In this module we will explore two lessons and one two big ideas that revolve around sex as a moral discourse and the notion of (sexual) innocence and its relation to childhood.

Contemporary media (movies, TV, magazines, and most importantly the Internet) is portrayed as the cause of corruption for exhibiting explicit sexual content and seen as an institution that is allegedly corrupting youth through exposure to sex. Educational institutions are also under fire and parents have protested sex education that gives students birth control information as part of the curriculum. The claim is that exposing students to this knowledge will give them ideas that will lead them down the path to premature sexual relationships and unwanted pregnancies.

Before talking about sexual morality, it is important to recognize that sexual acts have no meaning in and of themselves; it is culture and social norms that give sexual practices or the people who engage in them particular meanings. Thus, labeling acts or people as moral or immoral is arbitrary—in regard to culture and history. For example, in Canada, a woman baring her breasts at the beach is considered morally questionable, but not so in many parts of Europe, while in other parts of the world where women are expected to dress modestly, showing one’s calves might be considered morally questionable. Two hundred years ago, any sex act other than missionary position as well as specific sexual acts such as oral sex or masturbation were considered sodomy and morally corrupt. Today, sexual immorality is not necessarily evaluated according to specific acts, but instead is often judged according to who engages in that behavior. In Western culture, usually only married couples are safe from having their sex acts associated with moral corruption. Morality is most often evaluated based on who is practicing the sexual behavior, not on the type of sexual behavior itself. This reflects an important historical shift that took place in the 1800s when Western society became more concerned with conceptualizing deviance in terms of identities rather than acts (and we discussed this shift in the module on Foucault). Sexual behavior came to be seen as indicative of some deep truth about the individual’s character rather than as a sinful act for which one could repent and be forgiven by one’s community. This had enormous implications in that individuals who engaged in immoral acts were no longer considered as displaying a mere aberration in their behavior. They were considered fundamentally different types of people than those who are “normal.” Let’s recall the words of Michel Foucault: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (43). Calling someone a “slut” or a “pervert” reflects this logic; it suggests that sexual immorality is part of the person’s character rather than a behavior that arose out of a specific situation.

BIG IDEA: Morality

Broadly stated, morality can be about communicating to others that they are not fitting into the shared values of a specific group through means of informal social control – gossip, shunning, giving people nasty looks, calling them names – to communicate that they are not adhering to the norms and that they need to conform in order to receive social validation. However, labeling others also reveals something about the moral standards of the speaker. In other words, calling somebody a name says as much about the other person as it does about the speaker themselves and it implies that the speaker is unwilling to engage in what is being critiqued. Uttering statements such as “I would never do that!” is referred to as “downward social comparison,” which means that an individual tries to raise their own self-image and feel better about themselves by putting down someone else (Wills 246). In the case of sexual morality, downward social comparison is not just about trying to control someone else’s sex life, but also about claiming a morally superior position for oneself through stigmatizing others.

Many Western cultures conceptualize the world through mutually exclusive, opposing values (right and wrong; black and white; male and female; good and bad; sacred and profane) and are often uncomfortable with categories that could potentially fall in the middle of the polarities.One of the most important dualistic metaphors that cultures use to organize social reality along moral lines is purity (safe, clean, pure) and pollution (dangerous, dirty, taboo). What this means is that when we call someone “nasty” or “dirty,” we imply that the person is potentially dangerous and that they are likely to contaminate others. Consider, for example, discussions of marriage equality laws in the US arguing that same-sex marriage will damage the institution of heterosexual marriage. This is a clear case where we can see the contamination logic operating. Logically speaking, allowing same-sex couples to marry should not induce heterosexual individuals to suddenly seek same-sex lovers; nor should it cause them to avoid marrying or suddenly break off an existing relationship. However, the pollution metaphor operates here in such a way that same-sex couples are deemed dirty and immoral.

It is important to keep in mind that these distinctions between pure and polluted or sexually moral and immoral are socially constructed. There are no sexual practices that are universally condemned across cultures or throughout history. Those practices that a culture defines as impure or morally corrupt tell us more about the society that created the categories than the individuals who are labeled as immoral. The purity/pollution dualism is invoked by cultures in order to draw symbolic boundaries around groups. Symbolic boundaries describe how communities either include or exclude people based upon certain criteria. Moral boundaries are one type of symbolic boundary.

