Behind the Curtain: Challenging the Sexualization of Children

TW: This column deals with pedophilia, child sexual abuse, pornography and other NSFW topics. It also talks in depth about some sites used by MAPs, pedophiles and adults with bad intentions, and I want to be absolutely clear that I do not know about these sites willingly. That said, my knowledge should do some good somewhere.

I’ve written two other columns relevant to this one: one about the MAP cult here, and one about sex, kink and trauma here.

One of the hot-button discourses of the online world circulates around underage content; what is and isn’t appropriate to draw, write and consume of child-aged characters, how to react to it, and how to (in a lot of cases) ban or eradicate it. Some of my positions on this topic have been made clear in prior columns, but in this one, my focus is based more on action than analysis. Sexualization of children (especially girls) is a massive problem in our culture. How do we effectively combat it?

In “Sex, Kink and Trauma” I talked about how fanfiction, in large part, is a symptom of this widespread sexualization and rape culture, rather than a perpetrator. For the most part, this is true. However, it’d be a drastic mistake to say that all fanwork is immune from criticism. The notorious Shadman creates loli artwork, sometimes of real people, and is also an alt-right reactionary, making pornography that idolizes Nazism, mocks non-binary and trans identities, and draws on racist stereotypes about primarily Black men. Defunct sites such as Loliwood held archives of underage erotica, and places like Hentai-Foundry and Rule34 are still plagued with underage artwork and writing despite a sitewide ban on it.

The main difference between these sites and places like Archive of Our Own is audience; AO3 is aimed at and built for primarily-female and/or otherwise marginalized voices. (Its primary audience has always been white and female, but that’s been changing in recent years. I’m not the most effective person to talk about AO3’s issues with racism.) AO3 is also used about equally by under- and over-18 users, and provides an excellent tagging and filtering system, which by definition makes the site safer to use for those with PTSD, trauma and triggers. In comparison, Shadbase, Loliwood, Hentai-Foundry and Rule34 are explicitly porn sites, and difficult to stumble onto by mistake if you’re not looking for pornography. Additionally, they’re primarily art sites – Loliwood was built for text, and HF hosts both text and art, but art is still the biggest medium. They’re also used by and run by cisgender heterosexual men, with a few women scattered around.

A common retort to this is that no matter who writes it, child erotica is bad. I agree in broad strokes; however, often the criticism levelled at AO3 works hits trauma survivors whether it’s intended to or not. After all, one of the biggest issues with AO3 is – ironically – a flaw in its tagging system. It’s impossible to tell from tags alone whether or not something is purely a PWP (porn without plot) or a darker exploration. In sharp contrast, almost all the content featuring minors on the other four sites listed is clearly and obviously aimed at other pedophiles and minor-attracted persons. One only need look at some of their sorting systems (I’ll explain, since I refuse to make anybody tour through those sites.) Loliwood uses ‘b’ for underage boy and ‘g’ for underage girl; one of the ways to navigate stories is to sort through Mb (man and boy), Mg (man and girl), Wg (woman and girl) or even tags like MMMg. None of those works on AO3 have this option, because the moment you are filtering by the ages and genders of those involved, it is clear that the site is designed for pornography. Not coping content, not stories with dark content, but pornography. 

That doesn’t mean there aren’t trauma survivors, people with P-OCD (pedophilic OCD) and other folks who aren’t necessarily MAPs who navigate these sites. But the design of the sites make their purpose clear. (I do want to make clear that Rule34 and Hentai-Foundry’s administration are making every effort to abide by the rules they have put in place, but especially once they have a foothold, MAPs/pedophiles find ways to distribute their material and bypass regulations.)

So what can we do about it? The problem of sexualizing children within art and fiction is a many-pronged thing, and while holding porn sites responsible is part of a solution, it’s not a full one. Loli and shota are banned on more and more sites every day, but some sites (Gelbooru, for example) have found ways around it, asking users to check a box on site settings to reveal ‘fringe content’. Additionally, these rules don’t stop artists from simply stating that a character is over 18 in their art.

(A brief aside on that topic. ‘Aging up’ is a concept that gets a lot of backlash from anti-obscenity groups, but there are two separate concepts within that need to be differentiated. Characters age, obviously. It’s bad faith to claim that pornography of Hinata and Naruto as adults is actually underage content because they started the series as children. However, it is quite another thing – and an extremely valid criticism – to see art of an obviously-child-aged character that has either had boobs grafted to it or just a statement that they’re 18. I really don’t consider the first that bad – it’s at worst a little morally grey – but the second is a running problem.)

Unfortunately, the current course of action on sites like Twitter is to lecture and publicly shame people found to have made underage content. The reason this doesn’t work is threefold. One, it presents the issue as a singular, personal issue instead of a societal problem – you can’t divorce the creation of underage content from large-scale media or rape culture. The second problem is even more salient. No matter who it is you’re shaming, the people who internalize it are abuse survivors who already second-guess everything they do. The people you’re shaming don’t care. It’s vulnerable people who hear what you’re saying. And third, just as important, is the co-opting of anti-obscenity forces and a desire for a safer world by alt-rightists and KiwiFarms. I’ve stated before that there is no cause or force that is abuser-proof, and the sudden explosion of anti-MAP and anti-pedophilia accounts run by KF and alt-right members proves that. Why? Because then they can direct groups towards queer trauma survivors, who by dint of being queer are already under suspicion of pedophilia, and away from their own hideouts. Like with leftists who are suspiciously Russian or “ace” accounts run by aphobes, plenty of ‘anti-shippers’ and anti-obscenity accounts are run by the enemy, keeping you off their tail.

