but quickly changes his demeanor, catching his own bias, but still a little too late for someone of that, well, caliber. I kind of lie and tell him that I “notice” girls about 10% of the time, 10/90% girl, woman ratio. Really, this varies depending on the day. You know, I am too embarrassed to make the percentage higher, not because I am fond of thinking errors. It’s embarrassing. We talked a while. Here is what he left me with:
“Earl, if the sexualization of young girls was not normal, then there wouldn’t be so damn much of it. I say, you dress for success. You are normal, just be sure you don’t become a pervert.”
We have to deal with reality. I am not a pedophile. I just like girls. Kids can be attractive, okay? I came to realize that and to accept it. Say it with me loudly because that is half the sex abuse prevention battle: being honest with our feelings. Denial sets us up for the child abuse scenario.
As noted in research recently published by experts Robert Lehmann and Sara Jahnke, when we stigmatize those with pedophilia, our shaming of people we know cannot change their attraction, they are more targeted than toward those with higher risk in other areas (See “Stigmatization of paraphilias and psychological conditions linked to sexual offending” in The Journal of Sex Research). Our hate of them is not based on reason but emotion. Such distress may lead to pedophilic disorder and to actual sex offending. In this way, our hate contributes to the abuse we say we hate.
This hatred has little to do with our wanting to protect kids and more to do with our fear about ourselves, our own terror. I see few real indications that our society cares about kids.
Yet, These are Honorable Men
Yet, I am a void. I am a nothing. I am the guy that can fake it, eating wings and pizza, while watching, big, buff, strong men wrestle with each over for a football, often bending over and breathing heavy as the quarterback reaches between the center’s legs.
You all want me to be that guy with the wings at Hooters, but being like others was never appealing to me because these men, by and large, are hiding, too. They are better than I. They act the role; we all want them to act. In our hearts we know, but sometimes, they drop the ball.
They see the girl and the hyperbole starts: “If you were her dad would you dress her like that?” Translation: “Wow, this girl is attractive for a kid; do you guys notice?”
“If she were older, I’d say damn.” Translation: “I already said damn, didn’t I?”
“I don’t care what you say, if you take a picture of a girl’s like that, jail for you?” Translation: “I am so worried that I am attracted to kids that I spend my time faking it—often unknown to me—so that I can be the prophet not the pervert.”
Guys act the hero not because they want to.
In sum, age is secondary to many men, and even children can have very attractive qualities that draw all of us. I once showed a YouTube video at a workshop of a 12-year old girl. You could only see her face and her feet sticking up behind her. I showed the video because the girl was getting endless sexual advances on the one part of her body men could see (besides her face, which, that too, often gets the same reactions).
I said, “What are people looking at in the video?” The four guys in back gestured to her feet, no hesitation at all. There was a young woman in front of me, early 20s. She looked embarrassed but raised her hand. I called on her.
She said, “I think she is H-O-T!” I felt the young woman just came out at that moment, but does a lesbian like 12-year old girls?
My answer, sexual attraction is fluid. Laws are laws and people will still be people. Never in history has censorship worked. Governments like it because it gives them a reason to control our bodies. That comes in handy when they decide to own our bodies and minds, all for the sake of protecting your children.
No one blinked an eye in that workshop. No one questioned her. I answered, “Well, she does look a bit mermaidish.” Everyone laughed. Men face much higher risks and consequences.
No, I was not being inappropriate. I was being honest, and if one really cares about ethics and morality, something I spent years studying, one cannot build trust on a foundation of nervous lies. We often try. It’s called society. Are these pictures “normal?” Of course not, nothing really is normal, but they are persistent, timeless, and predictable. Such defines art and literature.
Video’s like the 12-year old girl’s get taken down all the time on YouTube for “the sake of the children,” but it’s the child YouTuber that gets punished, as if she did something wrong. And that is always the knee-jerk approach we use. She did nothing wrong. A viewer’s thoughts are a viewer’s thoughts, but making open X-rated comments to a preteen—to anyone—without consent is not okay. There are distinctions we often blur. Google chooses to punish kids.
Now, I am going to ask all of you a question. Do you and I live in the same universe?
For Us, the Girl’s Body Notes Our Impending Death
I have shown you, through these pictures, every part of a girl’s body. I see nothing wrong with these pictures because everyone of these pictures has artistic merit, including the bikini pick. In fact, I bought the bikini.