People within a community will try to claim that someone doesn’t belong because their behaviors supposedly don’t match up to the community’s moral standards. Moral boundaries mark a group’s borders in much the same way countries arbitrarily decide that a river or a line drawn on a map marks a national boundary. Those inside the line are citizens who deserve certain rights and privileges; those on the other side of the line are not. With moral boundaries, people claim that members of their own group are morally superior, while those outside the group are morally suspect. Sexuality is a key axis along which groups draw moral boundaries and regulate behavior. Who labels whom as morally corrupt reflects power relations in the relationships between dominant and subordinate groups. We already discussed this notion of moral boundaries in the module on Sex Wars with Gayle Rubin’s concept of the “charmed circle.”

Likewise, at the societal level, groups that have more power are able to label others as sexually immoral in ways where the stereotype is likely to persist. The labeling of subordinate groups (such as the lower class, different ethnic and racial groups, LGBTQIA2S individuals) as sexually immoral has been used to justify personal insults, systematic discrimination and violence against members of these groups. In the module Regulation of Race and Sexuality, we discussed the hypersexualization of Black women. This claim not only maintains a racial boundary, but also uses the discourse of sexual immorality to draw a moral boundary. Drawing lines between who is considered sexually pure and impure is not a simple matter of a culture going through some natural process of determining its own particular norms and sorting out who follows the rules and who breaks them, but is one more way that dominant groups demonstrate their power against minorities.

So if some people are considered pure, then who gets polluted? Following the dualistic logic, one must be pure in order to become polluted; corruptability is always tied to the presumption of the existence of innocence, but sexual innocence is not available to everyone.

Who is being perceived as innocence has changed over the course of history. Sexuality Studies scholars John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman pointed out that Victorian upper-class white women were once symbols of moral purity. In Victorian society, there were dichotomized public and private spheres for upper-class men and women which carried moral implications. The public sphere was considered a place, where immoral behavior was happening. Many an upper-class man used this notion seedy public sphere to excuse their own immoralities as they sought sexual relationships with working-class women and men. By contrast, upper-class wives were safely tucked away in the private sphere of blissful domesticity, nurturing and watching over their children. They were supposed to be the moral pillars of Victorian society. This meant that they were responsible for controlling sexual relations within marital relationships, making sure that conjugal relations were more about procreation than recreation. Sex between married partners was to be viewed by wives as a necessary evil or part of one’s wifely duties, and was not necessarily something to be enjoyed. This lack of sexual desire helped define mothers as innocent and made them the pinnacles of morality in Victorian society. But, not all women in Victorian times could be constructed as innocent. The working-class woman who had to work for living – either in the factory or on the street – was at the bottom of the moral hierarchy and was often characterized as a fallen woman.

However, women – not even Victorian mothers – could not remain the symbols of moral purity in the twentieth century. Women began to recognize the constraints of this virgin/whore stereotype, seeing how it limited their roles to caring for children and ensured their financial dependence upon men. It also left them out of the important political decisions of the day. Women began to protest by demanding the vote. Additionally, many women argued for new ways of organizing society on a sexual basis. Women played strong roles in movements for birth control. In the wake of these sexualized protests, women could not remain the symbols of moral purity in American society and children took their place as symbols of moralpurity. They were constructed as innocent and free from sin until they became enveloped in the adult world of moral corruption. In the realm of sexuality, children were considered blank slates, unaware of adult desires and lust, and sexual knowledge was thought to morally ruin children.

Children’s agency is often perceived as a challenge to adult power and authority and the notion of a child’s or young adult’s sexual citizenship is often met with even greater resistance and hostility because it is inappropriately crossing the adult/child boundary. Sexuality is frequently narrowly perceived as physical sexual acts rather than a process of identity formation, which begins early in children’s lives. 

Kerry Robinson explains that children’s sexual citizenship is about the following: 

learning to become ethical gendered and sexual subjects, with an understanding of consent and what it means to respect others in relationships; to respect gender and sexuality diversity that exists in life; having an awareness and understanding of their rights as sexual subjects; to be supported in building confidence and resilience in order to become informed sexual subjects; and fostering children and young people’s health and wellbeing 

Kerry Robinson, Introducing the New Sexuality Studies, 3rd edition (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2016), np.

Part of developing sexual citizenship is the access to ongoing comprehensive sexuality education, both at home and in schools, and it is crucial to recognize the impact that the discourse of childhood innocence and the need to protect and shelter children from sex has on sexual health and wellbeing because adults justify the ways in which they deny children access to knowledge. If we assume that sexuality is experienced and expressed in multiple ways across the life span, then it is important to also include the lives of children. Within this perspective, the relationship between sexuality and childhood is a socio-cultural, historical, and political construction, representing the values of the dominant culture of a specific time period (see Module 1, Assigned Resources).