Ultimately, the current culture of ‘call out bad content specifically’ is not working for this topic. Most people don’t see the underbelly of underage content, because they don’t go looking for it. But that underbelly is what enables rape culture, not the few that make it into the public eye. An example from published fiction, actually, is Nabokov’s Lolita versus 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade. Lolita gets a bad rap that it doesn’t really deserve. Actually reading Lolita is a bizarre experience, because it isn’t a love story or pornographic; it’s a horror story. In fact, the blame for the co-opting of Lolita’s name and title lays pretty squarely at the feet of publishers and cover designers. Repeatedly, Lolita has been published with deliberately titillating covers. This is completely counter to Nabokov’s wishes.

After thinking it over, I would rather not involve butterflies. Do you think it could be possible to find today in New York an artist who would not be influenced in his work by the general cartoonesque and primitivist style jacket illustration? Who would be capable of creating a romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non-juvenile, picture for LOLITA (a dissolving remoteness, a soft American landscape, a nostalgic highway—that sort of thing)? There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.

-Nabokov, 1952. (The compilation of covers I’m drawing from is here; many of them are INTENSELY triggering, so please be aware.)

What could possibly be a more terrifying indictment of rape culture than a book about sexual abuse, written by a survivor, being reprinted again and again with what amounts of pinups of young girls on the front?

By contrast, the Marquis de Sade was a rapist, not a survivor. He was infamous for his books such as 120 Days of Sodom, in which he advocates for and describes the rape of children as young as five, murder, physical mutilation and other terrible things. The word ‘sadism’ comes from his name, but he was about as far from BDSM as is possible; BDSM requires consent and is an exchange of poewr, whereas the Marquis actually performed the acts described in his books. (I do NOT agree with the linked article’s approach, but it’s a good rundown of who he was and why we’re still talking about him.) It’s absolutely tragic that the book by a survivor of child sexual abuse is more reviled as ‘child pornography’ than the book by a legitimate pedophile and murderer, let alone that Lolita’s bad reputation comes largely from terrible cover art decisions and the name it gave to art of underage girls.

I’ve outlined what isn’t working, and some of the preconceptions that plague the fight against the sexualization of children. What I haven’t answered is what we should be doing instead. First of all, trauma survivors need to have the space to unpack what happened to them without censorship. We’re frequently told that our experiences are ‘gross’, especially in contrast to cishet men who are allowed to be creepy about children at their leisure.

Second of all, calling out individual acts can only do so much. What’s needed is a general push towards something else. You can enforce this by putting in limits for your own work. If you’re a book reviewer, for example, don’t feature books that include bizarrely sexualized descriptions of children. You don’t even need to give them bad reviews. Just refuse. Pushing for appropriate treatment of child actors like Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown is also crucial – this approach centers living children. The issue with written and drawn underage content isn’t the content itself; it’s that it can feed into and loop into pre-existing ideas. The people who are at risk are children themselves, and that can be easy to lose sight of if the primary battle is fought over fiction.

Third, and most difficult, is a challenging of cultural ideals. The youthful female (dfab, anyway) body is prioritized as a site of beauty and sexual desire, and once women hit forty, they’re considered non-sexual beings to the point where a love for older women is specified as a kink. (MILFs and GILFs, which are terms I hate more than I can possibly express.) Normalize older women and people in general as beautiful and sexual, and over time the cultural gaze can be pulled upwards from youth. Additionally, TV shows, webseries and films have a part to play – they can stop casting people in their twenties as teenagers. It’s hard to get mad at people who write sexualized content of Clarke or Octavia from the 100, for example, since the characters are theoretically sixteen and seventeen, but played by actors five to thirteen years older. Sixteen-year-olds look sixteen. Adult actors don’t.

A secondary part to number three is, unfortunately, a problem specifically in the Young Adult community. The increased adult audience for YA has resulted in several writers ‘aging down’ characters to appeal to the new market, but that has some bad results. Inez in Six of Crows is characterized, illustrated and written as a woman much older, despite being in her teens. Nor is Six of Crows the only book to do this by far; adult books are a lot more honest about the ages of their characters, and as a result their sexuality and maturity makes more sense.

And, finally, four: listen to survivors. Not just our opinions on things, or those of us who have acceptable opinions. Listen to our stories, and address the faults in the system. The moment we address child sexual abuse as a serious problem in our communities, and make therapy normalized and affordable, I imagine the amount of underage content created for coping and therapeutic reasons will be severely reduced.

Obviously, these aren’t easy things to accomplish. Nor can I guarantee their effects. But it seems to me that energy put towards these can hardly be considered energy wasted; the absolute minimum effect is that children and adult survivors will have more support. I’d say that’s a good thing, no matter what.

If this cause means a lot to you, consider volunteering for or donating to RAINN. 

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