You can argue “its sexualized” but what that really means is that you don’t believe kids can have appeal, that they are asexual, that kids can still in society but somehow be separate from it. That is brutally false and harmful. Culture happens. Controlled culture is not culture. The problem with the sexualized view is that it makes pictures like these closer to being illegal. In all of these pictures, there is no “sex.” Where is it? That is the distinction between illegal and legal.
Yes, there can be interpretation, there can be innuendo, there can be the erotic, but these are often tasteful or even provocative, but such is key to developing critical thinking in a culture. Activism may be important, but activism also sucks. It oversimplifies the complexity of being human. Censorship often dehumanizes and harms those it attempts to protect, as Google’s YouTube harms its child YouTubers.
Art is often about discomfort. These pictures can make many of you uncomfortable, but that has little to do with the image or my liking them and more to do with a reader’s view, their psychology, their trauma, their belief system. It has nothing to do with mine or the child model’s, or her parents’.
Human art, photography, is about the human body. Modeling is about the body, so are artistic sports. We look at bodies. The real shame comes from Adam and Eve, the story pounded in our minds that hovers like a virus even to those non-religious: YOUR BODY IS SHAMEFUL. We are taught to hate our bodies. You may hate these girls because you don’t look that good, yet they are just kids. Or you will play the protective mom because you see your abuse in them, but that has nothing to do with them or their abuse or non-abuse. You may over-sexualize them and say, “See, see, they know what they are doing,” but that person has no idea what that child thinks. For her, she is just “being a model, a dancer, a gymnast, or a YouTuber.” We cannot own people’s minds while singing the national anthem, nor speak the language of justice when our actions are filled with injustice.
I think, and I would say this to every girl in each photo, that these girls are beautiful human beings. That is what I see. And I see other things, but that is about me, not them. That is my struggle as it is yours. You, too, are a beautiful human being, each of you reading this. You may not be a child model, but you are beautiful as well. Nudity can be beautiful, and I miss the Ron Oliver’s, David Hamilton’s, Jock Sturges’, and Sally Mann’s of the world because there is nothing wrong with nudity. That fear is what got us into this big awful mess.
The Sex Terror Reality: We Hate Our Bodies
Why do we shame the most natural representations of us? Maybe because we really hate ourselves. People are people watchers. That is what many do. These, too, are very human actions.
I love girlhood in art not because I am a self-denying child predator. As a child abuse survivor, I know abuse well. Kids in such images can be abused, but kids in football, baseball, gymnastics, in any event that involves other humans, can be abused. And they are. Protection does not happen through censorship. Protection happens not when Vogue says there should be no child models. It happens when Vogue takes actual responsibility and demands that child models have chaperones with power, independent child protection agencies that assure that the child is being paid, fed, and not in a pornographic shoot. Despite Vogue’s vogue, there are plenty of child models. We just seldom see them and that lack of transparency will cause much more abuse.
The point is that children are part of the world, and they can be attractive. They can have qualities that excite us, move us, and, yes, disturb us.
Please bring back the child model but do so in ways that do more to help them than put them in danger. In order to do that, we all have to learn more and be more honest about our attractions and sexualities. Kids are not removed from the world as if they are asexual angels that suddenly transform into sexual beings at 18. That angelifying them is harmful objectification (it also leads to fetishizing them, too). Much of the sex crimes I dealt with the last three years involved denial, those censuring, and those very religious that saw sexual expression as the devil. To believe so is to minimize human development because sexuality is ingrained in our bodies and identities from birth.
In Shakespeare’s time, girls and women could not perform on the stage. Boys had to play girls. In many conservative countries, where girls and women cover their bodies, the more they cover up, the more abuse they face. The abuse is simply hidden.
That is a fact. We are moving backward because we refuse to address the whole of human sexuality. We refuse to take it seriously, and we refuse to see that sex appeal plays only a small role in reproduction and a large role in what makes us human. Safety should be the goal, not censorship, but life, as COVID-19 is teaching us, is always fraught with danger. It’s best to teach your kids so. Avoidance is not protection when the thing that kills thrives on such.
Earl Yarington (LMSW) is a social worker and school bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work internships with offending populations, including work at Delaware Correctional facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has a PhD in literature and criticism (feminism/women writers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Master of Social Work from Louisiana State University, and an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts from Arizona State University, where he studied the impact of visual image and girlhood in media/social media. He also has an MA and BS in English from SUNY College at Brockport. The opinions and analyses that Earl writes are his own and are not necessarily the positions or views of his employers, the agencies he supports, or that of his colleagues. Reach out with comments or questions.