In the early twentieth century, theorists of child development such as Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget have argued that childhood is a natural, universal, and a biologically inherent period of human development. This view homogenizes what it means to be a child, how children develop, and what experiences mark childhood. This perspective also defines the child in opposition to the adult. However, more recently, social constructionist theorists have critiqued these biologically determined perspectives of childhood for failing to acknowledge the multiple and changing experiences of childhood across history, political contexts, genders, sexuality, ability, social class, ethnic backgrounds and geographical locations, amongst other variables. In social constructionist perspectives of childhood, what it means to be a child is constituted through socio-cultural values, beliefs, and practices.

BIG IDEA: Sexual innocence of children

Childhood innocence, especially sexual innocence, is the ultimate signifier of the child and has become the defining boundary between the adult and the child. For most Westerners, sexuality is primarily viewed as an ‘adults-only’ domain and viewed to begin at puberty and mature in adulthood, correlating with biological understandings of human development, which reinforce biologically determined understandings of childhood.

However, there have been a range of competing and contradictory discourses that prevail about children and (their) sexuality:

  • children are asexual and innocent
  • children’s sexuality is dangerous to society and needs to be regulated
  • children’s sexuality is normal and critical for the development of creative and vibrant society
  • sexuality is dangerous to the moral development of the child
  • children are vulnerable to abuses and exploitation by adult sexuality and need to be protected

These discourses reflect the way that sexuality has been constructed as both irrelevant to children’s lives and a danger to them. In Western cultures today, sexuality is often perceived as something from which children need protection from potential abuses and exploitation of adults; from the perceived sexualization of children in the media (especially in advertising); and from children’s inability, due to their age, to regulate their sexual behaviours according to the sexual mores of society.

While there’s a dominant perception that sexuality is irrelevant to children, social practices demonstrate that there is an emphasis on dismissing children’s desires and curiosity about sexual knowledge orkeeping them contained, often through myths and misinformation. For instance, children were and still are often told stories that babies were delivered by storks, or found under cabbage patches, or that they came out of the mother’s stomach through the bellybutton.

However, much like adults, children constantly negotiate the discourses of sexuality available to them and their conceptions of sexuality are generally framed within heteronormative expressions of gender. For instance, children of the ages four to six often incorporate those heteronormative narratives into their play (e.g. mock wedding ceremonies between boys and girls, playing kiss and chase, or playing family). This process of heterosexualization of gender in childhood is generally rendered invisible as it is seen as a part of children’s healthy normal development. We never really question this process of construction of gender; it only becomes problematic when children transgress what is viewed as normal – for example,two boys playing kiss and chase with each other, and/or wishing to marry each other in the mock wedding. This process of constituting the normative child as heterosexual is essential to laying the foundations of the good (adult) citizen, who is usually represented as heterosexual and adhering to the dominant sexual mores of that society (e.g. being celibate or non-promiscuous if you are single; married and monogamous). Another critical component of this heterosexualization involves controlling what sexual knowledge is available to children. For example, many parents do not feel it is appropriate to talk about same-sex sexuality or sexual fluidity with children. This knowledge is also generally not available to children in school curricula, and we will discuss this particular aspect in the next section of this module.

The discourse of childhood innocence is often used to defend and regulate not allowing children access to this knowledge. Children’s access to knowledge of sexuality is seen as breaching childhood innocence and is often perceived as developmentally inappropriate and harmful. The fears and taboos that prevail about children and sexuality have resulted in increasing limitations concerning children’s access to sexual knowledge.

Some adults believe that older children’s access to sexuality education will encourage them to engage in sexual activity prematurely. While practices limiting access to sexuality knowledge are done in the name of protecting children and protecting childhood innocence, such regulations actually increase children’s and young people’s vulnerabilities and negatively impact their health and well-being. In particular, limiting children’s access to sexuality knowledge can undermine children’s ability to think quickly, critically and in an informed manner, if put in a potentially abusive situation by an older person. It also leaves children with little options to find information they want and need from sources, including the Internet and peers, that may provide information that is misinformation, based on myths and stereotypes, outdated, or not based on rigorous research. Knowledge of bodies and sexuality is important to all children and young people for acquiring a sense of control and responsibility about who they are as sexual subjects across the life span.

Limiting children’s access to sexual knowledge is a form of censorship, which dismisses children’s agency in this process yet is often considered the appropriate approach to maintaining childhood innocence. In terms of regulating children’s access to sexually explicit advertising, media and popular culture, censorship does little to deal with the issues raised, but as we learned in the course module on Foucault, it only intensifies the interest and the problem. Building children’s critical literacy skills and knowledge of the issues is a more strategic way forward.